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"Which is most important? The hand that rocks the cradle or the hand that makes the perogy?" I ask.
"The hand that makes the perogy," the women chorus and then laugh together. Of course, it has always been the same hand that pinches the dough and cares for the child. In the histories of Slavic immigrants to Saskatchewan, the perogy is almost synonymous with the toilsome but rewarding work of gathering sustenaance from the land, of raising families against the cruelest of climates and the most dismal odds. It was the food of the common folk.
In the company of pergy bee volunteers, the smells of flour, butter, and coffee thick in the air, this little doughy pocket retains its folksy character. This is no haute cuisine or pretentious fare. It's just good food delivered with the unfeigned and motherly care that has, for generations, fed the hand that rocks the cradle.
Defining the perogy, even correctly naming the thing, can get significantly more complex. Perogy, pierogi, pyrohy, and vareniki are some of the names that have been given to this ubiquitous food. One story of its origins suggests that the explorer Marco Polo brought it back to Italy from the Orient. Through a series of royal marriages it was introduced to Eastern European cultures in Ukraine, Poland, and Russia.
Its exact ethnic history has been erased by time and now the busy hands that roll the dough, mash the potatoes, and fill aluminum trays with neatly pinched pouches will belong to people of every cultural background. The real wonder of the perogy is that it manages to suit everyone's palate. It is truly one of those trans-ethnic foods.
Its adaptations to Saskatchewan culture go beyond keeping body and soul united in a satisfied appetite. The perogy has played an essential role in community fundraising for decades. Perogy bees, and the subsequent sale of the product by the dozen, are pillars of church and community project funding. But this role for the perogy is mildly ironic.
People in Saskatchewan, it seems, don't have time to make perogies anymore. Life is moving at too great a pace. This everyman's food is beyond the reach of the average citizen because the expense of time is too much. This is a happy turn of events for non-profit fundraisers. It's even happier for a few commercial producers who know that the taste for perogies is unflagging despite the ever-expanding reach of fast food chains.
Michael Schachtel is the owner of Ogie's Perogies in Regina. The business makes the most of both the widespread taste for perogies and their apparent effectiveness as a fundraiser. Operating as a commercial enterprise that services the fundraising market is the genius of this venture. Schachtel has optimized his medium-sized production facility to sell perogies to hockey clubs and other community groups who in turn sell his product to raise funds. Simple and effective.
"My mom and sister started selling perogies door-to-door to raise money to buy airplane tickets to Europe," he says. "When they came back from Europe they weren't interested in keeping it going so that's when I got started." He first started selling his perogies at the Regina farmer's market then moved into retail stores and finally competing against big producers was a losing game. "I don't want to be a "me, too" kind of company where we're always having to drop our price down [to catch the attention of retail store managers]. Now we have the most expensive perogies in the province but we have consistency of product and a high level of client loyalty. Ninety percent of our sales are by word of mouth.
Schachtel takes the most direct routes possible to bring his perogies to customers. He employs two or three sales people at a time who have between 400 and 500 customers each. He doesn't advertise and you won't see his perogies on the grocery store shelf.
He sums up his success with a confident observation on the world of perogy-making and selling. "Everybody's had perogies and everybody's mom makes them. But nobody likes store-bought perogies."
So the perogy will always be a commercial fundraising success because of the insatiable fo traditionally made, freezable varieties. And, yes, the potato-filled pouch remains the symbol for salt-of-the-earth endurance, Saskatchewan's answer to Scotland's haggis, perhaps. It is the food for common folk and the common currency for local fundraising. That's not so bad for a simple thing.
There must, however, be more to this story. It seems that the humblest, most mundane things these days inevitably reach the status of the exotic, the extraordinary. Noodles and cheese, for example, are re-packaged and labeled gourmet. The Volkswagen Beetle emerges from its hibernation as the sybol of ingenuity and youth. Why not the perogy?
Why not, indeed, says Evelyn Osachoff, referred to by some of her neighbours in the Mikado/Canora area as the Perogy Lady. "It started as a humble, staple dish," she says. "People were not wealthy. They had their cattle and their milk and their wheat so they made perogy—Vareniki is the original Russian name that I prefer. Now it's a delicacy. People love it."
A delicacy! Exactly the kind of thing Vareniki has been waiting for. But there's more.
"They're about celebrating. They're about getting together with loved ones and sharing. Even in the making of them they're a celebration. They're an everyday feast!" exclaims Osachoff.
There are rare times when, as you listen to someone, you get the sense that a simple thing is about to become highly significant. The one who listens carefully to Evelyn Osachoff, when she speaks about the perogy, will hear two things. The first is that she is very aware of people's need for special things and for the joyful company of others. The other thing that becomes clear is that there is nothing wrong with satisfying those needs with the simple stuff of life—like the vareniki.
Surrounded by the warmth and birdsong of her sunroom for a while, it's possible to see her cookbook, aptly titled The Saskatchewan Perogy, as so much more than a record of, and instruction manual for, the perogy. Osachoff brings to the collection of recipes her own intense optimism about people. Given the right reason—even the humble perogy—people can come together for peaceful and constructive purposes.
That's a satisfying notion. As satisfying as the steaming comfort of fresh vareniki.