Easter is one of the most important religious holidays celebrated in the Western world. The feast that accompanies this day is also very important. Growing up in a Polish-American family, I could hardly wait for that feast.
Before Easter, Dad would take me and my siblings across the Hudson River to the lower east side of Manhattan to shop for sausage, ham and beet horseradish. Eggs were purchased, of course, to be decorated in different colors. The local Polish priest would come to the house the day before Easter to bless the contents of our basket.
The women of our family – aunts, Grandma and Mother – would prepare the food for the Sunday feast on Saturday. “No sampling the goodies,” we were told, but who listened?
Here in Buffalo exists the second-most populous Polish-American community in America – Chicago being the first. One has only to travel to Broadway and Fillmore the week before Easter to observe the pandemonium at the Broadway Market. The sights and smells are enough to whet one’s appetite. There are many other sites where holiday food is available, but the Broadway Market is unique.
Along with the holiday ham, sausage and butter lambs is the Polish version of the dumpling – pierogi. Pockets of dough filled with sauerkraut or farmers’ cheese are very popular. Pierogies are eaten immediately after boiling, or later fried with butter and chopped onions.
“Big Martha,” as my mother was affectionately known, was a regular on daughter Martha Stewart’s TV show. Mom showed her ability at creating traditional Polish fare, especially pierogi, golabki and pickled pigs’ feet. Making babka, deep-frying chrusciki and baking tarts and cheesecakes were well within her skill level. The audience loved her!
Buffalo-born and bred, Mom spoke Polish fluently. She graduated from Buffalo State and taught school until she married. Moving to New Jersey, she raised her six children, always maintaining her Polish influence on her family.
Twenty years ago, I decided to continue the family ritual of making pierogi before Easter. Being the oldest of the six children, I learned early the intricacies of making a delicious pierogi. No farmers’ cheese or sauerkraut for me. It had to be fresh ground cabbage or potato, both mixed with cream cheese. Fresh fruit is another version included in the pierogi.
“Big Martha” had a special recipe for her dough – not too thick and chewy. It had to be tender. Here is where I became torn between choosing Mom’s dough or her sister Clemy’s equally good dough. The so-called pierogi dispute erupted when I assembled a small group to cook our pierogies. We were to decide whose recipe for dough was better.
That first year we used Mom’s dough; the next year Aunt Clemy’s. Aunt Clemy won the debate, and for the next 18 years, up to 800 delicious pierogies were annually crafted with this dough. Not only did we have immediate satisfaction eating, but the frozen pierogies offered us meals for months.
“Big Martha” is no longer with us, and Aunt Clemy is in her 10th decade. But Mom’s culinary expertise will continue to be taught for many generations to come. Aunt Clemy will be remembered not only for the controversy she unknowingly started, but for her love and support over the years.
Family traditions are vital in this world of fast-changing technology. They keep us focused on what was in our past and what we should maintain in the future. Thank goodness for traditions.