Growing up with a Slovak grandfather, I learned to crave pierogi at an early age. The potato-filled and cabbage-packed doughy dumplings were an integral part of my childhood, serving as the gastronomical highlight of the various Eastern European church bazaars to which I was consistently dragged. While my not-so-Slavic grandmother learned to make pierogi from scratch to please my grandfather, I soon realized that not all Americans even know what pierogi are. Just try referencing them in Colorado, and most folks will return a blank stare. It is for this reason that I present this brief pierogi history.
[I should note now that, while the word “pierogi” is typically used to refer to the food in both the singular and plural senses, the more Americanized plural version, “pierogies,” seems to have caught on.]
For those completely unfamiliar with pierogi, they can best be described as dumplings composed of dough and a filling, often served with butter or sour cream. The so-called standard pierogi filling is potato, cheese, and onion (sometimes called the Ruthenian pierogi), but there are many other popular fillings, including cabbage, prunes, and yes – even meat! Pierogi can resemble the shape and size of pot stickers you might order at a Chinese restaurant, though the dough for pierogi is usually thicker. Pierogi also resemble Italian ravioli in their basic form. Most pierogi are puffed-out half circles or triangles, resulting from the folding-over of circles and squares of dough, respectively.
According to Wikipedia, pierogi are a food of “virtually untraceable Central or Eastern European origin,” though they are perhaps most closely associated with the Polish people. Of course, Poland is a country that has been conquered and re-conquered throughout history, resulting in waves of settlers that influenced the cuisine: Russians, Rusyns (yes, there’s a difference), Ukrainians, and Lithuanians. There are also some Czech and Slovak dibs on pierogi history, so pinning the pierogi to one country is difficult. In fact, the food varies widely with geography and ethnic group, even within Central and Eastern Europe.
Tracing the history of the pierogi is tricky because the food did not suddenly materialize in some small town and then remain static over time. Since pierogi are basically dumplings, there is some evidence to suggest that pierogi ancestors, as it were, made their way from “the Orient” across Central Asia where they were more veggie-filled and into Eastern Europe. All the while, the dumplings evolved, developing fillings appropriate to the local area. Somewhere on this pierogi continuum, the food took on its familiar form, the vaguely consistent and over-generalized Eastern European pierogi. Within that region (Poland writ large), cabbage came into popularity in the 1500s. And Potatoes were rooted as a staple food by the mid 1700s. Those remain perhaps the two most popular main fillings in most pierogi-loving countries.
As for the pierogi dough, Russian, Latvian, and Ukrainian varieties tend to have a more bread-like quality and are more likely to contain meat – like a miniature sandwich. Polish, Slovak, and Czech varieties tend toward a sort of hybrid pasta-pastry dough and are more likely to contain potatoes or cabbage. Lithuanian pierogi are like a bridge between the two, usually with the fillings of the former and the dough of the latter.
As Eastern European immigrants came to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they brought their pierogies with them, and permutations of the more Polish variety (potato-cheese or cabbage pierogi) seemed to catch on with other Americans. Of course, most of these immigrants settled in the Mid-Atlantic states or in urban industrial centers like Chicago, accounting for the still-resonant popularity of pierogi in those areas.
Baked, fried, or boiled – they’re a delicious ethnic food. While probably available in your grocer’s freezer, you may want to visit a Polish church bazaar for a real taste of pierogi history.