The story goes that when my teen-aged grandfather arrived in Canada from the Ukraine, Soviet Russia by that time, he was set on fully embracing his new identity as a Canadian. As the shunted son, Grandpa Joe had no use for the customs of the Old Country. Thus, despite being 50 percent genetically Ukrainian, I never felt culturally Ukrainian beyond a few dishes my Grandma Ruby would make for the holidays.
Their house and life screamed average North American. Joe fought for Canada in Italy during World War II and while he married fellow Ukrainian Ruby, they only used their Mother Tongue for arguments. He worked at a meat processing plant, she at a department store. There was always a package of glazed doughnuts on their kitchen counter. Reno was the favoured vacation destination when they could afford it. When I was little, visits to their house involved my mom and Ruby chatting in the kitchen, while I would sit in the living room reading the giant pile of National Enquirer, Star, and Woman’s World, that Ruby bought weekly from Safeway. Michael Jackson, Liberace, Liz Taylor and Larry Fortensky, young Lisa Marie Presley. Images of my youth. Neilson Rosebuds were always around to snack on. I relished pouring myself small glasses of real (my parents bought diet) Pepsi. And if I got control over the remote, I was able to watch the “pay TV” channels of MuchMusic and Superchannel—channels that required the special cable box that my parents would not pay for.
At Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, the Eastern roots were revealed on the table. On Christmas Eve, Ruby would sometimes put out a few of the traditional Ukrainian meatless dishes, but over time, it just became perogies and cabbage rolls. And yes, perogies are a Polish term, but I’ve yet to meet a Ukrainian-Albertan who uses any other word. Never once did I hear “varenyky.” Well, Ruby uses the word “pudaheh,” which only now I’ve come to learn is related to a dialect miscommunication.
The second story goes that when my mother was a teenager, her and one of her sisters were going to learn how to make their mother’s pudaheh. But the lesson abruptly ended when the girls started throwing flour at each other. Ruby wouldn’t put up with it. Although I feel more New Yorker than Ukrainian, I finally realized that I couldn’t let the recipe die with Ruby. If those silly sisters weren’t going to try again, then I was going to. I asked my aunt to try and get some measurements and a method from my grandma so that May’s cooking lesson could be perogies.
Like any good recipe that’s based on feel, memory, and experience, exact measurements are hard to come by. As soon as I opened my aunt’s Word document, I knew that many things were off and pure guesses on my grandma’s part. Two-inch circles for the perogies, Grandma Ruby, really? Perhaps 2 inches in radius? One teaspoon of filling? That much flour? I quickly consulted the internet and Ukrainian friends to compare. The result was as funny as Ruby’s measurements—it would seem, rightly so in hindsight, that every baba has her own method and ingredients for perogies. Trying to find a recipe like Ruby’s would be impossible, so I would have to wing it. And for a simple peasant dish of largely dough, I felt I could fumble along.
I did so with success. I’m not going to share the recipe because of how off the measurements are and because I feel that just like every perogy recipe, each person is specific in what they like in a perogy. She doesn’t use cottage cheese, but potato and cheddar cheese. Many people bathe their dumplings in melted butter and browned onions, but Ruby only serves hers with butter. Because she includes sautéed onions in the filling. Her lumpen dumplings look like they were made with thick, chubby hands; they are never crimped artistically or delicate in any way. I only ever eat my pudaheh boiled as that is the only way I was ever served them. No frying whatsoever. Even as leftovers. Soft and buttery with some fresh cracked pepper is all I want. Mine tasted and smelled and even looked like Ruby’s. They mean I don’t have to go to Veselka or the new all-perogy joint in Brooklyn if I need a fix. They mean I’m a little bit Ukrainian.