Most people don’t know what a perogy should taste like. If you have eaten the store bought variety, then I am sad to say, you have been fooled. This is a perogy as imagined by a machine— one that has been shaped to the needs of industry at the cost of pleasure. Like so much of our food, something profound has been lost in the pursuit of profit. Like the industrial tomato, which bears no resemblance to the homegrown counterpart, the industrial perogy is the canary in the culinary coal mine.
In his excellent book, Embodied Food Politics, Michael Carolan talks about how our bodies become tuned to certain kinds of flavours. We aren’t born craving Big Macs and KD, but a lot of very clever people have found some ingenious ways to tweak our tastebuds and tune our bodies into craving these things. The industrial food system, weather that involves fast food, frozen TV dinners, or Mac and Cheese, has shaped our expectations of what food should taste like. Michael Moss and Michael Pollan have both written about the holy trinity of salt, fat, and sugar as the building blocks of mad food science, where engineers, rather than chefs, endlessly tweak products to achieve a “bliss point” capable of convincing us that one handful of chips isn’t enough. Why not finish that bag?
While some things may indeed simulate a state of junk food nirvana, like the tennis balls that pass for tomatoes these days, the perogy is an example of the world beyond the cave. Somethings are worth the effort, and the perogy, is most certainly one of those.
I was lucky and grew up in a Ukrainian household untarnished by the doughy abomination that passes for a perogy at the supermarket. I have vivid memories of my mother and grandmother spending the day making hundreds and hundreds of perogies for the holiday season. And this is truly the only way to do it. It is a labour intensive process and your first batch will most likely be terrible, although it will be infinitely better than what you would have bought otherwise. Every time I make them I learn a little more about the process. At the end of this article, I will include a recipe, but I caution you to tread carefully. Making a perogy is a flirtation with disaster. The platonic perogy walks a fine line, and unless you are willing to risk disaster, you will never know what is possible. The industrial version is made by a machine and thus the product you receive must have a thick dough to be able to withstand the speed, efficiency, and brutality of mass production.
A perogy is very simple. A ball of cheesy potato and onions wrapped by a simple dough. There are only 4 ingredients: potato, flour, cheese and onion, and yet, making them will take years to master, for the perfect perogy must transition almost seamlessly between inside and out. What makes the industrial version unappetizing is the thickness of the dough. If you want the Platonic perogy, then you will have to approach your own bliss point. I make my dough with hot potato water and work it until my arms are soar because you need to roll it out to the point where it is just thick enough to hold everything together.
To me this is the true definition of artisinal. You don’t need fancy ingredients or complicated techniques— all you need is time and patience. Time to learn and patience to push past the point of failure and learn with your mind and body. I can’t tell you how thin to roll the dough. That depends on the gluten content of your flour, how long you kneaded it, and the humidity in the air. It probably also will change based on how dextrous your fingers are, how long you sautéed the onions for your potatoes, and how well you mashed them. You will learn by doing, by developing bodily memory, and by tuning yourself to the process. The first couple of dozen may be okay, but by the 60th you will be on a roll, and by 100, you will be approaching that perfect platonic perogy.
And there is value in this embodied knowledge that goes well beyond the meal you make. When you begin to know food with all your senses, you start to think about your relationship with the world differently. Your body becomes tuned to different rhythms, develops different expectations, and perhaps, that engineered bliss point no longer tastes so good. More than most things, what we eat is a matter of habit. This is why marketers work so hard to capture children at an early age. They understand the power of repetition and the memories that our bodies hold. Taking the time to cook can help break some of these habits and open the door to a more just, sustainable, and more humane food system designed for living beings and not machines.
Below you will find a recipe that will make 120 perogies. I know this sounds crazy, and it will take you most of the day, but most of them will make it to the freezer and you will have meal after meal that will more than make up the effort. The best way to do this is with friends and family. Throw a perogy party, make them together, and share in the bounty.
Approximately 7lbs of white potatoes (I use russet) , peeled.
Two big onions
pat of butter
Cheese to taste-- I use about 1.5 lbs of smoked cheddar to give it a bacony taste
Boil big pot of potatoes until soft. Reserve 3 cups of water.
Fry onions with butter until soft. Mash potatoes until very smooth. Do not add milk. Mix in onions and cheese to taste. Salt and pepper to taste. Let in cool completely. I do this the night before.
2 cups hot water (can use water from boiled potatoes)
1 tablespoon of salt unless using potato water
6 cups flour
3 tablespoons oil
Place 4 cups flour in a bowl, make a well and start adding the water and mixing.
Place out on counter and knead. Add the rest of flour as needed, but be careful not to add too much. Dough should be sticky and silky smooth. During the last stage switch to rolling the dough instead of kneading. During this process you should only be dusting your hands in flour.
Roll out thin and dust lightly with flour.
Cut into circles with a cup.
Ball up some potato mix and lightly flour. Do a whole tray of these so your hands don't stick to the dough.
Place in center of dough and with two thumbs, press potatoes into flat circle, fold and pinch trying to avoid making large dough wings. Make sure that no potatoes get in between the dough you are pinching together. The dough should be sticky enough to cling. Dust your fingers in flour to help the pinching process.
Boil water with oil and salt. Stir ever so gently with a slotted spoon. Cook until floating and then gently use the slotted spoon to place them in a tray with melted butter.
Serve with sour cream.
Otherwise, freeze on a floured tray and then place in bag. Best to thaw perogies on a tray before cooking them from frozen. Leave out for half an hour.
Makes about 120 perogies.