Last night my Mom and I made pierogis together for the first time ever.
I didn’t realize it until we got started, but this for her had little to do with the food itself, and much more with trying to discover how to make them the way her mom made them. Her mom gave her a recipe, but that recipe (like oh so many traditional family recipes), was either intentionally or unintentionally flat out wrong and so it never got her even close to what she remembered from when she was young.
Pretty recently, mom finally got another version of the recipe from one of her cousins, and it was somewhat closer to “the real thing”, but still not quite right. Mom was still stressed, almost even moreso, because knowing we had roughly the right ingredients and proportions meant that all that was left was the “how” part.
Mom said (and it’s an exaggeration, for sure, because like seemingly all moms, she’s a great cook), that she is bad with dough and will never be good with dough. I totally forgot because it had been quite a while since I had done it from scratch, but I am not bad with dough! I’ve made dumplings from scratch, made pierogis (not my family recipe, but stuff I found online), made ravioli, pizzas, etc.
So we made small adjustments and discoveries along the way, as we worked on mom’s mission. We screwed some things up, then we fixed them. We wrestled with following the instructions on the page vs. guessing at what her mom might have actually done.
In the end, it was all about going by the feel of things, at every step along the way. Is this too dry? Too sticky? Too thick? Too thin? Do we have too much filling? Too little? Is the filling smooth enough, but not too smooth?
Do we pull them out of the water just as soon as they float? Or was it six minutes? Or something else? Let’s try them in tiny batches, figure it out.
My kitchen became a mini-test kitchen for replicating a specific memory that I couldn’t recall myself, but needed to interpret through my mom’s reaction to the things we tried together. I needed to figure out how to suggest gentle tweaks or adjustments to somebody who is both a much better cook than me, and who was on a personal mission to stay true to specific traditional roots.
At some point well after midnight, we bit into something that definitely wasn’t my mom’s mom’s pierogis, but was the closest she had ever gotten to making them “right.”
We didn’t write anything down. Maybe we should have. Or maybe just knowing what it feels like is what matters most, and can’t be put into words.