Even those who have never attended a perogy bee can bring the image to mind: long tables scattered with flour and balls of dough, rolling pins and bowls of mashed potato, flanked by women with deft hands, filling and pinching, the group of them making light work.
Every culture has its dumpling, a means of feeding families cheaply by utilizing whatever ingredients are in season or on hand. Perogies are the culinary foundation of many Eastern European countries; sturdy, humble pillows of dough stuffed with potatoes, cheese, fried onions and sauerkraut, boiled and sometimes bathed in melted butter, often pan-fried, served with sour cream, bacon and onions or thickly sliced sausage, depending on the region.
When the first Ukrainian settlers arrived in Canada 125 years ago, they brought perogies with them. Across the Prairies, farms provided the necessary ingredients: wheat, potatoes, farmers' cheese and sour cream, plus fresh saskatoons and plums to make sweet perogies. For large families and hard-working farmers, they were filling and provided a necessary carb load. But not only were the perogies themselves fundamental to the nourishment of generations, the process of making them provided a social outlet, a means of multitasking, of catching up on the news of the day while taking care of dinner.
Women would gather to assemble them by the hundreds, even thousands – enough to fill dozens of sheets to store, sell by the bag or serve up at the original farm-to-fork long table dinners to raise enough money to fund a community project or repair a church. It was the epitome of big-batch cooking, and everyone's baba made the best.
Cheemo, arguably Canada's best-known frozen perogy brand, came along in 1972, opening a production facility in Edmonton to deliver perogies to the masses, relieving us of the need to assemble them by hand at a time when home cooks valued kitchen conveniences. Today, it produces more than three million perogies a day, and ships half a billion across North America every year. On the other end of the perogy spectrum, restaurant chefs have picked up on their potential for bundling up trendy ingredients such as short ribs, duck confit and kimchi in Prairie nostalgia; a handful, plated with crème fraîche and spring onions, can go for the price of a half-dozen frozen bags.
Perogy bees are still there if you look for them, in the community halls and church basements of small-town Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Each spring, Saskatchewan hosts a 5 and 10k perogy run in Montmartre, east of Regina, that starts with coffee and homemade cinnamon buns and ends with a perogy lunch. And for those who appreciate slow food but want it fast, Baba's Homestyle Perogies in Saskatoon has what must be the only drive-thru perogy window in the world.
For those of us who didn't grow up attending perogy suppers, it's perfectly acceptable to adopt a recipe from someone else's baba. There are plenty of good reasons beyond necessity to gather a group and make them from scratch – and not enough opportunities to spend an afternoon elbow to elbow in the kitchen. All traditions start somewhere.