6 March 2019
St. Mary’s parishioners in Kingston, Pennsylvania, make peroghi, an Eastern European staple during Lent. (photo: Cody Christopulos.)
Today, Christians around the world mark Ash Wednesday — the start of the penitential season of Lent, notable for fasting, alms-giving and prayer.
But in many traditions, Lent is also notable for something else: food.
Jacqueline Ruyak wrote about this phenomenon in our magazine a few years ago, describing the way Eastern Europeans became masters at the art of making peroghi:
Traditionally, women made peroghi early in the morning to take to the men working the fields and forests for their midday meal. It is a time-consuming dish to prepare, so these days they are made on special occasions.
Along with the peroghi, I learned to make halusky with sauerkraut with the help of Anna Kosca. As good as it was, I was more impressed by her raka, a delicious caraway soup. It is a simple dish: a small onion sautéed in butter, flour to make a roux, caraway seeds, a dash of salt and paprika, and some water. Mrs. Kosca added some small dumplings to put in the soup. Another woman made a fragrant dill soup. And on the dreary, wet morning that we left Tichy Potok, Anna Kiktava and her sister Maria made a bean soup of kidney beans, diced carrots, kohlrabi, celeriac and potatoes.
In the early 20th century many Ruthenian immigrants came from villages in Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine to work in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. St. Mary Protector, a Byzantine Catholic church in Kingston, near Wilkes-Barre, was founded to serve these immigrants, whose descendants have stayed in the area long after the mines shut down.
Four times a year St. Mary’s holds a peroghi sale, twice during the 40-day Filipovka fast before Christmas and twice during the 40-day Great Fast before Easter.
For each sale, about 30 volunteers spend two days making 4,000 potato peroghi. Church fund-raisers selling Ruthenian food are common in most parts of Pennsylvania, including my hometown of Bethlehem. (The regional popularity of peroghi is such that Pittsburgh is called the “peroghi capital of the world.”) The language and many of the traditions of the old country may fade, but its foods bind the generations together. Such is the American “melting pot.”
Conversation at St. Mary’s peroghi sale inevitably turns to food. Just as in Eastern Europe, the parishioners once slaughtered their pigs around Christmas, curing the meat to last throughout the following year. For Lent, people made do with “a barrel of cabbage and a bin of potatoes,” I was told.
While some Byzantine Catholics (as Greek Catholics are called in the United States) observe a strict lenten fast, many just abstain from meat and dairy products on alternating days. As in Tichy Potok, older people tend to be more observant. Father Theodore Krepp, pastor of St. Mary’s, acknowledged the unevenness of the fasting. “We’re all working on perfection so there’s no expectation that we are perfect. Part of being a Christian is to keep working on it.”
Want to make your own? The recipe, below:
4 medium cooked potatoes, mashed
2 oz. sharp cheese, grated
Mix cheese and potatoes; let cool.
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
Mix flour and salt. Add the egg, sour cream, shortening and enough water to make a medium-soft dough. Knead well. Divide into two portions. Roll one portion out until thin. Using the open end of a glass, cut out circles. Place about one teaspoon of filling on each circle, fold over and pinch edges firmly. Place the peroghi on a floured board, then cover with a tea towel. Repeat with the rest of the dough. To cook, drop several peroghi into a pot of boiling salted water. When the peroghi float to the top, after about five minutes, remove from the pot and drain. Spread on a board to keep from sticking. Continue cooking the rest of the peroghi.
Peroghi are usually served with melted butter, onions browned in butter or sour cream. For browned onions, slice half of a medium onion and cook in about three tbs. of butter. Pour over the peroghi and toss so that they are covered and do not stick.
Tags: Greek Catholic Church Slovakia Ruthenians