From ONE Magazine

Ruthenian Lenten Fare

There were many reasons I was looking forward to my first visit to eastern Czechoslovakia in 1991, but the cuisine was not one of them. Coming from a Slovenian-Slovak background, I was familiar with the region’s food, the wide variety of sausages, the predominance of pork. I am not knocking the food, but I was pretty sure of some of its limitations.

I am a vegetarian. For years I have lived in Japan, a country of ample culinary delights even for those, like me, who eschew meat.

I would not be so lucky in Eastern Europe, or so I thought.

Thankfully, I was wrong. Not long after I arrived, I came across byrndza, a rich sheep cheese. It is commonly served with halusky, potato dumplings not unlike Italian gnocchi. On another day, I was treated to bite-size perohy, pockets of dough commonly stuffed with potato and cheese, sauerkraut or even fruit or jam. Better known as peroghi, they are popular in my home state of Pennsylvania. One summer in high school, I worked for a local peroghi producer, but the varieties I discovered in Eastern Europe were unlike any I had ever tasted.

Over the years, I have made many more trips to the region, primarily to Slovakia (the eastern half of the former Czechoslovakia). Along with the previously described treats, I have happily subsisted on soups, potatoes and cabbage, the “king of vegetables,” according to the French who are said to know something about food.

One of my most memorable visits, on assignment for this magazine in the late 1990’s, was to Tichy Potok, a small Ruthenian village in the hardscrabble hinterlands of eastern Slovakia. The Ruthenians are Slavs, typically Greek Catholic, from the southern foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.

It was Good Friday, a day of fasting for this predominantly Greek Catholic village. All week, many of the villagers had fasted, most alternating days of meatless meals with days of only bread and water. But there were some exempted from the fast: the sick, nursing mothers, travelers (like me) and men chopping wood in the forests.

For my visit, Tichy Potok’s mayor, Lubica Dzuna, had arranged a lunch. One particularly devout older woman, Anna Kiktava, had only bread and water, while the rest of us enjoyed an excellent, and meatless, meal of onion soup, potato pancakes, walnut cookies and mint tea.

In fact, there is little use of meat in Ruthenian traditional cuisine. Meat is expensive and the Ruthenians, for the most part, have never been wealthy. Because of the harsh climate and short growing season, there is little access to exotic fruits and vegetables. Potatoes, noodles and dumplings are the most common fare. When meat is served, it is typically pork. Most families have a pig, which they slaughter before Christmas and consume throughout the following year.

On another Easter visit to Tichy Potok I found myself in Maria Dodova-Basistova’s tidy kitchen learning to make peroghi. “Everyone likes peroghi,” she said.

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.”

This year, I joined the parishioners for two days of peroghi making. Most of the volunteers were in their 70’s. Recognizing the need to get younger parishioners involved, Father Krepp made an open plea to his congregation. Ann Derhammer and Arleen Sovak, two middle-aged sisters, were among those who volunteered their services. “When Father said we’d have to stop the tradition of making peroghi unless more people helped, we decided to come,” said Ms. Derhammer.

For many years, it took several women an entire day to make the dough for the peroghi. But recently, retired baker Joe Natishan assumed responsibility for the kitchen and brought in a mechanized dough maker to speed the process. Mr. Natishan oversees a crew of four, who make the dough, mashed potatoes and cheese filling.

Next, other volunteers stuff the filling into the dough, assembling thousands of peroghi. Then, Mr. Natishan’s crew takes over, boiling the peroghi, dipping them in butter to prevent sticking and cooling them on trays. Other volunteers pack the finished product into bags, about a dozen in each.

Eleanor Putprush, Margaret Sodrosky and Mary Cichy have made peroghi at St. Mary’s since the 1950’s. “We used to bring our kids along and give them little rolling pins to roll out dough,” they said. Mrs. Cichy’s daughter, Rose, a librarian in Wilkes-Barre, was helping for her third time. “It’s nice to be doing something that has a purpose, has a tradition and is fun. You feel like you’re learning.”

At lunch on Monday, caterer Anna Lahaszow, 72, used Father Krepp’s kitchen to show me how to make machanka, a tomato gravy recipe her mother brought from eastern Slovakia. When I first heard of machanka, I had thought it was perhaps Ruthenian for lecso, tomatoes stewed with banana peppers and onions, which my Slovenian grandmother, born in Hungary, used to make. Brought from Serbia, in Hungary lecso is often mixed with eggs. A Greek Catholic Slovakian friend of mine once told me it was his favorite lenten meal.

Machanka, though a more straightforward gravy, is a lot like lecso, delicious on its own or over noodles, potatoes or even peroghi. It can also be canned or frozen. Mrs. Lahaszow recalled her favorite lenten meal: salmon croquettes, machanka and fried potatoes with onions. Meanwhile, we sampled a variety of other tasty lenten foods: machanka over peroghi, vegetarian bean soup and mushroom and pea soup.

Confident and brisk, Mrs. Lahaszow reminded me of Mary Poppins, albeit in a Ruthenian-American incarnation. Over lunch, she recited the recipes for the two soups in front of us and three more. I breathlessly took notes.

The volunteers grew up making peroghi at home and some still do. Like potato pancakes and haluski (cabbage and noodles, not to be confused with halusky) peroghi is eaten on many Fridays throughout the year. Children coming home for the holidays still expect the traditional dishes. Most folks in Kingston now buy their peroghi from St. Mary’s.

Toward the end of my visit to St. Mary’s, Mrs. Putprush, one of the peroghi makers, mentioned raka, the caraway soup I had eaten in Tichy Potok but had somehow forgotten. The mere mention of raka took me back to Slovakia.

This simple dish was made differently in Pennsylvania. Mrs. Putprush broke several eggs into her soup, letting them poach. She also added scrambled eggs to the mixture. The end product, though different, was delicious.

So absorbed with the making of this soup, I didn’t notice that the peroghi making was complete. The volunteers were leaving, their work done. It was time for me to go too. And so I left, fully sated, with recipes in hand.

Jacqueline Ruyak frequently travels to Slovakia.