The Pierogi Queen

We first met Dorothy “Dottie” Naruszewicz Flanagan at Holy Trinity Polish Church during the “Blessing of the food” Easter Saturday. Remember those sculpted butter lambs? So we weren’t surprised to learn that Dottie is also known locally as the “Pierogi Queen.” Raised in Lowell’s Polish community, Dottie, who learned to make this pasta delicacy from her mother, aunts, and grandmother, shares this fact, “Pierogi has always been a part of our life. It’s a staple, especially at Christmas time.”

Dottie invited us to her home to watch her make pierogi along with her good friend Carol Matyka. Carol also grew up in Lowell and the Dracut area, but now lives in Boston. Her family is all of Polish extraction. When we meet, Carol tells us, “I was looking forward to coming today because Dottie is the master of making pierogi. It’s been many, many years since I’ve made them and I wanted to re-establish my roots in Polish cooking.”

Dottie and Carol have prepared the fillings ahead of time. Dottie assures us there aren’t enough hours in the day to prepare the fillings and the dough all on the same day. One filling is made with two kinds of farmer’s cheese, potato, and onion and the other is made with cabbage and sauerkraut.

Carol has mixed and kneeded the dough, which, like noodle or pasta dough, contains no yeast. She rolls it out to an eighth of an inch, then uses the top of a glass to cut out circles of dough.

Next, Dottie fills the circles of dough with filling, wetting the edge to seal the deal. She reinforces the seam by pressing the edge of a fork into it.

Carol points out that if you look at pierogi about to be boiled, “They look like Italian ravioli, Chinese pot stickers, empanadas — every culture has its version of the same thing.”

The pierogi cook for about ten minutes, or until they float. Then, using a slotted spoon,  Dottie lifts them out and gently places them into a pan of melted butter, before letting them rest on a tin-foiled pan.  And of course, it’s time for a taste. The pierogi are delicious; in the boiling process, the farmer’s cheese has melted and the dough is buttery soft. You can’t get a taste and texture like that from store-bought pierogi.

Making pierogi for a crowd is labor intensive. In addition to making large batches of pierogi for the day before Christmas, known as Wiligia, pierogi is made for other special occasions, like wedding showers and baptism receptions. It is usually a group effort, not unlike quilting bees or barn raisings used to be.  Dottie says that at Christmas time, she and Carol’s sister make about 300 pierogi. “We can’t do that alone. We had six people here cooking one day and we were able to make twelve dozen in one night . . . Ideally, you have one doing the dough and rolling it out, one doing the mixing, one taking care of the pots, one putting them in the freezer.”

Carol goes to mix up another batch of dough, adding flour as she goes, “We’re going to start with two cups of flour, but you’ll see, as I’m working the dough, I’m going to have to add more.”

“That’s another thing you get to know,” Dottie adds.  “The feel of the dough. You get to know that it actually talks to you.”

“And what does it say to you?” I ask.

“Sometimes it says, ‘I’m not ready,’ and sometimes it says, ‘O.K,'” Dottie answers, to the sound of sizzling butter in the background.

Before we leave Dottie’s kitchen, I get a chance to try my hand at making pierogi.

For more cooks’ secrets and a chance to taste some of Dottie and Carol’s pierogi, be sure to come by the Foodways Tent at 2:00 pm on Saturday, July 30 or Sunday, July 31 of the Lowell Folk Festival.

Life lessons through doll making

On July 12, 2011, Puerto Rican dollmaker, Ivelisse Pabon de Landron, and her apprentice Jamielette Figueroa will do a demonstration at 2:00 p.m. in the Ashland Public Library. They will be sharing skills passed on during their 9-month Traditional Arts Apprenticeship, which was funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Among the skills young Jamielette learned are hand sewing, joining seams for clothing construction, drawing, cutting fabric, paper pattern making, use of a thimble, color wheel, tape measure, and sewing machine, preparing fabric, stuffing techniques, shearing for skirts, making hair out of yarn, and hand embroidery. These are things that used to be taught in home economics classes, if not not something that most girls learned firsthand from their mother or grandmother. Nowadays, how many youngsters are adept at sewing?

Perhaps, more importanty, these sewing lessons were steeped in folk cultural context. In addition to working on the technical craft of doll making, Ivelisse made sure that Jamielette learned about the history of Puerto Rico and the folk culture of its people. She came to understand that many of the skills that were passed on from one generation to the next were honed during times of hardship, when many rural people could not afford to buy the necessary things to survive, let alone provide toys for their children. Years ago, mothers taught their daughters the craft of making dolls using socks, old garments, corn husks, and banana leaves. To bring this history to life, Ivelisse and Jamielette created characters from Puerto Rican folkore such as the nana (care taker of children) camadronas (midwives), jibaros (farmers) and African bomba y plena dancers.

Ivelisse was a demanding teacher in the way great teachers are. On occasion, Jamielette did not meet her expectations, turning in a half-hearted job. Ivelisse took the opportunity to teach Jamielette the importance of taking pride in what you do. Through hard work and attention, Jamielette grew to meet Ivelisse’s expecations. It helped that master artist and apprentice share the same heritage, Spanish language, and spiritual faith.

The July 21 public demonstration will serve as a dress rehearsal of sorts for a Ivelisse and Jamielette. They will be joining eight other master artist/apprentice pairs participating in the summer’s Lowell Folk Festival. Come by and see them in the Folk Craft & Foodways area along Lucy Larcom Park on July 29-31, 2011.