Winnipeg’s church perogy programs face uncertain future

In Winnipeg, the titles vary from parish to parish. The Pinchers, the Club, the Miracle. In St. Nicholas Church, the bowling-league-style title for the perogy group is wrongly listed on the church’s site as the Perogy Brigade. “I don’t know who put Brigade,” states Theresa Antoniuk. “We are thenbsp;Crew.”

Each Tuesday, Ms. Antoniuk, a retired teacher, directs her group of approximately 20 volunteer cooks in preparing both primary components of any perogy worth its salt: a simple dough of flour and water, and fillings which vary from humble onion and potato into glamorous cottage cheese. Wednesday mornings, beginning at 7 o’clock sharp, the basement of St. Nicholas becomes an even busier beehive of activity, with upwards of 40 volunteers pinching, boiling, cooling and packing countless perogies, all beneath a tight dumpling deadline. “We must be carried out by noon,” she says, “since they must install fornbsp;Bingo.”

But these days, the humble perogy has more to fear than competition for church-hall space. Because the world changes, and a generation passes, a staple which has long held a special place in the cultural and gastronomic life of the Prairies is flirting with extinction. “There was far more [church perogy bands] than there is now,” says Andrea Helgason, perogy-maker-in-chief in the church kitchen of St. Gerard Parish, whose Perogy Pinchers whip up 1,800 potato-and-cheddar dumplings weekly. “Many have folded because they do not have the people. Our elderly women either passed away or had to stop due to their health. Not so many younger people join. People do not volunteer asnbsp;much.”

That is bad news for perogy aficionados. In Winnipeg, says Gordon Bailey, chef and instructor at Red River College, except maybe in an emergency, someone does not purchase perogies from a grocery store. (“Freezer-burned little hockey pucks” is how he explains the store-bought selection.) Least of all in this, the busiest of perogy seasons, with both Christmas and Ukrainian Christmas on the horizon. You either make your own or purchase them from anbsp;church.

And demand is large. Roughly 16 percent of Winnipeg’s population identifies as Ukrainian — giving those taxpayers a provenance not unlike that of perogies themselves, which trace their roots to Central and Eastern European. Since the 2011 close of this mythical Alycia’s, which functioned perogies endorsed by no less than the late, great John Candy — whose mom had both Polish and Ukrainian roots — no Winnipeg restaurant has really stepped up to take its place. “I think it’s the labor,” says Colleen Swifte, the present owner of Alycia’s, that has since reopened in Gimli, an hour north of here on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg. “The first Alycia’s had a team of over 30 people pinching perogies all day. In the modern economy, to attempt to pay for that number of employees is verynbsp;cost-prohibitive.”

Ordering off them many restaurant menus, meanwhile, gets you a product which makes perogy devotees themselves steam with barely veiled indignation. Says Chef Bailey, “In the bigger restaurants, even if they serve them, they are prepackaged, made somewhere else. In Manitoba, that is not even really anbsp;perogy.”

And so it’s fallen largely to church crews to keep blessing hungry Winnipegers with the real thing. Your normal group operates as a part artisanal-food organization, part charitable fundraiser and part social club, with volunteers coming up to chat and catch up as to roll out, fill, crimp and bundle their dumplings. In an era when modern food companies have gone all high tech — online ordering forms, Instagram advertising, mechanical sheeters for cutting or rolling dough — the subterranean perogy market of Winnipeg adopts anachronism. With its system of land-line telephones, cash-only payment, and bags of preordered dumplings tied to church door handles for payment on the honor system, it is a trip through a timenbsp;machine.

One with its time-honoured rules. While store-bought variations of the Ukrainian dumpling are made out of a near-blasphemous assortment of fillings — chorizo sausage, Philly cheese steak, strawberry, plum — in the kitchen at St. Nicholas, they stick to the classics: potato and cheddar, potato and onion, and potato and cottage cheese. All for a deal (church) basement cost of $5 per dozen. “We do not charge more for cottage cheese,” says Ms. Antoniuk. “Some peoplenbsp;do.”

From the city’s north end, the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Ivan Suchavsky provides a somewhat wider menu which includes, along with the criteria, mushroom perogies and sauerkraut perogies. Additionally, it sells cabbage rolls and perishke (buns stuffed with cabbage). And nodding to both efficacy and lively demand, Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Church, near the intersection of Munroe and Watt roads, operates a dedicated “perogy hotline” for takingnbsp;orders.

Not that anybody is allowing celebrity compromise calibre: The site for St. Joseph’s Ukrainian (a church that’s also home to the sacred relics of Bishop and Martyr Blessed Vasyl Velychkovsky) notes that “quality control” in its monthly perogy bees “is ensured by the numerous Moms and Babas that appear faithfully to pinch andnbsp;roll.”

At. St. Gerard, Ms. Helgason only recently purchased a shiny new Hobart mixer to generate dough. But her staff is still rolling out that bread by hand. “It is very conservative,” states Ms. Helgason. “We do not have a fancy machine. Maybe that’s why everyone likes it. They are not allnbsp;ideal.”

And as befits a product made by people who take earthly inspiration from celestial sources, it is not unusual for perogies to be leveraged for the greater good. The September-to-June perogy program at St. Gerard, for one, raises funds to help students pay tuition at St. Gerard Catholic School, which runs about $1,000 anbsp;pupil.

However, for all the good — and great eating — which church-made perogies deliver, it remains true that they are earthly days are probably numbered. In St. Nicholas, whose perogy program launched in the 1940s, Ms. Antoniuk notes that our people are retired. You need to be retired to operate with perogies. Our earliest lady is 93. She’s the one which cuts the potatoes.” Nowadays, her Perogy Crew does not get a good deal of new recruits. “They are not coming, the younger ones,” she says. “If I stop, there’ll be no perogies, because nobody needs mynbsp;occupation.”

Or, at least, almost nobody. “My mother has just begun, for December, selling her perogies due to popular demand,” states Chef Bailey. “I climbed up on perogies, making perogies, eating perogies. And I am not even Polish or Ukrainian. I’m Irish.” In Winnipeg, he adds, “You can’t escape the perogy. It is part of ournbsp;legacy.”

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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