When I was a kid, my mom worked every other Saturday night. This meant that twice a month, my grease monkey dad had to leave the cluttered sanctuary of his garage, scrub his hands with copious amounts of Gojo, and foray into the kitchen to provide sustenance for my sister and me. My dad was an auto mechanic for years, so he is comfortable using tools and heat to create a functional product. I have yet to meet another person that considers making an engine run and making dinner for his daughters to be similar enterprises. Any time that I spot him in the kitchen, tinkering with edibles rather than automobiles, it’s like catching a yeti arranging floral bouquets. Those big callused hands and stubby fingers which are so deft with metal should look oafish around delicacies, and yet to me he appears as dexterous with a spatula as he is with a screwdriver. Of course, he can’t show off these skills to my mother because then she would surely draft him into the kitchen more often, so his culinary prowess is a strictly bimonthly show which invariably stars his one specialty item: Mrs. T’s pierogies.
No other brand will do. And no other chef will do. My dad has some kind of spiritual connection with Mrs. T, maybe a common Deutsch ancestor, enabling him to bring out the true, delicately starchy essence of these pre-fab little delights. The enthusiasm that my sister and I share for these potato-filled treats gives us a kind of anticipation buzz on Saturday evening. We are sad to see my mom leave, aware of the hour and a half commute and potentially grueling twelve hour shift ahead of her, but ushering her out of the front door and into her car with kiss and a ‘we promise not to fight’ is the first step toward our gastronomical goal. We were not nearly as concerned when she left for work on Wednesday, but tonight we have a lot of guilt to atone for- we are glad to see her go because it’s one less person trying to lay claim to those finite dinner goods; we feel badly that she does not get to partake in their glory and we feel badly that this pleases us- heavy stuff for an eight-year-old sister and an 11-year-old me. So my sister makes her a PBJ for a snack and I make her coffee and find her gloves and keys and we give her a big hug and get her out of the house as quickly as decency will possibly allow.
Mom contributed to our guilty pleasure throughout the week when grocery shopping and menu planning. Transporting the blue box of Mrs. T’s from the grocery bag to the freezer, she said, “Too bad I never get to have any of these,” and while making dinner on Tuesday night she mentioned, “I wish your dad would make some pierogies, mine never come out right.” When I poured her coffee that night she said “I wish I could stay for dinner, your dad only makes pierogies for you guys,” and my sister and I silently congratulated ourselves for banishing a pierogie competitor.
Finally having got her safely out of the house, my sister and I cautiously return to the kitchen and nonchalantly set up shop; me at the table with a social studies textbook, my sister with a glass of juice prattling on about little kid stuff.
“We learned how to draw a cursive S today,” my sister boasts.
“You don’t draw an S. It’s a letter, so you write it,” I interject before I can think of my poor mother, only minutes earlier jettisoned from the house with the promise that I will not fight with my sister. Oops.
“Well this S was beautiful and you don’t write beautiful things you draw them so like I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted (she gives me a very deliberate glare) we learned how to draw the S today and when Mrs. Newhard was drawing it on the board, somebody farted really loud and she got mad so I tried not to laugh but I couldn’t help it cuz I mean it was really loud but I’m not sure who it was cuz Sarah said she thinks it was Danny but I think it was Kyle because later at recess Jamie and me were playing hopscotch and when I got up to the top he ran over and farted RIGHT AT ME oh my god he is so gross so I think it was him plus he has really bad handwriting because I saw his spelling test on Friday…” She is an unstoppable chattering force, singlehandedly providing the soundtrack for the evening, pausing only to take a huge gulp of apple juice that ends up dribbling from the corner of her mouth.
Seizing the opportunity, I say, “Isn’t it funny that they called it the French and Indian War, and never mentioned America?”, in an effort to impress my dad with my analytical abilities and also to express that I really am focused on homework, not just silently counting down the minutes until Dad completes his fatherly duty at the stove.
See, my mom can make a big stink about the pierogies because she is never around for them. But my sister and I, we talk about anything but the pierogies because we know that if we give them too much attention they will lose their magical quality- they will become an attempt to materialize our ideas about Dad’s pierogies, imitations of the pierogies we had once loved so much. Apparently, my father subliminally imbued us with the subtleties of Baudrillard at a very young age. With the tacit knowledge that hype cheapens reality, my sister and I feign this sort of insouciance about pierogies. Still, as she gibbers over her juice and I peruse my textbook, I know she is doing the same calculations as me.
Ok so if there are fifteen rogies in the box and Dad gets most of them cuz he’s big and he cooked, how many are she and I competing for? Last time she ate four, but she’s had a lot of juice so she might be feeling kinda full by the time they are ready so I could definitely make out with like four tonight. My face is tilted toward my history book, but my mind is focused on the mathematics of pierogies. If I cut the corners off first, I will increase the filling to crust ratio by a good 70% but is that more than I need? Ya gotta have some crust to appreciate the filling properly, so maybe I should start by cutting it in half… Preparing for my dad’s pierogies is delicate mental work.
Watching Dad out of the corner of our eyes, doing delicate things that we so rarely see him do, we have the sense of him being a kind of mythical creature in the kitchen- if we were to startle him or call attention to his actions, he might sniff the wind and dash back to the garage. However, in our peripheral vision, he seems to be very much at ease and in control. His pierogie preparation is a system as finely tuned and perfectly timed as his car. First and foremost, they have to be Mrs. T’s pierogies. There are no acceptable substitutes. My father has lectured extensively on the subject. As my sister chokes on her next big gulp and I dash to get a towel with which to wipe second-hand apple juice off the floor, Dad pulls the blue box labeled Mrs. T’s out of the freezer and sets it in a bowl under running water in the sink to defrost. While they thaw, Dad slices half of a yellow onion without a tear. Apparently, mythical kitchen dads do not have the same tear duct sensitivities as the rest of the human race. The onions go into a frying pan with hot oil, diving in with a hiss. We interpret this as a cue to set the table, pour iced tea, and microwave the meatloaf that Mom left in the fridge. After a quick sauté, Dad adds a generous amount of butter and then the pierogies, one at a time. I admire the deftness with which he navigates the popping, jumping oil.
He must be used to it, because cars use oil too, right? , I muse, Is this how he looks in the garage too, a black-clad operator amongst eager tools, knowing exactly what to do and when to do it?
The aroma of warm butter and onions fills the kitchen, and my sister and I squirm in our seats with barely suppressed excitement. We are quiet at this last stage, fearful that one misplaced comment will lead the golden pierogies astray. Finally, he eases the crisp crescents of potato goodness out of the pan and into a bowl topped with soft fragrant onions and sets it on the table with the air of a circus announcer- enthusiastic and amused.
Now that they are safely on the table, we can cut loose. Dad asks how many I want and I reply “just two,” already excited about going back for more. As he slides them onto my plate, I giggle with sheer exuberance and forget all about my calculations. The slightly crisp exterior, the warm fluffy interior and the sweet onions are the perfect trifecta of flavors and textures. I pierce one with my fork and bring the whole thing to my face, nibbling while holding it suspended over my plate. Dad doesn’t mind my lack of etiquette- he’s too busy slathering ketchup on his meatloaf without even trying it first. The crust is only crisp on the very outer layer, preserving an inner layer of tender dough. I break through the crust and reach the warm, fluffy potato center. The filling is thick but not dense and the flavor is mild but not bland. The whole experience is warm and heavily comforting. Taking a huge bite of 25% crust and 75% filling (the perfect ratio), I wish that Dad would cook more often. These pierogies are the best , thanks in part to Mrs. T and in part to Dad and in part to… to mom at work, to fending for ourselves- they are wild, they are rebellious, they are guilt-inducingly delicious.
My sister and I loved Saturday night dinners. As a kid, I thought it was because the pierogies were so good. Looking back, I think there was more to the experience than just the food. There was a thrilling sense of secrecy- believing that my sister and I got to see a side of my dad that my mom did not. Now, I know better than to think that I know better than her. She, with her loud absence, helped to create this wild little enclave that was Saturday night pierogies. Here I was thinking that my sister and I were in on my dad’s kitchen-bound secret but, of course, Mom knew us all best. Even when she wasn’t looking. She has a keen sense of drama. Sure, part of my and my sister’s brains knew that they were just frozen pierogies, not really a big deal, enjoyed by thousands of households across the nation. But we believed that these were the best pierogies in the world because of my mom’s dramatic jealousy and my dad’s coveted, clandestine kitchen time. My parents were so good at playing these roles, complementing each other by drumming up interest and creating an aura of mystique, they probably could have gotten us to eat just about anything.
Thank goodness Mrs. T spoke up.