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Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s pierogi culture Food fads may come and go, but in Pittsburgh, pierogi will always be king. By Joy Frank-Collins

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or travelers, a time-tested way of immersing oneself in a new culture is by eating like the lo­­cals. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a city literally built by eastern Euro­­­ pean immigrants, there is one food— and one alone—that defines this town: Pierogi. A HUMBLE HISTORY Pierogi are dumplings traditionally filled with cheese and potatoes or sau­­erkraut that originated in countries including Poland, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine. Pittsburgh experi­­enced a population boom in the late 19th and early 20th cent­­ ur­­ies, particularly of immigrants from Eastern Europe, who settled in neigh­­borhoods including Polish Hill, East Allegheny, Bloomfield and Lawrenceville. They brought this culture and culinary tradition with them, explains Lauren Uhl, curator of food and fitness at the Senator John Heinz History Center. “These immigrants worked in steel mills and factories, so the inexpen­­ sive and practical packaging of the pierogi made it a common lunch box option during the Industrial Age,” she adds. “As those families settled into the community, their traditions held strong, and have certainly carried over to today’s culinary scene in Pitts­­ burgh, where pierogi is a popular dish at many restaurants around town, both old and new,” Uhl says. “ALL PITTSBURGHERS HAVE A

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WOW Power to the people

PIEROGI MEMORY” For Lynne Szarnicki-Rau, at five or six-years-old, it was going to church with her grandparents where pierogis were often made and sold on Fridays. “My brother and I were trying to learn how to pinch pierogi (or maybe running around screaming…) when Olga [a strict church elder] came over and yelled at us and made us leave,” she remembers. Her mother pro­­test­­ ed, but there was no arguing with Olga, Szarnicki-Rau says. Some years later, as a teen, she would go to that same church to pinch pierogis, where Olga still ruled the kitchen. “Pierogi is plural. Pierog is singular. But no one uses the singular form because you can’t eat just one!” — Lynne Szarnicki-Rau St. Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church, 116 Ella St. McKees Rocks, still offers their ready to cook pierogis hand-pinched in the Ukrain­­ ian tradition for purchase every Friday from Labor Day to Memorial Day. You can pick them up from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (potato $7 a dozen, sauer­­­kraut and cottage cheese $8 a dozen). The changing culture of the city of Pittsburgh, coupled with the fad­­ing of this tradition in churches through­­ out the city was a driving factor in Lynne’s decision to take up pierogimak­­ing. She started by selling online,

booming Pittsburgh tradition, “Pierogi Nights,” in which they would create a pop-up pierogi restaurant for one night in differ­ ent locations across the city. It started with 30 attendees and ended with around 400. Lynne Szarnicki-Rau and her Pierogi Truck.

and then expanded to farmer’s mark­­ets before her husband, David, decided it was time for something bigger and made her a pierogi truck. Since that time, aside from selling freshly prepared and ready-to-eat pierogi on curbs across the city each day, her pierogis are available in some grocery stores, sold wholesale through restaurants and are also part of a very popular fundraiser program. Lynne’s passion for pierogi is driven by a desire to save the tradition. “Pittsburgh is changing, and so is the culture,” she says. “We’re trying to preserve a part of old Pittsburgh by carrying on pierogi popularity into the future.” www.pghpierogitruck.com

PIEROGI IS TO PITTSBURGH AS A SLICE IS TO NEW YORK Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skow­ ronski are doing their part to ensure Pittsburgh pierogi culture is thriving. Several years ago they created what became a

“Pittsburgh has a really long tradition of having pierogi as its staple cultural food,” says Lasky. “It’s a food that people kind of obsess over.” Nearly two years ago, they opened APTEKA, 4606 Penn Ave., a vegan restaurant serving Central and Eastern European fare. Their com­­bined skills and knowledge have earned them rave reviews across the region. Skowronski is a first-generation Polish immigrant deeply familiar with modern Eastern European dishes learned from his maternal grandmother. Lasky is a sixth generation Pittsburgher who understands how traditional dishes have been filtered through the generations to create the versions common on the city’s thriving food scene today. In this “new Slavic” style, their pierogi stray from the tra­­di­­ tional potato and cheese to more inventive versions. But their goal is to always honor the flavors of Eastern European cuisine while doing a bit of inventing and hon­­or­­ ing Pittsburgh.

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