Several years ago in the pages of our magazine, writer Jacqueline Ruyak detailed how Lenten abstinence is observed in parts of Eastern Europe. She described a visit to Ticky Potok, a small Ruthenian village in eastern Slovakia — and noted how some of the culinary customs of the region had made their way to the United States:
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.
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.
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.”