Perogies on the Prairies: Manitoba's European community keeping traditions alive

(Photo courtesy Perfect Pierogies)

This story is part of a week-long series exploring how we as Canadians define "Canadian food," and how it has evolved in modern Canada.

It is often the simplest things that become the deepest, most heart-felt traditions.

When European immigrants – including huge numbers from Ukraine and Poland – settled the Canadian west, they brought with them their culture, their history and their food.

Generations later, all are firmly entrenched in the vast, flat prairie lands that roll unbroken across the hundreds of kilometers between the Rocky Mountains and the Canadian Shield.

Among the most humble and enduring? The perogy.

There are a dozen different ways to spell it – pyrogy, piroghi and pyrohy among them.

But the basic concept is always the same. It’s a little pinched dumpling, boiled then fried, usually filled with cheese or potato, frequently topped with onions or sauerkraut.

And in prairie towns and cities – particularly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan – perogies are as much a part of life in Canada as hockey, long winters and cold beer.

“If you say perogies, I say traditional, homemade staple in the family,” says James Aitkenhead, general manager of Perfect Pierogies (yet another old-world spelling).

In the little town of Garson, Manitoba (population not quite 5000, 30 km northeast of Winnipeg), Aitkenhead’s company produces around one million carefully crafted perogies every month.

“Within five miles around me, I probably have 100 Babas (eastern European honourific term for grandmothers) here in the town that are pinching their own perogies.” Aitkenhead gleefully tells Yahoo Canada.

“You go anywhere in Manitoba and there are Babas in every kitchen, in every basement, in every church who are producing perogies.”

Across the province, the little city of Dauphin is the host of Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival. Board member Jan Sirski shares Aitkenhead’s enthusiasm.

“Manitoba without pyroghy [another town, another spelling] would be like Canada without maple syrup,” she declares.

“This simple and hearty food provided nutrition, as immigrants brought with them a part of the homeland which reflects the characteristics of endurance, adaptability and maintenance of tradition. They represent the evolution and melding of Ukrainian culture into the daily lives of everyone in the province.”  

A staple food perogies are as entrenched in Winnipeg as lobster in Halifax, or smoked meat in Montreal. And in every bite, there is infused culture, tradition and memory.

“You sit down to eat perogies, and you’re bringing back all those all those homemade traditions, all those Christmases, all those birthdays, all those special family traditions,” Aitkenhead says.

“You talk about life lessons over a plate of perogies. It’s a way to bring the family together. They’ve always been there, at every table.”

(Photo courtesy Perfect Pierogies)

Aitkenhead’s company sources its ingredients locally. No shortage of wheat, cheese and potatoes on the prairies. His attention to detail is … impressive.

“We measure the thickness of our dough within the thousandth of an inch,” he says.

“We make sure that the dough is actually as thin as you could possibly go before the fillings would actually boil through. That kind of separates us from the rest."

Perogy-making on the Canadian plains is a hotly competitive business. And the competition isn’t just all the other perogy companies; it’s pretty much everybody – and their grandmothers.

“Everybody knows what a perogy is supposed to taste like,” he says with a smile.

“Everybody knows Baba makes it better, Baba puts in this kind of cheese, or a little bit of extra salt. I’m in a market where everybody thinks they’re an expert.”

Old world traditions for a new generation

As each new generation rises, the old world slips a little further into the past. Younger Manitobans are still culturally linked to Poland and Ukraine, but many (if not most) have never been there. Life changes; traditions change.

Will perogies change as well?

“Our company has started a new flavour, which is the chili pepper,” Aitkenhead says.

“We’ve started adding a little bit of spice into the product. I’m the new generation, so I’m trying to get a new taste and new flair into the old style of recipe.”

Aitkenhead says the target market for his zingy new taste treat is primarily hockey fans and golfers. He acknowledges that any attempt to alter such a deeply loved comfort food is an uphill battle.

“The perogy is a pretty stationary product. You can put anything you want inside one, but the tradition of the cottage cheese and the sauerkraut and the potato-cheddar, that’s not going anywhere. I can promote new products until I am blue in the face, and most people will still buy just plain old cheddar. The traditional perogy isn’t going anywhere.”

(Photo courtesy Perfect Pierogies)

Regardless of your preference for old or new world flavours, there’s still one ideal way to prepare them.

“If they are frozen, then I would say you just pop them in the boiling water, let them boil until the internal temperature is hot and they float to the top,” Aitkenhead explains, with clear and infectious enthusiasm.

“You take them out of the boiling hot water, you strain them, you add a little bit of butter to your frying pan, add a little bacon on there, and brown them up so you get a little bit of that crunch on the outside of the dough.

“Take a little of that bacon you fried it up with, put it on the bottom of the pan, and put the perogies on top. Add a little bit of bacon and chives on the top, serve it to your guests and I guarantee you they come back for more.”

Are you hungry yet? Can this guy sell perogies, or what?

Simple, and delicious.

And isn’t that how tradition really survives – through all the years, and all the miles, and all the generations?