Cleveland and Pittsburgh have always enjoyed something like a sibling rivalry. Unlike the relationship between Cleveland and Akron, or Cleveland and Chicago, Cleveland and the ’Burgh are too close in size for one to take the other under its wing like a little sister city, or to aspire to big-brother city coolness. So, rivalry it is—or always seemed to be, to this Northeastern Ohio native.
Later this summer, I will travel through (or around) both cities on my way to visit my dad in Port Clinton, Ohio—home of the annual Perch, Peach, Pierogi and Polka Festival. Along my way on the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes, I will cross a lot of pierogi territory.
If the Rust Belt is a bastion of anything still—Catholicism? grit?—I think we can all get behind pierogi. Of course, the people of the sibling cities of Cleveland and Pittsburgh share much more than a love of dough pillows swimming in butter. But, while the rituals of religion—and stick-to-itiveness, for that matter—require more than a modicum of self-sacrifice, food is about self-love.
And food, like pierogi, that is passed down from generation to generation is about the sharing of love among a people.
A treatise on pierogi: that’s how I knew that Paul Hertneky, author of Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood [one spent in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh], was my kind of people.
From Paul’s WordPress blog, RUST BELT BOY: A Blog by Paul Hertneky, now on my blogroll: “The book tells the story of a generation–children and grandchildren of immigrants, half of whom became emigrants themselves. When heavy industry collapsed in the late 1970s, nearly six million Baby Boomers fled America’s industrial north over the next twenty years, creating Rust Belt diaspora. Another six million stayed.”
Me, daughter of (early) Boomers, I left the Rust Belt and don’t get back often enough. But, one thing I’ve learned from reading and writing about the Rust Belt is that it is a heritage still in the making—if you make it. In much the same way that a recipe—for my Uncle Louis Heineman’s wines, Aunt Maria’s pierogi, or anything else—is dead, if you don’t use it; so too is a history, a heritage, dead if you don’t remember it.
From Paul’s lovely chapter, “The Prurient Power of Pierogi,” featuring a Lenten Friday lunch of pierogi, or pirohi, at his elementary school—if only young Paul can make it through Mass:
During Mass, the promise and seduction became unbearable. My stomach clawed toward its quarry while I knelt through the long Latin consecration. I stared at the ornamental sacristy and my eyes glossed over, seeing Jesus feeding hordes of followers by multiplying pirohi instead of loaves and fishes. Or my gaze landed on the soft white mound of Monica Halicek’s top vertebra, how its contours transported me, how its roundness resembled a tender potato pirohi.
And later in the essay, the pay-off:
The first bite made me close my eyes. The multipurpose room fell silent and every cavity in my head absorbed a humble gift composed of elements that sang secret lyrics to notes along an archetypal scale, a harmony to my subconscious. In my pirohi rapture I could be lost and found, week after week, even when I reached the age when ardent kisses tried to surpass it, and never really could.
I could never be a memoirist or essayist, like Paul Hertneky. I don’t journal and my memory is poor. I remember snippets, just enough to create a story. But, I always remember the food.
One of my favorite summer memories is staying with my aunt and uncle and cousins in Port Clinton. They had sidewalks, a boat, and Cedar Point nearby, and so I was in heaven. Until I got sick with a terrible stomach flu. The remedy: Aunt Maria’s Polish pierogi. Blueberry-filled, I remember, which sounds strange to me now. But, as a kid, I knew only that these dumplings were made from a recipe brought all the way from Poland (which seemed so much more exotic than our German side)—where a young Maria had once sat on a train next to Karol Wojtyla, who would become Pope John Paul II. If anything could ease my stomach, it was her holy pierogi.
My next trip through Pennsylvania to Ohio, I will try to forget any silly notion of Rust Belt city rivalry in favor of lauding our shared cultural heritage: one perfect pocket of food heaven. When I get to Port Clinton, maybe I will even polka. But, definitely, I will visit with family and see if I can beg the recipe from my aunt for her pierogi.