Originally posted on Food Riot, which has since shut down.
There wasn’t much ceremony to volunteering to make pierogi at Seattle’s Polish Home Association for their upcoming bazaar. Everyone else spoke Polish and was there out of love for their community. My friends and I, none of us Polish by anything other than remote heritage, were there out of a different kind of love: that of dumplings. I’m not saying I can’t be altruistic at times, but I’ll be honest: I volunteered because I wanted to watch these Eastern European dumpling masters and learn their trade secrets. I just had no idea what kind of lessons I was in for, as I was scolded incessantly for two hours by my new Polish friends.
- Your meatballs are too pretty: Walking in to the basement of the community center, we were waved to empty seats. Mounds of brown meat sat in front of us, and we watched the others roll them into meatballs about the size of a quarter, then attempted to mimic them. I wasn’t four balls in before a man muttered in Polish at my dumplings. “They’re too pretty,” translated our self-appointed Polish fairy-dumpling-mother, Danuta.
- There’s never an ‘s’ on pierogi: Danuta, apropos of nothing but the fact that there were non-Polish speakers around, took an opportunity in the silence of the meatball rolling to lecture us that, should the occasion ever come up, we were never to refer to multiple pierogi as ‘pierogies’, as it’s already plural. It was, perhaps, a pre-emptive scolding.
- Your meatballs are too big: The same man who thought my meatballs were too pretty then added to his complaints: my meatballs were too big. Well, that was no issue; I was there to learn. I immediately adjusted the radius of my meatballs from nickel-size to dime-size. Danuta tut-tutted that my dumplings were just fine.
- You haven’t tasted the meat: Our somewhat grumpy gentleman friend only left us alone momentarily before asking if we’d tried the meat yet. After he asked, I realized we were, in fact, working with fully-cooked, spiced meat, so why not? A chorus of Polish people chimed in, encouraging us to taste. A chorus of Polish people is not dissimilar to the naggings of a single Jewish grandmother. Obviously, we tasted immediately.
- Your meatballs are too cute: A new friend rotated in on our right, and jumped right into the fray about my meatballs. You might think I’m bragging, but apparently the attractiveness of my meatballs was a real issue. I was now in trouble because they were too cute. I doubled down on an effort to make ugly meatballs.
- Your meatballs are too small: You probably saw that one coming, right? Now my meatballs, according to the older woman talking the spot to my left, were too small. She switched to very concerned Polish, which was somewhat more calmly translated to me as “nobody will want those dumplings: they pay good money for these pierogi.”
- You’re not eating enough: During a brief break between the shaping of the meatballs and the wrapping of the dough around them, we were scolded for not having visited the food table enough. This is absurd, okay? I had already been back for thirds on the cured meats, and my friend was badgering a little old lady about the ingredients and techniques in the “Warsaw salad.”
- You’re not sealing your dumplings: If Danuta were an internet meme, she would have said “you had one job!” but she isn’t, so she very politely reminded us about four times that all that matters with the dough is that we seal our dumplings shut.
- You’re not sealing your dumplings twice: Oh, wait, was there just one job? Turns out the way to get your dumplings sealed is to seal them twice.
- Rolling dumpling scraps into a ball: Like Play-Doh, leftover dumpling scraps are fun to roll around and make into little balls, and OOPS! A lady collecting the scraps to re-roll into more dumpling wrappers came out to tell us not to do that: it makes them no good for wrapping.
Reading this, you might assume I spent a few hours of my life miserable, but in fact, there’s a familial warmth to a community that is so immediately comfortable with outsiders that they quickly begin scolding them like they are their own children. At the end of the evening we left full of Polish food and with a newfound knowledge about dumplings–even though I’m not confident mine would be ugly enough, properly sized, or well-enough sealed without my new Polish friends around to tell me.