Together with Jeffrey Yoskowitz, Liz Alpern is both co-founder of The Gefilteria and co-author of The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods. With the cookbook’s long-awaited release this week, Jeffrey and Liz are guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
I arrived in Warsaw this summer with a rough itinerary and a vague notion of smelling, touching and tasting my way through the land whose food traditions I had inherited. My desire for a trip to the Motherland grew even more urgent since spending the last several years researching and writing a cookbook about Ashkenazi cuisine. I hoped Poland would provide a rich and authentic experience of the tastes my ancestors had experienced.
The story of Ashkenazi cuisine did not begin or end in Poland, but its climate and seasons, as well as its terroir, are representative of the wider eastern European Jewish world. Yet there is something a bit awkward about going to Poland to experience Jewish foods, since the absence of a vibrant Jewish life is noticeable, outside of the renaissance happening in Krakow today. Whereas Jewish bakeries once dotted the landscape, churning out loaves of rye, challah, bialys and bagels, I didn’t quite know what to expect from twenty-first century Warsaw.
Immediately upon my arrival, I began to ask locals — friends and strangers alike — what foods I must experience. Almost everyone told me that I must try Poland’s famous wild blueberries. In late June, my visit dovetailed with the short window for their harvest. I had known about these blueberries from my co-author Jeffrey, who came back a few years ago from Poland waxing philosophical about these tiny wild fruits that flourished on the bushes in late June, bursting with a tart, intoxicating sweetness. His experiences were part of the inspiration for a recipe for blueberry soup that we developed for our cookbook. (Find the recipe here!)
Driving through the countryside, I saw for myself how blueberries were sold on the side of the road, usually alongside forest mushrooms. Travelers and locals all stopped to snatch them up, presumably to transform them into everyone’s favorite jam, as a means of extending the short harvest season.
Friends particularly suggested that I try blueberry pierogi, a seasonal specialty. Pierogi, the eastern European dough pockets that go by many names based on region of origin, stuffings, and shape, are ubiquitous all over Poland. The fillings vary from toasted kasha to farmers cheese to sauerkraut and mushroom to potato and fried onion. I, however, had my sights on the blueberry variety.
On my very first night in Warsaw, my friend and unofficial Polish tour guide, Malgo, made me promise that I would not eat blueberry pierogi at just any restaurant. They were too important, she felt, too vital to the legacy of Polish cuisine, that she insisted she would cook them for me instead. As an experienced pierogi maker myself, I insisted that I would help in the process. Our only available evening, it turned out, was my last night in Poland. With that, I agreed to wait a full week to indulge in this special treat.
While awaiting my blueberry pierogi destiny throughout the following days and nights I enjoyed pierogi of all varieties, from the high-end restaurant versions to the unobtrusive pan-fried versions at the local hole-in-the-wall spots. The dough was more often than not unwaveringly perfect: soft with a bit of bite, simple with a hint of salt. The fillings were comforting and familiar and almost always satisfying. The experience validated my own hard work on a pierogi recipe and increased my excitement about our unique lentil-chard filling.
On the last night of my trip, I ventured into Saska Kępa, a part of Warsaw I had not yet seen, and entered Malgo’s home — where she was arms-deep in an enormous bowl of tiny little berries, coating them gently in sugar to draw out the liquid and soften them. There was a giant mass of dough on the counter next to her. It was going to be a long night.
For hours we folded small spoonfuls of berries into tiny dough pockets. We drank wine and recounted my trip, and when we had made enough, we boiled them and set out a huge plate. Finally. When I bit into those blueberry pierogi I was amazed at how something so simple could possibly be so full of flavor. We ate them all, dolloped with sour cream, until our tongues turned blue. Then we went back to making more. Malgo packed several warm pierogi into a jar for me and slipped it into my bag. When I finally returned to my hotel at 3:00 AM that night, filled with dumplings and wine and freshly sweet memories, I had already forgotten about the pierogi in my bag. When I woke up three hours later and boarded my plane home, I noticed the jar rattling around in my luggage. I smiled to myself, knowing that these pierogi would be with me well beyond the plane ride.
Liz Alpern got her start in the Jewish food world working with acclaimed cookbook author Joan Nathan. She curates and cooks for pop-up events and boutique shops and is currently working on an MBA at CUNY Baruch College.
Liz Alpern got her start in the Jewish food world working with acclaimed cookbook author Joan Nathan. She curates and cooks for pop-up events and boutique shops and is currently working on an MBA at CUNY Baruch College. The co-founder of The Gefilteria, Liz has been featured on Forbes 30 Under 30 list, as well as in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Saveur, and The Wall Street Journal.