You may know which classic Canadian dishes you like, but do you know the stories behind them? And how can we define Canadian cuisine if we don’t know its past? In Iconic Canadian Food, Gabby Peyton shares the back stories of a smorgasbord of iconic Canadian dishes. Today she explores the history of the pierogi in Canada, one of our most loved foods.
Drive two hours northeast of Edmonton and you’ll find the Alberta town of Glendon, population 493, and home to the giant pierogi. Erected in 1993, the 6,000-pound devotional statue stands 27 feet high. If that doesn’t tell you how much Canadians love pierogi, nothing will.
A giant fork was added later because people didn’t know what it was. Next door, the Perogy Cafe serves up the Ukrainian and Chinese dumplings otherwise known as pierogi … however you spell it.
The half-moon dumplings are so ubiquitous in Canadian cuisine they’re an appetizer staple at Swiss Chalet. And the mayor of Glendon wanted to put the pierogi on the new toonie in 1995. While the name can be spelled a million different ways, there's one thing everyone can agree on: they're freaking delicious. The National Post quoted a chef calling them “Canadian crack” in a 2013 article and you can pick up a box of pierogi from any grocer’s freezer across the country.
As an iconic Canadian food, the pierogi tops the pyramid of deliciousness. The history of the pierogi in Canada is just as fascinating.
How Do You Spell Pierogi Again?
Pierogi, or as some people know them, perogies, can also be spelled:
Regardless of your preference, the historical root of the word is Slavic and means "festival." And everyone knows pierogi are a party in your mouth!
So, What Are Pierogi Anway?
Typically pierogi are dough dumplings filled with potato and cheese, then cooked by either boiling, frying, or sautéing them with tons of butter (yes, tons of butter is necessary, and some bacon never hurt either). In Canada pierogi are served as a main dish under myriad toppings like caramelized onions and sour cream. Those prairie pillows can also be served sweet, filled with anything from blueberries to Saskatoon berries and covered in ooey-gooey toppings.
Preparation modes vary across across the country. While some prefer to painstakingly pinch pierogi by hand, there are a variety of presses available anywhere from Amazon to an antique shop.
Pierogi: The Pride of the Prairies
Eastern Europeans popularized pierogi in Canada. In particular, Polish and Ukrainian families have deep traditions of making up those cheesy pillows of potatoes, but the origin goes way beyond their arrival in Canada.
Pierogi appeared in Poland in the 13th century, and legend has it that St. Hyacinth (the patron saint of the pierogi) brought the recipe back from Kiev, in modern day Ukraine. There are also whispers that Marco Polo brought pierogi to the western world from China during the same century. Polish pierogi started appearing in cookbooks in the 17th century.
However they were invented, they're adored in Canada. The Polish variation of pierogi accompanied the waves of immigrants arriving throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. The biggest wave of Poles arrived in the prairies between the two World Wars — Winnipeg had the largest community of Polish immigrants until 1944. After the Second World War, the majority — former inmates of Nazi concentration camps and political prisoners — settled in Ontario.
There are many food writers who actually say pierogi could be our national food. It’s no wonder: Canada also has the third largest Ukrainian population in the world after Russia and the Ukraine itself.
The Cold Side of the Pierogi
While those doughy clouds of potatoes and cheese bring a smile to any Canadian, the history of the Ukrainian people in Canada wasn’t always filled with blue skies. The first wave of immigrants arrived between 1891 and 1914 with encouragement for Eastern Europeans to come to the prairies to farm. During the First World War, almost 80,000 Ukranian-Canadians were made to register with the police as enemy aliens and those who had lived in the country for less than 15 years were disenfranchised. Five thousand Ukranians were forced into concentration camps and condemned to hard labour, building places like Banff National Park. In 2005, Parliament passed the Internment of Persons of Ukrainian Origin Recognition, acknowledging the Canadian government's participation in the harsh circumstances.
The second wave of immigrants after the Second World War are the ones who cemented pierogi in the sidewalk of Canadian culinary delights. Outside the family, many Ukrainian and Polish Canadians served pierogi in restaurants, like Windsor, Ontario's Ukrainian Restaurant, which has been open since 1931. The Wilno Tavern in Wilno, Ontario has been serving up pierogi for a hundred years.
Those cheesy bites have also become the expected fundraising food at Orthodox Churches — just ask the pierogi producers of Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Parish in Winnipeg.
By the 1960s, pierogi were as commonplace in the grocery store as frozen french fries, available from coast to coast. In the town of Garson, Manitoba, the Perfect Pierogies company pumps out more than a million of them every year.
The National Dish
Canada’s love for the pierogi is true, no matter which way you spell it.
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Gabby Peyton is based in St. John’s, Newfoundland and blogs at The Food Girl in Town. She’s a culinary adventurer and freelance writer, focusing on travel, food and drink writing with a dash of historical work. You can follow Gabby on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.