I grew up in Northwest Indiana with an Eastern European grandmother whose favorite word was “eat.” Her bright smile quickly dimmed if you weren’t consuming enough. Pierogies, those soft pillows of filled dough, were a staple at many of our meals. After moving, though, I rarely saw one.
But in Northwest Indiana, they’re so revered that they even have their own celebration: the three-day Pierogi Fest in Whiting, Ind., a lakeside town near Chicago. So what better way to return to my food roots than a festival where a man dressed as a pierogi is frequently cajoled for autographs and dogs wearing babushkas earn the designation of Pierogi Pups?
I wasn’t alone in wanting to celebrate pierogies. Since being featured on the Food Network and in Bon Appétit, the fest, now entering its 16th year, has steadily attracted more people, pulling in more than 200,000 last year. Pierogi Fest both embraces and tweaks the Eastern European population dominant here. There are games such as the pierogi toss and Eastern Bloc Jeopardy (to be competitive, bone up on famous Polish composers and 16th-century rulers), a booth that sells pierogi-shaped dog treats, a pierogi eating contest and, the main draw, the opening night Polka Parade, featuring floats such as Liberty Savings’ toilet bowl with a sign reading “Where we’re flush with dough.”
But for me, the first thing to do was indulge in freshly made pierogies, a mission not hard to accomplish. Although there’s almost any type of ethnic or fair food available — Chinese, Mexican, American and other Eastern European delicacies like stuffed cabbage and Polish sausage — pierogies really do rule. Jesus Alvarez, who owns Lynethe’s Deli, makes almost 50,000 for the fest, and he’s not the only one selling them. Eschewing nouveau pierogies such as pineapple-stuffed and jalapeño cheese, I ordered the traditional meat and mushroom, topped them with sour cream and bits of bacon, and headed toward the parade.
In the distance I spied what could have been my grandmother and her friends wearing aprons over housedresses, rolled down nylon stockings and babushkas. Up close I realized it was the Buscia Brigade, women who, swinging their rolling pins and toilet brushes, often break into dance steps to the hoots of the crowd as they march in the parade.
“The Buscia Brigade are so popular that I saw someone push Mr. Pierogi out of the way last year to get their autographs,” says Mary Lu Gregor, executive director of the local chamber, noting that the ladies had their own calendar in 2008 and also performed during a White Sox game.
Mr. Pierogi, his feelings obviously intact, also hammed it up as he paraded with his entourage, the Pieroguettes, including Miss Potato and Miss Sauerkraut. But as far out as their costumes might be, they couldn’t compete with the men from the Precision Lawn Mower Drill Team dressed as bunnies and the guy doing somersaults in a kilt.
Grandma’s kitchen was never quite this much fun.
For information about free parking, the $1 shuttle and places to stay in the area, call the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce at 219-659-0292 or visit pierogifest.net.