July 14, 2017
The Pierogi King of 51st Street
by Brennen Fahy
I am the Pierogi King. No one can recall the origins of the pierogi feast in my neighbourhood but for as long as I can remember three or four families would get together several times a year and mess up a kitchen. The area surrounding the stove top was a dangerous place for kids and was closely guarded by adults. Blue flames licked the bottom edges of pots and pans that rendered butter, boiled potatoes, and fried bacon and onions.
There were tabletops dusted with flour and assembly lines of children ranging from toddlers to teenagers. The children kneaded palmfuls of dough flat and folded them over golden nuggets of potato and cheese. The pierogis never turned out like the perfect little half-moons you buy in the frozen section of the grocery store; they were lumpy and misshapen and always enormous. Everyone had a different technique to forming them and later in the night when they were served by the hundreds in steaming bowls you would be able to tell who made which ones. You could almost see the fingerprints of your neighbour pressed into the dough as you cut each one with the side of your fork. It was like eating a plateful of signatures.
Any reason was a good reason to throw a pierogi dinner back then; a birthday, a graduation, the start of a new season of Survivor, it didn't matter. Every dinner was loud and boisterous. Thirty people squeezed into tables designed for a dozen and when the chairs ran out we used footstools and piano benches, Barcaloungers and milk crates. Dogs made the rounds under the table and licked the buttered fingers of kids while above you could barely see your plate under the blur of dishes and hands passing them back and forth.
The person who ate the most pierogis was crowned the pierogi king. What started off as a friendly competition between friends and neighbours turned into a battle of gluttony.
I have been the pierogi king for a very long time. I came to the throne early, I was barely ten when I took Michael Bailey down back in ‘98 and I’ve been the champ ever since. It hasn’t always been easy, I was coming off the flu at a pierogi dinner during the Bush administration and almost lost the championship to my dad. Several years later, Jackie introduced a walking stomach as her boyfriend who almost took it from me. We were going head-to-head at an empty table, everyone else long retired to the living room, and matching each other pierogi for pierogi. I was only half a pierogi ahead of him when he dropped his fork in surrender. I’ve won every dinner without too much challenge since.
We still have championships now and then, once a year if we’re lucky, usually around the holidays when everyone is back from University or their work takes them up North. This evening the stars have aligned and a good number of the old neighbourhood is back in town. This will be the first pierogi dinner after a long hiatus and it’s uncertain when the next one will be. We spend most of the afternoon reconnecting and folding the white pillows and scalloping their edges between thumbs and forefingers.
The completed pierogis are carried out in casserole dishes and passed around the table as a matriarch says a couple of words. We all start tucking in, and the spectacle begins. I have dominated for so long that the competition has become a bit of a side-show, a freak-show some might say, with me as the headliner. Someone down the other end of the table periodically shouts down and asks one of my neighbours, never me, how many I’ve eaten.
“Twelve!” they’ll shout back, and the whole room will erupt in laughter and feigned revulsion.
But I ignore them and spear another half dozen onto my plate.
The table will quickly identify the next front runner, anyone who might be able to end my almost two decades long reign. This year it's Greg, Jackie's new boyfriend, a nice guy, a Calgarian and first timer to the pierogi dinner. I keep an eye on him during the early stages and after seeing him take a large second scooping of fried onions I dismiss him as an amateur. He’ll never take the throne from me eating onions like that. Sure enough, Greg pushes his plate away from him at eighteen and I bury him under a baker’s dozen for a total of thirty-one. I could have pushed to thirty-two, maybe even thirty-three, but there’s no sense in rubbing it in.
It’s been a long and prosperous reign and I’m ready to give up the crown. But it must go to someone worthy and based on the calibre of men that the women in my neighbourhood have been dating and marrying I suspect that I may have some time to wait. A part of me is afraid that it will never happen. The way things are going in the city these days it seems more likely that my kingdom will dissolve as my subjects, my siblings and the people I grew up with, pursue work and less impossible real estate prices elsewhere. I’m afraid that they’ll all move across the province and the country and the dinners just won’t happen anymore. But for the time being I can still hope that I will be unseated, many dinners and many years from now. Hopefully to some young upstart not yet born.
What a great thing that would be.
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