My search for the greatest perogy in the land began in early October. My Australian cousin, Lynne, and her husband, Mike, were coming to Canada and I wanted them to experience the ultimate Winnipeg cuisine.
First, I decided on bison steaks on the barbecue, along with the usual salads and veggies. Since it was close to Thanksgiving Day, pumpkin pie with whipped cream was a must and we'd wash it down with some cold Molson Canadian.
But something was missing. What else was purely Winnipeg? Corn on the cob? No, I was pretty sure they have that in Australia. Lake Winnipeg whitefish? Maybe, but they have so much seafood Down Under, it was unlikely that would impress them.
Then came a eureka moment. If Winnipeg were a country, what would be its national dish? Perogies of course. My menu was complete.
I had to find out where to get the best perogies in Winnipeg, so I enlisted the staff of the Free Press newsroom via email. Answers came fast and furious: Alycia's, Julia's Ukrainian Restaurant, Mom's Perogy Factory...
Then, St. Ivan Suchavsky Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, at 939 Main St., leapt out of my computer and burned itself into my brain. You had to order ahead by calling 942-1991 on a Thursday or Friday, so you knew when you picked them up, they'd be fresh.
But the kicker was, each of those magnificent little dumplings would be handmade in the church basement by babas from the congregation.
Recently, I sat down with St. Ivan Suchavsky pyrohy (Ukrainian for perogy) co-ordinator Dorothy Hardy and Doris Skakun, who at 88, was there when the first perogy was pinched 46 years ago. I wanted to know the history behind these North End delicacies.
"When we started, they cost 25 cents a dozen (now $4 a dozen, or $11 for three dozen)," said Skakun, the 13th of 14 children to John and Mary Osesky, who farmed near Inglis.
Life was hard back then, but with eight girls and six boys, the workload was divided. The girls cooked and the men farmed. Little did Skakun know the pinching skills she learned in the dirty '30s would hold her in good stead in 2010. She mostly takes the orders over the phone now, but when the lines are slow, she is known to jump in and pinch a few perogies.
They are the church's main fundraiser, last year bringing in "more than $50,000."
"We used to do bingos and socials, but they were not working for us because we just couldn't compete," Hardy said.
The babas and the few men who handle the muscle jobs make about 1,200 dozen perogies a week, as well as pyrishke (sauerkraut), holuptsi (cabbage rolls), and wushka (mini-mushrooms). In addition to being swamped with orders from Winnipeg, they've filled orders from families going to California, Toronto, Vancouver and other far-flung places who want to make sure their children don't have to suffer a Christmas dinner without perogies.
Most of the babas who work in the kitchen have been making perogies longer than they would like to admit and Hardy, who is 80 herself, never stops marvelling at their dedication. "Last Thursday and Friday (Nov. 19-20), we had that huge snowfall and I was really concerned that we might not fulfil our orders. But, one by one they began to arrive. There were ladies in their 80s who braved the storm to come in by bus and many of them have some kind of limitation or ailment. I'm amazed at how that doesn't hold them back."
While raising funds for the church is first and foremost, they also contribute to other needs in the community. "We realize there are other groups out there that need help," said Hardy. "We have donated perogies to Habitat For Humanity, the Ukrainian Cultural and Education Centre, Oak Hammock Marsh and various school fundraising projects. We give them a special rate and they sell the perogies to raise money for their projects."
Skakun says the fundraisers are special. Especially one they prepared for the Carter Day Care Centre. On that occasion, the children presented them with a large thank-you card that began with the words "Ho, ho, holy perogy. 29,000 kisses to St. Ivan's ladies."
Hardy says today's two-job families and busy work schedules seem to be ringing a death knell for the St. Ivan perogy business.
"With the younger people, and I mean middle-aged, both husbands and wives work, so they're not as free and can't give the time," she said. "They would be the next generation to us, so this could be a fast-dying art."
By the way, if you are wondering how my Winnipeg barbecue went over, I'm happy to say it was a major hit, fair dinkum (Aussie-speak for the honest truth). And how did the Aussies enjoy their perogies? Let's just say Skakun shouldn't be surprised if one day she answers the phone and a hearty "G'day mate! I'd like to order a bunch of perogies," resonates from Down Under.