It’s not every day you wake up and eat pierogies for breakfast, but for me that was the case Saturday morning. I visited the cozy Mary, Queen of Peace Parish on the South Side, where members were holding their traditional pierogies-making event.

I arrive five minutes early to a building similar to a quaint elementary school beside an empty gravel parking lot.  I parallel park in the front near large glass doors at the entrance and enter a small lobby. I see a man setting up items on tables in a dining area. I make sure to speak to not startle him as he places stacks of trays and bins on tables.

“Oh, hello,” he says, pausing from his task.

“I am looking for the organizer of this event,” I say.

“That’d be me,” he says.

Bob Schneider gives instructions on what to do for setup to scoop the potatoes when they arrive to members of Duquesne University’s Phi Gamma fraternity on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. He is their adviser. (Tanisha Thomas/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

John Vaulet says I am the first volunteer to arrive. I scan all the empty chairs.

The place is quiet — for now. I sit down at a table near tall windows covered by white blinds that make a slight rustle as they dance side to side. A nearby heater hums.

After a few minutes, John’s wife, Joan, arrives to whisk me under her wing.

“Excuse me, would you be able to help cut some parchment paper to place on trays?” Joan asks. She is hard to miss in her bright yellow T-shirt.

As I stand up to assist, her husband interjects.

“She’s from the newspaper. She is doing a story so she will be watching us,” John says.

Joan gives me an apologetic look, but I reassure her I am all hands on deck.

“I want the full experience,” I say. “Tell me whatever you want me to do.”

Joan tells me this is the parish’s second pierogi-making event this year. It’s a 59-year-old fundraising tradition. COVID-19 caused a temporary hiatus and stunted their efforts. When the event returned in October, parish volunteers made more than 120 of the dumplings.

PUP writer Tanisha Thomas shows how the volunteers at Mary, Queen of Peace Parish make pierogies.

“This will be my last time doing this because I’ll be working more hours soon,” she says.  She has full-time job she also has to attend to. “It’s hard because there are only two of us who know how to make them.”

I feel honored to watch Joan command the kitchen for what will be her final shift as the parish’s chief pierogi maker. Everyone here calls her “The Boss.”

Making pierogies is new for me. I’ve eaten my fair share from the various (and never-ending) flavors offered by Pennsylvania staple Mrs. T’s Pierogies. I have had a few pierogies prepared by local restaurants for festivals. Now I am going to see how they are made. I am excited.

Joan Vaulet demonstrates how to churn the mashed potato filling on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. (Tanisha Thomas/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Large silver bread machines are the stars of the kitchen. One furiously churns the dough, slamming it against the bowl’s walls. Another spins the yellow potato-onion-cheese goodness that greets you as you bite into a pierogi.

After a few minutes of Joan showing me around the kitchen, more people show up. Some are fellow parishioners, and others are students from Duquesne University’s Gamma Phi fraternity.

 Everyone is assigned a role — potato churner, dough maker, dough cutter, pincher. I am adopted into the pincher’s role by the sweetest group of women.

These aren’t just regular pinchers. One of the women, Diane Lach, tells me she has been making pierogies for more than 25 years. So I am in good hands for this skillful task. After all, our work will determine whether the finished product will actually look like pierogies.

A group of volunteers at the Mary, Queen of Peace Parish work to seal the pierogies before they are boiled in water on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. (Tanisha Thomas/Pittsburgh Union Progress) Credit: (Tanisha Thomas/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Several clear plastic bowls are scattered around the long brown lunch table. One contains flour and another water. The water acts as a glue to help seal the pierogies while the flour ensures they don’t stick to the trays once we finish.

“Here’s how you do it,” Lach says.  

She flattens a small scoop of  filling onto  a circular cut of dough. Then she dips a finger in the water and moistens the edges of the dough before folding it, taco style.

The next part is where the magic happens. She pinches the pierogi to give it its signature wrinkled crease.

“You have to pinch it like an Italian,” says Donna Janiak, another volunteer. She does a turning-page motion with her fingers as she pinches the dough shut.

Kylene Lewis, a student at Duquesne, came to volunteer as part of her time as Gamma Phi’s sweetheart. She mimics the motions of how to flatten the potato filling before folding the dough to pinch. on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. (Tanisha Thomas/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Pinching sounds easy, but my first few pierogies look like different presentations of the bonnets of Cabbage Patch Kids. I also make the rookie mistake of not repeating the motion on the other side. As a result, most of my pierogies remind me of a bad hair day — imagine combing the front of your hair but leaving the back matted.

It feels like I am knitting except I don’t have the rods to guide me, just my fingers. I firmly pinch the soft dough, manipulating it to the shape I want. By no means am I a chef, but I feel like Gordon Ramsey after my first three batches of pinching pierogies. I know I am doing well when I receive a nod of approval from Diane.

“You’re becoming a pro,” she exclaims, holding up my pierogi like a prized possession.

“You must have learned from an excellent teacher,” she jokes.

Evan Kowalski, a Duquesne University student and member of the Gamma Phi fraternity, cuts out the circular shape of the pierogi on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022.(Tanisha Thomas/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

What happens next reminds me of that classic scene from “I Love Lucy” where Lucy and Ethel are working in a chocolate factory, and they learn how to wrap chocolates as they pass by on the conveyor belt. Both women get the hang of it until more chocolates begin to whiz by faster than they can react. Eventually they’re stuffing their hats and faces with chocolates to avoid getting in trouble with their boss for messing up.

The machine that flattens the dough so it can be cut is not working for a while, yet we are able to finish five trays of a dozen pierogies in no time. Once the machine roars to life, pushing out flat dough, the movement from having potatoes scooped out to placing the trays in front of us is nonstop.

Joan Vaulet scoops cups of flour to throw into the dough churner on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. (Tanisha Thomas/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Bob Schneider, another volunteer, whooshes in and places one tray after another in front of us. We work as fast as we can. “I’m back with more,” he says. Those words become a nightmare to hear. Another tray of 12 pierogies to pinch! We struggle to keep up.

After three hours of cranking out pierogies, lunch time arrives. The ol’ reliable pizza that has become my customary lunch on the strike picket line is served, along with beef macaroni and cookies. It is delicious, especially the beef mac.

“You should give us your number so we can bring you back for more. You’re an expert now,” Diane says, laughing.

After this experience, I most definitely will.

I had come to the parish knowing no one, but after helping create 50 dozen pierogies, I feel like I am in the kitchen on Christmas Day, cooking food with my family. My favorite go-to quick meal will be intertwined with this fond memory the next time I crave pierogies.

The batch of pierogies I got to pinch on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. (Tanisha Thomas/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Tanisha is a digital content producer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike.

Tanisha Thomas

Tanisha is a digital content producer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike.