The Saskatchewan Way — Ukrainian Food

Remembering my roots with a belly full of beets.

Growing up in the Paris of the prairies, Saskatoon had its charm as life there was and still very much is, simple. As a child I lived on a small street named Melrose. I had friends on every block within range of our house. Bicycle trips to the park to play catch and swing on the monkey bars dotted my everyday. It was the kind of childhood you’d expect in a Disney movie.

But as I grew older, I soon learned Saskatoon had plenty else to offer. There was a FolkFest, a Jazz Festival, a Fringe Festival and an impressive array of restaurants to explore. It had a minor hockey league team and even an American Apparel! Prince Phillip once visited and Joni Mitchell grew up there. Its allure was boundless to me growing up. I remember it fondly like it was yesterday.

But even for all its positive selling points, Halloween would eventually hit, with snow and winter not far behind. As you grew older, those long cold winter months would wear on you. Snowsuits, long johns and neck warmers pulled right up to your eyes became the norm. Each year would bring with it the same inevitable challenge, re-learning how to handle minus 40-degree weather. It takes time, trust me, and only years of enduring such a hardship can get you there. Some never do. But for all of us who’ve grown up in that flat snowy wasteland, having this shield is what gives you the strength to know that you can endure pretty much anything.

I’ve been living abroad now for some time, going on 8 years this January. I try to visit twice each year, a mother’s embrace always there to welcome me home. But as I reflect on my childhood home this day, I’m always brought back to the nights spent with family. Living away you miss your friends, some of whom are the best you’ll ever have, but it’s those long family nights that you truly remember. The holidays and weekends spent with aunts, cousins and even your uncle Johnny, who always seemed to show up late. Baba, my grandmother, would be in the kitchen, the aroma of her Ukrainian food wafting through the air, permeating your olfactory senses. My aunt Kathy remembers it just as I do.

I have a very vivid recollection of the first time we made perohi with my mom. We had to wear a babushka (scarf) on our head because it was a tradition…also not to drop a stray hair into the ingredients. We had to use older potatoes as new potatoes from the garden were too watery . It was also sacreligious if the perohi were not the same size and not adequately “pinched”. The potato perohi were easy, but it the challenge was making the sauerkraut ones.

As you danced away the night with your little sister playing Lego, your mother always had her seat, perched in the corner with a hot brew in tow. Gido, my grandfather, was always close by my mother, the two of them chatting away as their cigarettes burned brightly. This was my childhood, this was my family, the food she made was one part of it, and sometimes it’s all I can remember.

Raised in Saskatchewan in the 1940’s and married by 1956, my Baba’s heritage has stayed with her to this day. Still alive and well, her legacy to my family has endured. My aunt’s memories still vivid to this day.

Once we mastered perohi, you will notice that I am not using the term Perogie, as that was also considered sacreligious, we were taught how to make cabbage rolls, never with meat, only Germans did that. Mom would get really excited about finding the perfect size cabbage with the right size leaves. Dad really like sour cabbage so we would add vinegar to the boiling water to make it sour and then carefully take apart the cabbage bit by bit as it boiled.

Having been away for as long as I have now, my ties to her and the rest of my family are not what they once were. Out of sight out of mind resonates clearly here. But even for all the lack of familial resonance, her Ukrainian Food still haunts me. Its deliciousness had me at 7 when I would cram every morsel in front of me into my mouth as my sister and I ate at the kiddie table. (God I hated eating at that kiddie table.) But as a wide-eyed kid with messy hair, having seconds was always a must. With the frost of the porch window just steps from my feet, the comfort of her food always left me with a smile and a full belly.

There’s a place I go to here in Vancouver to help remind me of this time, a Ukrainian spot in the West End of Vancouver. It’s small and unassuming. Its name emblazoned in blue above the door: Ukrainian Village. Simple and to the point. They have no more than 20 seats, none better than the other. There’s no hostess or maître’d, just one or two waitresses who greet you as if you’d walked into their home half unexpectedly. With broken English, they motion you to sit. Large menus with pictures reminding you of where you are adorn each side. I go with my sister and her family. We always order the Ukrainian dinner. For $19.95 you get two cabbage rolls, 1 large Ukrainian sausage, several perogies (with sour cream) and a dollop of sauerkraut. The plate is massive, an undertaking unto itself. Shared amongst us all we devour every bite. My niece Kai, she’s 7, loves it just as much as we do. We go there once every month or so. It’s a nice quick meal we all enjoy.

Ukrainian Dinner from Ukrainian Village.

I miss my family from time to time; my Baba’s cooking even more. I can endure being away from them, I can’t however, endure life without Ukrainian Food as its richness stays with you long after you’ve eaten your last bite. Think of what perogies are? They’re dough filled pockets filled with cheese and potato, then dunked in sour cream. Right there you have the entire concept of delicious food all wrapped into a nice looking dumpling. Fat and flavor, that’s a perogie. It typifies what I crave and love most about Ukrainian Food.

Borscht, another staple, is the hot soup you hover over so its Dill aromas can enrapture and warm up your cold nose from an afternoon shoveling snow. I could eat borscht everyday, every single damn day! I love it that much. Beets, dill, carrots, onions, sour cream, what’s not to love? It’ll stain your fingers and clothes but not your appetite. It’s up there with Chowder as the staple soup everyone loves.

The beets were kept in the garden as long as possible, except for taking some of the small ones out for beet pickles, and taking the tops off for beet rolls…but that’s a whole other discussion for later. I have seen so many different recipes for borscht; we grew up on putting everything in from the garden with LOTS of dill. I never did like adding cream to it, but i think your mom liked it that way. — Aunt Kathy

Ukrainian food isn’t meant to elicit a Michelin star. Its history and spirit for me lie in how it fits with where I came from. Hard cold nights spent with rich satisfying fare. That’s the Saskatchewan way.

If Saskatoon taught me to be strong, then eating Ukrainian Food is what helps me to remember who I am and where I came from.

Borscht on a cold rainy day never tasted so good.

You can take that to the bank.

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