The Slava Ladies League Christmas Pyrohy Fiasco

The Slava Ladies League Christmas Pyrohy Fiasco

Main pic: Pierogi topped with butter fired onion. Photo credit: Kpalion

A short story by John Spychka

I’ll never forget that Christmas some years back. In fact, all two thousand residents of Slava probably remember it. That year, we had one of northern Alberta’s coldest winters on record, but that is not why it is so memorable.

It all began innocently enough. Twist Zesko, the local inventor, had been working on a machine to save time in the kitchen. Twist was your typical absent-minded professor type, always running into windows, dropping his papers in the street, walking around with his shoelaces undone. He was a tall, lanky fellow with thick black hair that rubbed against his wire-rimmed glasses, leaving streaks of grease on them. It was a wonder he could see clearly. In spite of his eccentricities, he was already quite famous in Slava for his inventions, and his renown was spreading southward at a fair pace. He had already invented a super speed sleigh with turn and brake controls; but the town council banned it. Apparently, it was too dangerous for young kids. The old-timers around also say he invented Velcro years before the guy in Switzerland. But Twist called it Stick ‘n Rip and forgot to patent it.

One of Twist’s most ambitious inventions was an automated pyrohy-making apparatus. Now Twist was a smart man with a lot of gumption to boot, but making pyrohies is a complex process. If I recall correctly, his pyrohy assembly line worked something like this:

Step One: Drop the carefully calculated quantities of the dough ingredients (flour, salt, potato water, cooking oil, baking powder, and eggs) into the funnel-shaped receptor.

Step Two: The machine mixes and kneads the dough, and puts it on a warm, metal tray so that it can rise. After an hour or so, the dough is kneaded a second time and left to rise again.

Step Three: The machine rolls the dough into a huge ball, flattens it to about a half-inch thickness, and puts the dough on a cutting tray. Then, two rows of six empty quart cans of Sun Rype apple juice descend on the dough and, with a double-twist, cut it into perfect circles.

Step Four: Human intervention was required to put the filling in the dough circles and fold them.

Step Five: Another group of people would pinch and squeeze each pyrohy, and put them in freezer bags.

The Slava Ladies League got wind of Twist’s invention back in October of that year. My mother was a founding member of the Ladies League along with Mrs. Roshuk, our neighbour, who was the President. Mrs. Roshuk had taken the Ladies League as a personal mandate to change the world. She was a stout woman with rosy cheeks whose determined look and aggressive demeanour gained her the respect and admiration of most people in town. She owned the dairy and ran it like the army. But the thirty or so employees liked that; it gave them order in an otherwise disordered world. So, as President of the Ladies League, Mrs. Roshuk ensured that the members were always involved in all kinds of fund-raising events such as sponsoring bingos, running the concession at the hockey arena and at the curling rink, and selling 50/50 tickets at the annual pig races.

Mrs. Roshuk wasted no time in commissioning Twist Zesko to put his invention to work for the Ladies League that Christmas. She banked on the fact that people would buy fresh pyrohies made locally. So, by early November signs appeared around town on telephone poles, in the post office, at the variety store, in the local coffee house. The posters read:

SLAVA LADIES LEAGUE GREAT CANADIAN PYROHY SALE

WHY WASTE YOUR VALUABLE TIME COOKING?

ORDER PYROHIES FOR CHRISTMAS SUPPER.

CALL MRS. ROSHUK AT 444-2709

The idea caught on like wildfire that gelid winter. Mrs. Roshuk was all smiles. Since the idea of hiring Twist Zesko was hers, she had every intention of showing the town exactly what the Ladies League could do. Orders soon began streaming in while Twist tweaked his system.

The time for action finally came. Mrs. Roshuk commandeered the upstairs at the old hockey arena, turning it into a pyrohy supply chain. There must have been over thirty people working on the production line, peeling potatoes, making the filling, putting the filling in the pyrohies, and bagging the pyrohies. Since my mother was in the League, I volunteered to help and was put on the pinch and squeeze line. At first, all went well: we had made over five hundred pyrohies the first week. At that rate, we would fill all the orders with plenty to spare.

As Mrs. Roshuk’s pyrohy dream was becoming a reality, old Mrs. Spinairski sat in the corner at the arena crocheting a pair of white booties for her sixth grandchild and shaking her head. We called her Widow Spinairski because she vowed never to remarry out of respect for her late husband. He was a local RCMP killed in the line of duty, defending the country that adopted him. His death was no small matter. Now don’t let the size of Slava fool you. There are bad people everywhere. A local, sixteen-year-old girl had gone missing, the first ever in this area, and Mr. Spinairski was on a lead at a farmhouse just outside of town. Things turned bad, fast when gunfire broke out. He was shot but managed to wound the kidnapper before backup got there to bring an end to it all. The young girl escaped unharmed. Officier Spinairski didn’t make it, leaving behind five children and the Mrs. He was given a hero’s funeral that made headline news across Canada.

Anyway, that happened fifteen years ago now and Widow Spinairski still mourns her loss. Perhaps rightly so. But some say she’s not all there anymore. Although people still respect her, they say she talks to her dead husband. Apparently, she’s stuck in the past, still wearing the same clothes, eating the same meals, telling the same stories.

So, as she sat there, crocheting in the corner and overlooking the entire operation, the grin on her face seemed to say, Don’t mess with tradition. You’ll regret it. To her, pyrohies were a tradition not to be fooled with. She did make the best pyrohies in town, everyone knew that. She had some kind of secret ingredient that Mrs. Roshuk would love to have gotten her hands on. So much so that a week before getting her production line set up at the hockey area, she asked me to ask the Widow for the secret ingredient. I didn’t feel too comfortable doing this, but my Mom said it was okay. So when I asked Widow Spinairski the big question, she said she’d happily give me the answer: “Love, my boy, love.” The blank look on my face drew a smile from her and thankfully an explanation:

“The secret to making great pyrohies is love. You see young boy, making pyrohies should be done around close friends and family. Sure, it could take hours in the kitchen, but that is the whole point. It gives you a chance to spend time together, to slow life down a bit, to touch base with those you love and care about. Nowadays, people think they’re smart when they buy frozen pyrohies from the supermarket, throw them into a pot of boiling water, and pretend to like to the taste. They don’t even know where or how the food was made. All these new time-savers are supposed to give us more free time, more time to spend with our children, but in reality they complicate our lives and push us away from who we are.”

I reported this back to my Mom and Mrs. Roshuk as best I could. I must not have understood it all because Mrs. Roshuk said, “That’s a bunch of baloney. She just didn’t want to tell you. Let’s get back to work!”

In fact, Widow Spinairski may have cast a spell on the whole operation that day because things soon started to go wrong.

“Where the hell is Twist?” shouted Mrs. Roshuk above the din of the assembly line.

“I’m over here, M’am,” Twist said timidly, lifting his head out of the machine, his black hair white with flour, his cheeks spotted with grease.

“I thought that this pyrohy apparatus could produce 50 pyrohies an hour,” said Mrs. Roshuk.

“So did I, but the flour seems to be jamming the kneading mechanism, Mam,” replied Twist.

“Well fix it and fix it fast. I’ve got a pyrohy-making production line going here and can’t afford to have any down time.”

“I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t fix it, Mam. We are going to have to use less flour, perhaps half as much.”

Mrs. Roshuk was infuriated. Using half as much flour would mean that they would never be able to make enough pyrohies by the end of the week. They were going to have to make the pyrohies smaller and put fewer in each bag. And Mrs. Roshuk knew that this meant trouble.

To fully understand the hot water the League was in, you must understand that Christmas day and pyrohies go hand in hand, and have ever since time immemorial it seems. I’ll always remember Christmas day: the condensation on the windows in the house had frozen and was so thick that you couldn’t see outside. And the smell was heavenly, a mixture of earthy spices and natural aromas. By supper time, the kitchen table was covered with traditional Ukrainian dishes: pyrohies (my Baba used to call them “pudaheh”), borsch, nalysnynky, nachynka, holubchi, kubasa, kutya, and more. But the pyrohies were the pièce de résitance, especially the ones my mother made with Cheez Whiz. My brother and I would always compete to see who could eat the most. I can still hear my Baba saying, “Yoy, yoy, eat, eat. Have more. Eat. You grow up to be big boy. Eat.” And for dessert, Mom would always serve her saskatoon pie, made with real saskatoons that we had picked ourselves the previous summer. Mom would freeze the berries for occasions just like this one.

But it was the pyrohies that represented Christmas for us and who we were. As we grew up, we somehow associated our identity with those small potato dumplings. They were an integral part of us, so you can imagine how Mrs. Roshuk felt on Christmas Eve when angry customers began phoning her to tell her that the pyrohies were too small and that they didn’t have enough. Twist’s machine just couldn’t produce what it was supposed to in the allotted time. It seemed like fate had intervened, or maybe Widow Spinairski’s spell had something to do with it. Who knows? All that was certain was that the Slava Ladies League Great Canadian Pyrohy Sale was turning into a fiasco. Many residents of Slava were upset about the whole thing and some were downright angry. They didn’t mind losing the money. The issue was that pyrohies on Christmas day were a tradition for most families in town. And that tradition was in serious jeopardy.

What I learned that year was that Widow Spinairski was right: one should not mess with tradition. But she was right for the wrong reasons because blind acceptance of tradition often leads to stagnation. The strength of tradition is enforced when challenged and new or modified customs emerge.

When my great-grandparents left the Ukraine for Canada, the promise of a better life forced them to break with tradition. It was a question of survival. And I am convinced that my forefathers would commend my mother, Twist Zesko, Mrs. Roshuk, and the other women in the League for having the foresight and the resourcefulness to challenge the very tradition that they brought with them across the ocean. I believe that they were genuinely concerned with making life easier for the residents of Slava and that the potential monetary gain was secondary.

So, how did it all end? Well, in fact, the tradition of pyrohies on Christmas Day was kept in Slava that year. Let’s just say that not a bag could be found on the supermarket freezer shelves on Boxing Day.

Categories: News, Opinion

About Author

John Spychka

John Spychka has dabbled in writing since the early ’90s. His closest claim to fame came around 2006 when his work, “The Slava Ladies League Christmas Pyrogy Fiasco,” was shortlisted for the annual Writers’ Union of Canada’s Short Prose Competition. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in English Literature at the University of Calgary and also has a Master’s in English Literature from Université Laval. He has travelled extensively, having lived in Japan and France. John is a manager in a multi-national software company and dreams to one day be able to live off his writing. He lives in Quebec City with his wife and two children.