Pierogi Rule in Whiting, Indiana

The Busia Cooking Show.

The Busia Cooking Show.

“The Busia Cooking Show begins at 11,” a voice blares over the loudspeaker as I make my way today into the annual Pierogi Fest in downtown Whiting, Indiana. But first, everything stops for the “Star Spangled Banner,” rendered a cappella in a country-western style by a singer who has infinitely more talent than many a gal who has tried it for Major League Baseball. The crowd rises in respect from benches and chairs in the shade to face the steamy hot sun and focus on the national anthem.

That reverent moment out of the way, the fun begins as half a dozen women dressed up like Polish-American  grandmothers of decades long gone begin a session on Polish cooking. With Polish food, says one in a floral apron with her hair up in curlers,  “we don’t need no stinkin’ Metamucil. Take dat Metamucil and trow it away,” she laughs, and the accent is familiar, like my mother’s and like the Polish guys on Saturday Night Livewho were always eating kielbasa and working on their “tird heart attack.”

The ladies offer a special table for three people in the audience who will be their tasting guinea pigs. “Da tree uh yuz get ta sit at da special table,” says one of the busias, her house dress just long enough to reveal rolled-down stockings. Another of the Polish ladies offers faux serious advice about attending a pot luck. “When ya go to a party,” she says, “ya gotta mark yer dishes if ya wanna get em back.” Another busia gives lessons on how to make Polish punch: “7-Up and sherbert,” she says. “Ya can’t go wrong.”  As I recall, in Detroit it was Vernors and sherbet–but the principle is the same. The audience chuckles along,  relating to these distant and innocent recipes that have been pleasing families at Polish gatherings in the Midwest for decades.

A "Holy Roller" at Pierogi Fest.

A "Holy Roller" at Pierogi Fest.

I headed for the Pierogi Fest early to beat the heat of this sizzling Chicago summer day. Whiting, Indiana, is in fact a suburb of Chicago and an early enclave of Polish immigration. The Pierogi Festival is presented by the Whiting Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce and draws a whopping 200,000 visitors each year. The festival website says it ”allows us to celebrate our heritage while poking a little fun at ourselves at the same time.”  Only 16 miles from the Chicago Loop, Whiting is another world.

The busias are not the only ones making fun of themselves at Pierogi Fest. A group of real nuns on roller blades, known affectionately as the Holy Rollers, has decided that a sense of humor is a more effective way to convey a message in Whiting than is a dour demeanor. These young women are rolling around the Fest in their habits, posing for  photos, and sponsoring a “Dunk a Nun” booth.  I watch as one lucky fellow hits the bull’s eye with his ball and a young nun–not in her habit–gets drenched in the pool beneath her bungee cord seat.

There is very little of “Poland” at Pierogi Fest really–a few pieces of Polish pottery on sale and a few “Masz Piwo?”T-shirts. Between the pierogi and kielbasa stands there appear new American delicacies including: a “Juan in a Million” Mexican food stand and concessions offering deep-fried mac and cheese, bacon-wrapped hot dogs with cheese, kebabs, smoothies, cotton candy, and a beer tent with MGD on draft.  There are dozens of craft booths displaying such delights as teddy bear dresses, bird feeders made of “old tires we pick up along the side of the road,” sweat towels with crocheted hooks for knobs and refrigerator doors, lawn ornaments including a cigarette depository that says “The butt stops here,” and soy candles that “support the American farmer.”

Making potato pancakes.

Making potato pancakes.

Still, it is a Pierogi Fest, and the four potato-cheese I select are as good as they get, served with applesauce and sour cream. A high-pressure salesman talks me into a cob of corn, fresh and sweet, that he has roasted on a grill. “You need a cob of corn,” he yells. “Yes, I do,” says I. And his friend jokes, “God, I wish they were all that easy.”

Back at the Busia Cooking Show, the gals are showing off a simple and elegant centerpiece, suitable for any occasion: a lovely sterling silver bowl into which they have plopped a glorious and leafy green head of cabbage. One has the sense that the busias of the 1950s have found their last refuge, their legacy, here in Whiting, thanks to those Polish Americans who are lucky enough to have known the real grandmothers who stuffed their cabbages, mixed their punch, and tenderly kneaded the dough for the pierogi they loved as children.

As I leave Pierogi Fest, a singer in 1940s open-toed shoes on the festival stage renders “Blue Skies” and stops me long enough to hear her move into “Shooby Doo,” and near the exit a guy with an accordian enthralls me with his rendition of the “Too Fat Polka.” I feel as if I have visited not only another place in vast Polish Chicago but another time as well. Next year, July 27-28-29, Pierogi Fest 2012, I hope to be there.

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