Summer in the City: Vareniki Versus

In Nikolai Gogol’s The Fair of Sorotchinetz, there is a curious importance placed on pierogi. Khavronia, intent on infidelity, encourages Aphanasi Ivanovitch to join her for a meal. Although Khavronia prepares galoucheliki (macaroni) and toutchenitchki (fried peas), Aphanasi hungers for something sweeter. Clutching a vareniki in one hand, Aphanasi grabs her waist. Before the eating gets underway, the licentious couple hear Khavronia’s husband Tcherevik approaching, and “the vareniki stuck fast in the throat of the popovitch [Aphanasi]—his eyes fairly started from their sockets as if he had suddenly found himself face to face with the dead come back to life.”

Gogol was obsessed with vareniki. Author of Diary of a Madman, The Nose, The Overcoat, and other stories, Gogol documented dumplings with fastidious attention. Yet, Gogol had a love-hate relationship with vareniki (or varenyky)—he slobbered over their plump bodies with literary grace, but invariably uses them to illustrate a character’s moral corruption. In Christmas Eve, Paciuk feasts on cheese vareniki dredged in sour cream, a violation of Holy Night conventions; in The Fair of Sorotchinetz, lustful Aphanasi fondles his married squeeze even as he stuffs his face with cheese dumplings. In her essay “Gastronomy, Gogol, and His Fiction,” Natalia M. Kolb-Seletski maintains that “Gogol in his fiction not only tries to reverse the order, in which case food becomes a substitute [for sex], but is also bent on separating the two.” This seems to me a radical misreading of Aphanasi’s desire. When Khavronia asks Aphanasi, “I don’t know what other dainty you want,” and Aphanasi replies, “your love,” he still holds that vareniki in one hand. There is not necessarily a choice, as Kolb-Seletski argues, “between food and women.” Rather, Aphanasi gropes Khavronia while he eats his vareniki. Kolb-Seletski explains Aphanasi’s logic: “the she-devil will always be there, but a varenyk can get cold. Consequently, he is surprised not with Khivria in his arms but with a varenyk in his mouth.” Here, Kolb-Seletski willfully advances a distorted reading in service of biographical criticism. Of course “Gogol did not have a single meaningful love affair with a woman” and of course Gogol has invested his fiction with the traces of his repressed homosexuality. Of course. And of course, this results in Aphanasi’s crucial choice between sex and dumpling. In all fairness, literary criticism during the 1970s often engaged in such perverse and distant analysis, and Kolb-Seletski should be excused for her impulse to equate Aphanasi’s sexual adhesions with Gogol’s. I, however, see Aphanasi as simultaneously indulging in food and “the physical act,” and I remain unconvinced that Gogol reverses or unties the substitution of one for the other.

Vareniki go by the alias “pierogi” in Poland. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food clearly and succinctly explains that “there exists some confusion over a variety of Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian foods, all of whose names come from the Slavic word pir (ritual feast) and pyro (ritual wheat bread), both from the Greek pyros (wheat). Pirog (pirogen/pirogn plural) is the Yiddish variation of the filled half-moon-shaped boiled pasta. Jewish fruit-filled versions are sometimes called varenikes.” While similar to kreplach in geometry, vareniki are everyday (and peasant), not festival fare. Boiled dough gained popularity in Eastern Europe between the 13th and 14th centuries; the Mongols most likely introduced filled pastas to Poland in the 16th century. Today, popular fillings include farmer’s cheese, cherries, and meat; sour cream and fried onions are the traditional accoutrements, either served in small metal bowls alongside or haphazardly mixed on top. When Jewish immigrants flooded the Lower East Side, they brought vareniki with them; and when those immigrants moved to luxer neighborhoods and fancier holiday accommodations in the Catskills, vareniki followed. Ratner’s, Famous Dairy Restaurant, and Dubrow’s Cafeteria were New York’s vareniki hotspots, at least until rising rents forced them to shut down. The golden age of the Borscht Belt was over, and the glory days of Jewish food in New York have long passed. Now, finding vareniki worth a nosh is a challenge not suitable for Gogol’s faint-hearted vagabonds.

After a day spent exploring Coney Island, I walked to Brighton Beach, a neighborhood filled with Baltic restaurants and businesses. Cafe Glechik is a perennial favorite among food bloggers and media personalities. Naturally—naturally!—I stopped in for a bowl of Ukrainian borscht and a plate of vareniki. In 1998, owner Vadim Tesler left Odessa and the Black Sea for New York waters; his restaurant serves family recipes to “food tourists,” fellow immigrants, and hungry beachgoers wandering in off the boardwalk. The borscht tastes like my grandmother’s—an unhelpful albeit accurate description intended to convey the soup’s rustic complexity. It comes hot with a slice of pompushka, and it would make a decent meal for mortal appetites. I ordered a plate of meat vareniki, too— what seemed like an overflowing platter covered in glossy fried onions and thin skinned vareniki, a veritable buffet of light, brothy boiled dumplings. Vareniki did not number among my grandmother’s specialities, but my Ukrainian blood still gets worked up at the sight of a tender pierogi.

On Monday, I visited Veselka and ordered (cold) borscht and vareniki—a meal explicitly designated (and destined) for comparison. Located in the East Village, Veselka has seen its share of artists, bohemians, hipsters, and yuppies over the past half century; in 1954 Wolodymyr Darmochwal bought a candy shop next to the Ukrainian Youth Organization’s headquarters on Second Avenue and dubbed it Veselka, which means “rainbow.” Eight years later, Darmochwal bought a luncheonette next door and expanded Veselka. Despite the East Village’s transformation into a heroin hangout during the 1970s (and other assorted economic malaise), Veselka continued serving the neighborhood’s social and culinary needs. While the amoxicillin-pink borscht refreshed my humid head, the vareniki skins felt gummy, like congealed Elmer’s or pot stickers from that strip mall Chinese buffet.  With liberal spreads of applesauce, onions, and sour cream, I happily finished my sauerkraut and mushroom, sweet potato, meat, and cheese vareniki—I just wished for Cafe Glechik’s thoroughly moisturized—and silky smooth!—skins.

In Cherkasy, Ukraine, a monument commemorates Cossack Marmay, the quintessential hero of Ukrainian folklore and frequent puppet show subject—or, more accurately, the monument pays tribute to vareniki, Marmay’s favorite food. The marble sculpture depicts the hero chowing down on a pot of vareniki. Lest you misinterpret the iconography, an obscenely magnified dumpling looms behind Marmay, casting the mythical man in an even greater shadow. The next time I tour Ukraine, I will pay homage at the Cherkasy monument. Until then, I will take the Q train to Coney Island and make my way to Cafe Glechik, a two hour vareniki voyage that would make Aphanasi proud.

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