July 26, 2013 at 10:39 AM ET
Potstickers may have their proponents and kreplach their cultural history, but when it comes to doughy goodness, it’s hard to beat the meat, potato, or onion stuffed dumplings known as pierogi.
Just ask the 250,000 people expected to descend on tiny Whiting, Ind. (pop. 5,000), this weekend for the 19th annual Pierogi Fest (July 26–28). Between the gut-busting food booths, starchy sing-alongs and dumpling-inspired fashions, it promises to be a regular pierogi-palooza.
“It’s just off the wall,” said Carol Jacobson, a local resident who has served as Pierogi Queen since the festival’s founding in 1995. “There’s not a normal thing about it.”
There’s the International Polka Parade, for example, which features, among others, the Twirling Babushka Brigade, a group of women who dress up like Eastern European grandmothers (“buscias”), complete with housecoats, curlers and droopy nylons. True to form, they forgo batons for mops, brooms and the occasional plunger.
There’s also the Mr. Pierogi Songfest, a sing-along emcee’d by a portly fellow dressed as a dumpling who leads the crowds in such popular hits as “You Can’t Hurry Lunch” and “Anything You Can Eat, I Can Eat More of.”
Other activities include a pierogi toss, pierogi-eating contest and enough polka music to bring Lawrence Welk back from the dead.
The festivities were originally cooked up in the mid-'90s by Marty Dybel, a member of the local Chamber of Commerce, as a means to counter the dog days of summer, bring people downtown and celebrate the area’s deep Eastern European roots.
The first year, says Dybel, the event was so small, the organizers couldn’t even get a pierogi maker to sponsor a booth. Instead, a local woman made 1,800 pierogi, the Chamber rented a two-basket deep fryer, and volunteers fried up a dozen pierogi at a time.
“We were selling them 3 for $2 but people wanted dozens of them at a time,” said Dybel. “With that, we knew we had something and it just took off from there.”
These days, the festivities are overseen by the aforementioned Mr. Pierogi, who leads the parade, judges competitions and poses for photos with his retinue of Pieroguettes, a dozen local girls who sport traditional garb and names like Miss Cheese, Miss Beef and Miss Potato.
While Mr. Pierogi is like a proud papa to the Piroguettes, it turns out he wasn’t always so gracious about sharing the spotlight. (Disclosure: Having donned the official pierogi for the last 13 years, local creative agency owner Matt Valuckis is hardly anonymous but prefers that on-the-record comments come from the big dumpling himself. “It’s like a Batman/Bruce Wayne thing,” he said.)
Several years ago, for example, festival organizers introduced two new characters: Miss Paczki (pronounced Poonch-key), a blond-tressed jelly donut of a gal, and Halupki Guy, a stuffed cabbage character who plays the grouchy yin to Mr. P’s happy yang.
“I thought, hey, it’s named after me. Why do they need anybody else?” said Mr. Pierogi. “Now, though, it’s nice have to some companionship — although if they decide to change the name to Halupki Fest, I’m probably going to have a problem.”
That’s unlikely given the seemingly endless appeal of pierogi. And, let’s face it, building a festival around a stuffed cabbage might be a hard sell. Balancing the sillier side of Pierogi Fest, this year’s event will also feature performances celebrating Slavic culture and almost 80 food booths, including 19 devoted to dumplings.
In other words, there will be pierogi that are baked, fried and sautéed, pierogi that are stuffed with potatoes, cheese, meat, fruit or sauerkraut, and pierogi slathered in butter and onions. And for those who don’t pace themselves, there will no doubt be pierogi with a large side of heartburn.
“That’s okay, we’ll take care of you; we’ll give you a Tums with a Bromo Seltzer chaser,” said the Pierogi Queen. “After you eat all those pierogi, you won’t want to eat for a month.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.