My priceless friend Wendy invited me to spend Easter with her extended family in Buffalo ... a spur-of-the-moment adventure.
Each of us would have spent the day childless -- with her son away at school and her daughter at a prestigious internship at the State Department, and Jeremy spending the day with his dad's relatives. So we left at 8 o'clock that morning for the kind of venting, ruminating, processing, evaluating, planning and resolving "Thelma and Louise"-style road trip that we excel at, and found ourselves at her Aunt Sandy's house by 2:30, just in time for a feast.
Now, many people think they provide a lot of food for family gatherings; I always used to think that I did, but I've been shamed! There were 25-30 people at the party, and truly enough food to feed 3 times that many ravenous folks ... I am not exaggerating. The ham that would normally be a centerpiece was, frankly, the least of the items on this awe-inspiring buffet!
Everyone was so wonderfully warm and welcoming, including the many well-behaved dogs -- I felt more at home there than I do with my own family. I had only ever met Wendy's sister Cheryl (here with her gorgeous first grandbaby, 4-month-old Hazel) and her husband Joe before this, so many people would have been overwhelmed by the crowd. I, however, leapt into the fray by discussing my -- and their, apparently! -- favorite topic, food.
Sandy (with one of the beloved furry family members) and her daughter Cindy were bustling about making final preparations to the feast; and this was such second-nature to them that neither was at all frazzled or stressed even as I asked questions and took notes, intrepid food/recipe devotee that I am.
A pot of something they called "White Soup" was placed onto the burner to keep warm ... it was a 16-quart stockpot, twice the size of any I own. A 9"x13" pan of cut-up sausage and a huge tub of kluski noodles were set next to it, for adding to the soup. I asked if this were similar to my friend Connie's pickle soup, as it was creamy and smelled slightly sour.
Sandy told me that it was Vfos (I think), pronounced [FAHS], and that it certainly was a close relative of Connie's soup with a similar method of preparation. She gave me a bit of explanation on how it's made; but she referred me to Bob, her niece's husband, who makes the soup each year and could give me better details.
So I meandered off to find Bob, who was stationed in front of FOUR griddles making potato pancakes. The batter for these was literally being scooped out of a bucket, there was so much of it; it had started as 20 pounds of hand-peeled and mostly hand-grated potatoes. And these babies ... whew! You've seen pictures of my latkes, and they are miniscule compared to what was being cooked here!
Bob is Italian, and was happy to talk about his family's feasts while growing up (pasta was served at every holiday, with manicotti -- which he pronounces infinitely more beautifully than I do, even when I put on my "I studied Italian for a year" accent!) being featured at Easter. But since many of his relatives are gone, he has brought his love of food and tradition to Wendy's family and joins in the preparation of their feast.
He told me that the White Soup begins by cooking sausage in water, with the quality and type of sausage being critical for flavor so he makes sure to get precisely what he wants instead of substituting. The sausage is removed from the liquid once it's done, and the pot is refrigerated overnight so that the congealed fat can then be skimmed. Heavy cream (rather than sour cream in Connie's soup) is combined with flour for thickening, and then milk is poured in to make it rich, while some vinegar is added for the sour flavoring.
Sandy then came in and told me that there's also onion, though it's a whole onion that's boiled in the liquid rather than any chopped onion being added (because the soup is smooth, until you add the mix-ins). She also added a bit of horseradish for some bite; and while she was serving the kluski noodles today, she usually offered elbow macaroni so that the soup can swim into the pasta while the pasta swims in the soup. She and Bob kibbitzed back-and-forth as they made sure to cover all the details for me!
In addition to the tradition of the soup, there were also handmade pierogi to be found ... 120 of them, to be exact, a 3-day process altogether. Four of the amazing women in this family had gathered on Wednesday to take the fillings Sandy and Cindy had prepared the night before (so they could chill and not melt the dough) -- they mixed and rolled and cut the homemade dough, filled it and pinched it, then pre-boiled the pierogi. The pierogi were then brushed with butter and refrigerated, awaiting the final frying on Easter so they'd be warm and golden and luscious!
There were three varieties of pierogi: sauerkraut (which Jeremy ADORED when I gave him one of the astounding abundance of leftovers Wendy and I had been sent home with), a slightly sweet white cheese, and "fruit" as they were being called "so people will eat them."
Fruit??? Plum, actually. I get it! You mean "prune," don't you, but no one likes to eat prunes so they've undergone a marketing ploy and are now "dried plums." These were, indeed, prune pierogi, with a filling that had a hint of both cinnamon and clove. And truly, Wendy and I could have simply devoured the entire batch of them without sharing -- they were so, so good!!!
Now, everyone knows what a good eater I am -- never underestimate the skinny girl, 'cause I tried one of everything (and returned for seconds on a couple of options!). And this was even before dessert.
Oh, man, did you say "dessert"???
Yup. 5 different varieties of dessert, too: Eclair cake (a cream puff base with custard and whipped cream on top), lemon meringue pie (which I adore, but no one else in my world does, so I hadn't had it in ages!), lemon cream torte, an almond-flavored Texas sheet cake, and Placek ([PLOT-zik] = a rich, buttery, crumbly Polish coffee cake).
I tried one of each of these, too ... and I am not ashamed to admit it! I relished every bite of each delectable item!!!
Wendy and I were then sent off for the 6-hour trip home with plates full of leftovers and lots of hugs. And I told everyone that I would more than happily come back next year, and try to get there in time for the pierogi-making party. And maybe, too, for the Mass at which representative samples of the Easter meal are packed in a basket, draped with a lace cloth, and offered for a blessing to be shared with everyone who joins in the meal.
Family, faith, and food are all bound up in these traditions, sharing nourishment for both body and soul with those who are most precious.
I was thrilled to have been invited and welcomed, and am immensely grateful to everyone for their warmth, their recipes, their smiles, and the sheer joy of this feast!
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