Back in the Village, Part 1: In Search of Pork and Beef-Free Pierogies, Cabbage Rolls and Sauerkraut at the Ukrainian and Polish Festivals

You’d think vegetarian pierogies and cabbage rolls would be easy to find, wouldn’t you? And surely some sauerkraut somewhere doesn’t involve pork butt, but two Eastern European cultural festivals in Toronto later and I’m proven otherwise. I guess I was just spoiled by St. Lawrence Market where I had my first cabbage rolls 7 years ago in the basement from a woman who I’m sure is a Polish Grandmother, and my second pierogies (blueberry pierogies) at the other basement Eastern European vendor (no Grandmothers at my time of purchase).

To me pierogies are just thickly-wrapped flour-based parcels, akin to ravioli or stuffed gnocchi or Asian dumplings or even samosas without any of the spice. So in theory you can stuff them with anything, and while I started my pierogy adventures many-a-year ago with classic potato and cheese in my university residence, I quickly wanted to try other flavours – bacon and cheese, with fried onions, and even the fruity flavours including blueberry. It’s never really about the blueberry anyway. The taste has been subtle in my experience. Blueberries are not bacon, after all.

But I walked the whole length of the Ukrainian festival on Bloor Street in Toronto, stood in two very long lines, asked a bunch of questions of people (Grandmothers and otherwise) who didn’t speak much English, and was even handed a plate of pierogies that were clearly potato cheddar as they were taken from the same pot as the first serving of potato cheddar for my friend, even after insisting I only wanted blueberry. But they weren’t selling those, though they were listed on the menu, because they were frozen and would take 10 minutes to boil, and surely I didn’t want to wait 10 minutes (aka surely I didn’t want to make them open the bag of frozen pierogies for just one order). And honestly, if they’re frozen anyway, I might as well get them somewhere else, as in ‘not at the Ukrainian festival’, where food is meant to be served fast and cheap, and is really only meant to soak up the beer I wasn’t drinking.

I also looked for vegetarian cabbage rolls, but the festival was just as much meant for non-vegetarians as for non-pork-eaters. Not a single veggie cabbage roll to be found on the street. So I settled for a potato pancake, which I also had for the first time 7 years ago along with my first cabbage roll in St. Lawrence Market. Sure, it was basically all oil and was reheated in the microwave, but I was okay with that. Fast food is what street fests are all about. So I figured it was the oil making it delicious. It wasn’t until I’d eaten half of one that I realized there was pork in it. How did I miss pork? Pork is pretty obvious. Well I felt a little sick from the oil and I felt a little sick from not having eaten pork for maybe 8 months, and certainly not this poor quality pork in years.

Mostly I was just disappointed in the festival. So the next day I went for a long walk to work off the sickness of the pork and headed up Roncesvalles in search of vegetarian cabbage rolls and pierogies again. As if I hadn’t learned my lesson the first time, right? Glutton for punishment? At least I’m not a glutton for pork. Something for which I’m thankful and so is my body – arteries, heart, stomach and all.

I checked every stand I came to – all only had beef and pork-based things. Everything. It was ridiculous. Finally a bakery said they had vegetarian cabbage rolls inside! Hurray! And the sauerkraut outside was vegetarian but inside they had two more kinds of vegetarian sauerkraut! Actual options! The veggie cabbage rolls had mushrooms and carrots, and the sauerkraut I went with also had mushrooms. The woman working at Wanda’s Pie in the Sky in Kensington Market also told me later that day that Polish people love wild mushrooms, and even the European packaged dry mushrooms that say they’re from France are often from Eastern Europe. so in the Roncesvalles Village you can get dirt cheap wild mushrooms and then at gourmet food stores you can find the same mushrooms for a whole lot more money because they’ve been shipped to France to be packaged and distributed. Word to the wise. She was Polish and vegetarian and we bonded over the lack of veggie-friendly cabbage rolls at the festivals as I purchased a heaping piece of fluffy lemon-meringue pie before passing out in a sugar-coma in Bellevue Park that afternoon.

I knew I was back in Toronto, though, as a man sitting nearby in the park tried to strike up a conversation,

“Why are you sitting by yourself?” he asked. I glared, and said, “I’m tired,” and ignored him. You can do that here. It’s normal. Like eating pork. It’s encouraged. I don’t know if I miss Montreal yet, but there are some things I just don’t like about Toronto.

Pierogies: 0

Cabbage Rolls: 1

Sauerkraut: 2

Fresh pickled cucumber salad: 1!

Accidental potato pancake: 1

Upset stomach: 1

Amazing sorbet: 3 balls (from the same bakery as the veggie cabbage rolls – pink grapefruit, pineapple, and lemon. So smooth. My gelataio 1600 can’t do that, sadly)


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