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(HOST) This week, VPR commentators are serving up some “Very Vermont Food.” On Christmas Eve commentator Rachel Johnson prepares homemade piroghi – or Polish potato dumplings – for her family.

(JOHNSON) I come from a small, affectionate family. When my husband and I went home to visit my parents, they ran right out of the house to greet us with hugs and kisses.

My husband, on the other hand, is from a large family that behaved very differently. Once, when my husband was on active duty with the military, we weren’t able to visit my in-laws for more than a year. When we finally did, we walked in to find my mother-in-law sitting at the kitchen table. She just glanced at my husband and said, “Hi, Mark.” I was taken aback at this apparent lack of affection. Then I realized that she was sitting at the table rolling out the dough for one of my husband’s favorite foods – piroghies. This was her way of expressing her love.

Piroghies are a time-consuming dish to prepare but something that my mother-in-law could treat her family with even when money was tight. You could feed a family of six for less than $5 with the simple ingredients of flour, egg, potatoes, cheese and butter. Piroghies, with their refined flour and butter, may not be a dietitian’s dream, but I’m well aware that food can be healthy for both our bodies and our souls.

In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I spent many Christmases away from our families as we moved around to the various military bases where he was stationed. One Christmas Eve, I decided to make piroghies to remind my husband of home.

It was an awkward attempt. While I was at school, training to be a dietitian, my professors didn’t teach me the fine art of rolling out the dough until it is precisely the width of your pinky finger. But my husband enjoyed the dumplings so much that the meal stuck and has become a family tradition. Every year we joke that my piroghies are very good, but even after 29 years they are still not quite like Mom’s.

My happiest memory of making this dish was in 1982, right after the birth of my oldest son Nicholas. He was two weeks old and wanted to be held constantly. How would I ever be able to spend hours in the kitchen making our traditional Christmas Eve dish? Every time I put him down he began to cry, so finally I just tucked him into a “snugly” front pack and began making the dough. He has red hair, and I vividly remember looking down at his little head, covered with flour, as I rolled and cut the dumplings.

My two sons are young men now and they also look forward to our Christmas Eve dish. No matter how frantic the preparations get for Christmas, I always spend Christmas Eve morning kneading, rolling, stuffing and boiling in preparation for my family’s Christmas Eve supper.

Maybe it’s not surprising that my 22-year-old redheaded Nicholas has developed a keen interest in cooking. Maybe this year he’ll join me in the kitchen and we can prepare the dish together once again.

I’m Rachel Johnson of Essex Junction.

Rachel Johnson is Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont. She is also the Senior Nutrition Advisor to EatingWell magazine. Tomorrow morning, Tom Slayton reflects on an old Vermont tradition: Oyster Stew.


2 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
1 egg
1/2 cup water
melted butter

Mashed potato filling:
mashed potatoes
cubed Vermont cheddar cheese

Mix flour with salt in deep bowl. Add 1 egg and enough water to made a medium soft dough. Knead on a floured board or in a mixer with a dough hook. Cut into 2-inch rounds. Place small amount of mashed potato filling in and press edges together with fingers, sealing well. Drop into boiling water and boil for 3 to 4 minutes (until they rise to the top).

Pour melted butter with browned onions (we prefer sweet vidalia onions) over the piroghi.

Mashed potato filling:
Mash cooked potatoes. To mashed potatoes add salt, pepper and cubed Vermont cheddar cheese.

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