This excerpt from “The Prurient Power of Pierogi” in the book Rust Belt Boy follows the nine-year-old narrator’s account of going off to Divine Redeemer elementary school on Friday mornings with precious 35 cents in his pocket for a half-pint of milk and a half-dozen pierogi.

    During Mass, the promise and seduction became unbearable. My stomach clawed toward its quarry while I knelt through the long Latin consecration. I stared at the ornamental sacristy and my eyes glossed over, seeing Jesus feeding hordes of followers by multiplying pierogi instead of loaves and fishes. Or my gaze landed on the soft white mound of Monica Halicek’s top vertebra. How its contours transported me, how its roundness resembled a tender potato pierogi.

    Rising for the Our Father, I examined my conscience for any transgressions that might keep me from momentarily stemming my cravings with the appetizer that was communion. The unleavened wafer seemed a poor substitute for the flesh it presumed to replace. A better choice, I thought, would have been a slice of pepperoni.

    Friday mornings dragged. Through religion, geography, and history lessons, I learned only forbearance. Even the nuns admitted their cravings and their secrets for coping: muttering mantras like “Jesus, have mercy on me”—ejaculations, they called them (setting up real teenage confusion down the road)—until the moments of weakness passed.

    Billy Evans poked me in the back while Sister Tomasina answered a knock at the door. “How many you gettin’?” he asked.

    “A half dozen,” I whispered out of the corner of my mouth, careful not to turn around.

    “I’m gettin’ a whole dozen.” Of course you are; you’re fat.

    When noon arrived, Sister Tomasina opened the door and the full force of cooking odors washed over us. She cuffed her sleeves and folded her thick, hairy forearms as she stood in the doorway and watched the younger kids file toward the basement. I squirmed in my seat, fishing out the coins and slapping them on my desk for a final count. Satisfied, I cupped my hand at the edge of the desk and slid the coins into it, except for the nickel that bounced off my thumb and fell to the tile floor, found its edge and rolled all the way to the back wall, where it disappeared between a row of bookbags.

    Billy noticed and we were both tracking the nickel when Sister Tomasina must have signaled the class to rise and form a queue. Caught by surprise, I spun and stood, tipping over my chair. While righting it, I turned to see the angry nun hustling toward me. Her black robes billowed like a crow descending on roadkill. She took me by the ear and dragged me, sidestepping, to face the blackboard two inches away. When I dared to look sideways, I saw Billy being flung ear-first to my side.

    I closed my eyes and memorized the color of the bookbags the nickel had rolled between: red and powder blue. But I doubted I’d have a chance to retrieve it. I might end up staying at the blackboard throughout lunch. Sister Tomasina’s heart had long ago been removed, we theorized, frozen and broken into particles that, when added to torpedoes, made them more deadly. Maybe she’d let us go later, when the entire school had eaten the best pierogi varieties. Billy seethed. I would pay for this on the playground.

    As our classmates marched out, the sweet aroma intensified and God’s own forgiving breath must have swept in and subdued the nun. She ordered us to catch up with the others, but before we escaped she drew a four-foot pointer from the folds of her apron and sliced the air behind us, cracking both of our buttocks simultaneously.

    The sting made us hop. But we were giddy as we started down the stairs and Billy elbowed me hard enough to knock me into the rail. That was it; retribution delivered. He didn’t hold grudges. Besides, we were dropping into the most overwhelming sensual pleasure either of us would know until puberty, with a narrow escape behind us.

    The pupils, as we were called, filed into a bright multipurpose room filled with long tables, folding chairs, and noisy pierogi hogs. This feast was open to the public, and local workers on their lunch breaks sat along the west wall. Kids filled half of the tables in the vast middle, and along the east wall, facing the room, sat a brigade of silver-haired grandmothers. They carefully spooned fillings—mashed potato, sauerkraut, cottage cheese, and lekvar, a prune preserve—into the disks of dough they cradled in their floury hands. They folded the edges together and pinched the semicircular dumplings into shape.

    The pinchers would seldom rise. Other volunteers rolled out the dough and cut it into circles with teacups, or mixed fillings and delivered them to the pinchers in heaping bowls, then returned to harvest the finished pierogi.

    Pinching and chatting in Slovak or Czech to the friends who flanked her, my grandmother, Anna Rosol, found my face and smiled, flashing perfect false teeth. I broke free of my classmates, now dazed in pirohi nirvana, and scrambled behind the pinchers—“Hi, Mrs. Hovanec, Mrs. Yaniga, Mrs. Duda, Mrs. Sinchak, Mrs. Tabachka”—until I reached my grandmother’s strong arms and soft cotton apron. She kissed me and hugged me hard, pressing her wrists into my back. Her hands, kept chaste for touching food, flew away from me. She was careful like that.

    By now, Billy had reached the serving line and I had to hurry. I patted the coins in my pocket and sorely missed that nickel. I suppose I could have asked my grandmother for one, but I knew she was too poor. If she were to give it to me, she’d probably walk home instead of taking the bus. Still, the shortfall forced me to reconfigure my usual order, maybe cutting out the lekvar, its mellow sweetness made sophisticated when it met salt, pepper, butter, and onions. I hated quandaries such as these.

    Just as I was about to pick up a plate, a hunchbacked woman in a dark print dress emerged from the kitchen lugging a giant bowl of snowy cottage cheese. She saw me at once, cried my name, and set the bowl down. She wiped her hands and grabbed my face, mashing a kiss on my lips before pushing me away and tugging at the ear still tender from my trip to the blackboard. Like a magician, she let go and presented me with a shiny quarter in the palm of her hand.

    Grandma Hertneky, an osteoporotic angel, always greeted me in public with a gangway flourish—even though I saw her nearly every day. Her gypsy drama, in greeting, feeding, scolding, mourning, or scaring, never subsided. She counterposed Grandma Rosol, whose serene demeanor shrouded her in ethereal gauze.

    Now I was flush. I knew all the ladies wielding spoons, too, and one scooped four glistening potato pierogis onto my plate. Then I boldly ordered two kraut to go with my usual two lekvar, forcing me to hold the plate with both hands. Searching for a seat, I saw Chris, nose-down, all business. I also spotted Mark, who had just cruised in with the upperclassmen and stood on his tiptoes to assess my plate, as if he might cross the room and steal it. He winked at me.

    With the long-awaited aroma buttering my face, I found Billy and sat, just before my knees were about to buckle from excitement. I freed my fork from its napkin wrapper, grabbed the salt and pepper, checked the caps for cruel jokes, and seasoned my little treasures. With my fork, I cut the firm potato pillow in half, exposing the fine filling placed there by ancient hands, refined through generations of argument, fulfilled by sunlight, pitchforks, and cauldrons of boiling water. I flipped its gaping side down in a pool of butter and smeared it across the plate.

    The first bite made me close my eyes. The multipurpose room fell silent and every cavity in my head absorbed a humble gift composed of elements that sang secret lyrics to notes along an archetypal scale, a harmony to my subconscious. In my pierogi rapture I could be lost and found, week after week, even when I reached the age when ardent kisses tried to surpass it, and never really could.

    Over 25 years, Paul Hertneky has written stories, essays, and scripts for the Boston Globe, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, NBC News, The Comedy Channel, Gourmet, Eating Well, Traveler’s Tales, The Exquisite Corpse, National Public Radio, Public Radio International, Adbusters, and many more. He has won a Solas Award for travel writing and two James Beard Award nominations. A graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, he serves on the faculty of Chatham University and lives with his wife, Robbie, in Hancock, New Hampshire. More at