Pierogis, pizza and Elgin’s iFest
By Mike Danahey firstname.lastname@example.org July 31, 2012 8:40PM
Mike Danahey as a pierogi at Whiting's Pierogi Fest.
Updated: September 2, 2012 6:09AM
My quest to help Elgin’s iFest move beyond pancakes and computer tablets headed to Whiting, Ind., and the southeast side of Chicago this past weekend for Pierogi Fest and Pudgy’s Pizza.
Sure, with hideous traffic, the trip took more than two hours. Yet, for me and my big-eating buddy Tom (and his thinner son and dad), it turned out to be a Brigadoon-ski journey.
Pierogi Fest has been around since the mid-1990s and has grown to a three-day event that organizers claim has attendance of 200,000 or so roaming Whiting’s downtown. Residents who live along nearby blocks put out lawn chairs and potted plants to defend parking spots by their homes from the hungry hordes heading to buy variations of the doughy Eastern European treats.
One particularly tasty version was deep-fried, stuffed with alligator meat, and sprinkled with hot sauce. There is so much to like about the above sentence, I have to stop writing for a moment to belch.
More traditional variations were stuffed with potato, cheese, cabbage, mushrooms, blueberries, plum, sausage or sauerkraut, with most stands selling six for $5. The streets were lined with vendors offering other eats, too, including ribs, kebabs, dumplings and cabbage rolls. Which is to say, it smelled like heaven.
Speaking of, there also were Carmelite nuns from East Chicago in brown habits who called themselves the Holy Rollers. They had a dunk tank and, for just $1 a throw, you could try to sink a sister. They were listening to Lady Gaga music as they hawked at their booth.
The fest revels in ethnicity and poking fun at stereotypes. The fun included the donning of babushkas, the crowning of a Ms. Paczki (Lenten doughnut), a strolling Mr. Halupki (cabbage roll) and — most importantly — Mr. Pierogi working the downtown streets like a portly politician, stopping to pose for pictures with babies and shaking buttery hands. He is my favorite mascot. Ever.
And when the entertainment includes a band playing the polka version of the Notre Dame fight song, what’s not to like?
As if that weren’t enough ethnic feasting for the day, we headed about 10 minutes west to Chicago’s Hegewisch neighborhood to Pudgy’s, an old-school mom-and-pop carry-out pizza joint — albeit one with a Polish flag hanging by the door.
Owner Bob Zajac had invited me after reading a story I wrote about Rosati’s chili cheese dog pizza. He wanted me to try his PS&K, a pie made with Polish sausage and kraut.
Zajac only offers this particular pie once a month, partially as a marketing thing for the special pizza, but also because it takes him so long to prepare the kraut from his mom’s recipe.
“That kraut — combined with a local, fresh Polish sausage and a pizza sauce tweaked with a bit of horseradish — make for an unbelievable experience,” Zajac claimed in advance of our visit.
It was. So much so that I wanted to kidnap the big lug and bring Zajac back to Elgin to teach the local parlors how it’s done. Lucky for him, my truck was full with items that included lawn chairs and frozen pierogis,
On Zajac’s pizza, the Polish sausage was as good as it gets (not Maxwell Street kielbasa, but the real, spiced-right deal) the kraut subtle as an accent flavor, and the crust thin and cracker crisp.
Zajac also served us a pie called “Bob’s Mistake,” which was named after a pizza Zajac said he once ordered from Pudgy’s before he owned the place. It wasn’t what he wanted but apparently was good enough to repeat, with its peppers, sausage and garlic-laden sauce.
Zajac has been in the pizza business for almost 20 years now, coming to it after an economic downturn in the steel industry that once ruled the region. And he’s been more than happy with the decision.
“I truly love showing off our pizza, and there’s a lot to be said for anything that’s still made by hand,” Zajac said.
That means the dough is still rolled with a big, wooden pin, the ingredients are bought locally, and the pizza ovens are old-style stainless steel ones where baking a pie involves moving it to different parts at different points in the process to get things just right.
All this only reinforced for me what Elgin needs to find for its iFest next month — or any event it holds — or to become a better city for that matter: more tasty eats.
And maybe a mascot.