Home is where your tears are tenderly wiped, loneliness is replaced with the warm snuggles, the rags of your life are turned into quilts, failures are simply embraced to be transformed into spectacular success. For me it’s also the smell of my mother’s hand-made pies (or piroshki in Russian). They were always made from the yeast-raised dough, oblong with tapering ends and different fillings: meat, fish, carrot or cabbage, apples, fruit jams.
They were sizzling on a pan, with the smell lingering all over the kitchen and making our hungry tummies growling. Without any fear to be burnt we sneaked in to grab a couple of them while they were still hot, right from the pan and reveled in the pleasure of their taste.
Once cooled, the sweet pirogi were served with the sugar powder on top with the cup of tea, made from the freshly plucked leaves. It seems, if I close my eyes now and imagine those days, I can almost smell those pies. The smell of feeling safe, loved and without a worry in the world.
But potato pirogi was something else. It was not just pirogi, their smell always creates the memories of how they became the only means of survival, when “Iron Curtain” collapsed and we had to proceed into a new life.
Many families, including ours, were left without jobs, no salaries, no money, nothing. My dad worked hard, spending most of his days in the fields fixing the pipelines, I almost didn’t see him, as he left early in the morning and came back home when I was already asleep. They delayed the salary for months. My mom, being a housewife, had some earnings by cleaning the floors in the boiler room at the other end of the town and repairing clothes over nights as a seamstress. That helped, but still wasn’t enough.
Need was the powerful motivator, so at a family pow-wow we decided to make pies and sell them as a fast food snack at the railway station to the passengers of the trains heading from Asian cities to Moscow. Fortunately, our house was two blocks away from the train station, and we even got used to the knocking of the train wheels and the station voice announcer.
We studied the timetable, made the plan and turned the kitchen into our culinary battlefield. Mom was responsible for making the dough and pies frying process, while I was to peel the potatoes, so she could boil them, mash and impose with onion and spices to create irresistible mouth attack.
I was very well aware, that after school I had to complete my homework as fast as I could, put the apron on and help my ‘Pie Master’ with the pies. It was funny to watch her playing with the big dough piece, tearing off small lumps and flattening them on her palm. Eventually, I figured out how much time it took me to peel one piece, how many potatoes were needed to make a pot of mash, how long it was required to boil potatoes for a better taste, how much mash I needed to scoop to have the pies perfectly closed. This is how we made our first steps in our forced entrepreneurship, producing dozens of hand-made pies week after week all year round.
When the pies were ready for sale, we tiered them carefully in a big pot, placed it in a waterproof canvas bag and carried it to the station to catch one train or two in a row. The station filled up with the street vendors, using their shabby trolleys as a display of what they wanted to sell. We all watched the train approaching the station, puffing steadily and leaving everything in the impenetrable cloud of the smoke. When the mist dissipated the train was already motionless and the passengers hopped off their carriages onto the platform. We had only 10-15 minutes to sell our masterpieces.
The enticing smell of food engulfed the area, passengers quickly grabbed their mouth-watering snacks, tucked the money into the pockets or in hands and disappeared in the crowd or jumped back into their carriage, demonstrating entire satisfaction of their empty bellies being filled up bite after bite.
Those pies had their own signature, each of them was made with love albeit carried that desperate hope to make our life a bit better. Sometimes we were lucky sometimes we failed but at least we always had something fresh, packed with bold flavor to eat.
When at home I counted coins in the exuberance of the feelings, divided them into piles, flattened the notes crumbled up by the customers in a hurry...
We managed to go through...Those pies made us see the light at the end of the tunnel...
Even though we live miles apart now, if I walk down the street, passing the bakery, that smell will trigger the memories and I’ll feel like I’m home. Home, where there’s still that smell of happiness, joy, my dad and... my mom who is looking forward to seeing me again to treat me with her legendary potato pies, with the piece of her soul delicately wrapped into the dough!