Pierogi and Nationalism

fried pierogi

Pierogi are delicious. They’re unleavened dumplings. Take a doughy, ravioli-like base, wrap it in beef or cabbage or whatever else is around, then fry it or boil it or bake it (frying is really the best) and out come perogi. In Poland they’re considered one of the national dishes. The thing about Perogi though, is that they offer a nice example of some of the misinformed and fallacious reasoning that often underpins nationalist rhetoric. Nations are typically described in (at least) two ways: they exhibit a unique form of culture, and they occupy a distinct geographical area.

In this narrative, culture is defined as a kind of mixture of language and traditions or rituals. Cuisine is a great example of tradition or ritual because food ingredients and preparation can be determined by locality. But the example of pierogi in Poland shows that while certain regions may claim to have a food of their own, food seldom claims its own region.* There is nothing uniquely Polish about pierogi. The primary ingredients used and the form of preparation are basically constant throughout Eurasia. What changes from place to place is the style.** The dish, like culture, is a hybrid. And to counter this by saying that, well, culture is then a kind of distinct way of flavoring primary elements, then you’ve already ceded the point.

Poland's land shifts after WWII: wikipedia

As far as geography is concerned, Poland offers another example of how ridiculous it is to evoke the notion of a pure nation. Cultures, languages and traditions don’t start and stop at borders – they bleed. Borders are constructs of power’s tendency to colonize and demarcate. What is the pure geographic “nation” of Poland? Is it the ancient kingdom of Poland that existed in the early to late middle ages? But this kingdom had many formations. Is it the massive hunk of Europe that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth held? What about the inter-war Poland before theĀ Molotov-Ribbentrop pact? Or is it the post-Yalta Poland, today’s Poland, which lost a bunch of land in the east to the USSR but gained a bunch of land in the west from Germany?

Beneath the apparent stability of nations lies flux and impurity (in the delicious sense). What exactly is it, for example, that people are trying to preserve when they inveigh against European integration. If it’s a kind of market process that furthers inequalities while limiting democratic representation then they have a point. But if it’s some vague holding onto nationness or whatever, then they’re just engaging in sentimental, and simplistic, historicization.

* Obviously certain crops are native to certain regions, but humans have traded with each other for so long now that this fact has become largely irrelevant.

** Of course many different kinds of dumplings exist in many different parts of Eurasia. The basic form is constant though. Flour + water + maybe some milk + whatever you want to stuff in = dumpling. There word pierogi has slavic roots – the Russian transliteration is pelmeni. The most likely explanation for the emergence of dumplings in central Europe is that they came from China via central Asian and Russian peoples. Polish nationalists, however, would have you believe that old Poles in peasant villages came up with the recipe on their own.

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