Before last week I would never have imagined that I would use these three words in the same sentence – ravioli, pierniki and authenticity – let alone that they would have a connection. Last weekend I decided to bake cut-out cookies for Christmas – something I had not done in a few years. For me, baking Christmas cookies is a way to hearken back to my childhood and contribute to a traditional holiday season, as well as completely ignore my usual diet! I am not an inherent baker, I can improvise any kind of sauce or appetizer, but when it comes to baking I need to follow a recipe with no deviations. So I went in search of my Polish grandmother’s recipe for “pierniki” – the classic Polish Christmas cookies my mother, sister and I used to make together every Christmas. Having moved across the continent twice in the past 5 years, that was no easy task. I could not find the recipe anywhere – in my file cabinet, in any of my cookbooks, in any of my drawers. So I did what any normal person would do, and called my mother. Of course she would have or know the recipe by heart. But my mother moved for the first time in 30 years this year, and guess what, she couldn’t find the recipe either. And she couldn’t remember it either. Between the two of us we remembered all of the ingredients, but not the amounts…what to do?
Well, I did the next thing any normal person would do, I googled “pierniki”. And this is when it got really weird. Ten different postings for pierniki came up, including one in Wikipedia. All ten were similar, but not one of them was even vaguely similar to what I remembered as our classic Polish pierniki recipe. There were barely any of the same ingredients. It was not my grandmother’s recipe. So why did she call it “pierniki”? I briefly thought about trying the recipe anyhow, but it sounded horrible! I wanted the moist, sugar-filled cookie of my youth, regardless of what it really was. After ranting to my mother that we had lost this last tradition forever, she suggested that I google the main ingredients we remembered and see what came up. So, in went “sour cream, Crisco, anise oil, cutout cookie”. And voila!! Up came the recipe immediately – exactly as we remembered it, only one odd thing happened – it was listed as a traditional Christmas cookie under “Southern Cooking”. Southern cooking? The furthest south my grandmother had ever been was Erie, Pennsylvania. Did they mean “southern Poland”? I briefly thought about looking at a map of Poland to see if Warsaw was in southern Poland, but in looking at the webpage again I realized, no, this was definitely listed under Southern American cooking. I decided to file this in the back of my mind while I actually got to work baking the cookies. Twelve hours and 130 cookies later, I took the first bite and indeed was transported back to my early Christmases.
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Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C was formerly the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust in the Stewardship of Historic Sites office. She is currently a sustainability consultant to the National Trust and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.