Cooking Lithuanian for the ultimate comfort food
I don’t eat horseshoe sandwiches – or pony shoes, for that matter. My vote for the world’s best comfort food is kugelis, a Lithuanian grated potato casserole, copiously topped with a mélange of melted sour cream and sautéed onions, bacon and bacon drippings.
Due to an influx of several thousand Lithuanian immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, kugelis (routinely shortened to kugele or kugeli) was once a staple all over Springfield. Its enduring place in local cuisine was demonstrated by a contest then-Rep. Dick Durbin was asked to judge in the 1990s.
Twenty homemade pans of kugelis, each with its proud cook, had been assembled by Springfield’s Lithuanian-American Club. Durbin, whose mother emigrated from Lithuania, could pick only one winner. Could there have been a tougher job that day in American politics?
Reviving a lost art
Before electric food processors and potato graters, making kugelis involved hand-grating, then draining, five to ten pounds of Idaho potatoes before they turned gray. As excess liquid slowly dripped off the grated potatoes, the anti-graying race against the clock was waged, to lesser or greater effect, with sprinkles of lemon juice or ascorbic acid. Pounds of bacon and several onions were finely sliced and sautéed in advance so that, along with shelled eggs and heated milk, all would be ready to be mixed and rushed into the oven.
Having tried and mostly failed to make good kugelis, even with a food processor, I joined 30 others at a one-of-a-kind cooking class sponsored by Springfield’s Lithuanian-American Club Saturday, March 5. Armed with an electric potato grater from Chicago, our head kugelis chef was Lithuanian-born Springfield High School ESL teacher Irena Ivoskute Sorrells. Recent Lithuanian immigrant Viktorija Bieliauskaite Legge, a commercial real estate manager, demonstrated two cold side dishes. Volunteers Trish Quintenz, Beth Beasely, Pamela Shadis Barghoorn and Susan Eby completed the kitchen crew at St. Agnes Parish Hall.
Heroically adjusting portion sizes for a group of 35, Irena whipped up her favorite brand of kugelis by not draining the grated potatoes. The difficult draining step requires time, plus multiple strainers and containers, eventually producing a settled-out starch that’s added back into the potatoes, sans liquid, before baking. Even minimal draining tends to produce the textured casserole version of the dish that I like best. However, Irena’s preference, and the version known by many in Springfield, is a more pudding-like kugelis.
After the longer oven time required to cook out some of the extra potato moisture, our cooking class culminated in a feast of kugelis, cooked sausage, pikantiškos salotos (grated cheese salad with Mayo and fresh crushed garlic) and burokėlių mišrainė or Lithuanian vinaigrette (diced cold beets, hard-boiled eggs, and pickles with white beans and mayo). For me, Irena’s special kugelis topping of melted sour cream with bacon and drippings perfected the dish.
For bread, many of us downed a chilled, sweet beverage called Duonas Gira that’s made from fermented dark rye and is rich in B vitamins. According to Wikipedia, Gira has only trace alcohol (0.05–1.5 percent) from the natural fermentation process, and is enjoyed all over Eastern Europe.
Immigrant food traditions
My book, A Century of Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois, talks about the backyard farms many immigrant families kept through the 1950s. Here, children and grandchildren experienced the raising, slaughter and preparation of Sunday chicken dinners, as well as home-made blood sausage and blood soup (fresh-drained goose blood cooked with plums and raisins). In poorer times, when no part of an animal was wasted, there was also the delicacy of pickled pigs’ feet.
Cooked by loving mothers and grandmothers, these dishes undoubtedly would have grown on us, just like that extra can of Gira that I spirited home Saturday night, along with a couple of extra pieces of kugelis. Yum!
Sandy Baksys of Springfield is author of A Century of Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois. Look for the recipes mentioned above under the Recipes tab on Sandy’s blog http://www.lithspringfield.com. Her book may be purchased at Noonan’s Hardware or on amazon.com.