Every culture seems to ask a universal question of its cooks:
Hey, where’s the meat-filled bread?
Italians have calzones. The Chinese – dim sum. The Polish fill pirogi. Armenians – Manti. Tibetans stuff momo with beef or yak.
This multicultural culinary fact smacked me in the face again recently. A sweet little spot, The Bun Shop, just opened around the corner from me in Baltimore. Specialty Buns reads the gold lettering on the front door, and inside the pastry case reads out their rift on that universal question. The Rotiboy - challah filled with salted butter and topped with sugared crust. The Paraguayan Empanada’s inner life is one of beef, chiles and bits of hard boiled egg.
Mennonites, Russian Mennonites in this case, have certainly answered this meat-filled bread question as well. Their answer – the bierock.
The bierock is made with a sweet roll dough folded over a mixture traditionally made of ground beef, cabbage and onion. The gesture of sweetness in the dough plays nicely with the salty meat, and as in every bun situation its construction allows a portable and sturdy meal. On occasion I make a great big batch - freezing most and popping a couple in the oven on nights I don’t feel like standing in front of the stove.
But tradition is threatened in descending into mere museum fare without a bit of innovation. Today’s home bakers find a myriad of innovations for the bierock. Stuffed with pizza toppings, lamb and bitter greens, egg and sausage. Figs and fennel, apple compote, quince paste, chocolate pudding with cookie dough chunks.
Looking back at the bierock, we see exactly why migration matters: The Mennonite faith originated in northern Europe shortly after the Reformation, but eventually a group split off and settled in Poland for a time, then onto southern Russia. Due to tensions with the Russian government, most of this group then moved to North America - Kansas, Nebraska, and Manitoba, Canada mostly.
In their luggage, the bierock – surely influenced by the Polish perogi, and the Crimean cherbureki.
At age 10, the first time I remember having a bierock, I didn’t think of those golden hand warmers as Mennonite or Russian. They were simply one of the things we never ate in Texas where I grew up, which somehow elevated them to exotic.
And on at least one occasion bierocks were among the delicious things created when my favorite women gathered in a kitchen – my mother and her three sisters, my cousins, my grandmother, and of course my sisters.
At most of our gatherings, the supper table stretched out as far as it could extend, leaves placed in the middle of its belly. In the dining room of my aunt Diane’s farmhouse in Hesston, Kansas, I have seen at least 25 people seated at that table. Its burliness accepting the weight of the chaos.
On that particular day only the women received invitation. These gatherings are dubbed Estefests as in Estrogen Festivals. They are loud, raucous, filled with old farm stories and fresh updates. Food is instrumental and indulgent.
At that particular Estefest, we made beirocks. The thing is when I asked my grandmother about that bierock day recently, she replied:
#1. “I don’t remember the day at all.”
#2. “I don’t even really like bierocks.”
This grandmother, my mother's mother, did not grow up Mennonite, nor did she “convert” as an adult. But she worked in a bakery that made their traditional foods, and had a Menno mother-in-law, Keturah.
So perhaps this memory of mine was not so much one of “passing on family tradition”. Instead simply an excuse to be together. Arguably the most valuable thing we can ask of our food.
After a long absence from my plate in any valuable way (Read: I would make them, but they weren’t very good), the bierock came back into my consciousness when I was in my 20’s during a visit back to Hesston for the holidays… A new coffee shop had opened in town – The Lincoln Perk. There in the pastry case, patiently awaiting a patron, sat the buns.
But these particular bierocks exceeded my memory’s expectation of them, and certainly any of my own attempts over the years. I left intrigued somehow. Who was this baker keeping the dying bierock alive in this tiny coffeeshop? And how could I join in?