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In Black Rock, a Ukrainian Cook’s Traditional Food Defies Simple Explanation

If you find yourself inside Black Rock’s Ukrainian-American Civic Center on any given Friday evening, you’re bound to hear her name even before you see her. It will be spoken reverently by the bartenders urging you to order something to eat and by club members singing her food’s praises. Soon enough though, Mariya Hanypsiak (who everyone calls Pani Marie or “Pani,” for short) will no doubt emerge from the serviceable kitchen, apron clad and smiling, to deliver steaming plates of stuffed cabbage, pierogi, and fish fry to hungry, thankful guests.

“Pani” is the Ukrainian equivalent of calling someone Mrs. or ma’am, and as the center’s cook in residence for eight years running, Pani Marie has certainly earned her honorific. The small legion of fans who regularly patronize her pop-up restaurant is also well deserved. For those of Ukrainian birth and descent, her food is a toothsome catalyst of involuntary memory and a bittersweet reminder of smiling, apron-clad cooks loved and lost. For the rest of us, it is a proof of the joys of unassuming food beautifully but simply prepared without pretense or something to prove.

Pani’s recipes, which she learned from her mother and honed during her years as a wedding caterer in her native Ukraine, are not elaborate by culinary standards. And yet somehow the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. Her holubtsi, indistinguishable from Polish golabki, are nothing more than beef, pork, rice, and onion enfolded by boiled cabbage leaves and baked in a thin sauce of canned tomatoes and canola oil. She does not complicate the dish with spices. Nor, during a recent interview facilitated by a translator, was she able (or perhaps willing) to confide to me any special technique or ingredient that might account for the markedness of her holubtsi—except to say, in regard to the beef and pork, that she “uses the good stuff.”

Pani’s pierogi are likewise notable. She makes the dough and filling by hand (save the use of a machine for kneading) at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Church in Kenmore, where the kitchen is large enough to accommodate the space-intensive labor required to painstakingly form hundreds of dumplings in one fell swoop. At the Ukrainian Center, she sells only the potato variety for the sake of simplicity. (There is a little cheddar cheese in the filling, she admits if pressed. But how much, she definitely will not say.) Nine dollars buys you six with sour cream and a green salad.

If you speak with any of Pani’s devotees, you will quickly learn that her haddock dinner is likewise not to be missed. It comes lightly battered and shallow fried to order with what one Uki Center regular described as “unbelievable” pan-crisped potatoes, two-bean salad, and cole slaw. Our translator speculated that it’s Pani’s habit of using fresh oil for each order that sets her fish fry apart.

I suspect, though, that there is another explanation for the transcendence of Pani’s food—something less easily fingered than a pinch of secret seasoning or pristine cooking grease. Extra-fatty meat may partially account for her holubtsi’s lushness, and a light hand might account for the delicacy of her fish dinner, but a certain something else defies ready observation. And if Pani herself knows what that is, she sure isn’t saying it—at least in so many words. She’d rather let her food speak volumes.

*You, too, can try Pani Marie’s traditional cooking on Friday evenings at the Ukrainian-American Civic Center at 205 Military Road. Please note that the Ukrainian Center is a private club. Non-members are welcome for dinner, but you must be a member to order alcoholic beverages. Luckily, annual membership is only $10, so consider finding a sponsor at the bar and joining. Or drop by the Uki Center on Saturday, November 18, 2017, for the Punks Against Putin fundraiser, where sample portions of Pani’s cooking will be on sale to the public.

Written by Caitlin Hartney

Caitlin Hartney

Caitlin has covered local food and drink for Buffalo Rising since 2015, having previously written for Artvoice, the Public, and the Buffalo News. She works full time in marketing communications and is earning her master's degree in history at University at Buffalo, the latter of which occasionally informs her writing. Most importantly, she likes the word "moist" and doesn't care who knows it. How else do you describe a great piece of cake?

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