My Family Recipe

Alzheimer’s Stole Everything From My Grandmother—but Not Her Most-Loved Dish

On Babcia's pierogi, and other things that were lost.

December  4, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.

I never knew my maternal grandmother well. We’d visit her at her clapboard house in Connecticut every couple of years, where the cooking smells beckoned but the carefully-vacuumed Vs in the carpet made me nervous. What I remember most clearly is playing in the yard with my cousins—jumping over the sprinklers, giddy with sunshine, while the grown-ups talked inside. Those trips aside, my relationship with her consisted of dutiful holiday phone calls (mine) and birthday cards with $25 checks written in careful cursive (hers). Other kids were closer with their grandmothers, but I never saw the distance between us as a particularly bad thing—we lived in California, after all.

Still, over the years, I heard a lot about her, mostly from my mom: that she was born in Poland, then emigrated to the States with my grandfather after World War II. That she was a marvelous cook, known for her babka, beet soup, and especially her pierogi, which she churned out 75 at a time, stuffed with everything from sauerkraut to blueberries. She was also a graceful dancer and an expert seamstress, with a wicked sense of humor and a taste for fancy dresses. These were stories I’d heard hundreds of times, the details worn down to smoothness by repetition.

But after her Alzheimer’s developed, I learned much more.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“We make pierogi for every Christmas Eve Wigelia, the Polish traditional meal of the holiday. I love that all three of my children can and do make pierogi for Christmas when they cannot be with us. I love the way food and food stories connect us and make us see that we are all more alike than different. Thank you for a lovely story. Would love share our recipient if you are at all interested. ”
— Zosia K.

I was in high school, and my interior life centered around Friday afternoons at the mall, “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and thrilling-to-me violations of our school dress code. Family concerns were not exactly top of mind. Still, as I sat at the kitchen table doing homework, I couldn’t help but overhear snippets of my mom’s weekly calls with her mother. Typically, they were chatty and meandering: what the kids were up to in school, who was getting married, the anticipation surrounding an upcoming trip to Florida. But more and more often, they were oddly truncated. My mom would ask her usual questions, only to get what seemed like one-word answers. Five minutes later, she’d hang up the phone, her brow knitted with worry.

After awhile, I asked my mom what was going on. She set her mouth in a line and looked away for a moment, then told me: Her mother had Alzheimer’s. She’d been growing more distant over time, but now it was interspersed with periods of paranoia. Recently, she’d even become convinced certain people were trying to kill her. “Her doctor tells us that’s just what happens with Alzheimer’s,” she said, “but there’s more to it with Babcia.” And then she shared my grandmother’s full story.

She was born in a village in southeastern Poland in 1922, the youngest of seven children. Her father was a farmer, her mother a housewife who would die of tuberculosis when my grandmother was 10 years old. Still, they were considered fortunate: Their house was the only one in town that was made of brick, indicating that they were a prosperous family.

In 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland. An army entered my grandmother’s town and marched the whole family out of that brick house at gunpoint. They were herded onto a waiting train, stuffed into the cattle cars, and dispatched on a long, unforgiving journey. Their destination was a forced labor camp in Siberia. She was 17 years old.

My grandmother’s job in the camp was sawing down trees in the icy outdoors. Her rations were limited to one bowl of cabbage soup per day, plus a piece of bread (though her oldest sister, who worked in the kitchens, would sometimes sneak her a little more). She lived there for two years before being transferred to a refugee camp in what is now Tanzania—an eternity, but still, she was grateful: Many others didn’t make it that long.

After the war, she made her way to England and met my grandfather, a former Polish soldier who himself had narrowly escaped death in a mass execution that came to be known as the Katyn massacre. They were both survivors, and in 1948, they married, then had two children, emigrated to Connecticut, and quickly got jobs in the American factories that were thriving at that time. Her life took on contours she may have never imagined: Trips to the beach, going out to dance on New Year’s Eve. She made the pierogi she remembered from Poland while also adopting a new American tradition: takeout pizza with the kids on Fridays.

Still, what she’d experienced during the war always simmered near the surface. Simple, everyday moments could take a turn: She might see children at the playground, then remember her young nephew, who had died on the train as it tore its merciless path through the forest. (Other passengers suggested just flinging the small corpse out in the snow, but the family managed to bury him.) My uncle’s German Shepherd might make her think of the dog she’d loved as a girl, who was shot and killed by soldiers while she stood nearby, frozen in shock. These were the stories that were known to her family, anyway. “I think she had experiences she didn’t tell us about,” my mother said.

As Alzheimer's slowly enveloped her, and she began to lose her sense of the present—movie titles, directions, occasionally my mother’s name—such dark memories seemed to hold her in their grip.

My grandmother died in 2001, and her recipes went with her. She’d never kept a recipe box or wrote down the secrets to any of her dishes, including the pierogi that everyone loved so much. “She just refused to measure anything out,” my mom said. “I’d ask her, ‘How much? A teaspoon? A tablespoon?’ ‘Just eyeball it’ was always her response.” I suppose that in this sense, it’s not quite accurate to say that Alzheimer’s “stole” her pierogi recipe. It’s more that it robbed her of everything else: her warmth, her humor, her sense of belonging, her ability to trust.

A few years ago, my cousin Maribeth, who grew up in Connecticut and therefore ate Polish delicacies at my grandmother’s table many more times than me, sought to recreate the famed pierogi. After months of experimenting with ingredient ratios, she’d done it: come up with a recipe for potato-cheese dumplings that, according to my uncle, taste just like Babcia’s. (“It’s in the dough,” he said, “and the dough is the most important part.”) Maribeth shared it with me so we could have something approximating a family recipe.

One day this fall, I endeavored to make the pierogi. Three hours later, I was still endeavoring. I’d halved Maribeth’s recipe, which originally yielded 110 dumplings, to make it more manageable. Still, dumpling rounds polka-dotted every available surface in my tiny Brooklyn kitchen.

After rolling out, cutting, and filling the pierogi, my hands ached. The work was surprisingly calming, even meditative—but lonely, too. I tried to imagine making them with my grandmother, but struggled to picture the scene. Would we laugh and trade gossip, or roll out dough together in companionable silence? Would she be patient and generous with her knowledge (as I thought seemed appropriately grandmotherly), or would she shoo me out of her kitchen, fed up with my lackluster skills (as she was known to do to my own mother)? I was seeking a type of intimacy, but what greeted me instead was a hollowed-out feeling. So much seemed impossible to ever know.

Once I’d made the pierogi, I flopped on the couch to rest for a minute. But not for too long—I was curious to sample my creations. Gently browned in melted butter and slathered in sour cream, they were simple yet deeply satisfying. I devoured a plateful, then tucked the remaining 50 away in the freezer.

Over the coming weeks, I ate them again and again: when I was home sick from work; on a rainy night alone in front of the TV; when I was missing my mom and thinking about how much she must miss her own mother. “What I loved most is when we would go out and visit, back when you were younger,” my mom said. “She would get the biggest kick out of being around her grandkids and having the whole family together.”

Those days had passed, but still I made Babcia’s pierogi—on their own, but also with caramelized onions, sautéed Brussels sprouts, or cabbage and apples. Each time, as I sat down to eat, I thought about whatever minor ordeal I was caught up in at that moment: work stress, a disagreement with a friend. Then I took a pillowy, comforting bite, and remembered.

Got a family recipe you'd like to share? Email [email protected] for a chance to be featured.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • judy
  • Liz Andersen
    Liz Andersen
  • Jaye Bee
    Jaye Bee
  • Zosia Koehler
    Zosia Koehler
  • Shalini
Suzanne D'Amato

Written by: Suzanne D'Amato


judy February 2, 2022
Chronic Diseases take a lot out of a person, and their family. I have earned to adapt recipes so that I can enjoy the cooking experiences well as the food experience with limited effort. I have fibromyalgia, and a lifelong love of cooking. I have had to give up a lot, but also have enjoyed my journey of modifying recipes so that I can enjoy a version of them and the flavors they offer, even if not the full experience. Food52 has been a part of the journey. Thank you.
Liz A. September 21, 2019
So enjoyed your story. I learned to make Polish food in my Grandma's kitchen. My Great Grandparents moved to the US from near Krakow. My sister and I had a wonderful visit there a few years ago. Sadly I lost my Mother to early onset Alzheimer's. I will never forget the Christmas when I made the pierogi all by myself, crying the entire time with the realization that she no longer had the ability to help me and had lost all interest in cooking and baking which had once been among her favorite this to do.
Suzanne D. September 23, 2019
Thank you so much for your incredibly touching comment, Liz. It's been almost one year since I wrote this piece, but your note made me tear up like it was yesterday.
Jaye B. December 27, 2018
I grew up eating all types of pierogis but my very favorite is a sweet one made with Italian plums.
Zosia K. December 13, 2018
Suzanne, I read with such joy your story about your Babcia! In our family we have a Babcia she is my 87 year old mother who is Babcia to a total of eight grandchildren three of them my own. Her story is almost identical to your Babcia’s except for the location of the refugee camp, hers was in Iraq and then Iran. We make pierogi for every Christmas Eve Wigelia, the Polish traditional meal of the holiday. I love that all three of my children can and do make pierogi for Christmas when they cannot be with us. I love the way food and food stories connect us and make us see that we are all more alike than different. Thank you for a lovely story. Would love share our recipient if you are at all interested.
Suzanne D. December 14, 2018
I'm fascinated by the similarity of your mother's and my grandmother's stories. And I'd love to see your recipe (I'm assuming that's what you intended to type, but let me know if I'm missing anything). Feel free to upload it and/or DM me through the site, whatever you'd prefer. Thank you!
Shalini December 11, 2018
This is a lovely read, Suzanne. I wonder what your grandmother saw that she couldn't tell. It's comforting to know your cousin perfected the pierogi recipe!
Suzanne D. December 11, 2018
Thank you for the kind words, Shalini. I've wondered what she saw and experienced many times myself—it's hard not knowing.
miznic December 10, 2018
In the early 90s, I moved from San Diego to a small town in eastern PA - and a thriving Lithuanian and Polish community. I had a great time getting to know the people and their food. A lot of them were active with their local fire houses and churches, and my favorite time of year was ANY time they had a pierogi sale. I filled up my freezer with pierogies, halupki, halushki, and all sorts of other delights being sold at block parties, churches and fire houses.
I've moved a few different times since the move to Schuylkill County, PA (I live in GA now), but when it comes to food, I always find myself circling right back to habits I formed within those communities.

Those wonderful people took an oddball, oft-traveled Polynesian gal and made me a part of their families - in my cooking, I hope I honor them as well as you've done with your writing.
Suzanne D. December 11, 2018
What a lovely story. And I love the idea of a pierogi sale—one thing I remember, now that you say it, is going to the church bazaar in Connecticut when we'd visit. The pierogi and the rides were both pretty wonderful.
Jenny C. December 23, 2018
Did you ever come across a dish called “skryluki”? My Lithuanian grandma made it for me and my sister on a regular basis, but I’ve been unable to find another Lithuanian who knows what it is. It was basically dumplings with cottage cheese, boiled, then baked until golden brown on top, and served with butter. She actually rolled out the dough and cut it into precise parallelograms before dropping the dough into roiling salted water.

My sister found a recipe for something similar, but it is not quite the same.
Sage December 9, 2018
Those are exaxtly the same as Vareneky from the Ukraine! Lovely story - my great grandma "Baba" has been making those for Christmas since my grandmother was born!
Suzanne D. December 11, 2018
Thank you for your comment! I've never had pierogi for Christmas, but I just may give it a try.
Jenny C. December 23, 2018
In Lithuania, they were “viertenni” :)
Deborah,Cummings December 9, 2018
Your story hit home for me. My Polish Grandma (Maternal also) suffered from Alzheimer’s. She was an incredible cook. She made hundreds, yes hundreds of pierogis for our Christmas Eve celebrations. Before she got ill I would have her show me how to cook and bake. My grandpa did have some recipes written down. A ‘handful’
Or ‘large container of’ were usually the measurements! I can cook some of her specialties, but have never mastered her pierogi dough. Thank you for the beautiful story. I look forward to trying your recipe!
Suzanne D. December 11, 2018
Wow, our grandmothers' stories definitely have some similarities. That's so wonderful that she showed you how to cook and bake, though...please let me know what you think of this recipe if you do end up trying it.
Douglas December 9, 2018
This Sunday morning on Dec 9 I discovered your article about Babcia. I also had grandmothers who were great cooks: currant pie, chicken paprikash, poppy seed kugel, stolen to name a few dishes. I was so taken with your piece that I read it to my wife whose mother also didn't write down her recipes. She was also moved by your story. Suzanne, thanks for the memories (and the pierogi recipe too).
Suzanne D. December 11, 2018
Thank you for sharing this, Douglas. Your grandmothers' dishes sound delicious! And I'm happy to hear that you and your wife were touched by my story.
Britten L. December 9, 2018
Thank you so much for sharing your recipe & heartwarming story about your beloved Grandmother. I am REALLY looking forward to trying this delicious -sounding recipe! I, of course, will keep Her in mind as I create her tasty pierogi:)
Suzanne D. December 9, 2018
Thank you, Britten! So glad you enjoyed the story—and hope you enjoy the recipe.
Amy L. December 7, 2018
What thoughtful and beautiful storytelling of your grandmother's life. It's heartwarming to know that by writing and sharing this story that you and your family found solace and comfort. I'm looking forward to making her pierogi!
Suzanne D. December 7, 2018
Thank you, Amy. I so appreciate knowing that you enjoyed the story, and yes—it's definitely had more of an impact on my family than I anticipated. In particular, seeing the thoughtful comments from readers here, on Instagram/Facebook, etc., has been meaningful for all of us.
Merrill S. December 5, 2018
Suzanne, what a lovely piece -- thank you so much for sharing this incredibly personal and moving family story. I'm looking forward to making your babcia's pierogi!
Suzanne D. December 7, 2018
Thank you, Merrill! If you do try them, I’d love to know what you think.
Hedy D. December 5, 2018
My 93-year-old mother used to make the most delicious pierogi...her dough recipe is very much like yours. Her story sounds a lot like your grandma’s...she doesn’t talk about it much. She, too, made delicious beet soup and something she called Russian pie...potato, buckwheat wrapped in a biscuit-like dough, baked and served with butter and sour cream. Has anyone else ever had something like this? Thank you so much for sharing your family’s story.
Eric K. December 5, 2018
Hedy, that sounds so delicious. A Russian buckwheat pie, how lovely.
Suzanne D. December 6, 2018
Hedy, thank you for your comment. I'm so happy that this story struck a chord with you. And I'm not familiar with the pie you mention, but I'm going to ask my mom about it!
EmilyNunn December 4, 2018
Beautiful beautiful beautiful; this is what food means to me.
Suzanne D. December 5, 2018
Thank you for reading, Emily—this comment means a lot to me.
Kelly W. December 4, 2018
What lovely story!
Suzanne D. December 5, 2018
Thank you!
Kristen M. December 4, 2018
This is beautiful, Suzanne—and I'm sure you and your family will be so glad to have this record of Babcia's stories for years to come, just like the recipe.
Suzanne D. December 5, 2018
Thank you, Kristen. Yes, my cousin Maribeth said exactly this when I sent her the piece—there were several details about my grandmother's experience in the war that my mother knew, but that Maribeth had never heard. Conversely, my mother wasn't aware that Maribeth had been tinkering with this recipe before I mentioned it! So it's had some value for our family all around.
Hana A. December 4, 2018
Suzanne, thank you for sharing part of your family history with us. One of my best friends growing up had a wonderful babcia (whom I also called "babcia"!); her poppy seed bread and pierogi were something else. I can't wait to try your dear babcia's version. <3
Suzanne D. December 5, 2018
Thank you for your kind comment, Hana. One of the nicest things that's happened so far is different people reaching out to tell me about dishes they treasure from their own babcias. I hope you enjoy this one!
Caroline H. December 4, 2018
Beautiful piece, Suzanne. Thank you for publishing your family's story and recipe -- what a treasure.
Suzanne D. December 5, 2018
Thank you, Caroline. Part of this project, for me, was simply trying to understand my grandmother's story better—I spent a lot of time talking with my mom as she went through various photo albums, birth records, etc. It was time well-spent from my POV, so I'm glad the result is resonating with others as well.
Emma L. December 4, 2018
Thank you for sharing your grandmother's story with us, Suzanne. I'm in awe of her resilience—and I can't wait to make her pierogi at home.
Suzanne D. December 5, 2018
Thank you, Emma. I really appreciate it—and hope you enjoy the pierogi!