Delicacy of the North

Writer Jenny Bowman took home some potato pierogi from the restaurant for her family. She served them with browned butter, baked ham with horseradish, and kale and red cabbage. Photo by Drew Pearson

Writer Jenny Bowman took home some potato pierogi from the restaurant for her family. She served them with browned butter, baked ham with horseradish, and kale and red cabbage. Photo by Drew Pearson

A few weeks ago my husband, son and I decided to take a trip up from Ocean Isle, where we live, to visit with my folks on Oak Island where they vacation and plan to retire. We all grabbed lunch in Southport and went for a drive. About halfway down the island on Oak Island Drive I screamed, “Did you see that!” I could hardly get the words out, I was so excited. “Back there! On the left! There was a shop that said ‘Pierogies’ in the window.”

My Dad hit the brakes, we swung the car around, and we headed to the orange letters boasting our favorite food in the distance. Could it be real? I thought. A real pierogi store in the South!

Growing up in North Carolina, I knew this to be a far-fetched dream. You just can’t get good pierogi down here—not like the ones my Babci used to make or like the ones we would get in Philly while visiting my grandparents in Jersey each summer. No, here we were reserved to what we could find in the freezer section at our local grocer.

But, to my surprise (and delight) my dream was actually coming true. For Oak Island’s Pierogies had been given life by owners—and fellow pierogi lovers—Merle and Debbie Waddingham of Pittsburgh, PA. And let me tell you, folks, these pierogi are the real deal!

The five of us burst through the doors and met Debbie’s smiling face at the counter. We inquired about what kinds of pierogi they had to offer: potato and cheese, potato and kraut, hot sausage. My mom and Debbie hit it off immediately, talking in broken Polish and sharing stories with each other. We all exclaimed our gratitude to the Waddinghams for bringing Pierogies to town and piled up on a few dozen frozen varieties per household before heading home. But the real test came that night when we tried them—and, oh man, were they delicious.

So what is a pieróg, exactly? (Plural is pierogi or can be pierogies.) Well, it’s essentially a dough dumpling stuffed with savory goodness like potato and cheese or onion, hot sausage, or sauerkraut, to name a few fillings. The dough is doughy—in other words, it’s hearty and savory, sticks to your sides, and complements the flavors of the fillings. The dough is so good and unique that sometimes I save the “crusts” of these delectable dumplings for last! You just boil or fry them, and pierogi aren’t pierogi until you drizzle them with a little browned butter. And voilà—you have a famed Polish dish in hand.

Debbie Waddingham is a friendly hostess in the restaurant where she makes fresh pierogi daily, a skill she practiced for many years cooking for the church where her daughter attended Catholic school. Photo by Drew Pearson

Debbie Waddingham is a friendly hostess in the restaurant where she makes fresh pierogi daily, a skill she practiced for many years cooking for the church where her daughter attended Catholic school. Photo by Drew Pearson

Debbie and Merle moved to Oak Island to be closer to their daughter and grandchildren who had recently relocated to Wilmington. Debbie grew up eating pierogi, and as a parent, she made pierogi in the church where her daughter attended Catholic school growing up. “We always made them at the church, and if you ever wanted any, you just took them home,” she told.

As Debbie went on to explain, making pierogi is not necessarily hard, but it’s time consuming to prepare the dough, cook the fillings and stuff the dumplings. Often, as I knew from what my Babci told me, groups of ladies traditionally would get together making hundreds of pierogi at a time and then share them among the group.

While we were chatting, a lady stopped in to ask if Pierogies would be serving kolache any time soon. Kolache, otherwise known as nut strudel, is a pastry roll that holds bits of fruit or nut fillings like pineapple and cream cheese, nut, or poppyseed. Debbie excitedly responded, “We’ll have them next week!”

Customer Karen Gott told me, “My father’s family is Slovak; my grandparents came from Slovakia. And they make what we call kolache, the long rolls, and we love them. So I was hoping they would have them.”

Karen shared my enthusiasm for finding a family favorite locally. She reported that as soon as she heard about the restaurant, “I called my mom and said, ‘You won’t believe it! They have a pierogi store right here!’”

Merle Waddingham of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, relocated to Oak Island with his wife, Debbie, to be closer to their daughter. With the couple comes a new restaurant featuring Polish delicacies and homemade horseradish. Photo by Drew Pearson

Merle Waddingham of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, relocated to Oak Island with his wife, Debbie, to be closer to their daughter. With the couple comes a new restaurant featuring Polish delicacies and homemade horseradish. Photo by Drew Pearson

But the real winner, besides the pierogi of course, is the horseradish. Just like pierogi, good horseradish is hard to find in the South. Growing up my family always ate the beet kind with our potato pierogi, and Debbie is making that, too. She told me that she grates the horseradish root in-house and adds a few “secrets” to make it her own.

She told me, joking, “You eat half a teaspoon of horseradish a day—half a teaspoon of that, and you’ll never need blood pressure medicine.”

It is perfect—clears your sinuses as horseradish should, and a bit crunchy, unlike the kind you find in stores that is often mixed with other ingredients, such as mayonnaise. In other words, her horseradish is the real deal, too. Just add a little of her horseradish to your ketchup, Debbie went on to say, and it makes the best seafood cocktail sauce.

Pierogies has just introduced a larger menu including things like smoked kielbasa hoagies or hot sausage sandwiches, and diners can make it a combo with chips and a drink.

My family and I stopped in to check out the expanded menu during the restaurant’s ribbon cutting ceremony in early March. There was a warm, home-like feeling in the store; family and friends had gathered to celebrate. Delectable goodies were placed out for guests to enjoy, including the horseradish and a pineapple and cream cheese kolache. And the family was decked out in—that’s right—pierogi costumes.

Pierogies is a family-run store offering fresh, delicious Polish food and a bit of personality as well. Debbie and Merle make pierogi and horseradish daily, so no matter which kind you choose, they are prepared fresh. In addition, the smoked kielbasa and sausages, as well as the Pittsburgh-famed ‘Super Dogs’ (a quarter-pound hotdog, friends!) are shipped from a long-time family-owned business straight out of Pennsylvania, a family that Debbie and her children grew up with. And the kolache are all made from Debbie’s own personal recipes. This food is straight from the source and from people who know what they’re talking about when it comes to Polish cuisine.

Pierogies is located at 8017-A East Oak Island Drive. The restaurant is set up for take-away orders and is a great place to stock up on frozen pierogi that you can prepare at home, or just to grab a quick bite to eat. Debbie and Merle are there every day rolling, patting, stuffing and boiling pierogi, and they are both eager to join in a friendly conversation about the weather, what’s going on in town, and, of course, their food.

Stop in and grab a bite. (My family and I have already been back twice in one short month!) Try pierogi or a kielbasa sandwich, and don’t forget to add a side of horseradish—beet with the potato pierogi and regular with your kielbasa. I assure you, you will not be disappointed.

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