For the food historian with a taste for all things unusual, delicious and linked to a long and storied past, there is no place in the world more pregnant with promise than America. With its beckoning call of new-found freedoms, fertile land and room to prosper, the New World opened its arms to enterprising people of many lands, each of whom brought with them the unique cultural heritage of many centuries. In no aspect of daily life was a cherished part of their ethnic, religious and agricultural roots so manifest as in the food traditions they brought with them. Today, two and three hundred years after their arrival on these shores, that continues to be true.
From the rugged coastline of Cornwall in the far southwest of the U.K. came a long line of miners in the mid 1800s as the tin and copper mines began to play out. Some settled in Australia where they were welcomed as “Cousin Jacks”, but most came to the U.S., attracted to the iron mines of the upper mid-west and the coal country of Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Accustomed to the 18-hour underground drudgery of their homeland, their wives had long fortified them with hearty meals encased in a crusty dough for long-keeping and easy handling, often with the worker’s initials pressed into the half-moon-shaped outer crust. Stuffed with a filling of cooked potatoes, cabbage, Swede turnip and meat and known as “Cornish Pastees”, sometimes “oggies” or “tarmut, tates & mate” they are still with us today. (In fact back in Cornwall, their retail sale represents 6% of the local economy.) In the U.S., they were also adopted by arriving miners from Finland who carried them into Mineral Point, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as well as to the mines of Butte, Montana.
From Russia, Poland, Ukraine and parts of Germany came another “Old World” savory pie known as the “pirogi” or “piroshki”, revered across America in the kitchens of several generations of the descendants - even distant ones – of those food-loving Eastern European immigrant forbears. I served with an overseas comrade named John Garbacik whose eyes would practically glaze over when he described his grandmother’s pierogis.
In the 1850s, amid increasing persecution in their homelands, growing numbers of Anabaptist congregations, including Amish, Mennonite, Amana and Dunkard Protestants began settling in religion-tolerant Pennsylvania, the Ohio River valley and into the prairie country of the mid-west, bringing with them Germanic, Swiss and Alsatian food traditions. One group of German Mennonites from the Volga River region settled in Kansas and Nebraska where their hard-working devotion to farming pitted them against the challenges of wind-swept prairie soils. Accustomed to long hours of hard labor away from family dining – much like those Cornish miners – these “Schwenkfelders” or field workers carried with them each day complete and self-contained dinner “packages” known as “Bierocks” or “Runzas”; meat, cabbage and potato-filled baked pocket-rolls. Already a fan of calzones and panzarotti from Italy and Kosher Jewish kreplach – all in the same family of “meals-ready-to-eat” - I decided to explore the world of “Bierocks”.
I sautéed and set aside the onions and shredded cabbage (both green and red), browned and defatted 90% hamburger and cooled the combined mixture while preparing the dinner roll dough. The latter took flour, milk, an egg, salt and a small amount of sugar, with proofed yeast for leavening. Once doubled, I separated the dough into six equal parts which were then shaped into rounds and rolled into six-inch circles. Before packing the cooled filling into half-cup patties, I added shredded Colby cheese along with seasonings. Centering the patties on the dough, it was only needed to finish and pinch shut the roll dough, laying them pinched side down on a parchment-covered baking sheet for a final rise. I brushed an egg-yolk glaze over the assembled “Bierocks” before baking them for about 50 minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven.
Photo No. 1 With a half-cup of packed savory filling in each “dinner roll” wrap, every finished Bierock is a complete meal for diners. Extras can be refrigerated or frozen for future use.
Photo No. 2 In Al Cooper’s Bierocks, the precooked sweet-and-sour red cabbage shreds turned outto be a winning innovation.
Photos by the author