New food for triathletes is the healthful pierogi

A friend slapped a magazine on my desk and pointed at a large ad. "Can you believe that?" he asked.

I shared his amazement.


The ad was for a food product, and it showed a couple of strapping athletes -- both triathlon champions -- who endorsed the food because it pumped them with energy and made them perform better.

As the ad said: "Not a drink, not a bar. . . . But high-carbohydrate, low-fat real food."


This kind of sales pitch isn't new. Athletes have been endorsing foods for years. When I was a kid, I truly believed that all my heroes began the day by munching Wheaties. Only later did I learn that many greeted the dawn by downing a beer to cure the shakes.

But in the magazine ad, the triathlon stars were pushing a food I have eaten since I was a child. I've probably eaten several tons of it. Not once had I thought it would improve my athletic performance.

Or that it was a Yuppie food. The ad showed a Yuppie female, smiling as she prepared to plunge a fork into her meal.

And what is it? This will probably come as a shock to hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans, but the energy-filled chow that these athletes regularly chomp is . . . If I gave you 10 guesses, you wouldn't get it.

It is the humble pierogi.

For the benefit of WASPs, Southerners, Presbyterians and others who are culinarily-deprived, I'll explain what a pierogi is.

It's an Eastern European food, found mostly in Poland, Russia, Ukraine. And those American cities -- Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh -- where men drink boilermakers, cannot spell cholesterol, and proudly thump their prominent bellies.

Many countries have something like it because Marco Polo, whose real name was Marco "Stash" Polowski, brought the Polish delicacy to lesser cultures. This led to the Italian ravioli, Chinese pot stickers, Jewish kreplach, Cornish pasties. A pocket of dough with one kind of filling or another.


But that description doesn't do justice to the saliva-provoking glory of the pierogi. To do so, I'd have to get into the various fillings: cheese, potato, sauerkraut, meat or fruit. And the traditional way to prepare them: simmered in butter that is flecked with salt pork or bacon, then dipped in chilled sour cream.

To use a haute cuisine phrase, it is pig-out chow. I don't know the world team record for pierogi eating, but my family record was set by me and my kid brother when we combined to eat 57 of them. That incredible feat left us so drowsy that it was 15 minutes before we could move on to several links of kielbasa. (That, for the benefit of foreigners, is smoked sausage.)

It didn't occur to us that we were eating triathlon energy-food. We wouldn't have known what a triathlon was. I still don't. But if it is bowling, 16-inch softball and shooting pool, we are up to the challenge.

And I never thought I would see it advertised as Yuppie food. And I'm not sure that I approve.

The company placing the ads is the only national distributor of the noble pierogi. It is a Pennsylvania-based firm called "Mrs. T's," which the owners say is named after their sainted grandmother, Mary Twardzik.

The board chairman, Ted Twardzik, says: "It is her recipe, but the company was started by my father. We make more than 6 million pierogis a week, and they are available in most large chain groceries. Chicago is kind of our second home.


"Pierogis have had kind of a bad rap over the years. People think they're only made by little old Polish ladies with babushkas. And by looking at them, you put on two pounds. Sure, if you take a pierogi, drown it in butter, add bacon and put sour cream on it, it is not going to be good for you."

(Like hell. It is wonderful for you. You can't live forever, bub.)

He went on: "Our pierogis are healthful. A few years ago a heart doctor at the Henry Ford Hospital heart group told us his triathlon athletes were eating our pierogis and winning lots of races. He said they were high in carbohydrates and low in fat.

"So we started advertising with athletes and going for that market. We don't have a million-dollar budget to spend on promoting the comfort-food memories of Eastern Europe. We're a small company who can afford to hire triathletes to do ads for us. We're hitting for a healthy, upscale audience."

That makes scientific sense. I have been to many Polish weddings and from my perch at the bar have seen sweat-drenched men bravely dance dozens of polkas. This athletic feat is far more demanding than any triathlon or decathlon or even climbing Mount Everest. Now I know how they do it: The amazing, energy-filled pierogi.

However, even Mr. Twardzik's late grandmother would probably be shocked by part of his advertising.


In reaching out to the Yuppie market, the ad provides recipes for pierogis that are stir-fried with veggies, or slathered with Italian, Mexican and Australian sauce.

I concede that business is business. But salsa or soy sauce on pierogis? Is nothing sacred?

All of you triathlon athletes can do as you wish. But for normal chowhounds, I recommend the Orbis Restaurant on Milwaukee Avenue for a sit-down meal, or the Caesar Deli on Damen Avenue for the world's greatest takeouts.

But leave room for the kielbasa.