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An Un-Orthodox Afternoon

Once a year, I hang out in a cemetery. I used to go more often, but homecoming doesn’t seem to be a thing Baptists do anymore. This one is a lonely place up on Tiger Hill. Cemetery Sunday, near All Souls Day, is when the local Roman Catholics converge on the Roman Catholic cemetery in Brookside, AL. (Normally I’d make a joke here about the city or its citizens. Brookside is a town that is certainly looked down upon within its place in Jefferson County, but I live here now, so it’s best I keep my old opinions and jokes to myself.) There’s about 70-80 people standing around the cemetery, some sitting, sweating in the sun. I don’t recognize anyone other than my wife’s family members. My wife is Roman Catholic and her family is from Brookside. My mother-in-law and her family are proud Slovaks from Brookside, a town that was once about 40% Slovak.

After Mass, the kids in the family traipse through the woods to my wife’s grandmother's house since the backyard eventually runs up to Tiger Hill Road. Her grandmother is long passed away and we have now taken up a temporary residence in the family home. Everyone comes in the house, says a Catholic prayer, and then digs in to the family potluck. I just keep my head down and wait out the prayer. I know most all of the prayers by now, even though I’m one of two in the group of 30+ that isn’t Roman Catholic.

It’s a typical potluck, chili, country ham, too many desserts. There’s chicken fingers somewhere to placate the children in attendance.

There is also pagachi.

Pagachi/Pigachi, as far as my wife’s family is concerned, is a relatively thin “bread.” It’s a yeasted dough that you fill with a heap of mashed potato and cheddar cheese. Roll it flat and round like a pizza with the potato mixture nestled neatly within the dough circle. Bake it, slather it in butter and salt, and serve it warm with ham and mustard.

At my wife’s family gatherings, there is almost always pagachi. But at this gathering, on cemetery Sunday, there are two different pagachi’s, sometimes three. One from my mother-in-law, which is a little thicker. One from an uncle, which is a little thinner. It’s a bitter rivalry on whose pagachi is better. Most people don’t discuss whose is better. Most people don’t notice the difference. They expected pagachi to be in attendance. It was. They ate it. Along with the chili, and ham, and Walmart cookies.

The third pagachi on this weekend comes from across the street, and it's why crowds of people visit Brookside once a year.

They are here to try pagachi. And lemon rolls, and kolachies, blini, pyaniki, borsch, holupki.

On the same weekend as the humble church service at the cemetery, people from all around gather in Brookside, AL for the food festival at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church .

Since 1894, St. Nicholas has been providing Mass to the Orthodox community in Brookside and the surrounding area. For the last 35 years, the parishioners of St. Nicholas have been providing a Slavic and Russian food festival too.

As I was walking the dog the other day, I came upon the parish hall of St. Nicholas, site of the old Brookside First Baptist Church, and smelled the sweet air of rolls being made. I was invited in by my neighbor, whose not Orthodox, but loves to lend a hand. She’s been in Brookside all her life and has been helping for as long as she can remember. My other neighbor was there too. She’s a new member of the church. A convert in her golden years.

We chatted and they invited me to see their handiwork. They gave me a souvenir pagachi to take home. I was then invited to help them make pagachi the following day. I laughed and said if I don’t have a tour, I’ll swing by. I don’t know that they believed me, but at 9:05 I showed up and became the youngest and only male member of a group of folks preparing the food for the St. Nicholas Slavic/Russian Food Festival in Brookside, AL.

Working hard for the pagachi.

I was timid at first and asked a lot of questions. I know, even within my wife’s family, that pagachi recipes and styles are particular. I’d had the pagachi from the festival and knew it was thicker and different from what my wife’s family makes. The festival pagachi has green onion and dill in it. It was much discussed last year when I bought it and brought it across the street back to the post-cemetery mass potluck. Those that make pagachi have strong opinions, or at least those I know do.

It’s also easy to mess up. When you dollop the potato mix into the middle of your dough, you then have to wrap the dough around the mix. When you roll it out, you hope the potato mix spreads evenly and your dough is thick enough to keep the mix from oozing out when you roll the pagachi.

There are no casualties though, if only because you cannot undo what’s been done. There is no way to scrape the potato mix out if there’s been a problem when rolling the pagachi. You cook it anyway and just eat it first instead of keeping it to serve later to family. Sometimes I think when my wife helps her mother, she messes up a few just so she’ll have some to eat as they work.

The women I worked with didn’t mind the timidity, but they also wanted me to know it wasn’t a big deal to mess up a bit. To know that I couldn’t get fired even if I tried. Several of them had tried. As a little butter boiled over a sauce pan onto the stove-top, everyone turned to see one of the women grab the pan and move it off. “See,” she said, “accidents happen.”

I had several jobs that day within the pagachi process. Every woman handles multiple aspects of the process, and I was allowed to float around and try several of them. Rolling, flipping, moving to the cooling racks, packaging. Borsch was served for lunch, but I had to head downtown for a tour later in the day so I wasn’t able to sit with the women. Later in the week, I was able to head back over and help with the lemon rolls. I hopped right in and helped roll, fill, cover, and package up several rolls.

In a day or two, I’ll be back over there making pagachi. Cabbage rolls will be made later so I’m looking forward to that too. When my wife told her family what I was doing, they all got a hearty laugh. Clay, with all those old women, making pagachi, and rolls, and stuffed cabbage? He the only man over there? With an apron on spreading lemon curd and sprinkling coconut on roll after roll?

The St. Nicholas Slavic/Russian Food Festival is the first Saturday and Sunday in November, this year it’s the 4th (10-4) and the 5th (12-5). There will be dancing and music. You can visit the inside of St. Nicholas and learn a little bit about a 120+ year old traditions in Brookside, Alabama. You’ll even be able to sample some of the food I had a hand in making.

I’ve only been to the cemetery mass a few times. Normally, I swing by the Russian Orthodox festival to buy a roll or pagachi. I believe many years ago, before I was dating my now wife, my parents brought me down to Brookside for the festival. We walked around the parish hall, enjoyed the atmosphere and then walked down the front steps, eating our desserts, blissfully unaware that across the street was another family enjoying their own get together.

And I had no idea that one day I’d be living across the street from the same church and making pagachi on a Tuesday morning in the parish hall of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, Brookside, AL.

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