A scene from a pierogi party that Ligaya Figueras organized for her half-Polish father in late 2011. “It was a time when he still, mostly, had the capacity to act as a head of household,” Figueras writes. CONTRIBUTED BY GREG RANNELLS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

To Dad, with love: Dining editor remembers father through food

Jan. 19 probably doesn’t hold much meaning for you — unless it’s your birthday (happy birthday!), or you take keen interest in national celebration days for popcorn and Winnie the Pooh.

The date didn’t move me until five years ago, when it became The Day Dad Died.

That first anniversary of my father’s death at age 79 was tough. The second, third and fourth were easier — for me, at least. I’m not so sure it’s that way for my mom.

This Jan. 19, I don’t think I’ll cry. If I do, they won’t be tears of sadness or grief. If anything, they’ll be tears of joy — for him, that he’s in a better place; for me, that I’ve finally come around to accept that he’s not here.

This vintage shot shows Ligaya Figueras’ father, Richard, in his childhood, along with his little sister, Nancy and his parents, Eleanor Chrobak Figueras and Isabelo Figueras. Richard Figueras grew up on Chicago’s North Side in the 1940s and ’50s. FAMILY PHOTO
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Maybe my three siblings and I will call one another to reminisce, to laugh about how often we collectively got in trouble. “Darn you kids!” Dad would say often when things broke.

There will be those conversations, and the one where my former Catholic nun mom reminds me: It’s the anniversary of Dad’s death, so don’t forget to pray.

Inwardly, my mind drifts to food memories of him.

From my childhood: his Saturday fried bologna sandwiches; his affinity for Spam and canned sardines (especially the ones with mustard sauce), with saltines in his lunch sack; and his love of peanuts (a gene he passed along to me), captured in a Christmas photo from the late 1970s when someone gifted him a bag of nuts from Georgia.

“We can choose how we remember those we’ve lost,” writes Atlanta Journal-Constitution dining editor Ligaya Figueras, marking the fifth anniversary of the death of her father, Richard Figueras. “I far prefer to picture my dad like he was in 2011, or earlier.” In this Christmas photo taken in the late 1970s, he holds the packaging from a gift of Georgia peanuts, one of his favorite snack foods. CONTRIBUTED BY LIGAYA FIGUERAS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

From his retirement years: the Sunday post-church ritual at Panera Bread, and the bear claw pastries that my siblings and I didn’t want him to eat, but that he and my mom somehow reasoned to be fine, even though he was a diabetic, heart patient and stroke victim.

My mind drifts to the kettle in their kitchen. That picture is so sharp. In his life, as I knew it, that pot didn’t leave its spot on the stove. There was always hot tea with lemon.

My mind drifts again. This time, it travels 5,000 miles away and 28 years in the past, to Italy.

Ligaya Figueras making pierogi for a special dinner she cooked for her father in late 2011. CONTRIBUTED BY GREG RANNELLS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Here’s the way I told that story at Dad’s funeral:

“It was in the early 1990s. I was studying abroad in Spain. Dad’s work took him to Sardinia, and somehow — without the advent of the internet and cellphones — we coordinated. I managed to take a bunch of trains and an overnight boat ride to be with him for 36 hours. When I got off the boat, you can’t imagine how relieved I was to see my dad waiting on the dock for me. Every child, no matter how old, yearns for the safety that only a parent can give. When he hugged me, I felt so safe.”

Ligaya Figueras making pierogi for her dad, an occasion documented in a January, 2012, article for Sauce magazine, “From Poland, With Love.” CONTRIBUTED BY GREG RANNELLS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

I told the people in the pews that my aerospace engineer father was the last one to go to bed that night, because he had to analyze missile trials prior to the next round of testing. I told them it made me proud of him, respectful of his work ethic and intellect.

I did not tell the people at the funeral about the Sardinian pig roast, and how much we both enjoyed that dinner. At a fancy hotel. On a beach. In the Mediterranean. Or, the ways in which our shared smirks indicated how much we both felt unworthy of our place at that table.

When I left the room, to touch the sand, and let Dad know I’d be back soon, the nod from my quiet mathematical father told me everything I needed to know.

Pierogi dumplings are boiled, oftentimes followed by a quick butter-browning on the stove. CONTRIBUTED BY GREG RANNELLS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When he hugged me, I felt so safe.

By 2011, I didn’t feel so safe, at least not for him. Dad had suffered another heart attack.

Incapable of stopping the obvious, I threw him a pierogi party. Dad often spoke of the pierogi that his Polish mother made during his childhood. What could it hurt to try?

I did some homework, called my aunt, came up with a recipe.

I took advantage of my position as a magazine writer to document the occasion, in a story called “From Poland, With Love.”

The night of the dinner, I was so busy filling, folding and sealing pierogi that, when I saw the dining room scene the photographer was snapping, I was mortified. The place settings, a job I had assigned to my eager young sons, were mismatched. What would readers think?

Ligaya Figueras serving a dinner she made in late 2011 to her parents, Dorothy and Richard Figueras. CONTRIBUTED BY GREG RANNELLS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The photographer, my friend Greg Rannells, reassured me.

“Ligaya, it’s fine.”

In retrospect: of course, it was fine. My kids wanted to make the party as special as I did. My brother and his family came. Dad wasn’t a very excitable fellow, but he was pretty excited about that dinner — enough that he’d driven to a good butcher shop to buy primo Polish sausage to serve with the pierogi.

When I look at those magazine photos now, I fixate on the one of my dad seated at the head of the table. It was a time when he still, mostly, had the capacity to act as a head of household.

It’s interesting how we become selective in our memories. I far prefer to picture my dad like he was in 2011, or earlier. The grandpa who wore a goofy goblin mask for Halloween to help take the kids trick-or-treating. The same grandpa who was present to hold each of his seven grandkids as newborns. The man who walked me down the wedding aisle in 1995.

I block out images from those 10 long days of hospice. It’s not the way I choose to remember him.

Death isn’t a choice. It’s going to happen to all of us. But, we can choose how we remember those we’ve lost.

The Day Dad Died has come around again.

This time, it really is fine.

Pierogi are Polish-style dumplings made from flour. Fillings range from sweet to savory. They were a childhood favorite of Richard Figueras, whose mother was Polish. CONTRIBUTED BY GREG RANNELLS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Recipe: Pierogi
  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 cup whole milk
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading and rolling dough
  • 2 cups prepared filling (recipes follow)
  • Butter for browning
  • Whisk together the eggs, milk and salt. Stir in half of the flour, then slowly add the other half, stirring constantly, to form a sticky dough. Place the dough on a floured surface. Use additional flour to knead the dough until it becomes smooth and soft. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes at room temperature.
  • Divide the dough into four sections. Take one section and, on a floured surface, roll out as thin as possible (about 1/8-inch thick) into an 11-by-16-inch sheet.
  • Starting from one end of the sheet, place three small spoonfuls of filling an equal distance from one another, 2½ inches from the edges of the dough. Fold the dough over just enough to cover the filling and cut out into the shape of semi-circles using a pastry cutter or a glass. Press the edges of the dough together and seal with a crimper or the inverted tines of a fork.
  • Set the pierogi on an ungreased baking sheet.
  • Use a knife to cut a straight line in the dough sheet for the next round of filling and repeat method until all of the dough and filling have been used.
  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
  • In batches, cook the pierogi for about 4 or 5 minutes. Once the pierogi have floated to the top, and the texture is that of moderately cooked pasta, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside in a bowl.
  • Heat a large skillet with a tablespoon or two of butter. Working in batches, brown both sides of the cooked pierogi and set aside in a serving bowl.
  • Serve immediately. If desired, serve with sour cream or, for fruit-filled pierogi, with sour cream sweetened with confectioner’s sugar.
  • Pierogi can be frozen. Place in a freezer on a covered tray. Once frozen, store in a freezer in a sealed plastic bag for up to 6 months. Makes 3 dozen 3-inch dumplings.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per dumpling: 32 calories (percent of calories from fat, 14), 1 gram protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), 12 milligrams cholesterol, 21 milligrams sodium.

Recipe: Pierogi Sauerkraut and Ground Beef Filling
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • ¾ pound ground beef
  • 1¼ cup prepared sauerkraut, drained well
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • In a skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent. Add the ground beef and cook until it begins to brown. Add the sauerkraut, stirring to combine, and cook until the flavors are well combined and the sauerkraut is warmed through, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 2 1/2 cups.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per tablespoon: 10 calories (percent of calories from fat, 69), trace protein, trace carbohydrates, trace fiber, 1 gram fat (trace saturated fat), 2 milligrams cholesterol, 58 milligrams sodium.

Recipe: Pierogi Fruit Filling
  • 2 cups dried apricots or prunes, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Pinch ground cinnamon
  • Place the chopped fruit in a pot with ¾ cup of water and cook, uncovered, over medium heat for 10 minutes. If necessary, add more water, a tablespoon at a time, so that the fruit does not scorch. Add the flour, sugar and cinnamon. Stir to combine, then mash well. Let cool before using, to allow the mixture to thicken. Makes 2 cups.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per tablespoon: 26 calories (percent of calories from fat, 2), trace protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 1 milligram sodium.

Recipes reprinted with permission from Sauce Magazine.

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