This is a story about borscht, the Ukrainian soup of vegetables and sometimes meat usually made with a base of red beets or beetroot.
But borscht is just part of the story for the congregation of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in the Hanover section of Nanticoke. It’s just one of several traditional dishes church members will serve at the Myasopusna Festival on Sunday.
Myasopusna, or Meatfare, is the annual pre-Lenten event at the church. It includes a dinner of halutsi, kobasa, varenyky, kapusta, borscht, blackbread and dessert. After the meal, guests can browse Ukrainian crafts, including pysanky, embroidery, woodcrafts, beadwork and ceramics, and enjoy entertainment by the Holy Year Choir, Kazka Ukrainian Folk Ensemble and the Saint Mary’s Ukrainian Dancers.
Arlene Jennings of Nanticoke takes care of the borscht. She makes it every year for the festival. She also makes the ingredients for the halutsi, much like the Slovak halupki — cabbage stuffed with pork and rice in a tomato sauce. Other church members help roll them.
Jennings, who makes the borscht with assistance from her daughter Annie Zegarski, said there are many varieties of borscht — with or without meat, with varying amounts of sour cream, thin or thickened in a blender.
“People have so many different recipes for vegetable soup,” Jennings said as she began pouring ingredients for a batch of borscht into her soup pot recently. “It’s the same with this. Some people put it in a blender.”
She said borscht can be served hot or cold.
“I use millet in mine,” Jennings said. “It’s like a barley or rice kind of thing. It blooms. That’s what takes so long.”
The cooking process takes about an hour to an hour and 30 minutes.
Besides beets, Jennings adds pressed fresh garlic, finely chopped celery, carrots and parsley and dried dill. She uses fresh beets, parsley and dill when they are available. She cooks the beets whole and saves the liquid, which she strains and adds to the pot. When the beets are cool, she peels and dices them.
“When the beets are transparent and the millet is cooked, you know it’s done,” Jennings said.
When the borscht is cooked, she adds some of the broth to the sour cream to thin it out before adding it to the pot.
“The reason I do it this way is to get it nice and smooth,” Jennings said.
Hers is a family recipe.
“I was making it for years with my mom,” she said. “The recipe comes from my aunt.”
Jennings also makes homemade bread, based on her grandmother’s recipe, which another aunt wrote down because grandma didn’t put her recipes to paper.
That’s the way it was with many older cooks who made those traditional dishes.
Christine Mash, another congregation member, said Myasopusna is similar to Mardi Gras in that it is a pre-Lenten feast.
“Myasopusna means meatfare,” Mash said. “That’s when we have so much meat at the festival, because it’s like clearing out the refrigerator for Lent.”
She believes the church organized the first festival of its kind around 2006, when a priest from the Ukraine led the congregation. The festival evolved from a non-ethnic summer festival.
“I think it made a big difference having a Ukrainian priest,” Mash said.
Father Wasyl Kharuk was first Ukrainian priest the church had in recent history, and members did a fall festival. But it was after Father Volodymyr Klanichka arrived that the Myasopusna kicked off.
Father Volodymyr Popyk is the current priest.