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Large numbers of Lithuanians first came to the United States in 1867-1868 after a famine in Lithuania, at that time a part of the Russian Empire, after Saint Petersburg had annexed the Lithuanian lands piece by piece between 1772 and 1795.
The beginnings of industrialization and commercial agriculture in the Russian Empire as well as a population boom that exhausted available land transformed Lithuanian peasant-farmers, once considered an immovable fixture of the land, into migrant-laborers. The pressures of industrialization drove numerous Lithuanian peasants to emigrate to the United States continuing until the outbreak of the First World War.
This first wave of Lithuanian immigrants to the United States ceased when the US Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924 driven by xenophobic anti-immigrant attitudes against the newcomers from Eastern Europe. The Immigration Act of 1924 was aimed at restricting the Eastern and Southern Europeans who had begun to enter the country in large numbers beginning in the 1890s.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an estimated 300,000 Lithuanians journeyed to America. This number is hard to document fully because census records did not officially recognize Lithuanians as a separate nationality until the twentieth century, and the country’s people may have been reported as Russian, Polish, or Jewish.
Lithuanians differed from most immigrant groups in the United States in several ways. First, they did not plan to remain permanently and become “Americanized.” Instead their intent was to live in the US temporarily to earn money, invest in property, and wait for the right opportunity to return to Lithuania.
American employers considered Lithuanian immigrants as better suited for arduous manual labor. Consequently, Lithuanian migrants were recruited for work in the coal mines of Pennsylvania and the heavy industries (steel mills, iron foundries, slaughterhouses, oil and sugar refineries) of the North-eastern United States as well the Great Lakes cities of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, Milwaukee, and Cleveland.
It is said about Pennsylvania that it was like a Western Lithuania at one point. Agents from the Pennsylvania’s Coal and Railroad Companies traveled throughout eastern and southern Europe, seeking cheap labor. Several cities and large towns in the Anthracite coal fields attracted Lithuanians. Shenandoah (PA), in northern Schuykill County was one of the major settlements in the 1880’s. It earned itself the nickname, “the Vilnius of North America”.
Besides Shenandoah, there are several other well known Lithuanian settlements in eastern Pennsylvania including:
Shamokin, the site of the first Lithuanian printing press in the Western Hemisphere. Settlers arrived here in 1869.
Hazleton had arrivals in 1870. By 1887 it had forty Lithuanian families.
New Philadelphia elected Lithuanian public officials in the 1890’s.
Mahanoy City, where “Saule,” a Lithuanian newspaper, was printed from 1888 to 1959.
Minersville, where Lithuanian socialists and freethinkers congregated.
Others included Wilkes-Barre, Pittston, Freeland, Plymouth, and Forest City.
Potato Kugelis is a cherished Lithuanian dish (“Bulviu Plokstainis” or flat potato dish). It often contains pork (the very popular choice being bacon) as pork is what was in abundance in Lithuania and still is, although you can find Plokstainis with chicken as well.
Likely every Lithuanian family, regardless of their religious beliefs, has a kugelis recipe that is passed from generation to generation. And like the individuality that is in each cook, each recipe is made just a little differently than any body else’s.
Lithuanian or Jewish dish?
We should not confuse the Lithuanian kugelis with the Jewish kugel. The only similarity is the name. The Lithuanian kugelis is made with potatoes, while the Jewish kugel is based on noodles. The Lithuanian Kugelis uses bacon and usually bacon fat (in quantity!); try serving Lithuanian Kugelis to a religious Jew (after you tell him what’s in it), and see what reaction you get.
Kugelis probably has more variations for recipes than any other Lithuanian dish. All-in-all, most recipes follow the same path; potatoes, bacon (or none for a meatless version, but what fun is that? — oh, wait — it gets MORE BUTTER!), onion, eggs, milk, evaporated milk, or cream, and seasonings (ranging from simple salt and pepper to bay leaves or marjoram).
Serious kugelis makers often use an electric potato grater, to handle large amounts of grating quickly and easily in minutes, but if your budget won’t handle that expense of another appliance in your kitchen or you are not feeding a small army, use the fine side of a box grater. Your grated potatoes should resemble applesauce.
Grating the onion into the potatoes helps to keep the grated potatoes from darkening. Stir it around once in awhile while processing the potatoes into the bowl. Keep your peeled potatoes that are not yet grated submerged in a bowl of cool water. To prevent excess moisture in your grated potatoes, dry the potato you are ready to grate on a kitchen towel or paper towel before grating.
Get the wet out
Excess water should be removed from the grated potatoes (and onion if included). The best way is to place grated potatoes in a doubled cheese cloth and squeeze. An optional way is to put the grated potatoes in a fine colander and let the liquid seep out. NOTE: Drain the liquid into a bowl, set aside. You will use the starch that forms in the bottom of the bowl later in the kugelis.
Use quality bacon
Dice the bacon into small pieces. and fry. DO NOT drain out the grease; you really want that — is an integral to the consistency of the baked kugelis. Use a good quality sliced or slab bacon; a basic smoked bacon works well, but you can use unsmoked pork belly if you prefer.
One at a time?
When mixing the ingredients for kugelis, old-world cooks often insist you beat each egg and add it separately. Why? I have no idea, but I have encountered that step repeatedly in cookbooks and from “church ladies” who made the best darn kugelis around, so my theory is, “Why mess with a good thing?” If you prefer not to follow this sage advice; proceed at your own risk! (I am joking, of course!)
Golden brown and delicious
Be sure to pre-heat your oven. Actual baking time and method varies wildly according to recipes. Some cooks start the kugelis out on a high temperature, lowering it then baking for a shorter time than those who start and finish it at a lower temp but bake it longer. The goal is to get a golden brown top and a darker crust around the edges
Kugelis is traditionally served with a dollop (generous!) of sour cream and sometimes sprinkled with additional bacon bits.
Leftover kugelis makes a delicious breakfast, pan fried on both sides in a covered skillet. In Lithuania, a dish from the previous meal the day before is often eaten as breakfast.
Vilnews, The Voice of International Lithuania.
Lithuanian Kugelis (Potato Pudding)Course: RecipesCuisine: Eastern Euro[ean, Coal RegionDifficulty: Intermediate
A traditional Lithuanian potato pudding. This recipe can be easily halved.
10 pounds potatoes, peeled
1 pound good quality bacon
2 yellow onions, peeled
2 cups heavy cream or evaporated milk, warmed
1 to 2 sticks butter, melted
Salt and pepper to taste (remember the bacon is salty, so taste before adding salt.
- Pre-heat oven to 350F degrees.
- Peel potatoes; place them in a bowl of cool water to keep from turning dark. (When removing each potato from the water to grate, dry off with a kitchen towel or paper towel to reduce moisture in the grated potatoes.)
- Cook bacon until crispy, do not drain. Add the butter to the pan with the bacon to melt. Reserve all grease. Set aside. Hold back (or fry more) some bacon bits for garnish, if desired.
- Warm the milk or cream; do not boil. Just make it warm to incorporate easier. Set aside.
- Grate the potatoes and onion into a bowl using the grater of your choice. Consistency should be like applesauce. Remove and discard any large pieces. Place in cheesecloth to squeeze excess moisture out of potatoes or place in a fine colander and allow to drain. Reserve the liquid drained from the potatoes. You will pour away the milky-watery liquid and add the potato starch that has collected back to your kugelis mixture.
- Put potato/onion mix in big bowl, add the butter/bacon/bacon grease and stir well. Slowly mix in the beaten eggs, one at a time like in the “old-country” or at once. Mix well. Discard the liquid from the drained potatoes; you will be left with a glob of starch in the bottom of the bowl. Add most of it (or all if you want) to the potato mixture and stir in.
- Add the warmed milk/cream slowly; add salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.
- Pour into a buttered 11 x 14-inch baking dish. A glass baking dish helps you see the level of brown the crust is attaining. Bake and test for doneness at 1 hour and 15 minutes or so. Like a cake, it will pull from the sides of the pan and a knife should come out clean. You may need to adjust baking time to get a nice brown crust. Slice and serve with sour cream and bacon bits on top, if desired.
- Remove from oven, allow to cool slightly. Cut into serving pieces.
- The more liquid you squeeze out of the potatoes, the better.
- Partially frozen bacon is much easier to cut/dice. Kitchen shears also help make the task easier when cutting bacon not partially frozen.
Lori Fogg, A Coalcracker In The Kitchen
Sharing coal region comfort foods and nostalgia
Born and raised “a coal miner’s daughter” in Schuylkill County in the Anthracite Region of Pennsylvania, I love to share recipes and memories of home with fellow “coalcrackers” and celebrate our unique blending of Eastern European and Pennsylvania Dutch heritage and cuisines here in northeast Pennsylvania.