Salem Comfort Food
Two pop-ups in Salem bring new tastes to the city.
Photo by Joel Laino
A pair of year-old pop-ups—Po’ Boys and Pies and Jaju Pierogi—are delivering food that North Shore diners rarely see. And while the styles of food are different, both represent classic comfort food to the people making them.
“We make heart food,” says Racheal Gilman, who joined Todd Bekesha to create Po’ Boys and Pies last year. Together the restaurant industry veterans serve up elevated twists on traditional Southern food.
The po’ boy is the classic sandwich of New Orleans: French bread usually stuffed with roast beef or fried seafood. Bekesha, a Marblehead native, spent seven years in New Orleans kitchens before moving back to the North Shore to work at restaurants including Opus and Naumkeag Ordinary. And he puts his own spin on the sandwich and other Southern cuisine, such as a Cajun Thanksgiving po’ boy or a jambalaya congee with tobacco onions.
Gilman, who also cooks at Boston’s Coppa and who met Bekesha while working at Salem’s Gulu-Gulu Café, is responsible for putting her twist on pies. She began baking wedding cakes as a teenager, and you won’t find her making a classic pecan or banana cream pie. Instead, she’s whipping up pies with savory and unexpected flavor combinations, such as chamomile hot toddy.
It’s comfort food with an edge.
“I want to change the way people think about pie,” Gilman says. “Po’ boys and pies are so Southern authentic. But we both want to put our punk-chef twist on it and surprise people.”
The sisters behind Jaju Pierogi—Vanessa and Casey White—are adhering more closely to tradition. Pierogi are a simple Polish dish: a doughy dumpling with a couple of fillings (potato and cheese are most common), cooked in butter. But the sisters have found excellence in simplicity, and they make a product that is miles away from the pierogi in your supermarket’s freezer section.
“Our [pierogi] are all handmade,” says Vanessa, referring to the labor-intensive process of building the dumplings in small batches—from making the dough to shaping the pierogi to filling them, often with locally grown ingredients. “I think it would be hard to get the same quality of dough if we were using machines.”
And the attention to detail comes from their grandfather (jaju is the Polish word for grandfather), who taught them how to make pierogi. When they were growing up in western Massachusetts, Vanessa and Casey’s grandfather operated a Polish food business with his siblings, but when the sisters moved east, there were no pierogi, and they saw a gap that needed to be filled.
After visiting family, the sisters would often bring home their family’s frozen pierogi, which would be quickly devoured by roommates. “We always joked around that we should start a pierogi business,” Vanessa says. “So we went out to our family business and took my grandfather’s old handwritten recipes and just started playing.”
Now you can find their pierogi at farmers’ markets from Cambridge to Somerville to Wayland, and they’re serving up pierogi during pop-ups at local breweries. Eventually the goal is to sell pierogi wholesale.
A key part of their success has been the nostalgia associated with pierogi for many people. “There’s a lot of emotion involved,” says Casey. “I’ve had people come up to me in tears because they taste just like their grandmother used to make.”
For Todd Bekesha and Racheal Gilman, Po’ Boys and Pies tapped into a similar nostalgia. “I was just missing the South, so I started cooking Southern food,” Bekesha recalls. “One day I went over to Gulu-Gulu Café and met Racheal, and she told me she just wanted to go back to making pies.”
Bekesha believes he’s doing more than just serving up sandwiches. He’s an ambassador for Southern food in a region where it’s hardly seen and rarely done well.
“A lot of people think it’s overly spicy, it’s very heavy, all these misconceptions,” Bekesha says. “What I’m trying to do is take a classic food and make it in a way that’s approachable [using local products]. So a lot of times, instead of fried catfish, I’ll do haddock. Or I’ll make crawfish étouffée with local shrimp.”
Bekesha started Po’ Boys and Pies not intending to turn a profit. But he’s now parlayed the pop-up concept into a role of launching Smokin’ Betty’s, a new barbecue restaurant in Salem owned by Steve Feldman of Gulu-Gulu Café. Po’ Boys and Pies will continue doing pop-ups, but Smokin’ Betty’s will give Bekesha a daily opportunity to cook the Southern food he loves.
A key ingredient in the success of both Po’ Boys and Pies and Jaju Pierogi has been customers who are willing to take chances, but just as important is a North Shore food community that has rallied behind chefs who are trying to push the envelope.
Vanessa points out that there’s a perfect fusion of longtime residents who are passionate about supporting their community and younger residents always on the hunt for new food experiences. Add in burgeoning craft alcohol producers like Deacon Giles Distillery or Far From the Tree Cider, and it’s a recipe for collaboration and success.
“When you work together as a community, you’re only going to strengthen one another,” says Bekesha. “If we’re strong as a group, then we can provide more opportunities for people in the [community]. And as business owners, we each grow because we learn from each other.”
Where to get your Po' Boy and Pierogi fix
Po’ Boys and Pies
Find them regularly at farmers’ markets in eastern Massachusetts.