We Are Where They Ate

My first evening at the Chef's Studio we cooked from the northern region in France, Alsace. The main course was sauerkraut, surrounded by poached chicken, sausage and boiled potatoes. I thought the paleness of the plate was beautiful, and the taste absolutely delicious. The sauerkraut reminding me more of pasta than of cabbage. There was something very home about the whole thing which, ends up, makes much sense - The food of the Alsatians is the food of the Mennonites and vice versa.

All this to say: I use the term "Mennonite food" loosely. This is not just a Mennonite or Amish story. We don't own sauerkraut, pie or pork even though we talk about them as such. There's too much sharing of the table.
A perfect example... look up zwieback (a traditional Russian Mennonite dinner roll) in the Larousse Gastronomique and you'll find that the French own it. Cook further and you realize zwieback is really just brioche rolled up a bit differently. Or maybe brioche is just zwieback?! The same reference authority, Larousse, claims vareniky (a traditional Russian Mennonite dish) is Lithuanian. With all the sharing I'm in awe we can even make categories or take ownership.
But with that said, here's some categorizations. Ahem.

We Are What We eat.

"Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are." - Brillat-Savarin
In the Mennonite culinary world...
Tell me you grew up on vareniky and borscht and zwieback and kuchen and I shall tell you, "You're from the plains, no? Kansas, Nebraska. Maybe Canada. There's something a bit Russian in your blood."

Tell me you grew up on shoofly pie, wiggle glace, rivels, every soup imaginable, and whoopie pies and I shall say, "Ah, the Swiss-German type. Pennsylvania then? Maybe Ohio, Indiana, Virginia?"

We Are Where We Eat.
The what of our food tells us the where of our people.
It's true of all cultures. Mennonite is no exception.
My intent here is to clear up why perhaps the Mennonites in Ohio may not know the likes of bierrocks and why the Kansas kind may not frequent with a rivel.
Essentially... There was a large group of Mennonites who settled in southern Russia in the 18th century, but then resettled in midwest America in the 19th century. They mostly came to Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Manitoba, Canada. So the Mennonite food in these regions are primarily influenced by this Russian tradition.

There was also a group of Mennonites who came to the U.S. from Europe - Switzerland, Germany, Alsace-Lorraine. They first came to Pennsylvania but moved west far and wide: Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and so on. The migration started in 1683 and lasted until about 1824. You can probably deduce by now: Yep, those folks have some heavy northern Euro influence.

As you can see, the evolution of "Mennonite" food is so seeped in travel, migration and resettlement. Not the backpack across Europe kind. More the "we have to move because the powers-that-be are persecuting us again" kind. The kind interlaced with tragedy, slow movement, and farming, refarming, and then re-farming again. (And I thought starting my garden was hard.)
Just as my grandmother Belle picked up hot tamales in Texas, new years cookies in Kansas, and apple dumplings in Indiana, the larger Mennonite community picked up culinary traditions from the places they went - Switzerland, Germany, France, Polish Prussia, Russia, North America and so on and so forth.

Both the Swiss-German vein and the Russian vein have some fascinating, complex histories, but my basic point right now is to clarify the North American phenomenon of Mennonite food.
I'll fill you in where we're eating from as we move along as I'll be covering both traditions. My family history includes both.

So to mark the overlap, the sharing, the what, where and when... we'll be roasting a chicken with root vegetables next. Because what tradition didn't throw some stuff in an oven and call it ours? Also I have a firm belief that all people should know how to roast a chicken. More on that coming up...


Grandma Boyts, Rhubarb, and Poached Egg (Part 2 of 2)

The vanilla ice cream, rhubarb sauce and granola
(not a poached egg! Scroll down to Part 1 for egg reference.)

I was thrilled that my grandmother chose rhubarb and granola to share! Partly because I'm in love with rhubarb and my own plants are in their second season which means I can harvest. Plus granola is my breakfast of choice, always with a dash of dried fruit and milk.
But it also gave me an excuse to make some ice cream! What a perfect union - vanilla bean, cream, rhubarb, strawberry and a dash of crunchy granola. Thank you Grandma!

A few notes before the recipes:
  • These are both very forgiving recipes. You'll be hard-pressed to do much damage unless you severely overcook. (It's best to cook at a stove, not a computer. Ahem.)
  • Taste as you go!! Try the texture of the rhubarb, reflect on the flavor in the granola and adjust if needed. Salt, vanilla, more sugar? Remember... you can add things, but you can't take away.
  • On the sauce... I did some recipe testing. Grandma didn't think the Amish man would be offended by my omission of the jello box. Also, based on my time in the rhubarb pie field, orange guaranteed to be a lovely addition.
  • As Robert would say, the fruit doesn't understand your intention. It only understands what you do to it. So you overcook it - gray mush. Undercook it, and the rhubarb stays crunchy and doesn't have time to render its tartness to the berry and orange.
  • On the granola... I adjusted purely based on personal preference. I happen to relate well to sesame seeds. Do the same!
  • On the ice cream... I always use Thomas Keller's recipe from Bouchon. The texture is like silk.

Strawberry Rhubarb Sauce
From the Amish man who sold my grandmother rhubarb at a market many years ago.

Yield: about 1 pint (Double this if you'd like... great gifts!)
Total prep time: about 20 minutes (with no phone calls)

2-1/2 cups rhubarb, cut in 1/2 inch slices (that's about 1/2 pound of rhubarb)
1 cup strawberries, cut in small dice
Juice from half an orange, about 4 Tablespoons
6 Tablespoons granulated sugar

1. Combine all ingredients in saucepan and bring to near boil, then lower heat to simmer. Let simmer for about 8 minutes or until the rhubarb is tender and almost falling apart. Note: The cooking time will largely depend on the rhubarb you have. The stuff from my garden was young and needed to cook longer. The market-bought went fast.

2. Taste it! Revel in the tartness and subtle citrus. Then remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. If you want to add a teaspoon of gelatin for thickening do so now. I did not, but... to each her own. Store in airtight container in refrigerator.

3. For service, basically anything can sit underneath this stuff and be happy - ice cream, yogurt, granola, fresh fruit, angel food cake, shortbread and so on and so forth.


Edna's Granola
Lightly adapted from: Showalter Redding, Nancy Lovina (ed.) Family Cookbook: Dedicated to Grandma Edna. Self published, 1999.

Yield: about 10 cups (in my house that's about 10 servings)
Total prep time: about 35 minutes

4 cups rolled oats (not the instant stuff)
1 cup wheat germ
1 cup almond slivers
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup sunflower seeds, roasted and unsalted
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup flax seeds
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup honey

1. Preheat oven to 35o degrees, Fahrenheit. Adjust oven rack to center position.

2. Mix all dry ingredients together in large mixing bowl.

3. Combine all honey and oil in saucepan and warm over low heat, stirring occasionally. When warm, pour this mixture over your dry ingredients and stir with spatula till thoroughly combined and dry goods are evenly coated. Note: I do this by hand. Seems more efficient.

4. Taste it! Then bake in preheated oven for about 20 minutes or until the granola is golden brown. Stir and re-spread the granola every 5 minutes, moving the outer edge inward. This will prevent burning and uneven baking. Note: Do NOT skip the stirring. Trust me on this.

5. Allow granola to cool completely. When cool, store in airtight container. I add raisins or dried currants. (Or vanilla ice cream and strawberry rhubarb sauce!)

Enjoy!! Do tell... How does it taste?!


Grandma Boyts, Rhubarb, and Poached Eggs (part 1 of 2)

Today is an occasion (and not just because of the rhubarb.)...
Today is the first-ever post in the series, "Mennonite Women Serious about their Food". This is where you'll meet the women - young, old, homemakers, chefs, farmers, or hobby picklers who I'm interviewing for the book. The interviews are just a taste of their food story, but a rather delicious one I think!

Meet my father's mother, Anna Belle Boyts (Stoltzfus). She's 78, going strong on 79, living in Hesston, Kansas. (Hesston, for those of you unaware, is a bona fide Mennonite hub.)
She goes by Annabelle or Belle or Mom or Grandma. I like Grandma personally.
4 kids, 14 grandkids, 5 great-grandkids. Phew. That's a lot of homemaking!

Her narrative is at a poignant point: Her spouse of 57 years, my Grandpa Jim, died just about a year ago. The grief is thick and she tells no lies about this, but her voice still is buoyant somehow. I have no frame of reference for that kind of feeling - starting a day without your beloved, whom you've started each day with for 57 years, since you were 19.

My own childhood memories of Grandma circle around my their immense backyard in Elkhart, Indiana. It was a veritable wonderland for children with any sort of tastebud - cherry trees, grape vines and apple trees. And the home had Grandma - with her stark white hair and jovial, buoyant voice, calling for you to come help pit the cherries for pie, sprinkle her lengendary molasses cookies, or taste the wiggle glace before the rich broth went cold.

She didn't always live in Indiana. She, like our Mennonite ancestors, has migrated to and fro - Iowa, Texas, Kansas, Indiana, and back to Kansas to stay. Just as in our communal food story, the migration affects the individual story. The food of each place seeps into our repertoire and sensual memory. You can hear it on her tongue as she talks of tamales in Texas or dumplings in Indiana. Her father had his own migrant tendencies as well.. Born Amish in Pennsylvania, he jumped a freight train as a teenager and headed for Oregon. In short: Pennsylvania to Oregon to Iowa to Texas and back to Iowa. His and Grandma Edna's story I'll save for another time though.

She calls her mother Mother. I love that.
So here's Grandma Belle. I think you'll adore her as much as we do...

Where did you learn to cook?
From Mother (Edna Stoltzfus) I also took Home Ec at the public school in Premont (Texas) and was always interested in food. Mother had to laugh because in school they called me out of class once to the Home Ec room because no one else knew how to cut up a chicken.
Mother taught us to cook from the feel of something, not just the look. If the crumbs fell apart between your fingers in the pie crust, more fat.
On Saturdays she would make pie, mostly fruit pie, but also her Bob Andy pie, and I would make cinnamon rolls.

What was your favorite Mennonite food growing up?
Mother's Wiggle Glace. (a gorgeous chicken soup with rolled dumplings).

How did geography affect your food?
Well, the treats in Texas were the hot tamales. The neighbors would bring them over still steaming, and we would also go to the tortilla factories.
In Kansas, the treat was the New Year's cookies and vareniky which I'd never had before.
Indiana - apple dumplings at the Mennonite relief sale!

What is your favorite food memory?
Homemade ice cream in Texas. We had good friends who would call out across the road, "How about a chunk tonight?!" A "chunk" being a chunk of ice that you'd put in a gunny sack and crush up for the ice cream. That was such a treat!

What is your least favorite food memory?
Italian food - I wouldn't walk across the street for it.

What food do you cook during stress or crisis?
Poached egg with toast. Always.
My dad, when he wasn't feeling good, he'd have hot milk toast. Buttered toast with hot milk poured on it. But I do poached eggs.

What memories do you have of Shoofly Pie?
We'd have them when we'd go back for Stoltzfus family reunions in Pennsylvania. At home, Mother would make them for special occasion. Ours was wet-bottom.

Where are you at now with your cooking? How does it compare to the past?
Honestly I don't cook a lot anymore, especially not since Jim died. I eat a lot of poached eggs and toast these days. We used to have guests over frequently and I'd cook for them, but I don't do that much now. Monday was my first guest that I cooked for since he died.
We had ham salad.

What is your biggest tip to an amateur cook/baker?
Read and reread your recipe! And always check to make sure you have everything before you start.

The secret to your legendary molasses cookies?
Do NOT overbake! Set the timer, touch the cookie. If it dents a lot, it's not ready. If it barely dents, they're probably ok.
I had brought Mother the molasses cookies when she was in assisted living and she said to me after a taste, "I think you finally got it Belle. You're finally baking the cookies right." But I'd been baking them for 15 years!
Also do NOT use Brer Rabbit molasses.

What recipes would you like share?
I've been enjoying rhubarb sauce lately and I always try and keep Mother's granola around.
An Amish man gave me the recipe for the rhubarb sauce at a market in Goshen (Indiana). He was selling me the rhubarb and insisted I do this with it. It's simple and delicious.

Thanks to Grandma Belle for sharing her food story!

The recipes....
I'm saving those for tomorrow in Part 2!
I decided to go all out and make vanilla ice cream to accompany the rhubarb and granola. Although I didn't have a chunk, I did have a Cuisinart, and it made for an amazing spring dessert.


The making of a cookbook

When the idea for the cookbook came to me I was on a weekend trip to the Oregon coast for Levi's birthday. That Friday afternoon, however, as I was biking home from work, going about 2mph up some silly hill, I fell on my bike. Operative word being on, as opposed to off the bike as I was using those clip-in pedals. We're on a sabbatical - those pedals and I.

On the taxi ride home (Yes, I said taxi.) I was certain I'd broken the arm. I did not break my arm however. A few hours and a few hundred bucks later I had the diagnosis of "pain in upper arm". Sweet.

Options on that Friday afternoon:
A) stay home and mope around OR
B) go to the coast for birthday with friends.
B. Thanks.

So with pain in upper arm, I drove to Lincoln City, Janan and Levi in the lead. Good choice. That night we grilled steak, made stuffed tomatoes and roasted potatoes. Janan baked her bread and a cake. Great choice.
The company. The food. The rain. The beach.
All incredibly vividly lovely.

For breakfast we made a scramble with the chanterelles I brought and afterwards I packed up with my pain in upper arm to drive home.
I did what I always do on car trips alone - cranked the Radiohead and got reflective. I reflected on, what else - food.
And that's when the idea came really.
There were meandering thoughts about women's food stories. Lightbulb. The history of bierrocks. Lightbulb. What I could do to make my pie crust better. Lightbulb.
So here we are!

I've never written a cookbook, and I've never written a book.
But I've written and I've cooked.
I consider myself Mennonite, as have my ancestors, so I've decided this somehow qualifies me.
This may be like that time in the 7th grade when I sang "Hero" by Mariah Carey at the school talent show in green jeans and a wide-collared shirt. But I really really hope not.

In the meantime, this writing of cookbook is fun! So far as I can tell, it entails the following:
Researching Mennonite history

2. Understanding my family history

Reading lots and lots of cookbooks - Mennonite, Amish, Parsi, German, Italian, French, Russian, that Momofuku guy's book, the fancy, not so fancy and so and so forth.

Cooking - That should be obvious. I've been lucky enough to have been taken under the wing of chef Robert Reynolds on this front.

Going to Kansas - Where the family history sits waiting to be discussed and written down. Where there are women, men, aunts, cousins, mothers, my own and others, coffee cups in hand, who I'm dying to talk to and watch at the stove. I booked the trip for July!!

Speaking of cooking, we had a great dinner: fried razor clams from the Flying Fish Company, asparagus, and mashed potatoes. That Flying Fish cart will definitely get more attention here so look alive.
Asparagus is in its bounty. Totally wonderful.
Recipe: I saute mine in a bit of butter and lemon, covered on low heat, with a sprinkle of salt till tender. Don't overcook. Trust me on this.

Up next... the first in the "Mennonite Women Serious about their Food" series. Who's up? Grandma Annabelle Boyts of course! This is her at their wedding. My grandpa Jim at her side.
Can't wait!

Here's to pain in upper arm...


The Essence of Shoofly

Welcome back dear readers!!

A few a brief thoughts before the final draft of the awaited recipe...
(But if you want to scroll right down to the recipe I won't even be offended.)

Amish and Mennonite culture is most definitely a food culture, and it's synonmous with certain culinary delights which you'll see here in the coming months. But today is all about the Mennonite Shoofly Pie.
It's tempting to think all food cultures are "foodie" cultures. But the Mennonite food creators were not rural gastronomists. They were not "foodies". They were smart women on farms, cooking for large groups, asking:
1. What ingredients do I have access to? Answer: Lard, flour, molasses
2. What ingredients have a long shelf life? Answer: Lard, flour, molasses
3. What do I like? Answer: Pie
4. What feeds a LOT of people? Answer: A LOT of pie.
5. What does lard, flour, and molasses make? Answer: Shoofly pie.

The Shoofly pie is from Pennsylvania.
It's a pretty striking pie if you ask me. From the top it looks so aesthetically basic: A tan, monotonous brown crumb. No gleams about it. And then you cut in. There gleams this brilliant ebony profile. But then isn't this the beauty of most pies. Their unfailing modesty.

The construct of the pie is simple. By construct I just mean the formula, the idea - the idea of the final product, what you're moving towards. For a shoofly the basics are this:
Shoofly Pie.

From there, everything branches. The pastry is a total free-for-all. It can be done with all molasses. Or half molasses, half corn syrup. Some folks put an egg in for texture. Some do not. Some put spice in. Some do not.
The architecture of the pie: Wet bottom or Dry bottom or Layered

I did them ALL. 2 days: 4 pies, 1 tart, 4 tartlets.
It went something like this...

The pie made with all molasses was, how do you say, totally inedible. Indigestible. The molasses felt completely oppressive. Turns out Shoofly is a love/hate relationship.

But I'm committed so I experimented with the remaining pies and tarts to get something that I could not only eat, but love. What the whole process resulted was in part credited to my Honeyman...
The Honeyman is this lovely old fella who makes and sells the most exquisite raw honey out of his car on the Bridge of the Gods, right outside Portland. Sounds sketchy but it's worth it for that stuff. I adore this man and his honey. And that day Eric had brought some home!
So there it sat on the day of my shoofly pie testing. I couldn't resist. The molasses was oppressing me. And I did what some may call absolute heresy. And loved it! The honey's quality completely shone through and gave way to the perfect shade of molasses. The chopped walnuts added a whole new dimension to the texture.
I also had cute little tart pans and homemade vanilla ice cream. Insert them... there you go!
By the way: Tip of the hat to Curt Weaver for the name inspiration!

So welcome to what I'm calling...

Essence of Shoofly Pie
Heavily adapted from: Amish Cooking. LaGrange: Pathways, 1977.

Yield: 8 servings (4 if using 4" tartlet pans although they can be cut in half.)
Total prep time: about 1 hour

1 unbaked pie crust (We'll address pastry another time.)

You can use 9" pie pan, 9" tart pan or 4 - 4" tartlet pans. Up to you.

1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup hot water
1/2 cup honey
2 Tablespoons molasses
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten

3/4 cup flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
3 Tablespoons butter, cold
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup walnuts, roughly chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fahrenheit.
2. Prepare pastry and freeze till filling is ready.
3. To prepare crumbs... In mixing bowl - combine flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
4. With a pastry blender or fork, cut in the cold butter till it's pea-sized (Note: cold butter cuts more easily.)
5. Stir in walnuts. (Note: reserve a few for the end.) Set this mixture aside.
6. To prepare syrup... In separate mixing bowl - combine baking soda and hot water and stir till dissolved.
7. With spatula, add honey, molasses and brown sugar and stir till dissolved.
8. In separate small bowl, beat the egg and temper it with the warm syrup. Temper just means you slowly pour a small amount of the syrup into the egg while whisking and then add the egg back to the syrup. If you simply add the egg you risk scrambling it. Trust me on this.
9. Add 1/4 cup of the crumb mix to the syrup and stir till combined.
10. To build the pie... Pour the syrup into the pie/tart/tartlet crusts. Do not overfill. The syrup easily leaks and makes a mess of your oven. Trust me on this.
11. Sprinkle the remaining crumbs on the top of the syrup. Add a few extra walnuts to the top for prettiness sake.
12. Place in oven carefully - it's a liquid. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and the filling is no longer jiggly.
For service...
A small topping of vanilla ice cream or whipped cream works wonderfully. A splash of red berry don't hurt much either.

Enjoy dear readers!
And do tell.... what you do think?!

My Essence of Shoofly Pie!



The beginning of things

So last fall I was inspired in a strange series of events to write a book.

A Mennonite cookbook to be exact.

Since then it has occurred to me that perhaps it may be interesting, even fun, to follow the course of such a task in this ultra-modern medium – the blog.

On the name... The Shoofly Project .... it was lent to me by a good friend Kate Showalter Stoltzfus. She's snazzy and clever like that.
It refers to a traditional Mennonite pie - you guessed it - the Shoofly Pie. This was not a pie that I personally grew up with, but, hey, the name is catchy and the pie sounds dreamy. So for the sake of catchiness I'll be testing the Shoofly pie recipes first. Look alive.

Back to summations: Here you’ll find...
Recipes ~ Photos ~ Stories – of Mennonite origin and otherwise.
Profiles of "Mennonite women serious about food"
Profiles "Portland women serious about Pork and Pie"

You’ll find the journey of an amateur author and cook in this vast undertaking of writing a book.
The findings, fancies and failures.

On the book...
It's to focus on the stories of the brilliant women who are the bearers of this food, either by passion or profession. Or simply necessity.
It's to include the techniques of the cooking. Like what your grandma meant by “potato water”, and how to un-complicate a custard.
It's to do a bit of bold maneuvering to keep the Menno culinary dream alive without all the Crisco and canned soup.

The book is to be for those of us who may be in some sweet cottage in a lively metropolis, but are probably not cooking for harvest crews.
For those of us who perhaps don't have Grandma on hand to show us exactly the way the wrist should turn while flipping that kuchen.
And especially for those of us who want to hear the stories – the why and who and where of those who came and cooked before us.

Thanks for stopping in! Have a coffee, a kuchen, a read and let me know what you ponder!

Look alive for the first round of recipe testing. Shoofly pie of course. And it turns out sometimes the pie really is dreamy, sometimes - not so much. Seriously. Not so much.