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!
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.