The Food Story of Kate Stoltzfus - part 1

Spend a moment or so with someone and ask them to tell their food story. I love the stuff you hear. It's not all borscht and butter and beef. It's relationships savored, travels embarked upon, kind acts done for neighbors, ecstatic celebration, hungry grief, or a just another Sunday spent at a stove.

Today I get to share just such a food story again. It's from one of the many wonderful folks I've been talking to about this here project. This pattern of stories is what I'm calling "Mennonite Women Serious about Food". With no further ado, meet my lovely friend, Kate Stoltzfus, and her rich food story!

An Indiana native, Kate grew up Mennonite, though is now practicing at a Unitarian church, calling Pittsburgh home and calling herself a Mennotarian. Purely Mennonite on Sunday morning or not, the food sticks to one's ribs, in the best possible way, and Kate is no exception. Spend any length of time perusing her e-life and you'll see cookies mailed across country to folks who've made donations to her favorite cause, photos of pasta-making at her Kitchen Co-cop, her vegetable-of-the-week choice, or the beautiful table setting that could only be Kate.

I met Kate at Goshen College many moons ago and was particularly drawn to hanging out with this woman when I saw what she could do with a peacock feather.

just a few of Kate's peacock creations

Even then, she had a reputation for her skills at the stove and I'm relieved she continues on in her Pittsburgh kitchen. So I knew when I started this book endeavor that I needed to call Kate, and how grateful I am for following that lead!
The name - The Shoofly Project - her inspiration
This whole sharing of interviews theme - she's my muse.
The sweetness of "Productive Sundays" - that's her too. (read on to learn about that)

Kate is surely an artist through and through, revealing the potential of any material good she touches, as all good painters, seamstresses, or chefs do. A short list of her current transformation gigs:
Blogger. Mustard-creator. Massage therapist. Purse-designer. Jewelry-maker. Marketing guru. Building-renovator. I'm sure I'm missing a few.

So do enjoy Kate's food story! Maybe she'll be your next muse too...

What are your thoughts on Mennonite food culture?
I find it ironic how cooking has gone full circle in my family. My grandmas were domestic goddesses who lived on farms, cooked, sewed and cleaned houses for large families. My mother, while a wonderful cook, focused her time on academic interests. School was her doorway to a different kind of life.

For me, I've loved cooking from an early age and that's influenced my lifestyle. Currently, I am helping to renovate a three-story unit in Pittsburgh that will house our business, an apartment, and our living quarters. It's been a consuming project, but I still strive for a balance between that work and other activities like cooking.

I've noticed that many folks in my generation are all about going back to the farm, and eating local, starting gardens, and organic farming. My friends Cory and her partner Nathaniel, with their son Leroy, live on her family's Christmas tree farm in Virginia. They are growing most of their food in a beautiful garden and they are even milking a cow!

My own cooking is definitely influenced by my Mennonite roots (I currently attend a Unitarian church), and I'm especially attached to the Mennonite Community Cookbook which was conceived and edited by my great aunt Mary Emma Showalter Eby. My kitchen would not feel complete if I did not see that classic red-diamond binding sitting on the shelf. And I must mention that her Sour Cream Berry and Cherry Tart recipe is fabulous!

Red-diamond binding = Kate's great aunt Mary Emma's work

Where did you learn to cook?
Top 5 influences, in chronological order...

1. The Frugal Gourmet: I learned the basics starting at a young age as my brother and I would often watch "The Frugal Gourmet" on PBS. We'd then do our own interpretation of the dishes.

2. Jill: When I was in elementary school, I would spend the afternoons with Jill, my favorite babysitter, and we'd cook meals for the whole family... Spaghetti, enchiladas and broccoli salad were often on the menu.

3. Sophie and "Productive Sundays": When I got to high school, my friend Sophie and I loved cooking together. We started "Productive Sundays" where we would cook, sew and craft. We even catered a five-course dinner party for my parents and their friends.

4. PULSE: Living in group house during my time at Washington Community Scholars Center and Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience also gave me the opportunity to develop my cooking skills by collaborating with friends and cooking for larger groups. I have a collection of recipes from both service experiences.

5. The Co-op: I've also recently joined a cooking co-op. There are six of us, and we each make something big and divide it up for six people. Then we head over to a member's house and swap. I've tried so many new dishes because of the co-op! It's been an incredible experience.

The Kitchen Co-op baking cake

What was your favorite Mennonite food growing up?
Deviled eggs! I love bringing them to parties on my special deviled egg plate. I also like to eat them topped with a jalapeno slice. Such a delicacy...
My guilty pleasure and comfort food from childhood? Ice cream sandwiches. There's something about those little holes in the chocolate wafers and the fluffy vanilla ice cream. Mmmm.

Least favorite food memory?
Shepherd's pie... on any occasion. I just can't get into it!

What do you cook in crisis or stress?
I'm a vegetable lover so I find that when I'm stressed, I often crave a fresh stir-fry with brown rice and peanuts. My go-to is this recipe for Cashew Chicken Curry. It will warm your soul.

If it is something sweet that I seek (though I find myself gravitating towards sweets more often on celebratory occasions), I definitely turn to chocolate - dark chocolate. We had tiramisu as our wedding dessert - it's always been my favorite.

Memories of shoofly pie?
My father is the pie master of our family and would make it occasionally growing up - often in the summertime. My mother used to make shoofly cake, and that was always a fun twist.
I also remember seeing shoofly pie at my high school's annual fish fry in Goshen, Indiana. I like it and all of its gooey-ness.

What is your go-to food on a daily basis?
I love variety so I'm always trying something new. This Chocolate Avocado Pudding, from one of my fellow co-op member - Leah Lizarando, got me really excited recently. It's vegan and such a decadent dessert. You won't believe how smooth and thick it gets!

What's in your frig today?
Lots of veggies, salmon, fresh herbs in water glasses, maple syrup, and all sort of pickled items (jalapenos, green tomatoes, dill and bread & butter pickles). I also have a very large jar of spicy mustard I made for the first time a few weeks ago.

the very large jar of spicy mustard

Your biggest tip to amateur bakers/cooks?
Taste your food before you serve it! Salt, pepper, and herbs can make all the difference!

And what recipe will you be sharing with us on the next post?
Grandma Showalter's Vegetable Soup!

A big, hearty THANKS to Kate for sharing! My preview of Grandma Showalter's soup looks colorful and delicious... Now I just need me some ham hock! Look alive for that.


  1. Hi Kate, I had no idea that cooking was such an important part of your life. What a lovely post! I especially enjoy the conscious connections to your family's past and your present food sharing in community. Hey, I'm a Unitarian too! We rent space in a synagogue so all of our food is prepared together in order to observe the guidelines for a kosher kitchen. Instead of having potlucks we cook in community.

  2. Katie and Kate,

    Your enterprises warm the cockles of my heart like Grandma Showalter used to warm my tummy after a long trip.

    I just wish your Grandma could see that picture of you with your hair pulled back and wearing an apron. The circle of life is so beautiful and powerful.

    You are discovering the spiritual nature of food. You sense how deep the streams are that flow into the land, into your hands, and unto the plate. What joy! Go girlzz!

  3. Jovanna! Thanks so much for your sweet comment. I had fun sharing food with you in Asheville! So cool that you cook in community at your church. That sounds like fun!

  4. Glad you enjoyed the interview, Mom! Also thank you for helping me to uncover many family recipes. This process was very meaningful to me. I'm still going to take a stab at "egg cheese" it intrigues me.

  5. Thanks for your lovely comment Shirley! I love the tangable-ness of that entire sequence - land to hand to plate. It is most certainly spiritual if nothing else.
    And I MUST hear about this "egg cheese"! Do tell.

    To Jovanna, Thanks for sharing that very cool tidbit about your community! I love all the connections!

  6. love how food really brings people together. had a great time reading kate's food history. fun to learn about another layer of ms. stoltzfus.

  7. Just found this helpful how-to for egg cheese for those who are interested. Apparently, it is originally a Slovak dish. >> http://doghillkitchen.blogspot.com/2009/04/hrudka-slovak-egg-cheese-for-easter.html