Variations on a Peach

“Stories add leaves and flowers to the branches of your family tree.”

“Recipes in my book will be there like birds in a tree - if there is a comfortable branch.”
MFK Fisher

The importance of summer and ice cream

 Do you ever have the sensation that something very important is happening? And you’d better listen hard to make sure you absorb all of its importance? As if it may be a fleeting thing, the uniqueness of it so intense it’s almost palpable. My grandmother put it best after Friday dinner, "This will never happen again in this exact same way." I feel as though I’m in the midst of a continuous flow of that sensation. 

Today is my last day on this food trip to Kansas. It’s exciting. And exhausting. And overwhelming …the fear that you’ll miss something, a puzzle piece, perhaps the sacred one that holds the whole thing together.

Grandma Dreier baked pies for 30 years. Her hands just know it.  

There are the exceptions - moments of melancholy amongst it. A few at that silent, archaic museum in Goessel, and a few when I remember my grandmothers are actually mortals, and not infinitely-existing beings who can always show me the proper way to flip a kuchen. What if I didn’t listen hard enough?  In a silly moment, I asked Grandma Dreier what happens if one has to use the bathroom in the midst of flipping (which really does require a constant vigilance). “Well you should have gone before. This is crucial stuff.” Her sarcasm not lost on me.

Grandma Joan Dreier

Grandma Belle Boyts 


A Reason for Wheat and Pig

I depart at 3:20pm this afternoon for the Sunflower State. Tomorrow promises cooking with Grandma Boyts, lunch with cousins and aunts, and then a "German" buffet at The Breadbasket for supper. 

In the meantime, I think I strained my arm carrying a pig

I woke up Sunday morning with an ache in my right arm and could think of nothing I’d done.  Nothing other than carrying that pig from table to smoker with Levi.  I was helping him out on a pig roast event. He was helping me on my pig anatomy and butchering. Apparently I still need to learn pig-carrying posture. Sigh.

This anatomy lesson got me thinking on a recent conversation I had with my Grandma Joan Dreier about her memories of pig butchering on the farm. Her job was to clean the casings for the sausage. She called it "neat", her sarcasm not lost on me. Got me thinking about my mother and her prize hog. 

My mother, Teresa, and her prize hog.

It got me thinking of the chapter on pork in Norma Jost Voth’s amazing book, Mennonite Food and Folkways of Mennonites from South Russia, Volume I  in which she describes the Mennonites' love of all things pork.  The first page of her chapter includes a Low German saying:
"He thinks highly of short
prayers and long sausages.
He hellt fal fonn en 
kortet Jebad onn ne lange Worscht."

Pig photos by Janan Markee

 My point here is not to give you strange Low German sayings about sausage to use as party tricks. Though it’s certainly an added bonus.

My point here is to expand a bit on the post “We Are Where They Ate” which gave a wee bit of Mennonite history, explaining that there were basically two Mennonite veins of immigration to North America – the Swiss/German and the Russian. My essential questions today:
Why are there Mennonites in Kansas?
Why are there Russian Mennonites in Kansas?
If these Mennonites are “Russian” why are they talking about sausage in Low German?

My last evening in Portland for a bit - Navarre. Was a perfect departure meal.

Ok, the story on the Russian Mennonites:  In the late 1700’s there was a Mennonite group in Prussia (what is now Poland), many of whom had come to Prussia from the Netherlands. (The Dutch influence being an important point when you're studying food history.)

This Prussian group began a resettlement to southern Russia in the 1780s upon the invitation of Catherine II, the Russian ruler at the time.  Her real aim was to settle land Russia had taken from the Turks in war, a fact the Mennonites likely didn’t quite grasp.  The logic of the invitation being that if the land was settled, it would assure Russia’s continued possession of it.  Tricky, if you ask me. But with land issues at home in Prussia, the Mennonites were pretty well primed to depart.

The deal looked even prettier with the package of privileges the Mennonites were promised. It almost seemed tailor-made:
- The Mennonite communities (often called "colonies") they established could be independent, essentially allowing them to operate in total isolation.
- Complete religious freedom, meaning no more persecution from Catholic or Reformed governments
- Exemption from military service, an especially important point considering Mennonites were and are pacifists. This tended to be a point of contention in most places of residence. 
- Special permission to brew beer and distill brandy, something the Mennonites were famous for in Prussia. Who knew? 

So they moved. And so began a 200+ year history of Mennonites in Russia. Of course moving wasn’t as simple as that. It wasn't packing up a U-haul and driving a few hundred miles at 60mph, listening to the Indigo Girls and dreaming about your garden on the other side. It was the 18thcentury after all. And wintertime. It was also a much more gradual migration from Prussia than this implicates, lasting until about 1870.

Map of Mennonite colonies in South Russia The "Old Colony" was the first

In keeping with pig themes - Navarre's pork pate 

To make a long story pretty short, (the story being what it takes to be impoverished pioneers in a foreign country) the colonies and villages they built in southern Russia were soon thriving. They successfully established their own governing structure, schools, hospitals, orphanages, economy and so on. Way of life in Russian Mennonite colonies is a study in and of itself, to be sure. 

Here’s the crux though – These Russian Mennonites from Prussia spoke Low German, a regional variety of West Germanic languages, from the time they arrived in Russia to the time they left. No, I won't judge you for having to reread that. And because they were given the privilege of living in basic isolation from the rest of the Russian culture the vast majority didn’t ever learn the Russian language, and they saw no need to. The isolation was even more pronounced as proselytizing  was not allowed by the Russian government. This had several implications, one being that there were few intermarriages between Mennonites and Russians. Marriage meant acculturation, the blending of families. 

However something serious shifted in the 1860s when the Russian government began requiring that the Russian language be taught in the Mennonite schools. Cornelius Dyck, a Mennonite historian, claims, “It is possible that this development conditioned the Mennonites to see the German language as an essential part of the Mennonite faith itself.”

Voila… Language becomes part of one’s faith. The ability to view "Mennonite" as part of one’sethnic identity found its fertile ground.

Something even more serious shifted in 1874 when the privilege of military exemption was lifted and replaced with the promise of alternative military service, like working in the forestry service. This alternative just wasn’t enough for many folks though.  So you guessed it… From 1873-1874 about 18,000 immigrants came to the Midwest.  A large group (probably around 5,000) of which chose central Kansas as home. Why Kansas? There were already some Swiss/German Mennonites who had come from Pennsylvania in Kansas, the railroad business wanted them, and land was being sold at a good price - $2.50 cents an acre. The price of my Americano this morning.  

Reminds me of that that Paul Simon song… 
“I’ve got some real estate here in my bag
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies
And we walked off to look for America”.

Except they were on ships with zwieback. Then wagons. Look for America, Kansas, Harvey County.   

Map of Mennonite congregations in Kansas

So colonies were established in the prairies of central Kansas. Interesting fact: The Russian Mennonites 
are responsible for having turned that vast prairie into the vast wheat fields as they are known today. Having tucked a few of those Turkey Red Wheat kernels on the boat and wagon, they planted away. Breadbasket indeed.   

Back to the crux – the language thing.  That the immigrants from Russia spoke German can make for a somewhat confusing history, albeit interesting. It certainly gave them trouble during wars against Germany when people were suspicious of German speakers. That they weren’t actually German was beside the point, or at the very least confusing.

Today in Kansas, many of the foods that the Russian Mennonites brought with them are now called “German” food, not Russian or Prussian or even Dutch.  German. So Friday night I will attend a German buffet that is complete with Russian Mennonite foods, which to be fair, aren't Russian foods either. This all makes sense I suppose… the folks who handed you that roll called it something in German. Called themselves something in German. Called everything something in German. Let us call it German.

Of note, I am not a descendant of Russian Mennonites. My mother’s side comes from Germany and France. The Mennonite part – Keturah's family – from Germany . My father’s side also comes from Germany. Yet the Russian Mennonite food is definitely part of my food story. Because to spend any time in this area of Kansas is to eat the food and know the descendants.  It meant my grandmother learned to make bierrocks and borscht and new years cookies. It meant we frequented the Breadbasket and dreamed of warm zwieback on the sleepy ride from Texas to Kansas, trying to spot the little white church on the horizon that meant the farm was only a few moments away. 


Keturah's Lemon Pie

Lemon Drop - A hard candy with lemon flavor and yellow color in the shape of the lemon.  Grandma Keturah was known to have them around the house, giving them to the little ones. 

Lemon Curd - A conserve with a thick consistency, made of lemons, butter, eggs and sugar. A mild version is essentially what makes up the bottom layer of Keturah's lemon pie here.

Chiffon - Having a light, frothy texture, as certain pies and cakes containing beaten egg whites. Likened to the emerging top layer of the pie that appears a bit magically due to the ease of the egg whites

Keturah's Lemon Sponge Pie - Today's pie! The fairly brilliant, economical, time-efficient pie that is all at once custard, cake and pastry.

The whole thing is quite "Mennonite" if I might say so in that a) You don't cook the custard before baking it, as most Mennonite custard recipes do.  b) It doesn't call to prebake the pie crust even though it's a liquid filling, as most Mennonite pie recipes don't.  c) It's terrifically rich, calling you to share it with the family, as most Mennonite food does.

Lemon pie testing mise en place

The "smiley face" Lemon Pie from Anon
The Lemon Pie winner (for the time being)

I started out testing the recipe with the smiley face on that evening with Joleen but realized upon further review that I was actually better suited for the one featured here - Lemon Sponge Pie. My selection (which was almost identical to the first) gave more volume in filling and had an extra egg yolk which I loved for the thicker texture it produced. My phone consult with Grandma Joan Dreier, Keturah's pie student, my mother's mother, proved to be industrious. She remembered the pie well from her days with Keturah and confirmed my suspicion that pre-baking the pastry was the way to go. 

So yes, prebake the crust. Add a little extra lemon rind (as I did) if you like it a little tarter. Serve a slice with fresh berries, and of course share it with friends, neighbors, family. The night I made this I actually was out of eggs. (Some cookbook writer am I.) Our kind neighbors proved to be worthy purveyors of the eggs and worthy recipients of some pie and strawberry sauce. 


My Elusive Lemon (and more on Keturah)

I head to Kansas in two short weeks for a short week-long trip.  I'm trying to plan well so as to savor it all, despite the brevity of it.  It's only seven days after all. Seven days with which to squeeze in interviews and cooking with both my grandmothers, a couple cousins, a great aunt, and Emily, the baker at Newton's legendary bakery - The Breadbasket. Wednesdays are vareniky days she tells me.

The flatness is fascinating
Seven days to visit that Mennonite museum out in the middle of nowhere for which you have to have an appointment. Except the small town of Hillsboro apparently had to let go of their curator so the tour guide is actually a volunteer Mennonite historian, Peggy, who by phone sounds reasonably overwhelmed. Her adult kids will be in from out of town that week... I have to just call when I get there.

Seven days to visit the archives which I've sadly found out are closed for the month of July so hopefully someone will just "let me in"...I have to call when I get there.

I don't think we're in Portland anymore.

Seven days in 107 degree weather, my photographer/brother Matt in tow to savor it all, despite the brevity of it.  Because at the end of those short, hot seven days I return home to Portland, far from the wheat fields and dairy farms of my grandmothers.

The fields of my grandmothers

On the Progress of Keturah's Lemon Pie:
I have to make a confession... I've never actually made lemon pie before this occasion. Or lemon chiffon. I've never chiffoned anything really.  But I've made lots of pies and custards and cakes. That's got to count for something. So how hard could it be?
Right. Never underestimate the power of pastry in the hands of Mennonite women on a farm.

So Wednesday evening, my lovely friend Joleen came over for the evening, and unbeknownst to her that evening was the evening of lemon pie. I knew she would be more than ok with the situation - she's a pie fanatic and a culinary school alumni.  To my great fortune, her expertise was a huge asset on this lemon pie evening as the 1934 recipe I chose from Keturah was more than a bit puzzling. 

Joleen and our lemon pies. Ok tartlets.

I won't bore you with the nitty, gritty, citrus-themed details of the entire process, but suffice to say there was a lot of scratching of heads over this handwritten card from 1934.  In my recipe-testing defense there was no oven temperature given, and several other factors confounded us a bit:  At face value the filling looks like the construct of a custard. Look closer - it's a cake in a pie shell.  But not enough flour to be a cake. Custard thickened with flour? So economical of her! 

Taste-tested. Still needing work.

All that to say, I'm working on it. Apologies if you were planning on making Keturah's Lemon Cake Pie tomorrow for your anticipating guests. But rest assured that if all goes as planned, tomorrow afternoon I will bake the perfect lemon pie and then I will have the perfect lemon pie recipe for you. Tell your guests to calm down. Sheesh.  

On Keturah:
The recipe Joleen and I baked from was written the year she married Fred Dreier, my great grandfather - 1934.  Keturah was born in Pennsylvania, apparently spent some of her childhood in Ohio, and then moved to central Kansas, where she took care of her ailing mother till her mother died in 1933. Which prompted her to find a new way to pass the time.

September 4, 1933 - Keturah's mother dies. 14 months later, Tura marries Grandpa Fred.  To pass the time after her mother's death, she went to Grandpa Fred's farm to help the widower with his children and essentially stayed for the long haul. (Note: In the last post I said that all 5 of his children were quite young. Not true. The oldest, Kenneth, was 21. The youngest, Alvin, my grandfather, was 7.)  Fred's first wife, Luella, had died of pneumonia the same year Keturah's mother died - 1933.

My grandfather Alvin, Keturah's youngest "son",  in his old blue Ford farm truck

My cousin Joanna wrote a college paper that tells the story of Luella's death. She tells it so well, why reinvent the wheel...
"In 1933, Kenneth Dreier and his fiancee Velma Prather planned to marry. Shortly before the wedding, disaster struck, as Luella fell ill with pneumonia. She was not able to attend the wedding and grew sicker by the day. The doctor from Newton was called to the house to administer treatment. When he arrived, he announced that he had forgotten a crucial item for treating Luella. He sent Delbert, who was 19 at the time, (Delbert is Joanna's grandfather, my great uncle) back to Newton to retrieve the item. He stressed the urgency of the situation to Delb who took it to heart. Breaking every traffic law and speed limit, he arrived at the hospital, was met by the nurse at the door and hurried home to his ailing mother with the essential remedy in hand. When he reached home, (as the story goes) he said, 'I hurried as fast as I could,' to the doctor. The doctor replied, 'You weren't fast enough.' Luella had died." 

Enter Keturah Kauffman from the neighboring Mennonite community. Apparently she had a way with kids. This much is clear... the two youngest, Nelson and Alvin, recounted they liked her so much, they'd chase her Model A car up the dirt road as she left each day. I guess Fred took a liking to her as well. 

Grandpa, brother Matt, sister Jenny

The Dreier family, my mother's side, was not historically Mennonite.  German - Yes. Mennonite - No. They were a farming family in the middle of an area that a LOT of Mennonites moved to in the late 1800s. But Keturah brought the Mennonite to the Dreiers' front doorstep and farmhouse kitchen. Her long hair and refusal to condone playing ball on Sunday was symbolic of the culture. Her cooking was as well. Visitors from every Menno corner of the country came through the farmhouse because of Keturah's presence there. 
Mennonite - No. 
Mennonite-influenced - Yes. 

She married a non-Mennonite man. It was 1934. Gulp.  Her conservative Mennonite church shunned her. Excommunicated. No more. I cannot imagine that kind of shift:  Age 40, your mother dies, you marry a farmer with 5 children (3 of whom are young and ornery), and sign on to a dairy and acres and acres of wheat fields.  Oh and then you get shunned from your church. Big year I'd say.

Genealogy websites list her baptism as "Evangelical Reformed", and she's buried in the Highland United Church of Christ cemetery where most of the Dreiers are buried.  Her mother is buried in West Liberty Mennonite Cemetery in McPherson County, a mere 30 miles away.

Keturah and Fred had one son together in 1936. Paul Albert Dreier. She was 42 when he was born. She was 42 when he died. Paul was 5 days old.  Nevertheless Keturah was a mother through and through, and by all accounts, fiercely qualified to be so.

As you can probably tell, I'm still piecing together the details of Keturah's life which can be difficult when she's not a blood relative, and I'm in Portland. The info is 1,731 miles away.  I do know Keturah's best cooking student quite well though, my Grandma Joan Dreier, who I interviewed just yesterday.

Another cousin of mine, Marcy, sent me this sweet note about Keturah. Seems a fitting end: "I worked at Schowalter Villa when Tura lived there. I was assigned the evening cook position the summer of my junior year in high school at the tender age of 16! Grandma Tura lived in assisted living and she would look to see when I was scheduled and then come into the kitchen when I arrived to teach me how to cook! She wanted to make sure any relation of hers was gonna get it right!"

Promise: Lemon Pie. There's going to be some serious chiffoning going on.