Cookery is inextricably interwoven with the family—its housing, its daily routines, its celebrations, its traditions. Geographic and climatic conditions, and the possibilities or difficulties of gardening further contribute to differences in the table fare of the family.
Until the 20th century, cooking equipment was quite primitive. Among eastern Mennonites "refrigeration" in summer was provided by cool springs; in the west, wells and storm cellars were used. For winter, root vegetables were stored in sand, cabbage in a barrel underground, potatoes and apples in bins. Fruits were frequently dried or pickled. Barrels of sauerkraut, jars of sorghum and apple butter promised variety. A barrel of "boughten" soft white sugar was expected to last throughout the winter.
The hub of warm weather activity for many Mennonite homes was the summer house, which served to keep the heat of the extra cooking during the threshing and preserving seasons out of the house. The Low Germans built Spoaheat (brick ovens) into one corner of their kitchens or summer kitchens. Twisted straw or dried dung was used for fuel. The Pennsylvania Dutch built large brick ovens outdoors. On baking day a roaring wood fire was started in the oven. When the heat was great enough, the coals were raked out and a dozen or so loaves of bread were set in to bake. After the bread came 16 to 20 pies, then perhaps trays of fruit to dry. In both East and West, into one corner of the basement, the summer house, or a separate outbuilding, was built what the Low Germans called a Miagrope—a bricked-in kettle. Here water was heated for washing or butchering. In it lard was rendered, apple butter cooked down, or soap manufactured. An important piece of equipment among the Pennsylvania Dutch was the doughtray (a rectangular box on legs) in which flour was stored, and dough was mixed, then set near the hearth to rise.
Breadstuff in its various forms indeed served as the staff of life for Mennonites, at times providing the main course. French toast, served with jelly, syrup, or brown sugar, came to be known as Mennonite toast; many a family made a meal of corn bread and milk, or cornmeal mush with milk or fried and served with syrup, apple butter, or creamed tomatoes. Buckwheat, corn, or wheat pancakes were general favorites. The Westerners relished a very thin, large pancake, which sometimes enclosed cherries or cottage cheese. It is reported that when times were hard some Kansas families had only pancakes to eat—breakfast, dinner, and supper. Combinations of flour products and other foods were popular—"rivels" (tiny lumps of egg and flour simmered in milk); fruit soups (bread, milk, and fruit—usually berries); noodles or a variety of dumplings steamed in soup, stew, hot milk or water. Vareniki was a dumpling enclosing cottage cheese. It was boiled in water or fried in deep fat. Apple dumplings were usually baked— the Low Germans called them Piroshki. They also enjoyed Bobbat—a batter in which sausage or salt pork was baked. It was also sometimes used as stuffing for duck.
Breads and cakes were almost indistinguishable, for the German word Kuchen applied to much of baking. Coffee cake in varying forms was a universal favorite. Certain other "cakes" were traditional in the various groups—the Pennsylvania Dutch prepared Fastnachts (raised doughnuts) for Shrove Tuesday; Swiss weddings or holidays were not complete without "nothings" or "kneepatches" (a very thin, plate-size, fried cruller). The Russian Mennonites considered Portzelki (raisin fritters) essential for New Year's Day, and Rollkuchen (a rectangular light cruller) a necessary accompaniment to watermelon. Paskha (raisin bread) appears at Easter; Zwieback still enlivens Christmas, Easter Pentecostal, and even Saturday suppers and Sunday meals. These rich two-layered rolls are often served with Plumemoos, and ham. Plumemoos was a fruit soup usually made of raisins and prunes, served either hot or cold. Other favorites of the Russian Mennonites are rye bread, poppyseed rolls, and Schnetke (a biscuit).
At Christmas the Prussians and the Low Germans fill jars with Pfeffernüsse, Springerle, and other hard cookies. Springerle are formed by rolling with a pin which has pictures carved in its surface. Among Mennonites in general, sugar cookies and soft ginger cookies have always been favorites. Cake recipes are found in multitudinous variety in the old handwritten recipe books of the Pennsylvania Dutch but always with vague quantities and directions. One needed to be an artist, indeed, to use them. Early favorites were poundcake without icing, marble cake (the dark part made with brown sugar and molasses), coconut cake, hickory-nut cake, ribbon cakes, and jelly rolls.
Pie was served three times a day by the Pennsylvanians. The "shoofly" pie is a molasses crumb pie; other favorites still appreciated are vanilla tart pies, open-faced custard fruit pies, milk and buttermilk pies, elderberry and green tomato pies. The Amish prepared half-moon dried apple pies which were called "preaching pies" because their dryness allowed them to be carried to church to keep the children pacified during the long services. They were also customarily served at the meal following preaching. Pies were usually stored on swinging shelves in basement or springhouse or later in "safes" (cupboards with pierced tin doors).
In order to fill out the "seven sweets" traditional among the Pennsylvania Dutch, various puddings were developed—"pap" and other milk puddings, fruit puddings, steamed puddings (Dampf-Knepp), and the famous Schnitz und Knepp. This latter was a dish of dumplings steamed over dried apples and sometimes a ham bone.
Soups were more than another dish; they were a way of life—simple, economical, conserving of precious foodstuffs. Favorites were potato, onion, ham and green bean, chicken and corn, bean, and Borscht. The Mennonites of Russian background prepare summer Borscht with ham bone and greens; the winter variety with beef, mutton, or chicken and root vegetables and cabbage. An important ingredient is sour cream, added just before serving.
Butchering day was a great event in Mennonite families. It meant hams, bacons, and sausage in the smokehouse—perhaps dried beef and beef sausages too. It meant scrapple, liverwurst, pickled pigs' feet, and jars of lard in the cellar. It provided fats for homemade soap.
Chicken was "for company" and for holidays. But ducks, geese, and turkeys were holiday foods too. Dressings were varied. Since most Mennonites in America were inlanders, their consumption of fish was limited.
Salads are conspicuously absent from early Mennonite menus, except for lettuce, cabbage, and cucumbers served with sour cream dressings. Vegetables were varied but were simply served. In the East the "seven sours" included many relishes, such as piccalilli, corn salad, mixed pickle and pickled fruits, besides the usual cucumber pickles. Pickled beets and eggs are distinctively Pennsylvania Dutch. Russian Mennonites like pickled watermelon.
Beverages were usually simple herb teas; cheeses were cup, ball, or cottage cheese except among the Swiss; confections were limited to taffy made of sorghum, or to popcorn balls or sugar cubes.
Most of the foods mentioned above are still cherished today, particularly for family holidays; but the fried cakes and steamed dumplings have given way to more easily digested foods. The use of salads has increased—gelatine salads have been substituted for the puddings. Other American dishes such as ice cream, hamburgers, and "hot dogs" have been increasingly incorporated into Mennonite diets. Some traditional dishes have become almost a lost art. But the Mennonites continue to be justly renowned for their ability to make plain substantial foods into very palatable ones. It should be said of course that Mennonite cookery has not been uniquely Mennonite but largely an integral part of the culture of the country in the regions of which they are a part, although immigrants coming to America brought with them from the "Old Country" the cookery of their native lands, some of which has persisted in the descendants of the original immigrants for several generations.
Epp, B. S. "Typical Low German Foods." Unpublished paper, Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas.
Hutchison, R. The Pennsylvania Dutch Cook Book. New York, 1948.
Pennsylvania Dutch Cook Book. Reading, Pa., 1936.
Showalter, Mary E. Mennonite Community Cookbook. Scottdale, Pa., 1950). This title has sold over 50,000 copies, and is one of few large-size cookbooks giving historic recipes used by Mennonite women, who furnished most of the recipes in the book.
More recently many local community cookbooks have been prepared by Mennonite women, sometimes actually published by the local congregation or a subdivision of it. Some of the first were:
Burkhart, Katie. Lancaster County Cook Book. 2nd edition, East Earl, Pennsylvania, n.d.
Lehman, Mrs. Elmer. The Kidron-Orrville Community Cook Book. Kidron, Ohio, n.d.
Mennonite Cook Book. Danvers, Illinois, 1931.
Off the Mountain Lake Range. Mountain Lake, Minn., 1949.
The Sunshine Cook Book. Peoria, 1952.
The Walnut Creek Cook Book. Walnut Creek, Ohio, 1949.
Cite This Article
Harshbarger, Eva. "Cookery, Mennonite (American)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 26 May 2015. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Cookery,_Mennonite_(American)&oldid=79868.
Harshbarger, Eva. (1953). Cookery, Mennonite (American). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 26 May 2015, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Cookery,_Mennonite_(American)&oldid=79868.
Herald Press website.
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