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Food Column: ‘Mennonite Girls’ feed the spirit, too

Are you still prepping your holiday menus? Last week, Gretchen McKay helped you with four stuffing recipes; this week, she’s tackling side dishes (see cover story). A cookbook published earlier this year could assist with holiday menus. Along the way, the book might also help you keep the holiday frenzy at bay and, instead, reflect on the holiday’s spiritual side. Ten women “met” through a cooking blog that eventually became “Mennonite Girls Can Cook,” a full-color book of recipes, stories and devotional essays. Nine of the “girls,” as they began calling themselves when someone offhandedly commented, “You Mennonite girls sure can cook,” are Mennonites living in Western Canada. The 10th lives in the Seattle area, and although not Mennonite, she shares the group’s Russian Mennonite ancestry. The book captures the family traditions, family closeness and religious faith that united the women’s ancestors during times of persecution. The book might seem to suffer from ethnic confusion, but that simply stems from Russian Mennonite history. Some recipes have Russian names, some have Dutch or German names, and some are everyday American fare. Russian Mennonite families started in the Netherlands and Prussia (the leading state of the German empire), where they faced persecution for their religious beliefs. In 1763, Catherine the Great of Russia offered a safe haven to Europeans who would convert unused Russian land into profitable farmland. The Mennonite families who emigrated tamed the wild land and built large estates with ornate buildings, well-tilled fields and orchards. Lovella Schellenberg, the blogger who started the cookbook, still possesses blueprints of her grandfather’s estate. But by 1870, Russia ended the special treatment and began conscripting the pacifist Mennonites. Also, Russian citizens, who faced great poverty during the revolution of the early 1900s, began to resent the prosperous Mennonite farms. And so Mennonites faced persecution again. They were not allowed to have churches. Soldiers plundered their land. And when World War II broke out, their German descent pegged them as enemies of the state. In the book, Julie Klassen shares a recipe for schnetki (finger biscuits), the food her mother-in-law packed for her father-in-law on the final day his family ever saw him in 1941, when he and other Mennonite men were forced to march away under guard to Siberia. Mrs. Klassen’s husband was 4 years old at the time and still remembers his father trudging into the distance with schnetki in his pocket. So Russian Mennonites began emigrating again, this time to Canada. The cookbook’s authors are relatively new Canadians. Ms. Schellenberg was among the first generation of her family born on Canadian soil. Her parents were young children when they arrived in Canada. Those first Mennonites in Canada faced some of the same challenges the first Mennonites in Russia faced: tilling wild land as homesteaders. Ms. Schellenberg sometimes pauses in amazement at her generation’s abundance so soon after emigration. She and her co-authors wanted to document and preserve traditional Mennonite recipes. While the book does include recipes that could appear in any American cookbook — enchiladas, pizza, stir-fry — most are ancestral fare: kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes), obst moos (cold fruit soup) and cabbage borscht (Russian soup), holubschi (cabbage rolls), spaetzle (German dumplings). There’s a special emphasis on breads, cookies, coffee cakes and other baked goods that play a prominent role in traditional Mennonite cuisine. And many of those baked goods — such as traditional Christmas cookies, like pfeffernuesse (“peppernuts,” see recipe below) and tee gebaeck (Linzer cookies) — would add nicely to a holiday table. There is, too, a turkey-and-stuffing tutorial recipe, although Ms. Schellenberg notes that Thanksgiving is uniquely a U.S. and Canadian holiday and thus not part of Russian Mennonite heritage. Sprinkled among the recipes are pages devoted to the life story of each author, plus other pages titled “Bread for the Journey” — devotional essays the women wrote to expound Bible verses and reflect on the Christian faith journey. Some of the essays promote hospitality, sharing of bounty and regarding the Word of God as spiritual “bread”; others express thanks for blessings even in hardship. So Thanksgiving the holiday might not figure in Mennonite tradition, but thanksgiving as a way of life, it would appear, does. “Mennonite Girls Can Cook” ($24.99) is available through online booksellers such as, as well as at Proceeds benefit the Good Shepherd Shelter, a home for street children in Ukraine. Benefits Saturday: Share Our Strength Great American Bake Sale and Christmas Bazaar, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Upper St. Clair. Baked goods, lunch foods, 30 vendors and crafters, gift basket raffle. Proceeds go to Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Through Nov. 30: Pecan sale — a pound of mammoth halves for $10 or a 12-ounce bag of milk chocolate-covered pecans for $8. Sold by Pittsburgh South Hills Delta Gamma alumni to benefit the visually impaired. To order: 412-341-1832. Also selling pecans, to raise money for scholarships, is the Smith College Club of Pittsburgh — 1 pound mammoth halves for $12 or 12 ounces of chocolate-covered for $9 (plus postage). Call Ann Ostergaard at 412-488-8836. Demos Saturday: Bakery’s Cookin’, 5 to 8 p.m. at Bakery Square, Larimer. Live demos by chefs from local restaurants, holiday style and decor demos, beer and wine pairings, food samples, live music. $10 in advance; $12 at the door; benefits Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh. 888-71-TICKETS or (search for “Bakery’s Cookin’”). Sunday: Beth Christiano of La Mia Cucina Verde, a caterer featuring Italian foods made from homegrown and local ingredients, will demo butternut squash bruschetta. 1 p.m. at Pittsburgh Public Market, Strip District. Free. Swanky dinner Dec. 3: Holiday Bliss Progressive Dinner, 4 and 7 p.m. at Polymath Park Resort, Acme. Horse-drawn wagon rides through candle-lit lanes, tour of three homes (including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Duncan House) and a progressive feast of four courses with entertainment at each stop. $125 per person. Register ahead: 1-877-833-7829, ext. 3. TV food Sunday: Alton Brown hosts “Thanksgiving Live!,” a two-hour, interactive show starting at noon on the Food Network. Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray and other stars will do recipe demos and discuss such perennial problems as lumpy gravy and dry turkey. Viewers can submit questions in advance or live via Twitter, Facebook and Skype. Top chef Richard Rosendale, executive chef at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., has been named one of four finalists for the prestigious Bocuse d’Or USA National Competition. He and three other chefs will compete Jan. 28-29 for the chance to represent the U.S. at the 2013 Bocuse d’Or World Cuisine Contest. Contests Get published in a cookbook: Before Feb. 12, submit an appetizer, salad, side dish, main dish or dessert recipe to for possible inclusion in “Wholey’s: 100 Years E-Cookbook.” Recipes must include items purchased at Wholey’s in the Strip District. If your recipe is selected, you get a free e-mail copy of the cookbook. Moolah for muffins: Create a recipe using at least one pouch of Martha White muffin mixes. Submit your recipe before Nov. 30 to Top prize is $5,000. Pfeffernuesse (Peppernuts) PG tested Our store didn’t have ground anise, so we substituted 1/4 teaspoon anise extract. — Rebecca Sodergren Cream butter and brown sugar; add eggs and mix well. Place baking soda in buttermilk; then add corn syrup and buttermilk to butter mixture. Mix together 4 1/2 cups flour and all the spices; add to butter mixture. Mix well. Continue adding flour to form a soft, pliable dough. Refrigerate dough about 1 hour. When dough is chilled, roll it into 1/2-inch thick ropes. Place on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Chill or freeze ropes until ready to bake. With a sharp knife, cut ropes into 1/3-inch slices and place on cookie sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for about 8 minutes. — Judy Wiebe in “Mennonite Girls Can Cook” (Herald, 2011, $25) First published on November 17, 2011 at 12:00 am

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