Mennonite Community Cookbook is an ambitious collection of traditional Mennonite recipes by Professor Mary Emma Showalter, who founded the Home Economics Department at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. In addition to an advanced degree from Penn State, her credentials include being a descendent of a “long line of Mennonite cooks in the Shenandoah Valley”. For many people the Mennonite tradition often gets conflated with the Amish, and while the two have shared history they are certainly not the same. Some Mennonite groups choose to follow the “old ways” and retain traditional dress and dialects, but most are indistinguishable from your average garden variety Christian, at least in terms of dress, speech, and living arrangements. Dr. Showalter was certainly in the latter category. She was a working woman and held an advanced degree in a time when it was unusual for women to do either.
In the introduction to Mennonite Community Cookbook Professor Showalter speaks lovingly of her grandmother’s recipe book, a small blue notebook filled with handwritten recipes and stuffed with loose leaf pages with even more recipes. Inspired by both the quality of the recipes and the history that these books preserved, she set out to collect “little notebooks” from Mennonite communities throughout the United States and Canada. Mennonite Community Cookbook is a compilation of over eleven hundred recipes, selected from over five thousand submitted.
The book is arranged into chapters by recipe type: breads and rolls, jams and jellies, etc. Being a compilation it is difficult to pin down a particular style or unifying theme; Professor Showalter instead unifies each chapter with stories and memories of her grandmother. Some of it is simple nostalgia, but there’s a quasi-academic focus on technological differences between her grandmother’s kitchen and the “modern” conveniences of 1950. Professor Showalter was born in 1913, meaning that her grandparents were likely born before the Civil War and learned to cook before the advent of refrigeration, electric stoves, or even indoor plumbing. The chapter introductions include memories of barreled salt pork and weekend-long home canning marathons and fresh-baked breads in a wood-fired oven. They make for fascinating reading.
There’s not a lot of window dressing here. Professor Showalter’s prose is both engrossing and charming, but this is more encyclopedia than coffee table cookbook. The text on technique and cooking methods is extensive and well-written, but if you’re a visual learner you’re out of luck. There’s a single color insert of some rustic looking pies in the first few pages and that’s it, other than some stylized hand-drawn illustrations for chapter headings and filler.
Typically when I review a conventional cookbook I try to find a single recipe that captures the “spirit” of the book. For Mennonite Community Cookbook this is both impossible and unfair to Professor Showalter’s work. Despite being a for-profit venture, Mennonite Community Cookbook has more in common with my collection of vintage church cookbooks than Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. The collection spans centuries, from ‘very old’ European recipes to mid-century casseroles and composed salads. The ‘very old’ recipes are labeled as such in the text, and I’ve provided one below as a representative example. A more comprehensive survey of Mennonite Community Cookbook‘s recipes can be found here.
The recipe in Mennonite Community Cookbook that I find most entertaining is Grandmother’s Ginger Nuts. This book designates the recipe as “very old”, presumably from the late nineteenth century. This recipe was submitted independently by two different women, once as Grandmother’s Ginger Nuts and another as Ginger Balls. And while there’s some puerile entertainment value in the recipe’s names – I shudder to think what internet search strings will turn up in the analytics – what’s first caught my eye was an anecdote that accompanied one of the submissions:
[Ginger Nuts are] small, round cookies which are so hard you have to suck them. My grandmother made them often and carried them to church hidden in a pocket in the folds of her skirt. She would use them, as needed, during church service to quiet and amuse her grandchildren.
These days frazzled parents will usually fall back on Cheerios or Goldfish Crackers – sweet ginger cookies are something that only a grandmother could get away with. And I appreciated the novelty that they needed to be sucked on to get the flavor out, kind of like a pacifier in cookie form. Ingenious.
The recipe itself looks like a basic ginger cookie, minus the eggs. It’s heavy on the molasses and has almost a candy-like quality to it. My first couple of batches turned out like a soft/flat molasses cookie with sticky caramelized edges when I realized I had been making them wrong. The key to getting the “so hard you have to suck them” cookie is to make them small, no more than an inch in diameter, and then watch them carefully so they don’t overcook. Done properly you’ll get something that resembles a gingersnap but not as crumbly or crumby – i.e. perfect for handing out at church.
Mennonite Community Cookbook is still in print, with a 65th Anniversary Edition published in 2015, and can be purchased from Amazon or other fine booksellers.
- In a large mixing bowl. Cream shortening and brown sugar with an electric mixer. Add molasses and mix well.
- In a separate mixing bowl mix together dry ingredients.
- Add about a third of the flour mixture to the creamed sugar and mix well, then add a few splashes of the boiling water. Alternate adding dry ingredients and boiling water while mixing until a nice batter is formed. It will look more like frosting than cookie batter. Chill cookie dough throughly, at least four hours before proceeding.
- Preheat the oven to 350º F
- Roll chilled dough into small balls, no more than one inch in diameter. Roll in the granulated sugar and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper about 2 inches apart. Bake 10-12 minutes until cookie is crisp around the edges and bottom is caramelized but not burnt. Let cool on tray 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack. They're delicious warm but if you want the "so hard you have to suck them" experience let them cool completely before eating.