Katie Boyts, creator of the The Shoofly Project blog (http://theshooflyproject.blogspot.com) helped me understand why I have wonderful memories of the desserts Mom used to make, but not so much the meals.
Don’t be fooled though by this introduction: my mom was a fine cook who put three separate meals on the table every day of the week for a family of six and for that alone, she deserves a medal of “she got ‘er done!” But she did not love cooking - she did it because that was her job, among others, and we needed to eat. She went into a mild panic when Dad would bring in a couple of hired hands at the last minute for dinner, or if Dad or us kids talked her into having company for Sunday dinner. She was always inclined to worry about whether she would prepare enough, or would people like it, and how would she ever get all her other work done?
But a normal dinner (main meal of the day at noon on the farm) in the ‘50s and ‘60s in rural Indiana was just meat (usually home-grown beef or pork served baked/roasted, fried); potatoes (mashed, plain boiled, baked, or fried) or perhaps noodles or macaroni; and a vegetable, boiled. Period. If we had salad, it was iceberg lettuce with homemade salad dressing. In the summer we joyfully added fresh tomatoes, radishes and garden lettuce to our meals. But no spinach, kale, or other nutritious greens. No broccoli, cauliflower, squash or other “exotic” vegetables at our house. Usually plain corn, beans, peas. No casseroles other than macaroni and cheese. Later in life we got into lima beans and casseroles combining noodles, potatoes, and a vegetable with a can of soup on top. We were getting fancy.
For our evening meal in summer we ate one of a variety of fresh fruits (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries or peaches) with bread and milk or maybe with a cobbler or shortcake. We ate local most of the time and didn’t even know that was something to cherish.
However, (and I’m told by my peers this was common with many a Mennonite mom) desserts were special. As Katie Boyts pointed out at a Mennonite writers’ conference (http://emu.edu/now/news/2012/04/170-north-american-writers-gather-at-emu/) recently, if you look at cookbooks or recipe boxes from the era you will see separate chapters or sections of recipes for 1) cakes, 2) pies, 3) cookies/brownies, and then one just called “desserts” (as if all those other sections weren’t really desserts). Even a relatively well-rounded book like the now classic Mennonite Country-Style Recipes by Esther Shank (Herald Press, 1987) dedicates roughly 200 of its 500 pages to dessert-type items (all categories). That is where date pudding, hot chocolate pudding, and something we called George Washington Pudding (or “cherry delight”) and much more were found. This is where the fancy came out. I recall learning how to whip real cream for Mom to plop at the last minute onto the already-decadently-rich date pudding when company came, so it would be poufy and fresh. Or helping her dish up hot chocolate pudding for a church committee meeting at the house - a warm Bisquick-y base with melted chocolate syrup oozing over everything like you would find at Applebees, with ice cream on top. I have never made date or hot chocolate pudding for my own family. They would think both are too rich.
But when your meal was rather plain and you did hard physical work on the farm, you could indulge in dessert. Every week Mom would make either a cake or homemade pies for the basic dessert for the week and then if we ran out, we’d have home canned peaches, pears, apricots or cherries with a cookie or two. Those fruit desserts bring back fond memories too because I have never gotten around to canning fruits. Today, if Mom goes to a potluck, even at age 87, she doesn’t feel right just bringing a store bought pie or deli potato salad (or heaven forbid a bag of chips): she has to make her usual pecan pie.
It is interesting how food customs and favorites change even within the same culture - let alone add in the delightful multicultural mix of food that we enjoy in North America these days.
I’m grateful for all I learned from my mother in the kitchen even though she always felt she failed in teaching us four children to cook very much. These days, even my brother and one sister who were always out helping Dad on the farm, manage to get a great meal on the table.
No use to harken back to “good old days” - just enjoy and appreciate the foods you are blessed with in 2012, and the plethora of recipes and cooking shows and blogs and websites to show you endless ways to prepare them.
What was a favorite dessert or other food your mom prepared? What are your memories around mealtime, for possible use in a future column? Send to: Another Way, Box 22, Harrisonburg, Va., 22803 or email email@example.com. For more Mennonite cookbooks go to http://store.mpn.net/showproducts.cfm?FullCat=9
Published: April 30, 2012