Mennonite Girls Can Read (With Recipes!)

Dear Ms. Goodrich,

Thank you for your continued interest in my manuscript. What a wonderful idea to add a chapter of recipes to my book of essays on Mennonite theopoetics and literary history. I quite understand how that might expand the market for the essay collection. I was interested to hear your proposed title for the book: Mennonite Girls Can Read (With Recipes!). My friends in marketing assure me that with a title like that, the book will sell like hotcakes. Speaking of cakes, see my new chapter of collected recipes below.

Shalom,
Kirsten

Aunt Jacobina's Gelächterkuchen

Aunt Jacobina always made these tiny cakes. Of course, she wasn't really our aunt, she was the Brenneman kids' great-great-aunt, but everyone called her Aunt Jacobina. I can remember her well, with the net covering precisely pinned over the coiled mass of her long white braid. She wore her covering long after the other grandmas at church gave it up, and when we'd try to sing in unison to words projected on the wall while Brother Lucas played guitar on Wednesday nights, she would belt out an alto line, or even a tenor, because she believed we should always sing in harmony.

She was the only one at church who could make true gelächterkuchen. Some other ladies had easier recipes from their families, the kind you could make in one evening. Instead of baking each tiny cake in a thimble, they would just bake a big rectangle on a cookie tray and cut it into little squares. With frosting. They didn't even try to say gelächterkuchen; instead, they called them gelach cakes. I don't remember that anyone actually ate the inferior gelach cakes. Aunt Jacobina baked gallons of gelächterkuchen for Easter, but if you didn't get up early for the sunrise singing, you wouldn't get to church in time to taste any. After she died, I was touched and amazed to find that she had left her recipe for me, neatly copied in longhand onto a new index card. It turns out she noticed how carefully I used to dry and polish each communion cup twice, there in our church kitchen after the love feast.

  • 6 eggs, separated
  • 3 heaping cups of flour
  • fist-sized knob of butter
  • pinch salt
  • molasses to taste

Separate the eggs and reserve yolks, uncovered, in a cool cellar. Beat the whites by hand in a copper or glass bowl (copper is better) until stiff peaks form. Let sit, covered with cheesecloth, overnight, waking every hour or so to beat the whites thick again. At sunrise or shortly after first birdsong, combine butter, flour and salt thoroughly by treading upon it with bare feet in a small washtub. (I have found that it works just as well to rub the butter and flour together as you would for pie crust, as long as you do not wash your hands.) Retrieve egg yolks from the cellar, skim off any dust and beat vigorously. Add molasses to the yolks, but first search your soul to be sure you have no impure thoughts or worldly yearnings, or you may put in too much. Combine wet and dry ingredients, folding in the whites gently at the end. Grease and flour thimble and fill two-thirds full. Bake individual cakes one after another on the hot top of a cherry-wood-fired cookstove. (I have found that you can speed this process by purchasing an additional three or four thimbles and that an oven heated to 450 degrees works almost as well if you do not have a cookstove.) Age cakes for three weeks in a tin basket in the smokehouse or hung high in your chimney.

Groundnut and Bhati Stew

During our family's eight-year term in Arvedistan, we experienced incredible hospitality and also witnessed devastating poverty. Never did we feel this more strongly than in our first year as we toured a remote mountain region and came upon a family of nomads suffering the effects of a decade of drought. Their cattle were all gone and they had climbed into the mountains to harvest groundnuts, a back-breaking process that required the help of everyone in the family from the ancient grandmother down to the scrawny son who had never seen rain in his lifetime. Outside their tent was tied a well-mannered little animal, something between a goat, a wildebeest and a toy poodle in size and appearance. The boy explained through our translator that this was a bhati he had snared here in the mountains. It was quite tame, and he showed us how he had trained it to open the hide flap of the tent.

The family insisted that we come inside and we sat on the dirt around a smoky fire while the patriarch of the family hosted us in the rich tradition of a four-hour long tea ceremony. When he explained they had no yak butter to add to the tea, we were able to offer the butter we had brought in our packs as a gift. Later, the grandmother brought in an aromatic stew and the son began to weep. We asked the translator what was the matter and he explained that the child was weeping with happiness because he had been able to provide meat for their honored guests. The family insisted that we eat and sat about laughing and clapping delightedly as we ate every last drop of the stew.

Later, we were to learn from a visiting conservationist that our bhati meal was rare indeed. The last recorded sighting of a bhati was back in 1989, so this was the last known living specimen. This knowledge only increased our humility at the gift we had been given. Not only had that child on the brink of starvation given up his pet for us, but an entire species had given its all to make us feel welcome. I have done my best to recreate the recipe for the stew by substituting inexpensive ingredients you are likely to have in your kitchen, but to really experience it, you must spend an eight-year term in Arvedistan taking lessons in humility.

  1. one chicken, cut up (or, if you can get it, goat meat, cubed)
  2. 2 Tbsp. margarine
  3. medium onion, diced
  4. 1/4 tsp. garlic powder (optional-spicy!)
  5. 4 Tbsp. peanut butter
  6. tomato juice
  7. salt and pepper to taste

Heat skillet on medium-high. Melt margarine and fry onion until soft. Then brown the pieces of meat on all sides. Add garlic powder (if desired) and peanut butter; cook for a few more minutes. Cover with tomato juice and simmer until meat is cooked through and very soft, about one hour. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve on rice. For special occasions, top with slices of hard-boiled egg.

Forget-About-It Salmon Pot

What I love about slow cookers is that you can bless your family (and yourself) with a hot, home-cooked meal, even after a long, hard day. There's nothing like coming home to a pot of goodness after spending hours talking sternly to customers who try to take more than three garments into the dressing rooms at the MCC thrift store, or driving the kids around town (from soccer practice to Bible quizzes to the math tutor to Simplicity Club), or typing frantically to keep your Mennonite food blog up-to-date and witty so that the publishers will notice you. What a relief to see that your dinner has cooked itself! I love slow cookers so much that I often have four of them simmering at once: one for main dish, one for dessert, one for side and one for salad.

This recipe is especially good for church potlucks. The other day, I went to a potluck at the Baptist church and it was downright dismal. Take-out chicken, store-bought pies, 17 different potato dishes and not a single green vegetable. (Okay, so I went back for seconds, but I had to go on a juice fast for the next week to make up for it.) I was glad to get back to my own church. I just have to say it: Mennonite churches have the best potlucks ever! We have ethnic foods and healthy foods, and there's always someone who looks out for the vegetarians and brings lentils. Sometimes it's hard to keep up with the Millers and Tiessens and Yoders and all their fabulous food, but don't worry! This unique dish restored my position at the front of the pack. I have had many, many requests for the recipe, so here it is. As usual, I have included a couple of wicked little secrets to make sure people will be scraping the bottom of your slow cooker and asking for more.

  • 2 cans wild Atlantic salmon, drained
  • 1 cup jasmine rice, uncooked
  • 1 cup Gorgonzola, crumbled
  • 1/2 cup dried apricots, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 1/8 cup cilantro, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed
  • generous sploosh of balsamic vinegar
  • freshly ground pepper to taste
  • broth to cover

Combine in slow cooker and cook on low for 6-8 hours or on high for 3-4 hours.

Wicked little secrets:

  • You can substitute any blue cheese for the Gorgonzola. But be sure to use full-fat cheese in all of your recipes. No one keeps track of calories at a potluck.
  • Lightly toast the walnuts in a skillet or toaster oven before you add them to the pot.
  • You don't actually have to pick the skin and bones out of canned salmon before you use it. I did this for years before I realized that they just disappear during the cooking - poof, like magic!

Fresh Local Garden Salad

As we become more aware of the ways that burning fossil fuels does violence to our Mother Earth and her community of creatures, we look closer to home for food sources. Making your own salad (with a little help from the Great Creator) takes a little more planning, but the rewards are great and go much deeper than flavor.

Sustainably clear a patch of earth by double-digging it. Amend the soil with some of your compost, but only if you have been careful to separate out the meat and citrus peels. If not, bury your compost and start a new bin for next year. Meanwhile, stir some well-aged manure into your garden patch. (We have found that several local businesses have hitching posts for Amish customers, so I keep a large bucket in the passenger's seat of my car in order to collect any fertilizer I may find in the parking lots.) Plant a diverse mixture of leafy greens from seeds you have saved from last year's garden. Using seeds produced by a corporate interest defeats the purpose of this recipe and will make the salad bitter.

Allow the good Earth to feed and water your salad garden. Do not weed this patch. Remember that many of the plants we in our agro-centricity call weeds are wholesome foods. Purslane has a sweet tang, lambs-quarters is as nutritious as spinach, and stinging nettles are rich in protein.

To serve, roll out sustainably harvested bamboo mats around the garden patch when the leaves of the greens are 6-8" high. Advise your guests to lower themselves carefully onto the mats, so as not to compact the soil. It is better to lie down than to sit, as this distributes your weight more naturally (and makes up somewhat for the excessive bulk that most Americans carry about these days).

Gently pinch off the tips of the greens and enjoy. Be sure that you do not use scissors to snip them, as this damages the plant. For best results, don't even use your fingers - just graze. No dressing is necessary - the savor of sunshine and self-righteousness should make this salad go down easily.

Blessing for the Meal

Now thank we all our God, with forks and spoons uplifted,
for butter and for meat, and flours lightly sifted,
that we are Mennonite, and mean to stay that way,
that food is love, and we have plenty for today.