This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Book review: ‘Gather Around the Amish Table’

What other than an Amish-Mennonite cookbook describes how to feed 180 hungry men at a barn-raising, with a feast that includes 50 pounds of white potatoes, 20 plump chickens, 300 yeast rolls and 120 shoo-fly pies?

Gather Around the Amish Table
Gather Around the Amish Table

In a world of fast-food drive-through and microwave meals, non-plain folks find these mammoth amounts unthinkable. And yet, we all need to feed our families and friendship circles, no matter what the size. Gather Around the Amish Table: Treasured Recipes and Stories from Plain Communities satisfies a hunger for home-style dishes and a feeling of home.

This cookbook’s homey charm is twofold. Its recipes include catchy names such as “Sisters’ Day Doughnuts and Glaze,” “Stormy Day One-Dish Meal” and “Roasted Pig Stomach.” And it includes contributors’ stories as well as kitchen tips from Amish compiler Lucy Leid of Lancaster, Pa. These additions convey the culture behind the cookies, cakes and casseroles.

Leid explains why she marinates this cookbook in these stories: “I have been reading Die Botschaft for about 30 years. It comes weekly from Millersburg, Pennsylvania, about 40 sheets of newsprint full of news from the letters that the scribes sent in. The scribes are the reporters in the various Amish and horse-and-buggy Mennonite communities around the country. The scribes . . . write about where the church was held, how the crops are doing, the weather, who’s visiting, who’s home from the hospital and such. Then there are the births, deaths, prayer requests and classified ads.

“At the end is Ivverich und Ender (what’s left over, the ends), which has address requests, recipes, thank yous and other miscellaneous things. I got the idea for this cookbook from seeing other people’s ads in Ivverich und Ender. I asked people to send me their ‘tried-and-true’ recipes along with some chatting, a story about the recipe or food.”

The cookbook’s 10 sections cover categories of food ranging from breakfast to breads and spreads to snacks, beverages and extras and everything in between. Leid salts and peppers the 269 pages with chatty appetizers, such as this one for “Sisters’ Day Doughnuts and Glaze”:

“Doughnut Day! . . . On Mom’s birthday in December every year, my sisters bring their supplies to our basement. . . . It’s usually a crowd with six mothers, me and mom. At least 12 children and babies are running around putting fingerprints in the raising doughnuts. . . .

“Each sister and sister-in-law makes at least 200 to 300 doughnuts. . . . At the end of the day, no one wants to see or eat another doughnut for a day or two. But each heads home with sleepy children and lots of yummy doughnuts — precious memories, of course.”

The central role of food in Amish women’s lives is addressed in Amish Society by John A. Hostetler and The Riddle of Amish Culture by Donald B. Kraybill.

“In the Amish home, a place at the table is symbolic to belonging,” Hostetler writes. “When a place is vacant due to death, marriage, sickness, father’s having gone to town, the discipline of the ban or a runaway child, all are deeply aware of the empty place.”

Kraybill describes how Amish families are organized around traditional gender roles and how the woman is the keeper of home and hearth:

“Married women rarely have full-time jobs outside the home. . . . The work is hard and the hours long, but there is a quiet satisfaction in nourishing thriving families, tending productive gardens, baking pies, sewing colorful quilts and watching dozens of grandchildren find their place in the Amish world. One woman, who had baked 56 pies in preparation for the lunch following church at her home, said, ‘It’s no big deal, because the children always help.’ ”

Fifty-six pies? This is another mammoth number that cooks outside plain communities cannot fathom. Not to worry. Leid strikes a gentle tone, wooing cooks to explore simple recipes for complex times.

For example, in the Meats and Main Dishes section, she includes a low-maintenance recipe called “Stormy Day One-Dish Meal.” It uses basics such as carrots, green beans, potatoes, cabbage and flour to make a thick vegetable broth that is topped with home-made biscuits. After baking for a short time, it makes a piping hot meal for a cold, snowy day.

In the Cakes and Pies section, one will find what is expected in an Amish cookbook — shoo-fly pie. But for cooks who have less time, how about the peanut butter fudge pie recipe? It makes use of items found in the local supermarket: peanut butter, cream cheese, whipped and fudge toppings and a graham cracker crust. Little prep, lots of luscious!

Though she reaches out to the simple-prep crowd, Leid provides lots of the more iconic dishes and treats that grace the tables of plain communities. For example, she includes recipes for roasted pig stomach, Kansas corn pie, potato doughnuts, whoopie pies and cornmeal mush.

The granddaughter who shared the roasted pig stomach recipe writes a tribute to her grandparents: “Every spring and fall my teenaged sisters and cousins get together to clean Grosdaudy and Grosmommy’s house. . . . We always remind her ahead of time not to forget that we want a roasted stuffed pig stomach for that day, for that’s about the only time we get the dish. She must stuff in some love, too.”

Leid reminds us that’s what most important isn’t the number of people around our table, it’s the amount of love we put into the food we serve. The plain communities’ cooks demonstrate that good food created with a good heart is anything but plain.

Laurie Oswald Robinson is a freelance writer in Newton, Kan.

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