One morning I looked at my five-pound bag of potatoes that were not getting any fresher and thought, “How about some potato salad?” I wasn’t getting good vibes from any of my newer books with large four-color photos and random narratives, so I turned to a familiar and trusted source: our church cookbook.
Potato salad was well represented with no less than four recipes. The first three were labeled: Potato Salad I, Potato Salad II, and Potato Salad III. The fourth, Danish Potato Salad, did not use mayonnaise in the dressing and was therefore of no interest to me.
Which should I choose? After a quick glance at the ingredient lists, it looked like they were all concocting essentially the same salad, give or take some celery or pickles.
Then something in Orpha Neuenschwander’s Potato Salad II caught my eye. Her recipe called for turmeric. I imagine that in the 1980s, when the cookbook was published, turmeric was a fairly exotic, exciting ingredient. I pictured my salad with a pleasing yellow color and decided to try it.
It wasn’t fantastic potato salad, but it did cause me to think about Orpha Neuenschwander, which I had not done for probably two decades.
She was always an old woman to me, the grandmother of my peers. She was a strong singer and taught us to sing alto. She lived in a ranch house at the edge of town, a bit past where the sidewalk ends.
I was still in elementary school when she experienced several family tragedies, one on top of another. While peeling the boiled eggs I realized that Orpha and her family were perhaps the first to teach me that bad things happen to good people.
Life is anything but fair. Orpha and her family showed me that the community of faith makes that reality bearable. I continued to sit beside her grandchildren in Sunday school, eat her daughters’ food at potlucks, see her widowed husband in the third pew.
I’ve been blessed by memories of other women whose names claim a recipe. Twila (Rhubarb Cake) and Velma (Fruit Custard Pie) were my Sunday school teachers.
Though Marilyn’s recipe for cinnamon rolls is freely shared on page 25, it might as well be a fiercely guarded family secret. They cannot be replicated. Neither can the many selfless acts of kindness she did for others.
There were seven people in my family, all of whom had healthy appetites. We weren’t invited over for dinner very often. The fact that Corrine (Chicken Rice Casserole) braved it on several occasions has not been forgotten.
Church documents from two generations ago will not offer up many women’s names. Church council minutes probably won’t include Mrs. Loyal Kratzer (Oatmeal Bars in the 1969 cookbook).
But unlike the meeting minutes and newsletters, our church cookbooks are meant to be opened, written in, spilled on and used daily.
In Heritage Cookbook is Orpha Neuenschwander’s name saying, “I was here.”
Almost three decades later, I imagine that one morning she woke up, saw her husband off to work, called her daughter and made a note to read the lesson for Wednesday night service. Perhaps she glanced wistfully at her book waiting in the living room beside her chair.
Then she took out the cook pot and made potato salad — with turmeric.
Sarah Kehrberg lives in Asheville, N.C.