A Pinch of This or That: Setting
the Table in the Shenandoah Valley
by Esther Shank
I've heard that a recipe for a good speech should contain
plenty of shortening, so I'll try to incorporate lots of that
Esther Shank, Harrisonburg, Virginia
is the author of Mennonite Country-Style Recipes and Kitchen
Secrets (Herald Press, 1987). This article is based on a speech
Shank gave at a workshop for teachers of domestic skills classes
at the Frontier Culture Museum, Staunton, Virginia.
A large percentage of European American Mennonite families in
the Shenandoah Valley migrated to America from Germany and Switzerland.
Most came first to Pennsylvania, but since available land was
becoming more scarce, a number of them headed south to Virginia-the
earliest around 1728. Our cooking in the Valley was influenced
by our roots. Many families were large, and children were considered
a financial asset on the farm; their help with chores and household
tasks was greatly needed.
I grew up on a dairy farm in a family of twelve children. My
father was a Mennonite minister so there was a continual flow
of guests in our home for meals. Ministers were not salaried
in those days, so we children all took over major domestic responsibilities
at a very young age. Farmers banded together to help each other
during harvest seasons. When threshing grain or filling silo,
there would be a dozen to twenty men at the table. At our house,
usually Grandmother and maybe one or two of my aunts would come
to help us with the food preparation. A typical meal would consist
of meat, mashed potatoes and gravy. (You wouldn't think of not
having gravy!) The meal included homemade breads, biscuits or
corn bread, apple butter and jellies, a couple of vegetable dishes,
salads, pickles and relishes, maybe pickled eggs or salad eggs.
Then there may be cracker pudding, or tapioca or vanilla pudding
layered with sliced bananas, and real whipped cream, with graham
cracker crumbs. And, of course, there would be pies, maybe with
homemade ice cream, or maybe gingerbread with whipped cream.
The men always looked forward to the good country meals. They
worked hard and appetites were hearty, so food was in generous
supply. With the intense amount of physical exertion, foods that
would "stick to your ribs" were considered a necessity.
People were very frugal in those days. The depression years of
the early 30s and a severe drought made times hard for many people.
But farm folks were used to raising most of their food and learned
to be self-sufficient.
When I was a child, my parents went to the store only occasionally,
to buy just the basic necessities such as sugar, flour, dried
beans, crackers, and maybe coffee and cocoa powder. Because of
the large family, they would buy 100 pounds of all-purpose flour
and 100 pounds of bread flour and a large sack of sugar. We stored
the flour and sugar in large metal cans. We usually baked at
least eight loaves of bread at a time. Yeast for the bread was
made from a starter passed down from generation to generation.
We always cooked potatoes, mashed them and added them to the
starter, along with sugar, flour, and salt, to increase the quantity.
After the starter would rise properly we would make up the bread
dough, saving a portion of the new yeast mixture to use the next
time we baked bread. If your starter or a neighbor's yeast happened
to go bad, you shared a start with each other to keep the process
I also remember the war years when things like sugar and gasoline
were rationed. Rationing changed our lifestyles. In recipes for
cakes, cookies, and the like, we learned to substitute corn syrup,
honey, or molasses for sugar, adjusting the amount of flour and
liquid to compensate. Saccharin was used in beverages. Farm folks
always seemed to have an extra special knack of improvising when
necessary-or just doing without!
At my parents' home, we grew our own cane to make molasses. We
harvested the cane in the fall of the year and took it to the
molasses mill near Dayton, Virginia, where it was processed into
thick old-fashioned molasses.
Gardening was as important for food for the family as the farm
crops were for the animals. We always had a large garden plus
a truck patch for growing large quantities of potatoes and corn.
We always planted corn beans in the corn. There is nothing quite
like the old-fashioned corn beans. My husband's mother gave me
seed for a good variety, which I save each year. We saved seed
from many of our vegetables so we didn't need to buy seed. The
hybrid seeds of today will not reproduce properly, so saving
them is not useful. Here is a little tip: if you don't use a
whole package of seed, it can be kept in the freezer indefinitely.
If you don't have a garden, a few tomato plants, peppers, herbs,
and the like, can be planted in flower beds around the house.
Some folks plant them in large patio planters. The new bush varieties
of squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes are great for this. I tell
people that my garden is my wellness center. I get lots of exercise
and have good healthy food to show for it as well! Exercise is
certainly one of the important keys to good health, along with
When I think back to the hundreds of jars of food my mother used
to can for the winter, I'm sure young cooks of today would think
it was enough to open a country store! She had a large copper
boiler that held about fourteen quart jars at one time. It was
oval-shaped and fit over two burners on the gas stove. When peaches
were ripened just right, my parents would go to a relative's
orchard early in the morning and come back with at least seven
bushels of peaches. They would call my grandparents to come to
help peel peaches. Of course, we children all pitched in, some
washing cans or peaches, others packing them in the cans and
making the sugar syrup. Only the older children were allowed
to help peel the peaches, because it was of utmost importance
to be able to peel razor thin so you would not waste any of the
peach. By evening we would have more than 100 quarts of peaches.
In addition to canning, we also dried fruit, such as apple slices,
to preserve them for the winter.
When we had several bushels of green beans to can at one time,
or at butchering time when there was a lot of meat to can, we
would make a fire under the big iron kettle in the washhouse.
My father made a wooden rack to fit in the rounded bottom of
the kettle to set the jars on. This rack held about twenty-five
quart jars at one time. We kept the water boiling for three or
four hours, depending on what we were canning.
We would also make sauerkraut in large ten-gallon stone crocks,
letting it ferment to just the right stage before canning it.
Sauerkraut and dumplings with small sausage balls was an old-time
favorite. When I made it for my family, my daughters preferred
hot-dog rings for the meat instead of the sausage.
Meat was always an important part of most meals on the farm.
Even breakfast usually included meat-bacon, ham, or pudding meat
and ponhoss. An old-time breakfast favorite was hominy and puddings.
We also ate pancakes with pudding or with sausage gravy. The
ponhoss was sliced and fried in a skillet and served with homemade
molasses, or with apple butter, which we also made in our big
iron kettles each year. We cooked cornmeal mush to eat warm with
milk. Whatever was left over, we sliced like the ponhoss, fried
it in a skillet and served it for supper with apple butter or
molasses. Homemade bread, still warm out of the oven, spread
generously with butter and apple butter, was a favorite after-school
treat. And, of course, we churned the butter using cream from
Each year my parents butchered a beef or two, five or six hogs,
a sheep, numerous chickens, and some turkeys. In the winter they
always purchased a keg of salt fish to be fried for breakfast.
The small fish were preserved in salt brine. Then we would clean
them, remove the scales, and soak them overnight in vinegar water
to remove the salt taste. This was a little like the country
hams we cured with our own sugar-cure mixture, with the basic
ingredient of salt. The hams were hung in the meat house to "cure
out," and when we needed one, we trimmed the rind off and
soaked it overnight to help remove some of the salt before cooking
We also kept a flock of chickens to provide fresh eggs, as well
as meat. If we wanted to roast a hen or two for a meal or for
making chicken noodle soup, we went to the chicken house, caught
several chickens to butcher. The directions for butchering poultry
are given in my cookbook beginning on page 349. This information
is still relevant for today!
Meat was considered very important, because it would "stick
to your ribs" until the next meal. Meat, and even the fat
on the meat, was considered necessary for the strenuous fieldwork
and the cold weather. I remember my father making a remark about
needing some grease inside you to keep things running smoothly.
He was so accustomed to faithfully greasing the farm equipment,
so it would run properly, that he was convinced it was the same
with the human body! My parents also believed it was sinful to
waste food, and that included the fat on the meat. So we were
required to eat the fat whether we liked it or not!
I talked to my husband's ninety-three-year-old Aunt Grace this
week about how it used to be when she was growing up. She said
that it seemed to take more fat in those days because of being
out in the cold so much. Bedrooms were usually not heated in
the wintertime. Children walked long distances to school in the
cold and snow. There does seem to be some scientific evidence
to support the perception that they needed more fat in their
diets to contend with these conditions. Aunt Grace said there
wasn't much heat in the homes, and no buttons to push. She also
told me her mother-in-law made such good bread dressing. Then
she found out that Grandma rendered the fat they obtained from
chickens they butchered and used some of that in her dressing.
Many farmwomen used the chicken fat-rendered into a solid fat
similar to rich lard-in things like biscuits. There were no flakier
biscuits around than those made with chicken fat!
Aunt Grace's Aunt Emma made the best dressing balls in the Shenandoah
Valley. Aunt Grace asked for the secret, not wanting the recipe
to go with Aunt Emma to her grave. But she was not prepared for
the answer. Aunt Emma said after she roasted a turkey or chicken,
she would skin it, grind up the skin in a food grinder, and use
the product in the dressing balls! The little particles of rich
fat throughout made the balls so tender they melted in your mouth.
After the secret was out, Aunt Emma's dressing balls didn't taste
quite so good! Back then we had no idea what cholesterol was,
and sometimes I almost wish we still didn't know!
In my own experience, we rendered any fat or tallow from meat
and accumulated it. We used rendered fat, ham rinds or skins,
and any lard that was too old to use in cooking, to make soap.
We made the soap in our big iron kettle in the washhouse. (You
will also find the recipe for homemade soap in my cookbook.)
Even the underlie that separated from the soap in a layer in
the bottom of the kettle as it cooled, was used with hot water
to scrub the porch, the washhouse floor, and cement walks. It
was a powerful cleaner for greasy surfaces, such as the washhouse
floor after butchering day. Nothing was wasted!
I am thankful that our parents were concerned about the starving
people in the world. They taught us to be thrifty and economical
so we could help meet the needs of others. Not liking a food
was no excuse for wasting it. My parents didn't have much tolerance
for our likes and dislikes. If we didn't care for something,
they thought we were just being "snousy" or persnickety!
We were required to eat small amounts of food we didn't like,
and almost always learned to enjoy that food eventually. The
old-time proverb, "Waste not, want not" was, not only
a good survival technique, but also gave a us a sense of being
good stewards. There was an old Amish proverb that was similar:
"Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without."
Leftovers should be preserved in the refrigerator instead of
leaving them at room temperature or dumping them out. I still
remember the old icebox we used on the farm. This old icebox
consisted of two galvanized chests-a smaller box inside a larger
box, with a layer of sawdust packed between them. A drain spout
at the bottom drained the melted ice. My father would go to the
Cassco Ice substation in Bridgewater to get a huge 300-pound
block of ice, which he placed in the bottom of the icebox. If
we wanted to make ice cream, we raided the icebox! Some farmers
had their own icehouses, where big blocks of ice, cut from the
frozen river in the wintertime, were stored for use during the
I am reminded of the food traditions among the Amish. A meal
for guests was not complete without seven sweets and seven sours.
This meant they would have at least seven dishes in the meat/potato/vegetable
category-or in-between dishes such as salad eggs, vegetable salads,
coleslaw, or hot slaw, applesauce, soda cheese or homemade cottage
cheese. The seven sweets consisted of fruit salads, melons, custards,
puddings, cakes, pies, homemade ice cream and candies.
My mother's entertaining was very generous, but not quite to
that extreme. To feed our large family, we always baked on Saturday-several
pies, a couple of cakes, custards, and fruit desserts. We often
we had Sunday dinner guests, and you would be surprised how fast
the food disappeared! When we baked bread, we often made big
batches of cinnamon rolls, or sticky buns, or large numbers of
doughnuts. We even made our own potato chips in the big iron
kettle, deep fried in lard obtained from the hogs we had butchered.
Lard was our basic shortening and made the flakiest piecrusts
around. Would you believe, with this kind of food, my great-grandmother
lived to be ninety-eight years old! They reported that she always
used plenty of butter and cream, cheese, and nuts-all the things
that make food extra special.
So, with all the changes in foods and food preparation, lifestyles,
and demands on time, is it any wonder that many young people
of today decide they do not like cooking? And here is where my
cookbook came into being.
I did not intend to prepare a cookbook for publication when I
started with the project. I was only doing something for my three
daughters. We lived on a dairy farm and had no sons, so the girls
helped with the milkings on the weekends. They had helped in
the kitchen as youngsters; but soon other things crowded out
time in the kitchen. I thought I would give them extra training
in their later teen years. I did not want them to leave home
without being accomplished in cooking and baking-making things
from scratch, as all farm girls should. That would have been
considered a terrible disgrace! But with school, music, and many
other activities, plus some farm chores, there was no time for
cooking. So, I decided to write things down for them, reorganizing
my recipe collection as well. Often I made things without a recipe,
just adding ingredients until it looked right, but they wanted
precise amounts. They couldn't decide when it "looked right."
I included tips and other helpful information not included in
most cookbook, which are basically recipe collections rather
than how-to books. I also wanted to teach them to can and freeze
To make a long story short, other friends and church family began
asking if I would make copies of my collection for them, too.
Some of our daughters' friends were calling me for cooking information,
because their mothers were away at work. So I began to see the
need to help young people who were leaving the farm with very
little experience in the kitchen. It seemed that cooking skills
had disappeared with the family farms. Many new brides were overwhelmed
with the thought of taking on the responsibilities of meal preparation
and homemaking. The many compliments I have received since the
book was published have confirmed my observations.
I taught a cooking and homemaking class in the Continuing Education
Department at Eastern Mennonite University from 1992 to1996,
until the department was phased out. It was enlightening to see,
not only the eagerness of students to learn, but also the lack
of basic knowledge in these areas. These were college students
who had learned almost everything except how to be efficient
in the basic skills of daily living!
You wouldn't believe the calls I receive from young people asking
for help with their cooking, since my cookbook has been published.
With today's women away from home much more, many are not learning
homemaking skills. The more you practice, of course, the more
skillful you become. When you do things only occasionally, it's
easy to forget how to do them.
That was the focus of my book, to give additional information,
along with the recipes. Our older Mennonite cookbooks did not
include canning and freezing information, because everyone knew
by experience just how to do it. And in my mother's generation
the recipes didn't even include amounts of many of the ingredients.
Recipes in her generation called for flour enough to make a stiff
dough, or butter the size of an egg, a pinch of this or a pinch
of that. They didn't even give pan sizes, baking times or temperatures.
Everyone just knew those things.
I've received some interesting calls from young cooks. Here are
some of them. "What is baking soda? Is it club soda or something
else?" "What is wrong? I've cooked this corn on the
cob for three hours and it's still tough!" "I just
ruined my rocky road candy. I don't want to waste all those good
ingredients, so what can I do to salvage it?" Someone else
received a call saying, "I won't be able to double the recipe
as was directed, because my stove does not heat up to 850 degrees!"
We are becoming adept in technology. But it seems the basic knowledge
for everyday living is so lacking that many times people don't
know how to cope. I wonder sometimes what would happen if suddenly
all our technology was eradicated and we had no buttons to push.
If we had to go back to the simple ways of yesterday and do everything
from scratch, what would become of this generation? Would persons
have a clue how to manage? When I was preparing the text for
my book, I called various companies to verify information. One
company told me that they had explicit directions on their soup
cans: open the can, empty the contents into a saucepan, place
on the burner and heat. They decided this was too obvious and
unnecessary and may even insult a person's intelligence. But
after omitting the directions, their hotline was flooded with
calls asking for help on how to prepare the soup! So they decided
to put the directions back on the cans!
My, haven't times changed! What will the next generation be doing?
Will the pendulum swing the other way? Will they want to go back
to the land and to the "good old days"?
There are lots of other things I would like to have elaborated
on. Many farms had all their own fruit trees; there were cherries,
apples, and pears to harvest. Harvest times were almost always
social events as well. Just imagine the good times and socializing
that went on as groups of people shelled bushels of peas, seeded
cherries, prepared apples for apple butter or cracked walnuts
and picked out the nut meats.
And, by the way, we had all those old-time remedies for your
physical ailments as well, such as mustard plasters or poultices
(for wounds) out of mustard leaves or dry mustard. There were
certain teas that relieved all kinds of ailments. There is a
recipe in my cookbook for an excellent gargle for sore throat.
(In those days, you didn't think of going to the doctor unless
you thought maybe someone might die if you didn't!) And as I
said before, the physical activity was valuable. As teenagers,
we got up before 5:00 a.m. and milked fifty cows before we went
to school. Then we hurried home in the evening and did it again.
By the time we did our schoolwork, we needed to get to bed so
we could get up early the next morning and do it all over again.
There was no time to get into much mischief. Today, that may
be considered child abuse! But, believe me, we learned to work
and to manage a household well! And I think we appreciated what
we had more than most youngsters do today. Now, it seems so many
persons just expect things to be handed out to them, and do not
think of ways that they could be a blessing to others. I think
I have run out of shortening, so I must close! We've journeyed
from the history of our forefathers up to more recent history.
It's hard to comprehend how much things really have changed!
My father-in-law lived to be ninety years of age. Can you imagine
the changes in his lifetime, and the adjustments he had to make
in a ninety-year span? We have so much to be thankful for with
all our modern conveniences. But the strange thing is that it
seems the more buttons there are to push, the busier one becomes,
and the less time there is for family and friends. On the other
hand, when people talk about the "good old days," I'm
not sure they realize how much hard work there was. I haven't
found any older persons whom I've asked whether they would like
to go back to their younger years, who have responded with a
So I guess our challenge is to try to hang on to the best of
each generation, to be very thankful for the blessings we have,
and to be good stewards of these blessings and opportunities
so we can pass a good heritage on to the next generation! Thank
you, and may God bless each of you!