When I was a kid, the Mennonite Community Cookbook meant a whole lot of work. To follow its recipes, I had to pit cherries until I was restless with boredom and knead dough until my arms ached. Onions made me cry, and my stomach cramped when I cut up a dead chicken. And there was the endless scrubbing of pots and pans and cookie sheets. All this for food that vanished in one short table sitting.
Despite my antipathies toward cooking, my mother saw to it that I learned. So I mastered recipe after recipe: old-fashioned bean soup and fried potatoes and tip top cake. And after I married, I cooked and baked from my own copy of the Mennonite Community Cookbook, not for pleasure, but because people needed to be fed.
Cleaning out a kitchen drawer this week, I pulled out this now-dilapidated book. The spine is letting loose of its 494 pages, one edge looks suspiciously scorched, and page 208, where you can find the recipe for Devil’s Food cake, is spotted with chocolate.
As I thumbed through the pages, I recalled what has always redeemed this cookbook for me. As a child desperate for diversion in the kitchen and as an adult hankering to relieve tedium with words, I had always turned to the stories scattered through the cookbook. I read about how, in the old days, folks made mush by adding enough meal and flour to the boiling water until the mixture became thick enough to pop as it bubbled. The stories told about a smokehouse built over a spring and guineas who were alarm clocks, waking their people every morning by calling, “pot rack, pot rack.”
The stories keep going—about a grandmother who baked 16 pies every Saturday morning and about clear crisp fall days that were just right for boiling sorghum molasses in a big kettle over the fire with a taffy pull to follow. And near the end of the book I loved to scan the list of food needed for a barn raising, a few items being 115 lemon pies, 500 doughnuts, 16 chickens, 3 hams, 50 pounds of roast beef, 300 rolls, 16 loaves of bread and all things pickled: eggs, red beets, and cucumbers.
Somehow, reading these stories made me more willing to measure a precise quarter cup and sift the dry ingredients and drop teaspoonful by teaspoonful onto a greased baking sheet, spacing two to three inches apart.
Story does this. It prepares the mind. I’ve found students are more ready to remember the dates of the Civil War when they follow the story of a boy who lived across the five Aprils it spanned. They are more willing to learn chemical properties when they hear about John Walker, who one day in his pharmacy scratched at a lump of sulphide and chlorate that had formed at the end of his mixing stick. When flames burst forth, the striking match had been invented.
The stories in the Mennonite Community Cookbook pulled me into the kitchen, and over and over I’ve seen story hook the attention of reluctant learners.