Another Way: Mennonite Cooking and Cookbooks

Posted: September 19, 2012

(Photo by courtesy of Melodie Davis)

The  “Another Way” column by Melodie Davis ran last year in the Journals. Here’s one of her recent columns, one of a series written about Mennonite cooking traditions in celebration of Family Dinner Day Sept. 24, 2012.

Big cookbooks are almost always a collection of recipes brought together from hundreds of cooks and kitchens for the sole purpose of wanting to share great recipes and seeing them published. Recipes are almost always contributed without reimbursement or pay—contributors probably get a free cookbook out of the deal.

Such was the case with the very first known Mennonite cookbook, published by a commercial printing company and authorized by kind of an ad hoc publishing group called the Mennonite Community Association in Scottdale, Pa. “Mennonite Community Cookbook” was collected and edited by Mary Emma Showalter, who lived in the Shenandoah Valley most of her life.
The cover of the book describes it like this: “Eleven hundred mouth-watering recipes from old Mennonite cookbooks, brought up to date with standard measures and directions. Simple but wonderful country cookery contributed by Mennonite families all over the United States and Canada.” The drawings on the front look like the fraktur-type paintings on trinkets sold in shops in “Amish country” tourist areas.

Showalter was founder of the Home Economics Department at Eastern Mennonite College (now Eastern Mennonite University), which of course does not have a department of home economics anymore. She taught there from 1946 to 1972.

Showalter didn’t live out her life in a rural Mennonite community. Earlier she worked as a nutritionist in refugee camps in the Sinai Desert of Egypt through Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association. Later, she served as hostess and cook at MCC European headquarters in London. 

She graduated from James Madison University (then a public women’s college) and eventually earned a doctorate from Penn State, something not a lot of Mennonite women were doing in the late ‘40s. Apparently the cookbook was part of her master’s thesis.

Levi Miller, former director of Herald Press at Mennonite Publishing House (now MennoMedia) which has kept the book in print until this day, proclaimed in a news release at the time of her death: “[Showalter] is the mother of Mennonite and Amish cookbooks. It really all began with her work on that cookbook.”

 Why was this cookbook deserving of a master’s thesis project? Like much other historical research, Showalter became interested in her mother’s handwritten notebook of recipes, and learned that almost every Mennonite woman she encountered at the time kept and cherished such handwritten recipes. She wanted to “attempt to preserve for posterity and history Mennonite cookery.”  She observed that other young women, like herself for a while, were inclined to embrace the new and different in foods and recipes.

The 1,100 were chosen from more than 5,000 mailed in from most Mennonite communities in the U.S. and Canada. Some recipes or “miscellaneous” entries are there purely for historical interest such as the fascinating listing of “food for a barn raising of 175 men” (115 lemon pies, etc.), or pioneering/homesteading traditions such as soapmaking. Trends return: I know numerous families who now make their own soap again.

 As a girl, I remember thumbing through Mom’s copy of this book looking for things I could make. The recipe at right for blondies is one that I copied to my own recipe box. A variation shows up in my own cookbook “Whatever Happened to Dinner: Recipes and Reflections for Family Mealtime.”

And this is now one of my daughters’ favorite recipes.


¼ cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. Salt
½ cup chopped nuts
1 tsp. vanilla.
Melt butter and blend with sugar. Add egg and beat vigorously. Add flour, baking powder and salt. Add nuts and vanilla. Spread dough in greased 8 x 8-inch pan (will be hard to spread out). Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Cut in squares or bars while warm. Makes 18-20 squares.
From Mennonite Community Cookbook, Herald Press, original 1950.

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