Less than 200 miles separate Wisconsin from Bloomington, Ill., but what a potential difference in buffet lines: Red beet eggs. Ham loaf. Vareniky (stuffed dumplings). Turnip slaw. Suet pudding. Shoofly pie.
This is “Menno food” and some of the recipes – like the suet pudding, palatable because of molasses or sorghum, plus whipped cream topping – are generations old.
Mennonite communities thrive quietly in this part of the Midwest. Values uphold simple and non-violent living. Sensibilities are rooted in German and Russian heritage.
What distinguishes Mennonite from Amish communities? Both are Christian-based and share historical heritage, but Mennonites allow modern technology and contemporary attire more than the Amish.
These modest, tight-knit communities also find ways to donate their time and talents for the greater good. That includes Bloomington’s annual Mennonite Relief Sale, where pie in 2013 sold for $1.25 a slice and a quick-plate dinner of fried fish or barbecue chicken was $8 per serving.
The annual sale is a reminder that spring is near. Proceeds fight hunger and poverty, locally and globally. The first, in 1959, netted $5,000. Last year’s raised $175,000.
A highlight is the auctioning of handmade furniture and stacks of quilts whose pattern descriptions include “star log cabin,” “flower patch,” “shepherd’s bush” and “sun bonnet.”
A lower-ticket but high-demand item is cheesecake topped with many fat, glazed strawberries. Volunteers prepare dozens for the Dutch Market, which has little to do with the Netherlands and everything to do with part of the area’s German lineage, traced to the Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch).
Lines form fast and long before the market opens. Much more than 14 types of pies are for sale; that means meats, cheeses, breads, pretzels, egg noodles, plants, locally made crafts and jewelry from Third World artisans.
“What we taste today is a slice of time,” says Julie Hendricks, administrative coordinator at the nearby Illinois Mennonite Heritage Center. “There are some very thrifty Mennonites among us” who still find a way to use everything when cooking. It’s been this way for decades, long before celebrity TV chefs made a squeal about nose-to-tail cooking of pork and beef.
Similarly, “keeping qualities – how well foods dried or pickled” were most important historically, and the relief sale has a table for jams to dilled products.
Whole-hog sausage patties and links are popular sellers. So are the 14,000 cake doughnuts, made while you watch. Tea rings, paskha (a Russian Easter dessert), fudge-like penuche candy and much more fill many long tables inside shed-like rooms that are chilly and sparse in decor.
Bloomington’s annual Mennonite Relief Sale is March 14-15 at the Interstate Center, 1106 Interstate Dr. Purchases typically are by cash only. ilreliefsale.org, 309-449-5782
Other Mennonite Central Committee relief sales listed at mcc.org include an Aug. 23-24 event in Arthur, Ill., population 2,300 and 75 miles southeast of Bloomington. arthurreliefsale.org, 212-543-2994
The Arthur area is known more for its Amish population, and the local tourism office makes it possible for travelers to eat lunch or supper at an Amish home, by appointment. Buggy shop and other tours also are arranged. arthuril.com, amctours.com, 217-543-2766
In Wisconsin, Growers Produce Auctions soon resume near Cashton, and much of the merchandise comes from local Amish farms. The biggest spring auction is the Memorial Day sale of quilts, furniture, crafts, flowers and produce; it begins at 8:30 a.m. May 26. growersproduceauction.com, 608-654-7880
Here is a simple recipe for shoofly pie from the Illinois Mennonite Heritage Center, Metamora, 30 miles northwest of Bloomington. It is open April to October and by appointment. imhgs.org, 309-367-2551
“Each community developed its own unique foods,” the recipe handout observes. “Today, we would add tortillas, chapattis, peanut stew and many other foods typical of a multitude of traditions to any truly complete list of ‘Mennonite foods’.”
Shoofly pie reportedly was created during the lean days of late winter, to turn pantry leftovers into a sweet treat. It’s “shoofly” because you-know-what airborne insect was wooed to the pies when prepared during warmer times of year.
1 unbaked pie shell
1 1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup butter or margarine
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup boiling water
3/4 cup molasses*
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix topping ingredients to make crumbs. Set aside.
Dissolve baking soda in boiling water. Add molasses, mix well and pour into pie shell. Immediately sprinkle crumbs on top of liquid.
Bake 45 minutes. Serve warm, with a cup of coffee.
* Dark corn syrup may be substituted for the molasses.
The heritage center also provides this Ukrainian stuffed dumpling recipe. Pour slowly browed butter over them or serve with ham gravy (bring 1 cup cream and 3 tablespoons butter to a boil, then add to fried ham drippings and heat thoroughly).
(Cottage Cheese Pockets)
2 to 2 1/2 cups dry curd cottage cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup milk or water
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 egg whites
1 1/2 cups flour, approximate
Mix filling ingredients and set aside.
Beat milk/water, salt and egg whites lightly with a fork and gradually add enough flour to make a soft dough that can easily be rolled out.
Roll dough out quite thin and cut into circles about 3 inches in diameter. Place a teaspoon of cottage cheese mixture on each circle, fold over and pinch edges together, or cover with another circle and pinch edges.
When all dough has been cut, drop the Vereniky into boiling, salted water. Boil 5-8 minutes. Drain in colander.