Cooking up a new approach to Mennonite food

When Googler Jo Snyder was 20 years old, she left her family crop farm outside of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, with a backpack, a guitar and a bike. She got on a train, traveled 30 hours to Winnipeg, Manitoba, enrolled in university and later started a punk rock band. She was the first one in her “pretty big, close and liberal Mennonite family” to move away (and is certainly the first punk rocker among them), but the values of her upbringing stayed with her. She still values community, kindness, and, well, food.

Many Mennonites are farmers, and traditionally their diets rely heavily on meat, eggs, dairy and seasonal produce. One recipe book — “The Mennonite Community Cookbook” — has been called the “grandmother” of all Mennonite cookbooks and has taken residence in Mennonite kitchens for generations. First printed in 1950, it’s a collection of 1,400 recipes from Mennonite communities across the U.S. and Canada compiled by its author, Mary Emma Showalter.

Jo’s Grandma Lena, who grew up in Floradale, a rural community in Southwestern Ontario, and was raised an Old Order Mennonite, was one of many to own “The Mennonite Community Cookbook.” After she died, Jo — who has been a vegetarian for 25 years and vegan for the last 10 years — inherited her well-worn copy. In 2018, flipping through the book, she was inspired to make plant-based versions of the recipes her family loved growing up.

“I wanted to remember and pay tribute to my grandmothers but I wanted to do it my way,” Jo says. “I wanted to take the things that are beautiful about a community cookbook with traditional recipes and local food and take it forward into a culture that could be thinking about a different way of eating.”

She spent two years hosting dinner parties and asking for feedback (“Too dry? Too salty? Do you even like it?”). Throughout, she kept a detailed spreadsheet and more than 100 Google Docs containing recipes she constantly tweaked. She shared the Docs with friends and family, asking them to attempt the recipes and see if they worked.

“I think the way I made and tested these recipes embodied the spirit of the book and the Mennonite community in a very important way,” Jo says. “I brought people together around my dinner table — often people I hadn’t seen for a while, or people who didn’t really know each other.”

After three years of testing and refining, “The Vegan Mennonite Kitchen” was published in March this year. Containing more than 80 recipes, including vegan versions of classic dishes like Fried Seitan Chick’n and the simply titled but rather ambitious “Ham,” the book also weaves in stories from her childhood in Southern Ontario.

“Grandma Lena would have been interested to see what I was doing and maybe would have corrected me a little bit,” Jo says, thinking of how her grandmothers would have received her book. “My grandmother Marjorie would have been delighted. She would have been very excited by the idea and flattered to see her recipes shared.”

Want to try one of Jo’s recipes? She suggests trying your hand at an old classic — Dutch Apple Pie.

Dutch Apple Pie recipe card, with the following recipe: FOR THE PIE CRUST 2. cups cake and pastry flour ½ teaspoon salt ⅔ cup plant-based butter, room temperature ⅓ cup cold water  FOR THE FILLING AND THE CRUMBLE TOP 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour 1 cup brown sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon 4 tablespoons plant-based butter 4 cups apples cored, peeled and sliced (don’t go fancy with the apples, never use Red Delicious. Try a good old McIntosh) 4 tablespoons of soy cream or soy milk for the top (Silk coffee creamer works best)   FOR THE PIE CRUST In a mixing bowl, combine flour and salt. Cut the plant-based butter into the flour with a pastry blender or two knives. You want the mixture to be the size of peas. Add the water slowly, sprinkling 1 tablespoon at a time over the mixture. Toss lightly with a fork. This shouldn’t be sticky or wet at all but everything should be dampened. Use only enough water so that the pastry holds together when pressed between your fingers. Form the dough into a round ball with your hands. Some say you shouldn’t handle pie crust dough too much, but I find if I don’t really get in there with my hands and make a nice dough ball, then it won’t roll out as nicely. So, get in there and make sure it’s mixed well. On a lightly floured surface, roll out into a circle about ⅛ inch thick and about 1 inch larger than the diameter of the top of your pie plate. You want it to hang over the sides when you place it gently on top so that when you press it into the pan you have full coverage. Don’t bake the pie shell first if you’re making a Dutch Apple Pie, but if you want to make a pastry shell for a different dessert then bake it at 450F for 12–15 minutes or until it’s a golden brown.  FOR THE FILLING AND THE CRUMBLE TOP Combine the flour, sugar and cinnamon together in a bowl and then cut in the butter with a pastry blender, two knives, a fork or just get in there with your hands and crumble it up. You don’t want it to be a paste though, so take it easy when you mix. Put the peeled and sliced apples into the unbaked pie shell. Pinch a little salt and squeeze about a tablespoon of lemon on top. Then pile on that crumb mixture on top, but don’t press it down too tight. Make sure there’s enough to generously cover everything. Pour the cream evenly over the top of the crumble. You want it to seep down into the apple mixture. Bake at 375F for 35 minutes or until it looks and smells good. You want the apples to be soft and the top and inside to be gooey. It should have a creamy, rich taste and feel.

Hands down my favorite pie. It’s sweet and creamy. When I was a kid I worked at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market stall for the Stone Crock Bakery and we used to make giant trays of these and cut them into big squares. Every Saturday morning I would waffle between a tea ball sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, a warm veggie cheese bun and one of these delicious squares. The Dutch Apple Square almost always won. Here is the original, but plant-based, pie version. - Jo