Perhaps most notable about Amish and Mennonite breakfast culture is that no Amish or Mennonite person would ever consider it something so high-minded as “a culture.” It’s a meal. It’s food meant to power a human body until lunchtime, food designed to fuel muscles as they lift pails of milk, toss shovels of manure, grind a hand plow through rocky soil. First you feed the humans, then you feed the animals. That’s breakfast.
And it’s not hearty, at least not in the way you might expect. No piles of sausage and bacon, nary a block of cheese. It’s rustic and efficient, made for keeping arteries clean. It’s oatmeal, cereal, nuts, dried fruits. It’s everything your doctor has ever suggested you eat.
And, in case you haven’t already gathered, it’s not romantic. There’s no fawning over mush, no gushing over a beautiful egg. There is the predawn dark, the chill of early-morning air, prayer, cereal slurped from a bowl. No-nonsense is how I would describe just about everything—including breakfast—during my childhood in a big Amish-Mennonite family. My father was raised Amish until his family migrated to a like-minded, yet far more liberal, Mennonite congregation. And so while I grew up in the Mennonite community, remnants of our deeper Amish roots remained and could be found in all aspects of our lives, including at the breakfast table.
My father still recalls with great nostalgia breakfast dishes his family made. Corn porridge from dinner the night before was cut in slices and fried up with slabs of liver pudding, smothered deliciously in hot maple syrup. Tomato gravy—another favorite—had just three ingredients—tomatoes, milk, flour—which his mother stirred constantly on the wood-burning stove so as to prevent curdling. The family ate it over fried potatoes or homemade bread. The recipe for this dish is in a book I consider not only a cookbook but also a worship guide, living heritage exhibit, instructional dietary text, missionary field report, morality manual, and housefrau brag book. The More-with-Less Cookbook, a book that is all things to all godly cooks, was one of the first and only gifts my father ever gave me once I was out on my own. Inside, a reader finds an array of recipes—originating from both Amish and Mennonite culture as well as international cultures where missionaries have traveled and proselytized.
One also finds elaborate substitution tables geared toward thrifty eating (“FOR 1 c. sour cream USE 7/8 cup buttermilk, sour milk, or yogurt plus 3 T. margarine”), recommended daily allowances and calorie content for lean proteins, comparative costs charts, and food-focused prayers as well as comments from Mennonite cooks across the country and around the world, including one from Iona S. Weaver of Collegeville, PA regarding the Whole Wheat Buttermilk Pancake recipe on page 73: “Add 1/2c. applesauce and a dash of cinnamon to 2c. pancake batter. Decrease milk slightly. Just delightful!”
It should be noted there are no less than seven varieties of pancakes included in this cookbook, and the same holds true for granola. And let’s not get started on bread… or, on second thought, let’s: Pilgrim’s Bread, Ruggenbrot, Heidelberg Rye, Oatmeal Bread, Heirloom Boston Brown Bread, Three-Grain Peanut Bread, Dill Bread, Edna Ruth Byler’s Potato Dough Baked Goods, Rollkuchen, Blechkuchen. My childhood breakfasts were warmed by chewy, textured bread that my aunt Liz baked then toasted for me, spreading it with a generous dollop of margarine and the admonition “It’s healthier!”
Mennonite breakfast taught me to find the joy in the simple sweetness of raisins softened in a bowl of hot, otherwise-tasteless oatmeal. It taught me to cherish the crunch of warm granola sprinkled over peaches my mother had canned. And hooray for real maple syrup after many mornings of Economy Pancake Syrup (page 77) made with brown sugar, water, and cornstarch.
Now, I go in search of my heritage at warm bakeries in Amish country hamlets. These bakeries don’t remind me of my childhood but instead conjure for me the idea I assume non-Amish and Mennonite folks have of my childhood. There, among the rows of baked goods, I can find my aunts’ homey bread and my mother’s long-ago cookies, but what I’m looking for isn’t authenticity. I want the sweetened idea of these Amish breakfast goods. I want the American vision of the Amish breakfast table, and I get it.