When I was away at the university, the women in my grandmother’s church put together a cookbook. The pages were typed and then mimeographed. The book’s cover showed a woman churning butter. The book was titled, “Zoar’s Favorite Recipes.”
Zoar was the name of my grandfather’s church. It was the top of a “T” on two rural township roads. The white clapboard structure with the steeple could be seen for miles around through the rows of corn that filed the surrounding fields. The building had a main sanctuary where worship services were held, and a full basement where everything else happened. There was an outdoor bathroom (or, outhouse). Towering sycamore trees surrounded the building. These provided amble shade during the summer months when socials were held outside.
Zoar is a Biblical name that first appears in Genesis 14:8 in the Old Testament for those of you who are interested. The location was near the Dead Sea in the Lower Jordan Valley and the city was unique because it was an oasis in a parched landscape. Water flowed from the nearby mountains, which provided this lush green landscape. So, from the standpoint of the church elders when they formed the church (I believe sometime around 1871) chose the name for their church at that crossroads location in recognition of the thousands of acres of corn and soybeans. In other words, it was located in an oasis fertile soil and abundant crops.
The cookbook itself was a fund-raiser for the a group of women in the church called the “Ladies Aid Society.” Most churches throughout the Midwest had women’s groups like this. The men had their “Men’s Fellowship” and the women had their “Ladies Aid Society.” There were other women’s groups like “The Daughters of Ruth” but it was this group of women who did the heavy lifting.
They organized the church socials and other events during the church year. Besides the organizational aspect of putting the events together, it also meant making sure enough food was provided. And this extended beyond the church. The women also helped with sick and shut-ins members, and members of the community who were in need. This cookbook was this group of lady’s favorite recipes.
Most of these dishes I’m sure to have eaten at one time or another over the years growing up until I decamped and went off to the university. Events like the church socials were unparalleled displays of home cooked food. The ones at Zoar stretched the length of the church on the east side underneath those glorious shade trees. There were casseroles, vegetables raw and pickled, platters of Beefsteak tomatoes covered with salt, pepper, sugar and vinegar, deviled eggs, salads galore, potato salads, chickens fried and baked, hams with pineapple and smoked hams still smelling like hickory wood smoke; there were relishes both sour and sweet (this was the Midwest and before chilies had reached the American palate so nothing “hot” or to spicy, including garlic). Breads were provided, both white and whole wheat, some made by the ladies and other loaves were store-bought. Drinks included lemonade, iced tea, water, coffee and hot tea. This was a conservative part of Southern Indiana so church events were all “dry,” meaning no beer or wine was served.
And then there were the deserts. Pies, cakes, fudge; cupcakes, tarts, cookies, puddings and homemade candies were a feast to delight the eyes and gustatory senses. I’m talking about pie-overload, cake-overload, pudding-overload and overload everything. The secret was to pace oneself: One piece of pie, one piece of cake, and, maybe a tablespoon or two of pudding (my favorite was butterscotch), all eaten over the course of the afternoon. Any more than that, even with playing a couple of games of horseshoes or the usual softball game, well, you stood a chance you and your stomach of not making it home without an accident on those bumpy rural roads.
Of course, none of this happened until my grandfather said grace, thanking God for “the bounty set before us.” But even before this, the women of the Ladies Aid Society were already on duty, standing guard by the tables shooing flies and kids away, not necessarily in order, before my grandfather asked that the food be blessed.
Here’s one recipe from my grandmother’s cookbook, and one my mother used to make too.
**Printable recipe below
“GERMAN POTATO SALAD
5 lbs. potatoes
1 large onion chopped (in small pieces*)
2 Tb salt
Pepper to taste
2 hard-boiled eggs (chopped)
After potatoes are cooked, mix all above together. Then cook this syrup: Fry four slices of bacon, drain and set aside. Use grease and add 2 large tablespoons flour or corn starch, and cook until slightly brown. Mix ½ cup vinegar, ½ cup water, 1-½ sugar and celery seed to taste. Add this to flour mixture, cook until thick. Combine with potatoes and crumble bacon on top. Doris Godeke” [*my addition] The potatoes were usually cut up so they would easily mix with the ingredients. Otherwise, the recipe is pretty clear. It’s very good and something I grew up on.
Obviously this is not food that would earn a James Beard award or a Michelin star, but food that would be satisfying to the eye and taste, and fill one’s belly with wholesomeness from the ladies who knew how to cook from the heart and soul.
German Potato Salad
Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Paul Rest / Edited Lightly by Karie Engels Giffin