The Artist Behind Mennonite Community Cookbook: Naomi Nissley

P1070269

We’ve given a lot of attention to Mary Emma Showalter in recent weeks with an article in The Mennonite about how she came to compile Mennonite Community Cookbook, our own blog post “What Would Mary Emma Say,” and ongoing tidbits on the Facebook page. Newspapers are running stories about the cookbook’s revival as well.

NaomiNissleyArtist Naomi Nissley

But a second major player in the success and look of this famous cookbook was artist Naomi Nissley.

P1060456

Both Mary Emma and Naomi were relatively young and new in their fields—in fact both were still graduate students as they worked on the book. The great part is that Naomi’s husband Alexander “Sandy” Limont is still living and happy to talk about the book, and has been most helpful in our research into the history of the book, the covers, and the artwork. I was able to ask him and Naomi’s brother some questions about Naomi’s life and process in working with Mary Emma in creating the signature look of Mennonite Community Cookbook.

Naomi went to Eastern Mennonite College for a time and her brother Lowell Nissley felt sure that was how Mary Emma was acquainted with Naomi and her artwork. He recalled that Naomi was offered the opportunity to receive royalties from sale of the book, but took a cash payment instead: likely a big mistake considering the longevity of the cookbook. But as a grad student she likely  needed the cash. He recalled Naomi as being self-depreciating but very enthusiastic about the opportunity to work on a cookbook of this scope. She couldn’t have realized at the time it would become the work for which she was most well known.

P1070262

Naomi worked in careful concert with Mary Emma, corresponding back and forth. In one case, a detailed letter from Mary Emma gave gentle nudges toward tweaking drawings to better match Mary Emma’s considerable vision and opinion.

LetterMaryToNaomi_sketch

P1070253
A grandmother, perhaps, at her spinning wheel

The drawings included the ordinary things of daily life, the quotidian (double click on any of these to get closer up),

P1070255
A woman kneading dough in a huge bin
P1070254
A grandmother at her cook stove

 

P1070263
A picnic on a farm

 

P1070261
A vegetable garden

 

and much more. Many were on-the-spot sketches drawn from Mennonite communities in central Pennsylvania.

P1060453Naomi’s professional bio includes that she dreamed of becoming an artist as a child, and studied painting and drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). She enrolled at additional art and graphic schools and her work was exhibited by invitation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Yale and Rutgers Universities, and Tyler School of Fine Art, in addition to PAFA and others. She once wrote about her work, “For me art is a constant dialogue between experience and artistic creation.”

Her husband Sandy was also an illustrator and graphic designer. He worked as an art director for an ad agency for a number of years. They were married for 55 years until Naomi died in 2010 at age 91. She was a member of the Highland Presbyterian Church in Lancaster and the Germantown Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.

MennoniteCommunityCookbook_2015cover

All of Naomi’s drawings that were used in the original 1950 cookbook are used in the 65th anniversary edition, published in February 2015.

Today I touched a bit of this history. In the humble way of an amateur blogger and photographer, I headed over to Eastern Mennonite University’s Menno Simons Historical Library, where I had made an appointment with the special collections librarian, Simone Horst, to haul out boxes of these framed and matted prints from the archives. Neither she nor I were sure when and why they were framed. Perhaps they were for a special display and celebration that happened at the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, Pa., while Naomi was still living, when she was asked to sign copies of the cookbook for those who attended.

P1070264

The drawings are even more delightful in person than reprinted in the book. Perhaps we’ll have to work on getting these intriguing glimpses into heritage and history on display somewhere again.

P1070265

***

We’ll continue to share more behind-the-scenes stories, photos and looks that you won’t find anywhere else. So do share this with any of your friends who are Mennonite Community Cookbook aficionados so they can sign up to receive our periodic blog posts!

***

Did you ever meet Naomi Nissley? Have a copy of the cookbook signed by her?

***

Don’t miss the new edition: A great gift for any fan whose own copy likely looks like this.MarianThomas

Melodie Davis, Managing Editor

What Would Mary Emma Showalter Say?

What Would Mary Emma Showalter Say?

By Melodie M. Davis

We’re having a blast—with Mary Emma Showalter’s mammoth cookbook rolling out again Feb. 2 in its 65th year! No retirement party for Mennonite Community Cookbook, no siree, Bob. We want to keep this brainchild of Mary Emma’s cooking for another 50 years, at least!

FourTonsMCCookbook
This is what a shipment of 8000 pounds of cookbooks looks like!

So what on earth would Mary Emma say if she were still living? She lived long enough to know about computers and the Internet and online marketing—but she wasn’t around when Facebook first launched on college campuses across the land and then, quickly, became the go-to social media of choice, even for those in the 65+ age bracket (and now mostly abandoned by the college-age crowd). She would be amazed to know she’s on Twitter and Pinterest and yes, even Instagram, a bit.

But would she be supportive of these newfangled marketing efforts?

P1060456
Artist Naomi Nissley, left, and author Mary Emma Showalter inspect the first printing of Mennonite Community Cookbook, 1950.

I’ve gotten to know her a bit through all my research in the past year–in office files, interviews, the archives at Eastern Mennonite University Historical Library, talking to relatives, the husband of the illustrator, friends, and combing endlessly through past articles that she wrote or that were written about her (and you’ll hear more about all these in weeks and months to come). But there is one incident that tells me perhaps she would be a little put off at first, maybe even a little aghast, and then she’d dig in and do whatever needed to be done to help see her baby reach new audiences, new generations, new cooks—even though cooking has changed so MUCH in the last 65 years.

MaryEmmaShowalterTea001
Mary Emma serving tea–reprinted from The Way We Are: A Celebration of 75 years of Eastern Mennonite College.

That incident is told in the back of the new 12-page historical section for this book. So of course I can’t spill the cookies here, but it does have to do with baking lots and lots of cookies. Right at the end of the semester, when grades were due from professors, and what she, as head of a college home economics department, told the PR firm who requested the Mennonite cookies. And what they told her back.

If you love the cookbook or are fascinated by vintage Mennonite cooking or adapting recipes for your tastes today, or admit to being a bit of a foodie or love a good Mennonite potluck meal or reunion, you’ll love the stories in our new edition.

Mary Emma did put her foot down in response to certain promotional stunts. You’ll find that story too.

MaryEmmaShowalterEbyGravestone
Gravestone of Mary Emma Showalter Eby near Broadway, Va.

I’ve been in her former house. I’ve talked to her grad school roommate. I’ve devoured a historical piece about her written by a colleague. I learned she had a great sense of humor. I’ve cooked from her book. I’d love to take people on a Mennonite Community Cookbook tour and drop by her gravesite or at least pass by the outside of the home she lived in, where the original photographs for the cookbook were taken.

MaryEmmaShowalterHomeParkView
The home Mary Emma was living in when the original Mennonite Community Cookbook food photos were staged, using beloved heirloom antique family dishes and place settings.

I don’t know for sure how she’d feel about the new edition and all the social media we’re going for here: the contests with weekly cookbook prizes on fun themes. I think they’d give her pause and then she’d say, if it keeps the book alive, if it keeps people eating more purposefully and meaningfully, go for it.

That’s just my take.

What do you think?

I know one thing. Mary Emma would have LOVED to see these photos below and hear the thoughts and memories so many people associate with their copy of Mennonite Community Cookbook. Below are just some of the cookbook covers sent or posted by fans and readers.

And before we lose you, if you want to get a copy of the new edition at a great 25% discount, for just $18.74 until Feb. 2, act fast, and go here, or call 800-245-7894. (Discounted price will appear in cart until Feb. 2, 2015.)

And get cooking to enter the current contest showing one of your fav recipes from Mennonite Community Cookbook: two drawings will be held, one this Friday Jan. 30, and one Feb. 6. More info here! Entries to be featured here on the blog in the future. Thanks!

CheriseMomPUnchedNotebook
The remains of food stylist Cherise Harper’s mother’s #MennoCooking cookbook.

 

AlmaUnrauCookbook1
The well used cookbook of Alma Unrau, head of customer service for Herald Press and MennoMedia.

 

SylviaHertzlerSaunders
The still shiny copy of Sylvia Hertzler Saunders, which came from her grandparents in 1976 as a birthday gift.

 

WilmaCender
Wilma Cender shared the backcover jacket for the cookbook, which she received for a bridal shower gift from a special aunt and cousin.

 

DorothyFriesen
From Dorothy Friesen: This copy belonged to and was heavily used by a gay Mennonite couple in Chicago, who, not welcomed in the church gave it to me in the 1980s.

 

SueStuckey
Book belonging to Sue Stuckey, who says she’s excited to see the new edition!

 

AmyHertzler
Amy Hertzler says: “My favorite cookbook! It was a Christmas gift from my great aunt, Florence E. Horst, in 1978.”

 

MarianThomas
Marian Thomas’s shot of “my beloved old friend.”

 

MelodieDavisBlogPhotoBlog post by Melodie M. Davis, managing editor for this edition.