The Virginia roots of Mary Emma Showalter

Reposted/adapted from Valley Living “For the Whole Family” Summer edition, 2015. 

Mennonite Community Cookbook, a bestselling cookbook first published in 1950, was relaunched early in 2015 in a 65th anniversary edition.

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But perhaps not all Shenandoah Valley residents know the Virginia roots of this beloved collection. Author and compiler Mary Emma Showalter grew up on a farm near Broadway, Va.; many of her Showalter relatives still live in the Valley. Two of her step-children, Phyllis Showalter and Eleanor Mumaw and many other kin (sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles) have called this area home.

The cookbook is nearing 500,000 copies in print and is published by Herald Press, now located in Harrisonburg.

If you are from Virginia and look at the list of ten dishes from Mennonite Community Cookbook which Phyllis and Eleanor mentioned as some personal favorite recipes of Mary Emma, you may recognize many of them as Virginia favorites, though certainly not exclusively.

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Dandelion Salad

Mary Emma Showalter’s favorite dishes from her cookbook:
Baked corn
Baked ham
Baked salsify
Fried chicken
Shoe fly pie
Dandelion salad
Cole slaw
Fruit pies – apple, peach, berry
Stuffed baked fish
Home canned pickles

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Southern Fried Chicken

(See bottom of this post for other Virginia recipes in the book.)

With the possible exception of shoe fly pie—so popular in Pennsylvania and the stuffed baked fish, all of these dishes are “must haves” for many longtime or older Valley residents. The baked ham included in the cookbook is Mary Emma’s own recipe and it calls for center slices of cured ham rubbed with dry mustard and covered with brown sugar and milk. You then bake the slices for about an hour, until the milk is absorbed. Mary Emma writes about curing meats in her great grandfather’s old smokehouse, a tradition still carried on in current day practice for numerous Valley residents.

Readers also can see Valley life represented in some of the stories Mary Emma shares, such as how her grandfather would come in for dinner, smell Grandma’s freshly baked bread, and could be counted on to say with heartfelt pleasure, “Bread is the staff of life.”

Becoming the author of the first best-selling Mennonite cookbook was only one of Mary Emma’s many accomplishments.

Mary Emma writes about frequently asking to see her mother’s handwritten recipes. Eventually she canvassed most Mennonite communities of the day (late 1940s) to collect recipes, so the cookbook itself goes far beyond Valley cooking. Still, it is fun to find Virginia recipes sprinkled throughout.

Becoming the author of the first best-selling Mennonite cookbook was only one of Mary Emma’s many accomplishments. She graduated from (then) Madison College but World War II was raging. In 1942 she began working as a dietitian in Civilian Public Service (CPS), a government program for conscientious objectors who worked in mental hospitals, starvation projects, road construction, forest fighting units, and more.

Mary Emma Showalter, shown here, served part of her assignment in World War II with Civilian Public Service at Grottoes, Virginia, cooking and teaching young men how to cook. Later she was sent to camps all over the U.S. teaching cooking which eventually gave birth to Mennonite Community Cookbook sharing favorite recipes from Mennonite communities of North America.  © MENNOMEDIA

While assigned to a CPS camp in Grottoes, Virginia, Mary Emma worked in the kitchen and began teaching the men to cook. The classes were so popular she developed a three-month training program and manual, and was asked to visit fifteen CPS camps across the United States doing similar training. (For more on how CPS camps were launched with the U.S. Government between World I and II, see a new biography about one of the men who helped start the program, Orie O. Miller, My Calling to Fulfill by John Sharp.)

In her travels, Mary Emma noted similarities and differences in Mennonite foods and cooking in various communities—the seed for her idea to compile Mennonite Community Cookbook.

In 1944 she was sent abroad by a Mennonite relief program on an American troop ship with three thousand soldiers. Stationed in the Sinai Desert, she worked as a dietitian in a refugee camp, feeding 1,075 children and teaching their mothers and nutrition.

When she returned from the war and relief efforts in 1946 and began postgraduate studies, she worked on the cookbook off and on for three years. It became part of her master’s research at the University of Tennessee, documenting food history among Mennonite communities. She finished her master’s in 1948, and by the time the cookbook was slated to come out in June of 1950, she was a professor at Eastern Mennonite College and head of the home economics department. Later she would complete a doctorate at Pennsylvania State University (1957) and become the first female professor at EMC with a doctorate. She married widower Ira Eby, then of Hagerstown, Maryland in 1960, a barber. They lived out most of the remainder of their lives in the Valley. Mary Emma died in 2003 and is buried at Trissels Mennonite Church just south of Broadway.

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Her husband, Ira Eby, was a well known barber in the Park View part of Harrisonburg until he retired in 1978; he died in 2004.

Today the cookbook, while certainly featuring numerous appealing and delicious “family favorite” recipes, functions also as a historical record and treasury of vintage recipes. That was one of the goals Mary Emma had for her master’s project. In her introduction, she wrote, “The daughters of today [are]guilty of pushing [old dishes]aside in favor of the new, just as I had done one day. … I realized in many instances our mothers would be the last generation to use them … and thought that now is the time to preserve them. So this book is an attempt to preserve for posterity … cooking that has been handed down for many generations.”

Mary Emma added that in order to make the book more inclusive and appeal to more users, “It also includes favorite recipes of our own day. Grandmother recorded no salad recipes or casserole dishes or numerous other dishes that our present [1950] appetites call for.” One fun recipe gives “Food for a Barn Raising” with a menu to feed “175 men.” Some “green” recipes or methods for making homemade laundry soap, lotion, and a pesticide-free solution to get rid of garden worms on cabbage will appeal to today’s gardeners and those looking for environmentally healthy options.

The new edition contains appetizing new photos of prepared recipes while eliminating photos of dishes most modern readers consider “antiquities” such as stuffed pig stomach. Mary Emma herself confesses in the book that she “never learned to appreciate” Grandma’s milk and rivel soup. Rivels are a little like noodle dough in a tiny ball, “no larger than cherry stone,” which loose their shape if not eaten right away, according to Mary Emma’s comments about “Corn Soup with Rivels” recipe in the book.

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Corn Rivel Soup

If you appreciate simple home cooking with common ingredients found in almost everyone’s pantry, there are 1100 recipes to choose from in this mammoth and classic perennial seller. The book’s first publisher, The John C. Winston Company in Philadelphia, predicted a shelf life of maybe five to seven years for the cookbook. The book’s been around for 65 years. Hats off to Virginian Mary Emma and her brand of Mennonite home cooking.

Many more historical details about the publication, marketing, and artist’s drawings in “Mennonite Community Cookbook” are found in the 2015 anniversary edition, and sign up to receive updates from this blog (in the margin). Almost weekly drawings are being held through the reminder of 2015 at a Facebook page for the book, called “Mennonite Community Cookbook.”

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MELODIE DAVIS is editor of Valley Living and also served as the managing editor for the 2015 edition of “Mennonite Community Cookbook.”

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We’d love to hear from you if you know anyone with a recipe in the book! Please send the name of the cook and the recipe! We’ll do a follow-up post. Comment in the comment section or send to us at melodied@mennomedia.org 

A partial listing of some of the recipes listed from Virginia cooks (pages indicated):

Parkerhouse Rolls – p. 6
Buttermilk Biscuits – p. 13
Graham Raisin Muffins – p. 19
Salt Rising Bread – p. 21
Southern Spoon Bread – p. 22
Dewey Buns – p. 25
Fried Mush – p. 30
Corn Chowder – p. 38
Beef Soup with Dumplings – p. 43
Beef Potpie – p. 55 (By Mary Emma’s Grandmother Showalter)
Creamed Dried Beef – p. 68
How to Cure Dried Beef by dry salt method – p. 57 (Mrs. Owen F. Showalter, Broadway)
Hamburger en Casserole – p. 59
Meat Balls in Tomato Juice – p. 61
Shepherd’s Pie – p. 66
Pork Chops, Breaded – p. 73
Sausage Casserole Dinner – p. 78

2 thoughts on “The Virginia roots of Mary Emma Showalter”

  1. Loved reading this article. Seems the clock pendulum swings back and forth, over the years, and I am delighted to hear the stories of the olden days.
    My great grandparents moved from Missouri (George & Paulina Hostetler) to Oregon way back, many years ago (probably late 1890’s–very early1900’s), to plant a church. My grand father moved out here, to follow his girlfriend and her family, when he was about 21, very early 1900’s, with only a truck full of his possessions, and not even enough cash to pay the freight bill for the trunk! Times were hard, and they worked HARD, & learned to cook something out of whatever they had. We are so BLESSED today, with such an abundance! THANK YOU for your post!

    1. Glad you enjoyed this, C.J. Indeed the pendulum swings. Wondering if your great grandparents are part of the Jacob Hochstetler family. Thanks for sharing this great story.

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