Food That Really Schmecks

Food That Really Schmecks

Last May, Jasmine, our in-house cookbook reviewer, met one of her kitchen heroes, Edna Staebler, the beloved Canadian journalist and cookbook writer. Her 1st centennial already behind her, Staebler was still enjoying life to the utmost in the Waterloo region she''d always called home (their first meal together was Indian food, at Staebler''s request). The friendship was cut short when Staebler passed away a few months later, but her cooking can still be found on Canadian tables.

Staebler would have celebrated her 101st birthday on January 15, 2007. In commemoration, Jasmine reviews her recently re-released first cookbook, below, and celebrates Edna Staebler on her own blog with "A Day That Really Schmecks."

Food That Really Schmecks
Edna Staebler
Wilfrid Laurier University Press (2006)
378 pp., $33

As much as I enjoy cooking new and fabulous dishes—those that require hard-to-find ingredients or specialised equipment (or improvising said hard-to-find ingredients or specialised equipment)—sometimes what satisfies me most are hearty foods that call for easily found (if not local) ingredients prepared in straightforward and delicious ways. For me, one of the best collections of such recipes is Edna Staebler’s classic 1968 Mennonite cookbook, Food That Really Schmecks.

Born and raised in Waterloo County, Staebler, who passed away on September 12 at the age of 100, was a respected journalist known for her literary journalism that chronicled life in various communities, such as the Hutterites in Alberta and swordfishermen in Cape Breton. In the 1960s she moved in with Bevvy Martin’s family, an Old Order Mennonite family in Waterloo County, to better understand their oral history and learn about their culture and cooking. The recipes she collected during that time, along with those of her mother and sisters, would form the basis of Staebler’s first cookbook, Food That Really Schmecks. Released in 1968, it became an instant classic, selling tens of thousands of copies. She followed up with two more books, More Food that Really Schmecks (1979) and Schmecks Appeal (1987), along with the 12-book Schmecks Appeal series (1990-91).

Food That Really Schmecks had been out-of-print until this fall, when a commemorative edition was released by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, as part of its Life Writing series. This new edition features a forward by author Wayson Choy and an introduction by food writer Rose Murray, both very dear friends of Staebler. Apart from the addition of an imperial-metric conversion chart, it is unchanged from the original.

This book’s major joy is Staebler’s writing style. She doesn’t treat food as something to be revered or feared—food is to be eaten and enjoyed. Her chatty, humorous, and no-nonsense narrative leaves readers feeling as if they are reading a letter from a dear friend. She also includes conversations from Bevvy Martin’s family, such as her introduction to the Sour Cream Raisin Pie: “‘Be reckless, forget about calories; you won’t get this Pennsylvania Dutch speciality very often.’ Tell that to your guests.” Equally delightful is her knack for capturing dialect nuances: “You look like you have afraid you’ll bust your buttons,” she writes, quoting Bevvy’s daughter Salome, after a meal in the Martin home.

Schmecks is divided into 19 chapters, including sections talking to Mennonite Cooking, Waterloo County, Candies, Soup, Sweets and Sours (Jams and Pickles), Brunches, and Leftovers. A Variety of Things is an interesting section that houses recipes and concoctions which don’t fit in any of the other chapters—things like cheesemaking, soap- and lotion-making, and home remedies. Her parting words to readers are found in And Finally, where she instructs readers to adapt, substitute, improvise, and “be a little reckless”—caveats that are second nature for home cooks.

These recipes are honestly practical. At times instructions are vague, leaving out exact quantities in favour of imparting ideas and concepts (much like the instructions one might receive from a mother or grandmother). For example, in the simply named “Leftover Roast,” Staebler recommends putting “quite a lot” of leftover roast beef into an earthenware pot, pouring leftover onions and gravy over top, along with “carrots and any other mild vegetables too,” then refrigerating the mixture overnight prior to cooking. From other authors, this may be frustrating or considered sloppy, but Staebler’s phrasing imparts the feeling that she’s in your kitchen with the leftover roast, just giving you some ideas to work with.

What drives Food That Really Schmecks isn’t a faddish diet or eating system that denies the eater this or that. There are equally copious amounts of butter and cream, along with fruit, veg, and grains. Staebler presents recipes reminiscent of the days when food wasn’t something to be feared dissected into carbs, calories and other “counts” that preoccupy so many people today .

Cooking from this book is incredibly stress-free. The recipes I tried didn’t take long to prepare and everything turned out wonderfully tasty—the following, along with her recipes for Neil’s Harbour Bread and Scalloped Potatoes, made a mighty hearty and easy supper.

Weiner Schnitzel (Breaded Veal Cutlets)
This was so fast and easy, you’ll probably never go back to boxed frozen schnitzel (assuming you eat frozen schnitzel)—and it tastes far better than the boxed version. The recipe calls for veal, but you can easily substitute chicken or pork.

Tzvivelle Supp Mitt Kase (Onion Soup with Cheese on Toast)
I think this milk soup took an entire 30 minutes to make (including slicing the onions and shredding the cheese). The end result was a cross between a creamed onion soup and French onion soup. This is the perfect thing for a quick and easy supper after a tiring drive through snow or rain.

Baked Carrots
Of all the recipes I tried, this was the one I was least sure of. It seemed far too easy to be satisfying. Well... I was wrong. The carrots were sweet and moist with a lovely nutty-gingery flavour. I’ve since made this again, layering Oktoberfest sausages on top of the veg and cooking both together in the same pan.

Butter Tarts
As anyone who’s eaten Mennonite cooking knows, their pastries and sweets are scrumptious. The only downfall to the tarts can be laid directly at my feet. My pastry skills were rusty and the tart shells didn’t hold up very well; no bother, the supermarket freezer section keeps tart shells for those of us who are imperfect pastry makers. Even though the shells didn’t hold up, the filling certainly did–it was delicious and not cloying, as I find many other butter tarts to be.

Food That Really Schmecks is like having a dear friend or a favourite aunt helping you in the kitchen. The foods are uncomplicated and accessible to pretty much everyone wanting to produce delicious meals and treats for everyday eating/cooking. Even if you are averse to cooking, this book is a warm and inviting read. If your mother is tired of lending you her copy, or you missed Staebler the first time around, this lovely new edition will see you through many an evening in the kitchen.

At a Glance
Overall: 4.25/5

The Breakdown
Writing: 4.5/5
Recipe Selection: 4.5
Ease of use: 4/5
Yumminess: 4/5

Kitchen Comfort: basic-intermediate
Pro: Excellent general cookbook that’s a pleasure to read.
Con: Cooks who want or need very precise measurements may be frustrated from time to time, and those who are calorie conscious may find entire sections need skipping.

By Jasmine