My father used to say, “The best time in your life is when your children have their feet under your dinner table.” I thought it was funny then, back in the day when I wore plain Mennonite dresses and a traditional white cap to cover errant curls. Eating meals together as a family was as common as breathing. I didn’t understand the depth of his words until much later in life, when I had children of my own and realized the poignancy of family dinners in an era where many follow hectic schedules and rarely take time to enjoy home-cooked meals around a table. I learned to appreciate the culture of slow living that came from my heritage.
Raised on a farm in Ohio’s Amish country by parents whose lives revolved around family and community, I learned the value of growing up in the shadow of one’s kinfolk. Working, cooking and eating together were essential elements of our Mennonite household, and skipping across grassy meadows to call the cows for evening milking was as much a part of my young life as helping my mother fix meals in the kitchen. Our lives were simple, our food was fresh, and gathering around the table each night was as sure as the sun that set over our fifty acres.
By the age of 12, as most Mennonite girls, I had learned to cook for thirty at a moment’s notice, whether for a crew of hungry threshers helping on the farm or a table full of unexpected guests. I learned how to handle hot pots, cook a turkey, make lump-free gravy and preserve bushels of corn, apples and peaches. I learned to set a Sunday table with Mama’s Blue Willow dishes, because we always used the best for company. I learned all these things and more by working at my mother’s side in the daily rhythm of life, for my father was a firm believer in “more is caught than taught.”
The community we cultivated with friends and family provided a nurturing environment with memories galore which still sets the tone for my dinners. There were ice cream suppers with neighbors who came walking across fields with pails of home-churned goodness. There were bountiful Sunday potlucks to enjoy after hours of sitting on hard pews listening to the drone of the minister. There were apple butter cookings and taffy pulls with aunts and uncles. And there were weekly jaunts with my dad in his 1972 station wagon as we rumbled across dirt roads to buy a pan of still-warm cinnamon rolls from the Amish bakery. At the core, we celebrated life over plates of food around tables with those we loved.
Though I left the Mennonites at age 23, I have carried many of their values into my modern-day life as a writer and home cook. I still believe in the importance of family and community. I make time for homecooked meals using local, seasonal ingredients, and I know the joy of having my children’s feet under the table. I may have traded the Amish countryside for life in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, but I’m still a promoter of roots and embracing one’s heritage. And for me, that looks like dinner around the table.
Find the recipe for Naomi's Amish cinnamon rolls here.
Naomi Gingerich is a freelance writer and home cook living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She authors a blog, The Cooks in the Kitchen, which tells the stories of home cooks from around the world in a weekly Friday feature, in addition to recipes and stories of her Mennonite heritage. She also hosts outdoor dinner parties in collaboration with local artisans and farmers in scenic locations throughout the state. Follow her journey on Instagram: @thecooksinthekitchen.