Thursday, April 7, 2011

Baking the Mennonite Pocket Trifecta

My grandparents on both sides were German Mennonites. Like all good Mennonite women, my grandmas baked and cooked a lot. My mom did too.
I, however, was off the hook. I wouldn’t need to attempt those difficult and ridiculously time-consuming recipes.  I’d married a non-Mennonite.
What I’d failed to take into account was where I’d met my husband—Tabor College, a Mennonite Brethren school. Sometime during the four-and-a-half years he spent in Hillsboro, my city-dwelling husband-to-be tasted veranika, zwiebach, bierrocks, peppernuts, cherry moos, etc.--and his eyes were opened.
Shortly after we married he suggested we make veranika (cottage cheese-filled pasta pockets), and while we were at it, why not invite his family and several friends?
I sighed heavily and rolled my eyes. “I’ll help,” he said. I called my mom and copied down the recipe. I used my new veranika cutter that Grandpa Epp had made for all of the women at our last Christmas gathering. Still, the veranika pockets kept popping open in the boiling water and losing their filling. Finally we managed to make enough edible ones as our dinner guests were arriving.
These were the leftover veranika last New Year's Day. We made about 60 for a dinner for Dave's family.
My other forays into traditional German Mennonite cuisine always started with the best of intentions, but predictably ended hours later with frazzled nerves, messy countertops, and a mounting frustration with both my grandmas and every other German Mennonite woman through the ages who set the Gold Medal flour standard so impossibly high.
Like the time I was to host the church group leaders’ meeting at my house. Instead of serving apple pie, which would require fussing with plates and forks (this was the year we lived in a rental house without a dishwasher), I had the bright idea to simply serve hand-held apple dumplings, or Prieska. So after dinner the evening before the meeting, I set out to make them.
Hours later, with my husband already snoring in bed, my kitchen dusted in flour, my back and shoulders aching from mixing and rolling out pie dough, cutting it into squares, and pinching each dumpling shut, I decided making dumplings was ten times more time-consuming than baking a pie (which is hardly a quick fix).
At the meeting the next night, my friend Stacy commented that the hand-held dumplings were a convenient idea. I thought of the stacks upon stacks of plates and forks I could have washed during the time it took to complete my marathon apple dumpling-baking session. “Not as convenient as you might think,” was all I could reply.
Grab a bierrock while you can--they don't last long at our house.
Occasionally I would try bierrocks, a bun baked with a ground beef and cabbage filling. And every time, when I finally finished rolling, cutting, pinching, and tucking the ends under for each dough pocket, I would think, “never again.” Until a few years would pass, the frustrating memories would fade, and I would find myself trying again.
I noticed a pattern: veranika, prieska, and bierrocks were all pockets—a German Mennonite pocket trifecta. Who were these crazed women obsessed with putting food in pockets?  Didn’t they know that creating pockets out of noodle dough, or pie dough, or bread dough was incredibly difficult and time consuming? Hadn’t they heard about casseroles?  What maniacal obsession possessed them?
A few years ago my sister and her family moved to Freeman, South Dakota, and my parents and I visited during Schmeckfest, Freeman Academy’s “Festival of Tasting.”
At the festival, demonstrators prepare a number of traditional foods. At the booth where a woman was preparing veranika (which they call “cheese pockets”), I saw my chance.
“So how often do you make this at home?” I asked the woman rolling out the dough. “Once or twice a month?”
“Actually I just make it for Schmeckfest,” she replied.
I was floored.
On the drive home, I had a chance to pin down my parents.
“So how often did Grandma Epp actually make veranika?” I asked.
“Several times a year, mainly for special occasions,” my dad said.
“How about bierrocks?”
“She made them mainly in summer, to take to the field,” he said. “She liked to make extra to freeze to have on hand.”
Of course she would. Even if Hot Pockets had been on the market then, she wouldn’t have bought pre-packaged foods.
“What about Grandma Ediger?” I asked my mom.
“We didn’t have veranika or bierrocks all that often,” my mom admitted. “However, she did make apple dumplings frequently, because we had a crab apple tree, and Grandpa really liked them.”
Stories of my grandma Ediger’s faith are legendary in our family, but I don’t think I’ve heard anything that illustrates her sweet, servant heart better than her willingness to spend hours upon hours in her kitchen making apple dumplings because they owned a crab apple tree (she was a thrifty Mennonite, after all) and her husband really liked them.
So the next time my husband requests veranika, I’ll try to smile and say, “Okay, great idea!”
Maybe I’ll even suggest making it myself.

3 comments:

  1. Love this, Karen! I'm like Dave; I didn't know this wonderful food existed until I met Chad. Verenika...YUM!! Much to Chad's delight I made Zwiebach once, and they turned out great. I haven't attempted any of the "pocket" recipes. Way to go, you. :)

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  2. Beware of the pockets! Good for you for trying zwiebach--not an easy task either, but yummy! Makes me miss my grandma just thinking about them. . .

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  3. Love all of these foods. Grandma always had Zweibach on hand - They made great ham sandwiches for Faspa. I usually cheat, however - one of the ladies in Henderson< NE makes Verenike, Prieska and Zweibach and has them frozen - the Verenike and Prieska are ready to cook. I prefer frying the Verenike. What is interesting to me is that these are all Ukrainian dishes (the Verenike are stuffed with all sorts of things, not just the dry cottage cheese of our heritage). But much fun.

    I'm glad I stumbled across your site.

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I am a freelance writer. I also work full time with our business, Franklin Lawn Service. My husband, David, and I met as students at Tabor College and we have been married for almost 20 years. We have three great kids, Caleb, Harrison, and Laurel.