Fellow Hoosiers beware: I do not like cooked fruit. No pies, cobblers or turnovers for me, thanks. If you were to offer me some at your Labor Day cookout, I would politely decline. For this, I have been called everything from “weird,” to “crazy,” to “un-American.” Perhaps you would agree. But for me, an apple should be cool, crisp and refreshing–not warm and mushy. When I bite into a peach, I don’t want it to me thick and oozing; I expect it to be sweet and juicy, covering my chin and shorts because I’m too indulgent to care. So when I learned I’d be traveling to the Pierogi Fest in Whiting, Indiana, I thought I’d be safe from “America’s dessert.”
I ate my first pierogi last summer. I had been a vegetarian for about a month at the time and, looking for an easy lunch fix, picked up a box of frozen Polish dumplings filled with cheddar.
The side of the box told me of all the other varieties I could try: potato, mushroom, beef, etc. No fruit! The box also suggested different of ways of eating them: on a salad, on pasta with marinara sauce or with sauteed peppers and onions topped with salsa. I liked the versatility of the pierogi. A year later, I was in northwest Indiana, surrounded by the food. Here I was introduced to even more variations: spinach pierogi, cabbage pierogi, Mr. Pierogi, and, the unthinkable, fruit-filled pierogis. I wanted to politely decline, but when you meet people like Jesús and Lynethe, who have so much love and pride for their craft, sometimes you just have to give in. I ate a plum pierogi.
That’s the problem with those warm, kind, loving folks who are proud of what they do. You can’t say no to them! For me, it’s not even about feeling guilted or pressured into stepping out of my culinary comfort zone, but an effort to be in community and connect with that person’s passions and energy. Enter Don Shepherd. For those who are unaware (as I was), Mr. Shepherd is Hoosier racing royalty. It’s hard for me, a casual racing fan in the month of May, to remember all of his racing accomplishments, let alone write them in a blog. However, I feel greedy keeping to myself his rich stories about being a world-renowned mechanic, being inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, working in the pits at the Indy 500, and riding dirt bikes with his pals (and Indy 500 winners) Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser. I guess that gives you some insight into his racing life. But what’s really hard is fitting his kindness, warmth, love, and enthusiasm for life into a blog, let alone words.
Mr. Shepherd has been out of the racing scene for about a quarter century. Having too much energy to retire, he has since been in the business of hot apple dumplings. He and his lovely wife Mary travel around to festivals all over Indiana and the rest of the country, greeting eager patrons with their creations. In fact, I spoke with many people at the Pierogi Fest who travelled to Whiting for the sole purpose of buying one of the Shepherd’s dumplings (not to mention their homemade pineapple ice cream). Our Food For Thought tent just happened to be right next to the Shepherd’s candy-striped stand. Over the weekend, I got to know Mr. Shepherd. He spent a lot of time escaping his hot ovens and the even hotter sun under our tent, filling it with stories, jokes, laughter and good energy. These things are served with each dessert he and Mary sell. Whether they know it or not, the Shepherd’s customers are not just eating cooked apples, cinnamon, dough, and ice cream. They are consuming laughter, kindness, passion, wisdom, stories, and love.
I ate two.
The food we eat goes beyond our taste buds and our stomachs. It adds to the narrative of our lives. This weekend, Don Shepherd and his hot apple dumplings added a new chapter to my story. I’m glad I ate those dumplings because I was able to connect with Don and see the world through his eyes, if only momentarily. I thanked him the only way I knew, with a hug, which he in turn thanked me for. It’s funny how a quick hug and a quick friendship can fill you up like a savory dessert. It proves yet another parallel between food and relationships. In a couple weeks, the Indiana State Fair will begin. Mr. Shepherd will be there, across the street from the grandstand. I will be there too, intentionally seeking cooked fruit for the first time in my life, if not to induldge in an all-American dessert, to share more stories and laughter with one of Indiana’s finest residents.
Written by Jonathan Allinson, a part-time Food for Thought ambassador and permanent friend of the Indiana Humanities Council.