Written by Sheryl Vanderstel, a food historian based in Indiananpolis. During her professional career she has been involved in history museum programming, historic preservation and local history research. Her main interest is early 19th century American foodways and hearth cooking. She has taught hearth cooking classes and fed countless happy diners at Huddleston Farm Inn Museum Hearth Dinners.
I was lucky enough to have my great-grandmother as part of my life until I was 26 years of age. Her name was Maria Wilhelmina Luisa Fritz until the First World War forced her to “Americanize” her name and learn the English language to prove her loyalty to the country of her birth – the United States. But, fortunately for anyone lucky enough to sit at her dinner table, her German cooking remained. I have memories of “peach kuchen” in August and pork cake (a delicious fruit cake) at Christmas. Each morning of a visit to her home I was awakened to the fragrance of bacon frying and coffee perking. She felt everyone must have plenty of food in their stomach to do the work of the day. For the children, breakfast usually ended with the first round of zucker keks for the day. Sugar cookies were the salve to any bump or bruise, the mediator for any childhood squabble, and the reward for any job well-done.
Grandma Fritz’s sugar cookies lived in a Depression Glass cookie jar in the glass-fronted kitchen cabinet of her 1918 home in Evansville. Everything in it was old, and to my young eyes, beautiful. That cupboard held the mismatched dishes and cooking paraphernalia of a life time. The flour sifter with the handle I turned so gleefully to help her make those sugar cookies of my dreams; the old crock that held sugar and the old tin measuring cup that Grandma rarely used.
It wasn’t until I was older that I realized those sugar cookies and that cookie jar were the center of the memories of Grandma for all of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The year after her death, a cousin compiled a cookbook of favorite family recipes. On the cover was a hand-drawn picture of Grandma. On the back was the table prayer, in German, of course, that we all used at her table. But best of all, the first recipe in the cookbook was for Grossmutter’s Zucher Keks.
This is a sample Hoosier food story. The Indiana Humanities Council has joined with the Indiana State Fair to create a humanities writing contest for its signature program, Food for Thought, which engages Hoosiers in discussions about food and how it helps define Indiana’s culture. With this in mind, the Council encourages you to write a short story or essay about an Indiana memory related to food. It might be about a special occasion, a funny incident, a favorite dish, or an ethnic specialty. Learn more here. (Click on Department 114). Winning entries will receive a cash prize.