Shirley Showalter’s famous family cookies: an unbroken chain

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Hospitality is inextricably tied to food. We often measure the worth of a host’s welcome by the bounty of the table at which we are fed. I wrote these words, last week, in a column about the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot—and a yummy recipe for Trailside Oatmeal Cookies.

Today, we welcome Mennonite author Shirley Showalter with a column about another kind of cookie that may seem simple—but is also a tasty tradition that connects generations of women in her family. Shirley’s story also points out how these cookies were connection points with a larger world.



In my new memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, one of the photos from the 1950s shows my sister Sue, my brother Henry and me at the roadside stand where we tried to sell our produce. When I look at that photo now, I smile because Henry is holding a bag of the family cookies over his shoulder. As children, we couldn’t travel all the way to a farmer’s market to sell our wares, so we tried it along the roadside.

I share about a dozen recipes at the end of my book, but the most important to me is the first one: my great-grandmother’s sugar cookie recipe that we still make from a 100-year-old notebook of family recipes. We always called them “Sugar Cakes.” If you get my book and look at the family chart in the opening pages, this recipe comes from the Barbara Hess (1866-1941) branch of my family tree.

Every week, through the generations, the women in my family would bake dozens and dozens of these cookies. They were simple, but were not found in most other cookbooks.

This has brought the women in my family together over a long, long period of time. My family always was part of the Lancaster Central Market, which is now the oldest continuously operated farmer’s market in the United States. Every Tuesday and Friday, they had a stand at the market and would bring in whatever produce and poultry they had prepared the day before—and, of course, baked goods, too. These cookies always were the featured item among the baked goods.

Many times as a girl, I helped to bake the cookies. My mother didn’t continue selling things at the market, but my grandmother did until her death in 1951.

This has brought the women in my family together over a long, long period of time. Recently, my daughter and I got together at my sister’s farm in Lancaster County and we made these cookies to serve guests at some of the book-launch events for Blush. I’ve now passed the recipe to my children, forming an unbroken chain of people who’ve made these cookies over more than a century.

Now, I’m passing this tradition along to readers, too.

Care to read more about Shirley Showalter?

You’re sure to enjoy our in-depth interview with Shirley about her life, her work as an author and her new book, Blush.

AND SPECIAL THANKS TODAY: Our Holidays and Festivals columnist Stephanie Fenton also is an accomplished food photographer. She carried out our Read The Spirit recipe testing, this week, and provided the photo that accompanies today’s recipe.

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  1. Shirley Hershey Showalter says

    The cookies turned out beautifully, Stephanie. When you share an old family recipe, it’s a little scary, because you are never sure how much of the baking experience was transmitted by example rather than paper.

    The lovely air pockets in the broken cookie likely are a tribute to the choice of lard for the fat. People ask if lard makes a difference. I think it does. The cookies get lighter. I use butter when I don’t have lard, however, and the cookies are still delicious.

    Happy baking! I wonder how many other people have old recipes like this one?

  2. Pat Shufeldt says

    What I find fascinating about Shirley Showalter’s family cookie recipe is how close it is to my family’s treasured recipe. Exchange butter for the lard, remove the cream of tarter, and adjust the quantities of several other ingredients slightly, and it’s the same recipe as the one passed on by my great-grandmother (1858-1923) in rural northern Indiana. I often wondered where she obtained the recipe; never saw it in a cookbook.

    • Pat Shufeldt says

      My own variation on the recipe for “Grandma Cobb’s Cookies,” substitutes half whole wheat flour and increases the flavorings. I’ve not forgotten how surprised I was when my mother asked for a written copy of my version and started using it.

      About a year ago I shared both the original and the whole wheat variation with a small local cafe which now sells their own version made with local buttermilk instead of regular milk soured with vinegar. It has been such a pleasure to see others enjoying this basic recipe which we have treasured for many years.

  3. Shirley Hershey Showalter says

    Pat, how fascinating!

    My hypothesis about this recipe is that all cooks had a problem with raw milk that soured. They could not throw away the milk just because it wasn’t drinkable!

    So they developed cookie recipes (with soda doing something chemical I can’t explain)and added different little frills (my mother always sprinkles sugar on top and sticks a raisin in the center, I should have been more emphatic. She’ll correct me if she sees this post!)

    Another explanation could be German and Swiss ethnic groups that migrated out of Pennsylvania to other parts of the country.

    Would either of these explanations apply to you?

    • Pat Shufeldt says


      The sour milk hypothesis makes a lot of sense.

      This branch of my family was mainly of English origin, although there certainly could have been interaction with neighbors from other ethnic groups as people moved westward.

      We usually pressed a pecan half or a piece of walnut on top; sometimes added chocolate chips to the dough instead. For extra-special occasions when I was young, the dough would be made thicker with added flour so it could be rolled out and cut into fancy shapes with cookie cutters. Various colored candy/sugar sprinkles were frequently added to the top, balancing the lesser sweetness of the thicker dough.

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