Shirley Showalter’s famous family cookies: an unbroken chain

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.