Group works to preserve food culture of Germans from Russia

Michael, Jenny. "Group works to preserve food culture of Germans from Russia." Bismarck Tribune, 14 November 2012.

MEDINA, N.D. — Growing up in a close-knit community of Germans from Russia, Sue Balcom says she wasn’t taught how to cook by following recipes.

She told a crowd of about 25 gathered Nov. 3 at the Medina City Hall that, living among Germans from Russia in North Dakota, people learned to cook by watchings and by doing. They didn’t often hand down written recipes.

For Balcom, growing up in McIntosh County, the kitchen was the center of the household. Balcom, the marketing and outreach coordinator for FARRMS, the Foundation for Agricultural and Rural Resource Management and Sustainability, would hang around the kitchen to listen to conversations and gossip of adults. In doing so, she learned how to cook, how to make the food of her people — kuchen, knoephle, fruit soups and more.

The crowd was gathered at the hall for the exhibit of “Key Ingredients: America by Food,” part of the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street effort to bring Smithsonian exhibits to communities across the country. The exhibit, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council, will be in Medina until Dec. 2. Then, it moves on to Bottineau, Underwood, Ellendale and to United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck.

The exhibit features the history of food in America and how food has shaped the culture of the country. Exhibit sites add their own flavors — in Medina, local civic groups, churches and businesses provided historical information about the community and its food heritage. The North Dakota Department of Agriculture also contributed exhibits about local food products and a learning area for children.

Most Saturdays during the exhibit feature a speaker at 1 p.m. followed by a food-related demonstration at 3 p.m. Following Balcom’s talk, the Medina-Streeter Hustlers 4-H Club demonstrated how to make butter, then served it up on crackers and fresh bread.

Balcom explained to the crowd that the diet of the Germans from Russia was based on what was available on their small, diversified farms. Large animals were butchered as winter approached, and chickens sustained families in the summertime. Garden produce fed the families year-round, stored in root cellars, canned or pickled.

Prunes were a common staple, because they kept well and were plentiful, Balcom said. Several people in the crowd speculated that prunes served to counteract some effects of the dough-heavy diet.

Food was more than something to be eaten — food shaped their lives, Balcom explained. Gathering and preparing food was a major part of life, from gardening to canning, feeding animals to butchering. The women took pride in their ability to sustain their families and feed crowds.

“Many of the women I’ve talked to said they had, minimally, 200 jars of vegetables” in their root cellars, Balcom said.

But that was before stores were a quick drive away, along with restaurants and convenience foods. The Germans from Russia, like other ethnic groups, aren’t as homogenous as they once were, and the younger generations don’t have to rely on the home-grown and home-preserved produce and meats.

That food culture is what Balcom and others in the Tri-County Tourism Alliance are now trying to preserve, with some funding from the North Dakota State Historical Society.

The Tri-County Tourism Alliance is collecting recipes, food-related stories and photographs of Germans from Russia in Logan, Emmons and McIntosh counties. The information will be compiled into a book, though Balcom cautions that it will not be a cookbook. She hopes to use the recipes in their pure form — handwritten, with misspelled words and cryptic directions, or copied from old church or family cookbooks.

Balcom said some of the “recipes” are nothing more than a list of ingredients — no measurements or directions included. And, there are nearly as many spellings as there are recipes for many of the common specialties, like knoephle (knephla, knoepfla, knophfla, knophla).

The alliance hopes to have the book ready for purchase by the June 2013 Ashley Centennial celebration. For more information, visit

Pigs in the Blanket

1 pound hamburger

1 cup uncooked white or brown rice

1 large onion, chopped

1 cup celery, diced

¼ cup granulated sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

1 large head cabbage

1 can whole tomatoes

½ cup brown sugar

4 tablespoons butter

Dice and saute onion and celery in 3 tablespoons of butter. Add hamburger and brown. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add uncooked white rice to the hamburger and enough hot water to cover the mixture. Add about ¼ cup sugar (if you want the sweetness). Mix well and let the mixture simmer, stirring periodically until the water is absorbed.

Let the mixture cool and roll onto softened cabbage leaves. Do this by removing the core and then placing the whole head of cabbage either in hot water or heating in the microwave, removing the outer leaves as they soften. Place 2 to 3 tablespoon of hamburger mixture onto each cabbage leaf and roll tightly. Place the rolls in a roaster and cover with 1 can whole tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, brown sugar and 4 tablespoons of butter.

Bake at 300 degrees for 3 to 4 hours. Baste periodically with the tomato sauce from the bottom of the pan.

These freeze well (unbaked) for several months.

— Recipe from Margaret Baumgartner, by daughter Cecilia Baumgartner Van Beek, Strasburg

Martha’s Fruit Soup

1 cup pitted dried prunes

1 cup dried figs

1 & 1/2 cups raisins

1 cup mixed dried fruit (peaches, pears, apricots) cut to bite-size pieces

6 cups water

2 tablespoon flour

1/3 cup water

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Simmer dried fruit in water for 45-60 minutes, until all fruit is soft. If desired, thicken slightly with 1 to 2 tablespoons of flour stirred into a little cold water, then stir into hot soup. Season with a little cinnamon, if desired. Remove from heat. Let stand 3-4 hours or overnight for flavors to blend well. Serve cold.

— As made by Martha (Rott) Ringering, who was born in 1901 in Logan County’s Richville Township; recipe from Connie Dahlke

Logan Reister, Jayden Kramlich and Lucas Kramlich demonstrate churning butter at "Key Ingredients: America by Food" on Nov. 3 in Medina. The boys are members of the Medina-Streeter Hustlers 4-H Club.
Sue Balcom, marketing and outreach director at FARRMS, speaks about the food culture of Germans from Russia at "Key Ingredients: America by Food" in Medina on Nov. 3. The Smithsonian exhibit will be in Medina until Dec. 2.

Printed with permission of The Bismarck Tribune.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller