In German-Russian life, food was love, and food traditions sometimes followed church year.
For many of us who grew up in a family of Germans from Russia, the church season of Lent began on Shrove Tuesday with schlitzkuchla and ended on Good Friday with noodles and prunes.
Food traditions were an important part of the Lenten observance in many homes among the Germans from Russia, both Catholic and Protestant. Although not as strictly observed today, those traditions are still an important part of our heritage.
On Fastenacht (Shrove Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday (which this year is March 8), many a German cook would serve her family schlitzkuchla, a deep-fried pastry.
Good Friday was a meatless day in many homes, and for lunch we ate homemade noodles topped with sweetened stewed prunes. Boiled eggs also were eaten, with fish for dinner.
Some people claimed they liked noodles and prunes, but I always considered it part of the Lenten penance.
In the old days, the first day of Lent was the beginning of a period of frequent church attendance, with special services every Wednesday evening. There was no dancing or card playing, no public amusement and no weddings during Lent.
Easter Sunday, on the other hand, was a joyful day of family and feasting. Children would open gifts received from their baptismal sponsors and receive baskets filled with dyed eggs, licorice and candy. Families would attend church together and gather to visit and to eat noodle soup, chicken, potatoes and kuchen, writes Ashley, N.D., native Shirley Fischer Arends in her book "The Central Dakota Germans."
In German Russian life, love often was expressed through food, and many German mothers and grandmothers are fondly remembered for the wonderful food they prepared.
Last year, I asked members of my extended Haupt family, as part of a family reunion, to write about their favorite family memories. At least five people wrote about homemade chicken noodle soup. My mother remembered the wonderful spice cake that her mother-in-law had made, the one whose ingredients included sour cream and goose fat. My cousins reminisced about their grandmother's homemade noodles.
The producers of a new documentary called "Schmeckfest: Food Traditions of the Germans from Russia" understand the importance of these traditions. They visited kitchens and cooks and food festivals in Eureka, S.D., and Rugby, Fargo, Wishek and Richardton, N.D., to record the culinary memories, which, as they put it, "feed the soul and warm the heart" all year-round.
Viewers will share in the making of fresh churned butter, an authentic German wedding with folk customs and dress, husking corn and preparing traditional Germans from Russia food including kaseknephla and strudla when "Schmeckfest: Food Traditions of the Germans from Russia" airs on Prairie Public Television.
The 60-minute documentary was produced by Prairie Public Broadcasting Inc. and North Dakota State University Libraries of Fargo, a follow-up to their earlier documentary "The Germans From Russia: Children of the Steppe, Children of the Prairie."
Written and narrated by UND professor and author Ron Vossler, "Schmeckfest" is a collection of vignettes filmed in the kitchens of cooks who remember milking cows on cold North Dakota mornings, at a cafe that still serves knephla soup, and at a modern Schmeckfest, where, to use the literal definition of the word, people celebrate with a "festival of food."
Michael Miller, co-producer and bibliographer of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, NDSU Libraries, said "Schmeckfest" was important to preserving the legacy of a self-sufficient ethnic group.
"The film is a chronicle of the prairie women who left no records of their lives, but who are remembered every day in the recipes and rituals of the kitchen, the heart of the home," Miller said.
The earlier documentary,"Children of the Steppe, Children of the Prairie," an examination of the history of the Germans from Russia, has aired on 70 public broadcasting stations in 26 states and four Canadian provinces.
It received the Silver Telly Award as one of the best documentaries in America, a bronze plaque award in humanities from the Columbus 47th Annual International Film and Video Festival and was shown to an international audience at the Third International Ethnic TV Festival in Krakow, Poland.
The "Schmeckfest" documentary staff also included Bob Dambach, producer; John Altenbernd, Original music; and David Geck, Tapio Kube and Gretchen Jenson, assistant producers.
Germans from Russia Recipes
Fastnachts or Schlitzkuchla
This fried bread is served in German-Russian homes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup cream
l teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons baking powder
Beat eggs and sugar. Add cream, vanilla, baking powder and enough flour to make a soft dough. Roll to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut into squares, and cut 3 diagonal slits in the center. Leave flat, or pull the extreme corners of the dough through the nearest slit. Heat deep fat or salad oil to 375 degrees and fry dough until golden. Leave plain or sprinkle with sugar and/or cinnamon.
Also known as Cheese buttons, this is a good and tasty meatless dish appropriate for Lent.
2-1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
2 cups dry-curd cottage cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Diced green onions to taste (optional)
Roll dough about 1/4-inch thick, and cut into 4-inch squares. Place a spoonful of filling on half of each square, then fold dough over and pinch sides together securely to make the "buttons." Put buttons into a kettle of slowly boiling salt water and cook for no more than 10 minutes. (They're done when they float.) Boil and handle gently, or they may come apart. Drain. Then fry them with butter and onion. Cheese buttons also can be served in soup, either with a broth or creamy base.
1-1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 or 3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
3/4 teaspoon salt
Milk or cream as needed
2 tablespoons margarine
2 tablespoons chopped onion
About 1/2 cup cubed dried bread
Combine flour, baking powder and salt. Then place egg in 1/2-cup measuring container, and add water to fill cup. Mix with dry ingredients. Add additional water if your dough is too dry or a little flour if it is too wet. Knead dough on a floured surface, turning the sides over into the middle. Then, let the dough rest on the counter under an overturned bowl.
Put about 2 quarts of water in a 3-quart kettle. Add cubed potatoes and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Add milk and cream as desired. While liquid is coming to a oil, roll knephla dough into ropes. When soup is boiling gently, cut knephla into the hot soup in pieces about the size of the end of your thumb. It works best to hold rope with left hand and use kitchen shears in right. Cook 10 to 15 minutes. In the meantime, melt margarine in a saucepan and saute onions lightly. Then, turn up the heat, and throw in the bread and brown it a little. Add bread, onions and margarine to the soup and stir. Soup is ready to serve. Add pepper once it's in the bowl.
Kuchen, a round coffee cake, is a favorite dessert for the Germans from Russia. Recently named the official state dessert by the South Dakota Legislature, it is traditional at Easter Sunday breakfasts.
2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 package yeast (2-1/4 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cooking oil
4 to 5 cups flour
Warm the milk, and put it in a mixer bowl. slowly beat in sugar, yeast, salt, oil and eggs, and then add enough flour to make a soft dough, using your mixer's dough hooks, or by stirring in the flour with a spoon. Turn out dough onto floured surface. Sprinkle it with flour and work with your hands, turning edges to the center, using more flour as needed, until a neat ball forms. Put the dough into a greased bowl and cover, and let it rise until its double in bulk. Meanwhile, cook the filling.
4 cups sweet cream
4 eggs, beaten
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
Warm sweet cream over low heat (be careful-it scorches easily). Mix in eggs, sugar and flour, stirring continually until it thickens. Remove filling from heat.
To assemble: Put dough on floured counter, and cut into 8 pieces. Shape into balls with floured hands by turning sides under. Roll each ball in a circle to fill a kuchen pan or 8-inch pie pan. Place dough in pan so that it extends about 1/2-inch up the side of the pan.
Add topping, which could be prunes, chopped dates, diced rhubarb, raisins, apples (peeled and sliced thin), peaches or apricots, blueberry or cherry pie filling, cottage cheese or just plain sugar.
Spread filling over topping. Sprinkle with a little brown sugar and cinnamon. Bake at 350 degrees until dough is light brown and filling is set in the center, about 10 minutes.
Source: Sei Unser Gast cookbook and Haupt family recipes.
Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.