Imagine having Thanksgiving dinner every day of the year—hearty, nourishing food that assures you that life is safe, nurturing and rooted in generations of family memories. Right in the heart of stylish Sarasota, such a culinary tradition has been flourishing for nearly a century.
Amish and Mennonite visitors from Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio and other Midwestern states began coming here for the warm, sunny winters in the 1920s and eventually formed a year-round community. Their simple, tasty, home-cooked food was soon discovered by other Sarasotans and seasonal visitors. Today a slice of peanut butter pie at one of the town’s Mennonite restaurants is as much a part of a Sarasota holiday as a designer-flavored ice cream cone on swanky St. Armands Circle.
Drive by those restaurants during tourist season, and you’re likely to see long lines snaking towards the door, as eager customers wait for slabs of meatloaf and gravy or tender broasted chicken accompanied by fresh green beans and just-mashed potatoes. You’ll find these places not far from downtown Sarasota, just a few miles east on Bahia Vista, where you start to see bearded men wearing long pants, simple shirts, suspenders and straw hats with dark bands, and women in ankle-length frocks of modest design and crisp white caps.
This is Pinecraft, home to Mennonites and Amish, who are known for their simple lifestyle and Christian faith. (While both Mennonites and Amish reject violence and excessive consumption, most Amish separate themselves even further from mainstream society, often limiting their use of electricity, cars and other modern conveniences.) Pinecraft isn’t very large, just a few square blocks of tidy, simple homes. At the end of Gilbert Avenue is Pinecraft Park, where I saw dozens of men and women dressed in the “plain” fashion playing shuffleboard on a recent afternoon. Parked nearby were several three-wheel tricycles with baskets on the back—the transportation mode of choice for many. Nearby, at Troyer’s Dutch Heritage restaurant, the parking lot was filled with cars, many with out-of-state plates, as well as several tricycles.
I had just discovered Troyer’s famous peanut butter pie, and those tricycles made me think about doing an extra hour or so of exercising to assuage any lingering guilt. I’m no pushover in the peanut-butter-pie arena, and before I started exploring Pinecraft, I thought I knew all about fresh peach cobbler, too. My mother used to pick the peaches off our backyard tree in the summer and make a cobbler that I thought was the best on earth.
Then I met Laura Jean Helmuth and discovered—sorry, Mom—peach cobbler nirvana.
Helmuth’s peach cobbler is made with fresh Alberta peaches that she and her husband, Jacob, had picked up in a tiny Georgia town on a recent trip. She also uses wheat that has just been ground, eggs plucked that morning from the hen house, milk from the goat out in the fenced-in yard and honey that has never seen the inside of a supermarket.
Trust me on this. Desserts (eating, not making them) are my forte, and Laura Jean’s cobbler is a stunner. Not that she would ever say that herself.
“I’m not really that good of a cook,’’ she insists as she sets about to make the peach cobbler at the home she shares with her husband, Jacob.
Laura Jean and Jacob’s seven children are grown and have families of their own. The Helmuths are Mennonites but live outside of Pinecraft—as many Sarasota Mennonite families now do. Close to Interstate 75, their home, with the henhouse and grazing goats, feels rural, and the serene atmosphere inside makes you reach for your cell phone and push the off button. On the archway that leads from the dining room to the kitchen hangs a motto on a hand-lettered wooden plaque: Each Day is a New Life to the Wise Man.
A white lace tablecloth covers the long dining room table, where on many Sundays about a dozen of their children and grandchildren join them for supper, sometimes a meatloaf made with ground chuck that Laura Jean calls “a poor man’s steak.’’ The hardwood floors and wooden rocking chairs in the living room gleam as the sunlight streams in.
Despite her protestations, I can see at once that Laura Jean is an accomplished cook, making it look easy as she measures the ground wheat into a bowl. She has a recipe nearby, but only glances at it occasionally. She measures the honey from a five-gallon container of honey set off in a corner of the kitchen. “The honey is almost starting to sugar,’’ she says. They bought the five-gallon container in Dade City.
Like most Mennonite and Amish cooks, Laura Jean believes in using fresh seasonal produce in her cooking. A popular source for fruits and vegetables—for other Sarasotans as well as Mennonites—is Overholt’s Produce Stand on Bahia Vista at Kaufman Avenue. Owner Vera Overholt keeps the stand open from December through April, and shoppers can find everything there from fresh, sweet local strawberries to the best Northern apples.
But Laura Jean Helmuth can find plenty of fresh bounty right in her own back yard. The Helmuths’ brown eggs come from their own hens; her husband milks the goat. Their garden produces lima beans, yellow wax beans, English peas, red beets, beefsteak tomatoes, spinach and chives and parsley. They even have a “fruit cocktail’’ tree, a rare variant that yields peaches, plums, pears and nectarines, and they cultivate blueberry bushes as well.
“Almost all of my recipes have been passed down in the family,’’ Laura Jean says, and you can tell she is happy about that. Each recipe means something to her and comes with memories of people and celebrations past. They are part of—and tell—her family’s history.
While we wait for the cobbler to bake, Laura Jean tidies up the kitchen and gets things ready for lunch. I can’t wait. In addition to the fresh peach cobbler, she’s making egg salad sandwiches with homemade mayonnaise on homemade whole wheat bread. The eggs have just come from the hen house, and the fresher “they are the harder it is to get off the shell,’’ Laura Jean explains, as she shows me how to make the sandwich right on the plate.
When we sit down to eat together, I am amazed at how sumptuous this simple meal is, from the whole-grained bread to the sublime cobbler that bursts with flavor.
Earlier, Laura Jean made whole-wheat biscuits from a family recipe, and she and Jacob will have the biscuits with gravy, fresh green beans, tomatoes and celery for dinner that night. And, of course, some of the cobbler, she says with a smile. Jacob loves desserts.
The Helmuths are members of a Mennonite order that dresses in the “plain” old-fashioned way. For more modern Mennonite orders, dress can mean slacks and jeans for women and shorts during the summer—but the key elements are still simplicity and modesty.
Sarasota has about a dozen Mennonite churches, and whatever variant of religion they follow, fellowship is the key to their worship and community. That’s inspired a delicious tradition: the “carry-in.” After Sunday services at Mennonite churches, people often come together to share a potluck lunch in their fellowship hall.
I’m lucky enough to attend a carry-in at the Ashton Mennonite Church. The church holds these on the first Sunday of each month; during the summer they might have as few as 60 participants, but during the winter the number goes to about 110, says the church pastor, Rev. Martin Birkey.
A few days before the carry-in, I chat with Rev. Birkey and we start comparing notes on our favorite things at Sarasota’s Mennonite and Amish restaurants. I tell him about discovering Troyer’s peanut butter pie, and he confesses he likes Yoder’s version even more, although he lavishes praise on Troyer’s turkey and stuffing. He praises some of the cooks in his congregation, including Barbara Beiler, an “excellent cook” who often brings roasted meats or fresh-baked wheat and sourdough breads.
On the day of the carry-in, I’m amazed when I see the bountiful counter in the church meeting room, loaded with dozens of yummy-looking casseroles and vegetable dishes, salads of every description and yeasty-smelling homemade breads and rolls.
Barbara isn’t here today; an illness in the family kept her at home, but she sent along a roast with carrots and potatoes that draws raves for its succulent flavors. Someone else has prepared an elk pot roast, smiling people bring back their empty plates for second servings of it; while the brown-butter mashed potatoes that Naomi Schlabach made vanish in minutes. I help myself to a hearty portion of Ella Yoder’s chicken tortilla casserole, a creamy-cheesy concoction that defined the words “comfort food,” made from a recipe that’s been handed down through her family for decades. A salad boasts real, vine-ripened tomatoes; and I can’t resist more comfort food, in the form of scalloped potatoes baked in sour cream and topped with cheddar cheese.
The dessert table makes me wistful for the days I could eat anything and not gain an ounce. The peach delight with cream cheese and graham cracker crust that Sally Eisner made is all gone by the time I got there, but I do snag a slice of coconut cream pie and some heavenly blueberry cobbler.
Later I call Barbara and ask her the secret to her roast. “A regular can of Coke,’’ she says, and don’t even think of substituting Diet Coke. “It tenderizes the meat and makes it really good.”
She usually chooses a two-and-a-half-pound boneless chuck roast with just enough marbling to “make it have a much richer taste.’’ She sprinkles a packet of dry onion soup over it, pre-heats the oven to 350 degrees (if using a metal pan; if using a glass pan, set the oven at 325 degrees), and bakes it, covered, for an hour and a half. Then she adds the potatoes and carrots, covers it back up, and checks it in another hour. “If you can twist a fork in it and it’s tender, then it’s done,’’ Barbara says.
Good cooks run in Barbara’s family. In the late 1950s her parents, Ida and J.B. Miller, owned the Eatn’ House in Pinecraft, serving all the delicious recipes that Barbara knew from her childhood. The restaurant closed in the late 1960s; in its heyday it would be open from October through March and then Barbara and her parents would return north to Norfolk, Va.
Ida did most of the cooking at the restaurant, where the popular hamburger deluxe came with a special potato salad that “everyone said was just the best ever,’’ Barbara recalls with pride. “She would grate the potatoes, not cube them, and it had a sweet and sour taste with mustard added so that it was more yellow.’’
The Friday-night special was a fish fry, and Barbara says her father would often catch the speckled trout himself, casting a line from the Ringling Bridge.
Saturday night was deep-fat fried chicken, not like the broasted version that is popular at Troyer’s in these more health-conscious days, while the all-time favorite Eatn’ House dessert was her mom’s egg custard pie—rich and delicious with a flaky crust that owed its texture to lard. Oodles of calories and not exactly heart-healthy—but I find myself longing for the chance to taste a slice of that classic confection.
Barbara’s church is part of the Southeast Conference. “It’s more liberal than other Mennonite churches,” she explains. The women don’t wear bonnets or plain dress. “They think we’re more worldly because we wear slacks and shorts,” she says.
A more conservative order is the Sunnyside Mennonite Church, which Laura Jean Helmuth attends. Sunnyside often has a sewing circle for the women, which ends with a carry-in lunch of salads (such as summer bean salad or garden vegetable salad) and desserts. The women will work on a quilt on a frame in the morning and then set out their dishes for an early lunch. Peaceful, relaxing—and delicious.
Another woman who’s well known in Pinecraft for her cooking is
Saloma Albrecht, a lively senior citizen whose pies are always sought after at carry-ins at the Bahia Vista Mennonite Church. Albrecht—who, like almost every other Mennonite woman I met, refuses to characterize her cooking as anything special—makes all her pie crusts from scratch.
“I find Gold Medal flour a little heavy, and Pillsbury is not too bad, but I like White Lily the best,” she says. She easily rattles off the instructions and I think to myself, “How hard can this be? Maybe I can do this.”
But then again, maybe I don’t need to try, since homemade pies are the crowning glory of Pinecraft’s restaurants. Gail Pentz agrees.
“I better tell you about the two-pie weekend,’’ she says. She and her husband, Keith, had invited friends from Orlando to spend the weekend with them. Gail went to Troyer’s to pick up her favorite peanut butter pie and figured “that it was enough for eight slices,” which meant dessert for Friday and Saturday nights. “We ate the whole thing the first night,” she admits with a grin, and she went back the next day for another one. It also was entirely consumed.
What makes it so delectable? Maybe it’s the peanut crumbs and whipped cream on top, we speculate, or the dreamy filling with just the right amount of sweetness.
Troyer’s manager, Willard Schlabach, says the fresh peach pie and coconut cream pie are also big sellers, but he agrees with Gail about the peanut butter pie. “The crumbs and vanilla cream layers with bursts of peanut butter make it,” he says, and it’s the perfect way to end a meal that might include one of Troyer’s most popular entrées: broasted chicken. Marinated overnight in herbs, salt and water, it’s meltingly tender and flavorful.
Thanksgiving dinner every day! And after my brief sojourn among these humble, welcoming people, I realize it’s not just because so much of their food reminds me of time-tested Thanksgiving dishes. Instead, it’s the spirit of Thanksgiving that accompanied every meal I shared in Pinecraft, a spirit of devout gratitude for the blessings that are truly priceless in this world—food, family and warm and loving fellowship.
Taste the Tradition
Local Mennonite restaurants.
Troyer’s Dutch Heritage, (941) 955-8007, 3713 Bahia Vista, Sarasota
Sugar & Spice Amish-Style, (941) 342-1649, 4000 Cattleman Road, Sarasota
Yoder’s, (941) 955-7771, 3434 Bahia Vista, Sarasota
Miller’s Dutch Kitch’n, (941) 746-8253, 3401 14th St. W., Bradenton
Saloma Albrecht’s pie crust
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup Crisco
1 cup sifted White Lily flour
3-4 tablespoons hot water (according to preferred stiffness)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Mix salt and Crisco, add flour, and make it nice and soft, she says. Saloma uses a black-handled wire whisk to get it mixed together.
Roll it out on a flour-speckled wooden board, and spread into a glass or metal pie plate. Press the edges and poke the bottom of the pie with a fork. Bake the crust until it’s light brown (probably about 30 minutes). Let it cool.
Laura Jean Helmuth’s Peach (or Cherry) Cobbler
1 quart fresh peaches (or cherries, blueberries or other fruit)
4 cups water
Pinch of salt
1 cup small tapioca
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup shortening
1/2 to 3/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup milk
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Start with water in a saucepan and add salt and tapioca. Cook until halfway done on medium heat, then add honey. Cook for a few minutes, then add the fruit and let the mixture come to a boil. Then add butter. Take the pan off the burner and let it cool.
Then start on the dough. Take shortening, honey and egg and mix together. Add salt, baking powder, flour and milk. Mix well.
Pour the peaches into a glass baking dish; pour the dough mixture over the peaches. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes.
Troyer’s Dutch Heritage Peanut Butter Cream Pie (filling and crumbs)
2 sticks margarine or butter
1 gallon, minus two cups, of whole milk
4 cups of white sugar
4 ounces clear gelatin powder
6 ounces cornstarch
10 egg yolks
2 teaspoons of vanilla
Salt to taste
Peanut butter crumbs
2 cups of powdered sugar
1 cup of peanut butter
The folks at Troyer’s make their peanut butter pie in huge batches, but they were kind enough to scale the recipe down for us. This recipe makes four pies, enough for you and a few of your nearest and dearest friends and family.
To make the cream filling, place margarine or butter, milk and sugar into a kettle. Heat until it boils, and do not stir it!
While this is heating, mix gelatin powder, cornstarch, egg yolks, salt to taste and vanilla. Add this mixture to kettle at boiling point; stir slightly until thickened. Remove from heat and let cool. Then place in refrigerator until completely cold.
To make the peanut butter crumbs, mix powdered sugar and peanut butter by hand until dry to the touch.
To put the pie together: Layer peanut butter crumbs in the bottom of a baked pie shell; add pudding to at least the top of the crust. Put whipped cream on top and sprinkle the complete pie with remaining crumbs.
Vera Overholt’s Broccoli Salad
1 large head of broccoli, cut in small pieces
1 small onion, diced
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup roasted sunflower seeds
1/2 cup crispy bacon pieces
1/2 cup shredded cheese (your choice)
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
A cool salad for a hot, summer day. Mix all ingredients together, chill and serve.
Vera Overholt’s Apple Salad
8 apples, diced (This salad works well with all types of apples.)
1/2 cup celery, diced
1/2 cup chopped walnuts.
1 cup water
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon of cornstarch, mixed with a small amount of water
1/4 cup cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
Mix apples, celery and walnuts.
For the dressing: In a saucepan, bring water, vinegar, salt and sugar to a boil. Add cornstarch and water mixture. After it comes to a boil again, add cream and vanilla. Allow the mixture to cool and then pour over the apple mixture.