A family recipe is often seen as a sacred text, passed down through generations to connect people with their ancestors and keep traditions alive. But they can also be restricting, especially as tastes and understanding of food systems evolve.
First-time cookbook author Jo Snyder is from a Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite farming family in southern Ontario that loves gathering for meals. Her grandparents’ generation adhered to Old Order principles we see in pop culture depictions of Mennonites, avoiding modern technology and traveling by horse and buggy. Snyder grew up attending liberal churches and, as she says, “without buggies or bonnets.” But the family maintained a deep connection to traditional food, relying on farming staples like hardy vegetables, meat and dairy to feed a crowd. Snyder adopted a fully plant-based diet about ten years ago, but didn’t see that as a barrier to enjoying the comfort food she grew up with. She brought her two food worlds together in her new cookbook, The Vegan Mennonite Kitchen: Old Recipes for a Changing World, out this week, and saw that their values were more compatible than they first appeared.
Leafing through The Vegan Mennonite Kitchen, I was intrigued by Snyder’s inventive spirit and accessible instructions for savoury and sweet dishes like her Dutch apple pie and “beef” and biscuits, a favourite in her home. I made her version of a classic Mennonite apple grunt, a kind of cobbler with diced McIntosh apples and a batter with a base of soy milk and vinegar that perfectly emulated tangy buttermilk, that was just the thing for a sweet breakfast on a cold day. Chatelaine spoke to Snyder about the food lessons she’s learned from her heritage—and how to make the perfect vegan roast.
Why did you want to write this book?
I was researching my family history and inherited a first edition of the Mennonite Community Cookbook from my paternal grandmother Lena. My maternal grandma Marjorie had one too. It’s ubiquitous in the [wider] Mennonite community and is a collection of Mennonite women’s recipes from across the U.S. and Canada first published in 1950. I really enjoyed thinking about all the pieces of the recipes that connected to the community and the culture—this is the book I paid homage to. At the same time, the values of a plant-based diet are something I strongly adhere to, and I was thinking about my nieces and nephew and their future relationship with food, and what that could look like.
How did your upbringing influence your approach to cooking?
I don’t go to church now and I haven’t for a long time, but in the Mennonite faith and culture, there are values of not being wasteful, sharing what you have and honouring what the earth has provided. Those are important values to take into a future where we’re more conscious of how we’re eating. When I asked my mom about things like why some recipes in the Mennonite Community Cookbook have many eggs in them, and why there are so many potato recipes, she reminded me that a lot of the recipes were made in a time where you might have had an abundance of something or a scarcity of something else. It was about trying to use up what you had and not leave anything to waste, which is a really beautiful food philosophy. I also grew up on a crop farm and our big family has always gathered for holidays, to make applesauce in the summer, or just for a meal. I tested these recipes by having people over for dinner, and for me the food was almost secondary to bringing people together.
What were some challenges you dealt with when creating your plant-based recipes?
Mennonite food is not fancy, but it is comforting—and there is a lot of milk, butter, eggs and meat in everything. I used a lot of simple methods to make the recipes plant-based. It was also important to me that many of the ingredients were local for me, and that you didn’t have to go to a specialty store for ingredients. I replaced a lot of the heavy creams with cashew creams, and made white sauces with nut milk or soy milk. I also used tofu and vital wheat gluten. It’s really hard to replace that slow cooking, savoury element of meat, so I tried to do that with my Portobello mushroom pot roast [using mushrooms sautéed with thyme and sage and slow roasted with vegetables in a sauce made from vegetable stock, wine, and tomato paste]. A lot of that is in the spicing to create aromas, and in fat, which I replaced with plant-based butters. I made a ham using seitan, which was fun. People have a hard time giving up certain animal products, but you have to find substitutes that are delicious in their own right.
Did you get help from your family members during the process?
I consulted my mom a lot because she knows Mennonite history, is deeply engaged in the community and she remembered how my grandmothers made some things. I have some “once around the fridge” recipes in my book as a way to reduce waste. I put a soup recipe in there and my mom remembered that my grandma Marjorie used to make an “all around the garden” soup. I didn’t know that when I made mine, so that was special. I went to my aunts on my father’s side for a lot of family history too, and used some recipes from my grandmother Lena’s personal recipe binder. I have a really loving family on both sides. When I was playing music [in a touring punk rock band], they would buy my records, so it’s not unusual for me to be making products and trying to peddle them in the world.
Who do you hope will use the book?
I’m hoping that the vegan community will embrace it with open arms, and I hope that the Mennonite community will learn to love it as much as they do their other cookbooks. I’m not trying to convince people to move to a fully plant-based diet. The book is a nice way to say: ‘Here are a few ways you can eat these foods that you love that are familiar, and you can leave the animals off your plate.’ No one does this perfectly, and I [like] the spirit of doing the best you can, doing a little better every day, and being more conscious about your choices.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.