I apparently had no interest in how good food arrived on our kitchen table when I was growing up. I ate with gusto, but I have no memory of helping to cook. I believe I was shamelessly oblivious.
I can’t blame my genes or my environment. I had two round grandmothers, a dad who cooked partly as entertainment for himself, and a mother who made full meals every night of the week while working part-time, even while caring for her aging parents next door.
My Grandma Pellman fed her family of eight kids straight through the Depression—and they can all still get weepy remembering her extraordinary ability with food.
Grandma Neff baked for Market. Every week she turned out hundreds of cookies to sell in our local Farmers Market. She built a large audience. Including me, as you can see. Oh, right. . . sometimes I got close to the baking operation, but it was clearly Kenny, my younger brother who showed both concentration and promise.
In my defense, I was not a spoiled child. Both my parents saw to that. I shelled peas and beans and husked and silked corn under my mother’s supervision, and almost always in the company of extended family. We had a garden with my grandparents, and so the tedium of putting up food was mixed with good storytelling. You could call the operation Good-for-You Boredom.
I did my share of dishwashing and drying. I learned to iron and dust. But cooking slipped right past me. I loved to read more than anything else. I’m guessing I just wore Ma out by always being out of sight as mealtime approached.
Every two weeks, Ma took us to the public library where I put together enormous stacks of books to take home. She wanted me to read—and to learn household chores. I got a lot of both, except I somehow escaped the kitchen.
I did like my copy of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls, maybe mostly because it was a book. I liked to make “Eggs in a Frame,” which was probably the only recipe in my cooking repertoire when I got married.
My dad was a pretty constant figure in our kitchen. He had learned to butcher as a teenager, and after he and Ma were married, he picked up a moonlighting job helping a local butcher. My mom happily handed the meat-shopping over to him, and he made it an art form. Plus he presided over most of the meat prep in our home kitchen. It all seemed perfectly normal and part of the routine.
My dad had a deep, often expressed desire that my brother and I learn to work. When I was a teenager, Dad hauled out of bed early Saturday mornings to drive me to my job selling smoked meats and cheeses at the downtown Farmers Market. He generally quizzed me on all the prices of what I would sell as we drove through the darkness. I believe I was being tutored in Becoming a Valued Employee—and being nudged toward Female Financial Independence when the time came. The Depression had brushed awfully close to this guy, and he was determined his kids would be prepared for more than basic economic survival. (Now I’m struck by how much he wanted this for his daughter, and not just his son.)
Merle had a hunch about how little I knew about cooking, but as we dated more and more seriously, I believe he tried not to think about it too much. We were both students, so when we got married, we split the household chores.
Merle volunteered to do the cleaning. I said, “Sure, I’ll cook.” Merle had far more experience in the kitchen than I did. He had been unable to duck the duty as one of seven sons (no daughters), each of whom had to take his turn helping their mother with serious food prep.
I was blithely naïve. I’ve learned since that Merle was earnestly hopeful. You see, in the masculine world of his upbringing, boys worked in the kitchen only when there was absolutely no alternative.
My college roommate had given us a cookbook for a wedding gift. And somehow, I had brought my mother’s favorite community cookbook along to our first home. Those two books, plus a box of recipe cards Ma had written for me, must have been the source of my confidence when I agreed to cook.
When I read the community cookbook but still couldn’t figure out how to cook a chicken to get chicken broth, I realized I needed a very basic cookbook. And so I began reading cookbooks that spelled out every step. I tried stuff. Merle bravely ate and cheered me on.
In fact he started suggesting that we invite our visiting family and friends to stay for meals. It did take me a while to figure out that I didn’t need to wait until our guests had arrived to start prepping the food. I vividly remember chopping onions for my one reliable main dish in full view of our visitors, and only then realizing that I could have done that before they came and saved myself the pressure of observers.
And so began my romance with cookbooks. As long as their recipes spelled things out in clear detail, I could manage a decent result. Cooking was a true break from studying. And I had huge incentives—a downright happy husband who decided to bet on encouraging me rather than advising me. (Smart man.) And the sound in my head of my grandmothers and both parents cheering me on.
The Rest of Our Story…
Now that you’ve read “Getting Started”, read the rest of our story.
A Family Business – And a Family of Businesses
I thought I would be a teacher. And I was for awhile. But I had married someone with an urge to write and an equally pressing urge to make things happen. That turned into a summer theater. Merle wrote plays, produced and directed most of them, and did the advertising and promotion.
Along the way he got a little busy and asked for my help. I stuck my toe in and had some fun. Writing news releases, doing costumes, eventually writing some one-acts. The biggest thing of all? Being a sounding board. I liked it.
We started thinking about offering daytime, educational features in the big building where we did plays in the evening. After all, thousands of people drove by our front door every summer day—and they were looking for entertainment and information. We were on Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s busy Route 30, a main thoroughfare running alongside Amish farms.
So we did this mid-morning to midnight heritage center/theater routine for 10 summers. And then two things happened.
We got a little exhausted. And our first daughter was born.
We learned pretty quickly that we couldn’t give our daughter and our theater projects the attention they both deserved.
Kate was with us to stay. So we shuttered the theater and opened a year-round heritage interpretation center in the nearby bucolic village of Intercourse. We offered information about the Amish and Mennonites, arts and educational events, and a book and craft shop with many locally made handwares. We called it The People’s Place.
One day we noticed a “For Rent” sign in the two-story brick general store across the street. We were feeling a little squeezed space-wise, so we opened a Quilt Room there. A few years later, when the owners put the store and its good-sized neighboring building up for sale, we bought both.
The second oldest building in Intercourse, the historic store always seemed like the grand lady of the town to me—and now we were able to spread into all of it. We named it The Old Country Store. In its spacious second floor, we eventually opened The Quilt Museum. There we have offered changing quilt exhibits in the heart of Amish quilt country, from antique masterpieces to contemporary show-stealers.
Merle and I enjoyed offering local crafters and artists a place to sell their wares. With our increased space, we were able to open a pottery store, a gallery, and a museum shop.
The two of us had also been hearing visitors requesting cookbooks and quilt books and educational books about the local plain people.
With Merle’s love of writing and my insatiable thirst for reading, we decided to step into book publishing. We had already been publishing a quarterly magazine, which I edited. I could work on the publication in the office or at home, where I was spending more time since we had become parents of a second daughter, Rebecca.
The first books we published were in those categories where we were hearing the most requests—cooking, quilting, and information about the Amish and Mennonites. We named our publishing house Good Books …we couldn’t resist.
I loved editing; Merle loved publishing. We each did some writing, but we quickly began publishing other authors. And we expanded beyond local subjects into fiction and children’s picture books, into topics of health, peacebuilding and justice, into memoirs, and more.
Cookbooks became my special passion. I couldn’t stop trying new recipes, and I wanted everybody else to discover the pleasure of cooking and the extraordinary satisfaction of sitting down together around food each evening. There’s nothing much more ordinary than that. Yet it’s mysteriously sustaining.
Would it be surprising if I admitted that I wanted to hit any cooking store I ever heard about or happened to drive past? And it’s probably not a shock when I confess to thinking for quite a while that a good cooking store would be a fitting addition to our little town.
But the two biggest surprises of all are mine these days. Merle and I are still working happily together—and our two daughters have joined us, after they’ve each had forays of their own in the big world. Kate has brought her fierce strategy and her razor-sharp judgment to Good Books. Rebecca has turned her unending diligence and imagination to managing The Good Cooking Store. We’re ever grateful for them—and for the many members of our retail and publishing teams. Merle and I would be lost alone!
Fix-It and Forget-It – Good Books
I’ve loved cookbooks ever since they rescued me from total humiliation—and hunger. Not only that, they now often blissfully entertain me.
And writing and editing cookbooks has become just as satisfying for me as reading and cooking from them.
At Good Books, we began by publishing cookbooks about our local food, made famous by the Amish and Mennonite cooks from our community. But let me back up for a minute. I really need to explain that I didn’t realize that the food I grew up eating was regional or ethnic, until one evening in our dorm in New York City.
I was fixing chicken corn soup for Merle’s and my supper in the gang kitchen we shared with 11 other student couples, when I suddenly drew a crowd. These other souls had never seen someone put cut-up cooked chicken, corn, hard-boiled eggs, and a handful of dry noodles together in chicken broth. At that moment I had enough distance from home, and the food I had grown up eating, to recognize two things—my good fortune, and the fact that I belonged to a particular food tradition.
After that, when I was asked about chow-chow or shoofly pie or dried corn, I was a little more patient and willing to explain.
But soon our publishing stretched to include cookbooks with recipes from other food traditions and around different food themes.
While I loved to try all kinds of recipes at home when I could squeeze out the time—the more wild ingredients the better—I wanted to publish cookbooks that would make it possible for people to feed their families at home day-to-day. People whose days were as crazy-crowded as mine, who had only one arm for cooking because they were holding a toddler in their other arm, who barely had enough think-space to plan a meal, let alone make one.
The Fix-It and Forget-It. cookbooks slid right into that publishing spot we had set aside for cooks who are short on time, and maybe also short on confidence.
I will always have a great big tender spot for anyone who doesn’t know how to cook, but wants to or needs to. There are lots of tasty, healthy, easy recipes that will help you gather your family around the supper table for some plain-down ordinary time together.
You’ll find a bunch of these dishes in our Fix-It and Forget-It slow-cooker cookbooks (and in lots of other cookbooks on our Good Books page). They’re dedicated to you, along with my very best wishes especially while you’re in the kitchen. You’re part of a big community out there. Remember, you’re not alone!
The Good Cooking Store – Our Latest Project!
The Good Cooking Store sits just two skips away from our Good Books publishing offices. We’ve worked in this town since 1978, and it’s been a great setting for writing and editing books, as well as a good place for learning to know quilters and crafters who come to buy fabric in our Old Country Store and find inspiration in our Quilt Museum.
We love food in this town. If you’re looking for some cooking inspiration, stop by The Good Cooking Store for cookware and gadgets. Don’t be shy; ask for help. See our Fix-It and Forget-It Story Wall. Think about which of our cooking classes you’d like to sign up for, and who you’d like to have join you. Have a cup of coffee and sample our homemade cookies while you’re with us!