Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World

I read Shirley Hershey Showalter’s memoir:Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World as a part of The God Project. I also grew up Mennonite and as with any great book, this one made me stop and think.

Showalter tells of taking a large stockpot of sweet meadow spearmint tea in a red Radio Flyer wagon to those working in the field on a hot summer day. The workers would see her coming and pause to refresh themselves. “No one was too concerned about germs in those days. The first gulps were slurped in thirsty desperation. And sometimes Mother tucked cookies into the wagon to go along with the tea. I noticed how pleasant it was to be a water carrier in a parched land.” I can imagine that scene, can’t you? The children delivering refreshing drink to the thirsty workers in the field. Then the author wraps it all up with this insight: “It was a role I would search for unconsciously from then on.” Surprised to find that lovely jewel in the middle of a chapter on Mennonite cuisine, I found myself exhaling the words: “Me too.”

Showalter speaks of the way a young beaming President Kennedyspoke “Ask not what your country can do for you…” and the way her parents (who had not voted for him) responded. She shares her aspiration: “I hoped to move people with words the way he did.” And again, I identified with her. Me too.

I’m a Mennonite foodie and I love how this book offers the reader a glimpse of cultural Mennonite cuisine. Showalter explains the Mennonite-Amish tradition of serving sweet and sour foods at each meal. She explains that vinegar based foods such as pickles and salads are served with the meat, these are considered sour. Sweets get their own course. “Everyone’s childhood is some mixture of sweet and sour.” Mennonites are no exception. The complex balance of sweet and sour becomes a theme skillfully woven though the book.

My Mom taught me to make the salad dressing that we served with greens and radishes just picked from the garden. The sweetness of the sugar catches you on the front of the tongue, and the acid of the vinegar registers more on the back of the tongue. When the flavors are perfectly balanced, then your dressing is ready for the salad.

Showalter mentions the expectation for plain living, alongside the spectacular gleaming fast cars the young men drove. She mentions how the men often looked just like the men in dominant culture, while Mennonite women bore a greater burden of plain living with their long hair tucked under coverings, their modest layered dresses, and dark hose and shoes. She remembers how a young woman was denied communion for some unspecified lack of plainness in her appearance when a particularly strict bishop looked her over. Showalter credits him for planting the seeds of feminism in a generation of young Mennonite women who had their bodies overly scrutinized and activities limited while their male relatives enjoyed remarkable freedom. The paradox(I love this word that sounds so much like “a pair of ducks”) is that the sweet and sour in her story is recognized without bitterness. As she points out, there was often a great deal of sweet, even in the sour.

Showalter mentions another preoccupation of her religious community: Pride. She noticed that at a time when young Shirley was particularly successful in setting and reaching a goal, she was reminded not to be prideful. It happened more than once. “There was that pattern again: Feel good. Be reminded of pride. Feel bad.” I know that feeling, and it may not be all that unique to Mennonites.

A beautiful red 1966 Karmann Ghia.  ❤ ❤ ❤

At the beginning of this week I complimented a friend on a job particularly well done and he graciously said “thank you” and then said “I might just get a big head”. Before even thinking, I found myself saying “Mennonites are always talking about getting a big head, but you know that’s bullshit, right?” This might have been a good moment to blush at my own audacity, since I was speaking to a Mennonite pastor. Thankfully, he found it amusing. I have often ruminated over the difference between a sense of accomplishment and the sin of pride, and how they may look the same on the surface. To take away someone’s sense of accomplishment over a job well done by calling it pride is nothing short of cruel. Shirley experienced this loss a number of times and it made my heart hurt for her.

A “puke green” 1953 Pontiac like the one mentioned in the book.

Wouldn’t it be liberating to give and receive compliments without this fear? Pride is when we think the goodness we’re engaged in comes from us, rather than recognizing that it flows from God through us (rubbing off on us liberally, as God is generous in all things). He gladly shares his grace, glory, and attractive magnetism with anyone who partners with Him in God-work. This work is accomplished through faith, not fear. It’s not pride when you have clarity of vision, work hard, and see your vision come to fruition. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. It’s not pride when you write a great book and feel good about it, holding the printed work in your hands. It’s not pride when you make a great meal and watch someone enjoy eating it. That’s the way it’s suppose to be. That sense of accomplishment is to be fearlessly savored and blessed. But before I really get to preachin…

My favorite story in this book is when Showalter writes a letterto the Conference Board sharing her thoughts and feelings after the bishop’s abuse of authority in denying communion to a young woman whose appearance did not meet with his approval. I sat reading this story with my mouth hanging wide open. The fearless young woman wrote what others in her congregation thought but didn’t dare say. I wanted to shout “Brava!” or “You GO GIRL!” but I was reading this story in the middle of the night aside my sleeping husband and dog and I wasn’t sure how they would react to my sudden loud declaration of admiration. Nevermind the Bishop, there is such power in these stories that remind us to bravely speak of love when things get out of whack. Her courage inspires me, and will inspire others who read her book.

A 1960 Studebaker Lark Convertible is a beautiful car!!

Showalter’s own culinary heirloom, Anna Mary’s brown spiral notebook, is a treasure trove of recipes and notes from unknown sources. “Holding Anna Mary’s brown book is like holding an urn full of ashes. All those years of bustling and baking when Grandmother was queen of the kitchen and Mother was the princess exist only as residue – little carbon markings on the page. But the alchemy, the energy of earth converted to the energy of the body through the energy of love, remains.” Amen. Mennonite or not, when we cook with love, it is the energy of heaven and earth that moves through our hearts and hands. Showalter quotes “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) and concludes the verse “might have been the mantra of many a Mennonite kitchen.” Yeah. I agree.

Finally, this book concludes in the best way possible: Recipes! I may have to turn in my “Mennonite card” having never made a shoofly pie. I didn’t even realize it was made in layers, I thought it just turned out that way. lol! My Mom’s shoofly pie is so satisfying that I’ve never felt the need to make one myself. I’ll definitely be trying out the recipes for Great-Grandma Herr’s Sugar Cookies and the Steamed Cherry Pudding. Both recipes look delicious! And as soon as I see beets and cucumbers at the farmer’s market, I’ll be making pickled beets, deviled eggs, and bread and butter pickles. I’m now relentlessly craving each of those “sour” foods. Showalter includes these three recipes that were first published in 1950 in The Mennonite Community Cookbook by Mary Emma Showalter.

Thank you, Shirley Hershey Showalter, for these sweet and sour treasures, these words that moved me and made me think. And for any of you who are considering purchasing this book to read on a snowy day, the $5 worm story alone is worth the price of admission.  Nope, I won’t tell.  Read for yourself.

Oh, and the beautiful old cars that are mentioned… sigh.  I wish they still made cars like these.

2 thoughts on “Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World

  1. ShirleyHS says:

    It was a great delight to read this review, Carmen. We really are a “pair of ducks,” in more ways than I even guessed. I loved your sermon about pride: “That's the way it's supposed to be.” And that Karmann Ghia. Swoon.


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