Three Simple Life Lessons From My Mennonite Grandmother

My family - a small group of Amish-Mennonites - left France and moved to upstate New York in the mid 1800s. They were looking for a remote location where they could re-establish their farms and escape religious persecution. 

By the time my grandmother - Catherine Widrick - was born, the community had been in place for 5 generations. 

But little had changed. 

Her family still wore the traditional Mennonite dress.  

German was the only language spoken in her home. 

They were still farmers, with big - I mean REALLY big - families.  

And at home they still cooked a peasant version of French and German food. 

It's fair to say, Catherine was born into a simpler way of life. 

Her "tribe" was decided for her. As was her profession and her belief system. 

But let's not mistake simple with "easy." She was also born in a exceptionally hard way of life. 

My grandmother raised 11 children - largely without refrigeration or indoor plumbing.

While raising her children, she and my grandfather also ran a 700 acre dairy farm. 

She not only helped tend the herd, she also grew and preserved the family's vegetables, raised the family's chickens and cooked 3 meals/day for her large family and the hired help. 

My mother says her mother was tired a lot.

I say, "No doubt."

I never met my grandmother. She died in an accident just after my mother turned 22.

But I grew up surrounded by stories of her. 50+ years since her death, my grandmother's memory still looms large in that community.

People remember how kind she was. What a good cook she was.  That she never seemed ruffled by life's ups and down. How she always stopped whatever she was doing to make everyone feel welcomed and heard. 

Since we started this farm, I constantly wonder how my grandmother did it. 

I have 3 children and sometimes feel like I can't possibly raise them AND keep this farm on track. 

She had 11 children. And her farm was 10 times larger.

When we've worked hard all day, the kids are hungry and I have no idea what to cook for dinner, I ask myself what she would have cooked. 

When we have plant disease, crop loss or sick animals, I wonder how she found resilience in the face of disappointment. 

I know she relied on her faith and community for strength. But I don't live in that community anymore. And for me - faith is deeply personal - not something I can simply practice in exactly the same way she did.  

Instead, I've found that it's her simple, daily practices, re-interpreted into today's context, that most help me navigate this time in my life. 


Practice 1: Surround your vegetable garden with peonies.

What It Means To MeWhen faced with a hard job, make it pretty. The load will feel lighter. 

For my grandmother, Catherine, gardens weren't a hobby, they were survival. In her 3-month growing season, she grew - and preserved - enough food to feed a 13-person family, plus a crew of farmhands, for the remaining 9 months of the year.

People. That takes work.

Yet she still took the time to grace her garden with peonies. She created a workplace prettier than it needed to be. 

And that deliberate choice - embracing beauty as part of hard work - made a difference. 

My mother easily worked hundreds, if not thousands, of hours in that garden.  But 70 years later, she doesn't remember the work. She remembers how beautiful those peonies were. 

When life gets really hard, I have tendency to shut down. It's life's beautiful touches that gently remind me, "Stay open."

So this year, I too am making things prettier than they need to be. 

I am growing potatoes, onions, tomatoes and strawberries in with my peonies.

I am giving my children something to remember 70 years from now. 


Practice 2:  Bake Pie. Do it often. Fill it with whatever you have. 


What This Means To Me:  Celebrate life - even when it's not giving you the most perfect, awesome, amazing stuff to work with. 

My mother learned to bake pies from my grandmother. And let me tell you - those pies are so, so good. 

I honestly don't know how many people have asked my mom to open a pie business. Let's just say lots. Lots and lots.

That's how good my grandmother's recipe is. 

But when my mother was growing up Grandma didn't usually have access to fresh fruit all year round. So, in the winter, my grandmother made pies out of apples she had dried in the summer. 

I asked my mom if dried apple pies were good. She paused a long time and then said, "Well, I guess they weren't our favorite. But we ate them anyway. " 

That's the thing about pie - just making and eating pie makes an ordinary day feel celebratory. Even if neither the day, nor the pie, is really that great. 

So I know it's work, and I know there are so many ways that pies can flop. But, if we all make more pie, won't we also slow down and celebrate life just a little more? 


Practice 3: Don't fuss over your meat. If it's raised right, it will probably taste great anyway.  

What This Means To Me: Don't worry if your meals aren't chef-worthy. Use simple recipes with quality ingredients and your family will love them anyway. 

My grandmother had to make a lot of food, very quickly, multiple times/day. 

For her meat, she had no time to for fancy roasting techniques and special sauces. The food had to be good AND simple. 

Her children still remember her chicken and gravy and wish they could replicate it. 

You know how she made it? Three chickens in a pot. Add salt, pepper, carrots, onions and a little water. Cover and bake. That's it. 

I've heard about this chicken for years. So once we started raising our own pastured chicken I had to try it for myself. 

It took a few tries but I finally have a recipe that my mom says tastes like Grandma's. 

And now, just like she did, I use this recipe on those days when dinner needs to be cooked but I don't have the time to do it. 

You'll find my recreated recipe for "Catherine's Simple Baked Chicken" at the bottom of this post.  


What are the things you've learned from your elders? 

Do you still make the soup they made? Pray the way the did? Bake bread using the family recipe?

In the comments below, let's remember those that came before us and celebrate the living memories they left behind.


Want more Farm Stories, Recipes and Inspiration?

Catherine's Simple Baked Chicken

I've included 2 versions of Catherine's Chicken.

The first is the original and includes only the ingredients she had access to at the time.

The second half adds a few ingredients that, in my opinion, make the dish more flavorful.

One thing to note - the recipe does not yield crispy chicken. It produces fall-off-the-bone tender chicken and great stock but not crisp skin. When my grandmother wanted a crispy result, she followed this recipe but made the following changes:

1) Reduced the baking time. She baked the chicken until it was cooked through but not falling off the bone

2) She then removed the chicken from the pot, let it cool and cut it into pieces.

3) She fried the pieces - skin side down - in a pan until they were brown and crispy.


The Original Recipe

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a dutch oven or oven-safe pot with tight-fitting lid, add:

- 1 whole chicken - skin rubbed with salt and pepper to taste. I probably use about 1 tbsp salt and 1/2 tsp black pepper

- 3 onions cut in chunks

- 2-3 carrots cut in chunks

- About 1 cup water

Cover very tightly and bake until meat easily separates from bone. Depending on the size of the chicken this could range from 3-5 hours

The Updated Recipe

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. I like to bake this a little slower as I think the chicken is a touch more tender. The cooler oven will add 1-2 hours to your baking time

Add the chicken, salt, pepper, onions and carrots as per the Original Recipe

Replace the water with 2-3 cups of chicken broth.

To the pot add:

- 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar: I do this to help draw nutrients out of the bone. This makes the resulting stock even healthier!

- Fresh herbs to taste: I use parsley, thyme and oregano

- 1 stalk celery cut into chunks


Cook's Notes

This cooking method produces a delicious stock. This will make a great gravy that you can serve with the chicken. Or you can reserve it and use it as the base for chicken soup the next day. 

Whatever you do, just don't throw out the stock. It is liquid gold!