Iowa’s Down-Home Recipes

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A hearty spread at today's Colony Inn. Home-cured sausages and meats are typical of hearty Amana meals.

What’s better than down-home cooking? Up-farm food! If any one culture is to be credited with inventing leftovers, it surely must be the Germans.

Iowa’s Down-Home Recipes

A million people visit Amana Colony each year; it’s Iowa’s number one tourist attraction. Despite the fact that the Amana make what is easily the world’s most handsome and comfortable wood rocking chair; despite the fact that they make modern appliances of noble efficiency; and despite the fact that they have a fascinating history unique among all civilized people — the first thing that comes to mind for nine out of 10 visitors when you say “Amana” is food with down-home recipes.

And the first thing they say is “down-home recipes,” followed by a sound best represented by five or 10 m ‘s. Now, down-home is usually reserved to describe southern cooking, where euphonious food names like hog jowls and bisquits ‘n’ gravy are fondly ladled into cuisine conversations like the names of good hunting dogs.

Amana cooking is sturdy fare that is strictly German in origin. German cooking was never intended to entertain gourmets; its main function is to keep the fires stoked. After an Amana meal, a day of soil tilling or lumber lathing or, lest we forget, preparing the next meal could be engaged with all due enthusiasm.

Amana food is for agrarian sorts, manna for the self-sufficient, an antidote for those who are tired of spending $30 for a plate of wimpy Paul Klee squiggles sold under the banner of nouvelle cuisine.

Amana cooking goes one better than down-home. It’s up-farm.

Before there were the basic food groups, even before there was the Scarsdale Diet, Amana kitchens were creating huge, solid meals for a busy, resourceful colony. A day’s eats might consist of the following: soup (pea, tomato, farina) and salad; various meats (chicken, pork rind sausage, beef dishes like sauerbrauten or Wiener schnitzel) for protein; potatoes for carbohydrates, or dumplings or spaetzle; an assortment of garden vegetables to handle complex nutritional duties whose absolute description still leaves food experts brawling; sauerkraut, especially in the winter; milk products (butter, cottage cheese); and dessert (fruit pie, plum cake, streusel kuchen).

Once a culture develops a knack for hard work, a reputation for hearty food quickly follows. That partly describes the appeal of Amana cooking. But the Amana have an edge over everyone else when it comes to laying out a family-style spread: They were communists.

Communism, an unholy concept nowadays, served the Amana well for 90 years. Their form of communal living had little to do with Marxism. In 1842 some 1,450 German pietists who called themselves the True Inspirationists, fed up with persecution in their homeland, left their homeland. They settled briefly near Buffalo, New York, before striking out for the greenest of pastures. By 1859 they had acquired 26,000 acres in the fertile Iowa River Valley. Under Iowa state law the Amana Society incorporated as a group organized “not for pecuniary profit.”

Amana-style communism evolved to where no member of the society had to pay for food, medical treatment, housing, burial or most other essentials. Everyone received a small allowance for shoes and clothing, most of which were made in the colony.

To this day, Amana remains perhaps the only model of successful communism — thanks in part to the society’s timely decision in 1932 to restructure itself in a capitalist mode.

In the manner of Utopian communities, they endeavored to be self-sufficient. The colony even had its own printing press. Unlike the Amish, the religious community for which they are often mistaken, the Amana never wished to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Although the True Inspirationists were suspicious of such things as electricity, baseball and bobbed hair, they recognized that with the turn of the century there was no going back.

By the 1920s young people were rebelling. They adopted modern dress, started playing baseball and threw clandestine parties. In 1931 one young Amana woman told a reporter, “We are sick and tired of this old fogeyism that masquerades as religion. It isn’t religion, it’s darn foolishness.”

William Miller, an Amana druggist, wrote at the time: “The first generation has an idea and lives for that idea. The second generation perpetuates that idea for the sake of their fathers, but their hearts are not in it. The third generation openly rebels against the task of mere perpetuation of institutions founded by their grandfathers — it is always the same with people.”

Miller’s acute perceptions typified the wisdom of society leaders. The group admitted it was foundering, a victim of the Depression with complications due to overspending, suspected embezzlement and the inescapable fact that their communism had seen better days. It was breeding a generation of lazy workers. Meanwhile, tourists who took to new roads in their new automobiles found Amana to be a popular stop. This extra income was hardly shunned by pragmatic society members.

In 1932, after years of debate, the Amana Society adopted an entirely new set of bylaws. Communism was passé. The society would be run more like an American corporation, and each society member was issued one share of Class A stock. (Each share today is worth roughly $35,000.) The church and the society became separate entities.

To this day the Great Change, as it is called, is spoken of with awe and wonder. It was a huge gamble that succeeded. Elders still speak of the Great Change as if it happened last month.

Of all the changes, none was more symbolic than the demise of the community kitchens. Then as now, Amana Colony consisted of seven towns in one-and-one-half-mile intervals: Amana, East Amana, Middle Amana, High Amana, West Amana, South Amana and Homestead. Before the Great Change each town had several kitchens.

For example, in 1874 the town of Amana had 450 mouths to feed and 15 kitchens in which to do it. Charles Nordhoff, a reporter of the day, visited the town and noted that its members ate breakfast at 6 a.m., dinner at 11:30 a.m. and supper around six or seven p.m. Nordhoff added, “They have, besides, an afternoon lunch of bread and butter and coffee, and in summer a forenoon lunch of bread, to which they add beer or wine, both of which are homemade.”

When the community kitchens closed with the Great Change, housewives suddenly found themselves having to pare recipes for 50 down to five — but first there was a kitchen to be built.

Capitalism would not let a good idea die, though. Jake Roemig opened the Colony Inn in 1936 in order to serve traditional Amana meals for 50. Today Walter and Florence Schuerer operate the Colony Inn with the same philosophy: “Put plenty of food on the table at a reasonable price.”

There are a number of good restaurants in Amana (just make sure you get off the Interstate), but if you want to get a taste of the days of the community kitchens, the Colony Inn should be your first stop. It’s an informal place. The tables are large and sturdy, and the chairs can take all the twisting and leaning you can dish out. One room leads to another and yet another; on your first visit to the restroom, you might want to unroll some string.

There is no menu. The waitress announces your choice of entree. On any given night you can download Swiss steak, Wiener schnitzel, fried chicken, roast beef, smoked pork chops or Amana cured ham, to name just a few.

My first meal there was slightly embarrassing, the price you pay for dining solo in Amana. The soup, salad and three large pieces of fried chicken struck me as fair for the price (eight bucks including tip), but before I could dig in, the waitress delivered an assortment of bowls enough to feed an army division: baked bread, sauerkraut, potatoes, cottage cheese, corn, gravy, green beans, peas, fruit. For dessert I opted for rhubarb pie. As the waitress scooped up the remains of dessert she chirped, “Would you like another?”

To not clean all those bowls gave me a poor reputation with the Schuerers. “My waitress tells me you hardly ate a thing,” Walter said the next day. The Schuerers remember harder times, and they sure don’t want anyone going hungry while times are good. For the next two days I limited myself to one Amana meal per day — it was that or find an irrigation canal that needed dredging to burn off the excess.

Luckily my subsequent meals were in large company. The benefit was the same as Chinese dining — one could sample a little of everything. And vigorous hand-waving conversation, a by-product of Walter Schuerer’s fishbowls, would help divert attention from my plate when Florence ordered up third helpings. A fishbowl is a giant crystal beer receptacle that Walter special orders. Before topping it with about a pound of Millstream (Amana’s own beer brewed not 200 feet from where he stands), Walter clinks the fishbowls together. Even Dolby Z could not duplicate the pure crystal peal.

Jack Hahn gets up every morning at 3:30 to fire his stone oven. He is Middle Amana’s baker. His oven was built 122 years ago to make bread, 140 loaves at a time. It’s the last of the original Amana hearths still in service. Hahn calls it “the original Amana Radarange.”

As in most Amana businesses, to walk into Hahn’s bakery is to bump into more history. (The Amana Furniture Shop proudly sells the reissued Hahn Grandfather Clock, named after Jack’s great-grandfather.) There is a picture of Bill Zuber, the Amanaite who became a pitcher for the New York Yankees. Legend has it there is a barn in Amana whose hayloft is filled with stones thrown by young Zuber as he aimed through a small window.

Jack’s father, Carl, ran the bakery until 1968, starting at 1:30 a.m. to mix the dough by hand. Modern technology has been good for Jack Hahn, not only because of the addition of mixing machines. In the ’70s he replaced the oven’s roof with 1,170 new firebricks; they suspend themselves in a delicate arc. The new bricks increased the oven’s efficiency.

Two years ago, following a heart bypass, Hahn installed gas burners, so he no longer must stoke the fire. For over 100 years oak sticks were used to bring the oven up to between 500 and 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Hahn reports that his gas burners fairly duplicate the heat. He keeps a stash of sticks nearby to show tourists what it was like. (Besides, two or three times a year his gas burner malfunctions.)

While the oven cools to baking temperature, Jack, his wife, Doris, and a hired hand or two prepare dough for breads, rolls and coffee cakes. Work is furious to meet the oven’s own timetable. “If someone dropped dead on the job we’d have to push them over to the side until we were done,” Hahn cracked.

Doris, whose life story could be played by Debra Winger, husky voice and all, can carry on a conversation while finishing up the dough making. In this case, she explained that last year she and Jack took their first vacation (a cruise) since they were married 27 years ago. In the time span of one sentence she braids two strands of wheat and one strand of white into a picturesque loaf that I offer to buy on the spot.

Hahn’s clients include the Ronneburg (a local restaurant); busloads of tourists who are on their way to, say, the Tulip Festival in Pella; and a gent who buys their cinnamon rolls 8 dozen at a time. These cinnamon rolls are magical. I fed a sample to a woman whose parents were German immigrants. Tears welled in her eyes. “I haven’t tasted that in 40 years,” she said.

Jack Hahn didn’t want to part with his bread recipe. “I would, but before my father died he asked us to keep it a secret,” he said. “Besides, it wouldn’t make much sense. The recipe is for 140 loaves. One of the measurements calls for ‘a glass’; it’s a glass that my father used.”

Hahn’s recipes taste like basic recipes — it’s the oven that performs its special blessing on his baked goods. Bread takes about 22 minutes to bake; Hahn pulls loaves by instinct, shuffling and sorting them with a 10-foot peel — a paddle — to make sure baking and browning are uniform. When the bread comes out, in go cakes and rolls to bake at a slightly lower temperature. What temperature? Hahn said, “You know, I’ve never had a thermometer in there.”

“There is one thing I like the best,” Jack went on, “and that is when that product goes out the door I know it is homemade.” He sends me off with a box of bread that later almost comes between me and a plane connection. I am proud to say that I chose the box over the plane and took both home.

Klössel Suppe Recipe (Dumpling Soup)

4 tablespoons butter or vegetable shortening
2 eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon parsley, minced
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2-1/2 cups bread or coffee cake crumbs
1 quart beef broth

Cream the butter. Add egg yolks, salt, parsley and nutmeg and mix well. Add crumbs and beaten egg whites. With hands dipped in flour, roll dough into little balls the size of walnuts. Cook slowly, uncovered, in beef broth for 10 minutes. May also be cooked in pea or rice soup.

Gries Suppe Recipe (Farina Soup)

3 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons farina
1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 quart boiling water
1 egg yolk, beaten

Melt butter; add farina and flour. Brown until golden in color, stirring constantly. Stir into rapidly boiling salted water and then simmer slowly for 20 minutes. Remove from heat, cool slightly, and add beaten egg yolk. Stir well and serve.

Spaetzle Recipe

1 cup milk
2-1/2 cups flour
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
6 cups boiling water
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs

Add milk to flour slowly, stirring constantly to keep mixture smooth. Add one egg at a time, beating well after each addition. Add salt and mix well. Into separate kettle pour boiling water, add salt, and set over low heat so water will simmer. Pour batter into shallow bowl, tilt it over kettle, and with sharp knife slice batter into boiling water, dipping knife in water to prevent batter from sticking. Let boil for five minutes then drain into colander. Put in serving dish and top with crumbs which have been browned in butter.

Sauerbrauten Recipe

4 pounds bottom round beef
1 cup vinegar
2 cups water
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon mixed spices
2 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 large onions
Browned flour

Put meat, vinegar, water, bay leaves and spices into earthen crock and let stand in cool place for two or three days. Baste frequently and turn over once a day. Then drain meat, saving liquid. Sprinkle with flour, salt and pepper. Brown in hot fat on all sides, add marinade and onions, and cover. Cook slowly for 1-1/2 hours or until tender. Remove meat, strain liquid, and thicken with brown flour to make rich gravy. Slice meat and add to gravy.

Recipes reprinted from AMANA COLONY RECIPES, © 1948, 1976 Ladies Auxiliary of the Homestead Welfare Club, Homestead, Iowa.

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