Naomi Gingerich is a freelance writer, storyteller and food blogger living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Raised in the simplistic lifestyle of the “Plain People”, Naomi carries a passion for home-cooked meals and a deep value for dinner party communities, infusing the culture of modern living with traditions of her Mennonite heritage. Her blog, The Cooks in the Kitchen, tells the stories of home cooks around the world in an artful dedication to photography, seasonal cooking and long table gatherings.
Naomi was featured in the June 2017 issue of Where Women Cook, a national magazine filled with stunning photographs, culinary adventures, inspiring narratives and delicious recipes from prominent chefs and home cooks around the United States. Following is a reprint of the article:
"I learned about the importance of tradition while rumbling across gravel roads in a 1972 Chevy station wagon with my father. Every week we made the trip to a stark, white farmhouse nestled between tall pines in Holmes County, Ohio for a pan of freshly baked cinnamon rolls. The smell of kerosene lanterns and wood smoke met us at the kitchen door as Mary, the Amish widow who operated the bustling bakery in her home, came to greet us, a smile stretched across rosy cheeks. We would lean against the counter, chatting pleasantly in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect of the Amish and Mennonites while nibbling on rolls, straight from the oven, their brown sugar frosting finding its way down our fingers and onto our chin. Later, a pan of goodies between us, we made the short drive home to our own farmhouse, where, most likely, my mother was in the kitchen baking bread.
These early traditions of homemade food and neighborliness were woven into every memory of my childhood. By the age of 12, as most Mennonite girls, I had learned to cook for thirty at a moment’s notice, whether for a crew of hungry threshers helping on our dairy farm or a table full of unexpected guests. I learned how to handle hot pots, bake a turkey, make browned butter gravy and preserve bushels of corn, apples and peaches. I learned to set a Sunday table with Mama’s Blue Willow dishes, because we always used the best for company. I learned all these things and more by working at my mother’s side in the daily rhythm of life, for my father was a firm believer in “more is caught than taught.”
I “caught” a whole lot of things in those childhood years, and the traditions of our culture became an important part of my life. The community we cultivated with friends and family provided a nurturing environment with memories galore. There were ice cream suppers with neighbors who came walking across fields with pails of home-churned goodness. There were bountiful Sunday potlucks to enjoy after hours of sitting on hard pews listening to the drone of the minister. There were apple butter stirrings and taffy pulls with aunts and uncles. And always there were daily gatherings around the table.
My father often reminded me, “The best time in your life is when your children have their feet under your dinner table.” I thought it was funny then, back in the day when I wore plain Mennonite dresses and a traditional white cap to cover errant curls. Passing bowls of food and tipping cups with my kinfolk was as sure as the sun that set over our fifty acres each night. It wasn’t until later (and after children of my own) that I realized the importance of family dinners in an era where fast food threatened to crowd out home cooking. I learned to appreciate the culture of slow living which made time for sit-down dinners where everyone was present, and mealtimes were punctuated with hearty laughter and storytelling. At the core, we celebrated life over plates of food around tables with those we loved.
When I left the Mennonites at age 23, I determined to carry this tradition of family dinners into my own home when my husband and I got married. Over the years, my table was filled with our children and friends, and then friends of friends, and eventually a long list of guests who came to dine. It became inevitable this love of cooking and feasting would one day expand beyond the walls of my home.
In 2007, we moved to North Carolina, and, to make room for more guests, I moved my dinner parties outdoors. Now, in scenic locations throughout the state, I set tables under live oaks, in back yards and on porches, recreating the intimate experiences of my childhood. Sometimes the dinners are well-planned events and at other times they are last minute potlucks where everyone brings a plate and pulls up a chair. As one might expect, they have become the backbone of building friendships in a land far from our kin.
This commitment to family dinners led me to start a blog and Instagram account in 2014, The Cooks in the Kitchen, which created a platform for me to share stories and recipes of my heritage, in addition to those of home cooks around the world. Through this, I have met incredible women (sisters, really) who are passionate foodies, but, more importantly, share my conviction of nurturing families and carrying on the tradition of home-cooked meals. These women hail from various continents, countries and cultures, but, at the core, are committed to family, heritage recipes and dinners around the table. And I’ve been honored to tell their stories.
One of the most unusual stories I’ve told is of Australia’s surfing chef, Sarah Glover (@misssarahglover), a 27-year-old from Sydney who carries a surf board and a camp stove in the back of her Land Rover. Her out-of-the-box creativity reflects pure pleasure as she hovers over her outdoor camp stove or an open fire. Whether preparing a freshly caught fish or stirring a steaming pot nestled in embers, her billowy skirts hunch about her as she intuitively seasons, stirs and serves up romantic dinners ocean-side or on tables set in the Outback. A keen dedication to family (she is one of eight kids) and a compelling thirst for adventure often finds Sarah and her siblings on cooking and surfing trips along Australia’s untamed coastline, relying on the sea to provide the evening’s dinner.
Stories like Miss Glover’s are fun to read, but they’re also inspiring. And that’s what draws people to my blog. It’s fascinating to learn how food is cooked in kitchens across the globe and it’s interesting to see that no matter the culture, women generally share a basic instinct to prepare food and nurture their families.
I’ve had a lot of feet under my table over the years. I’ve set out the Blue Willow for artists and musicians, college students and diplomats. I’ve rubbed elbows and traded stories with the rich and the poor as candles flickered and faces glowed with the passion of conversation. I’ve learned that a table melts differences and brings people together on common ground as we meet a basic need for survival – that of nourishing our bodies with food. And in the process, we nourish our souls, as well.
I may have traded the Amish countryside for life in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, but I’m still a promoter of roots and embracing one’s heritage. Though my parents have passed on, my father at the age of 100 and my mother at 91, others are carrying on the tried and true traditions of their generation. For me and my family, that looks like dinner around the table."