Sale’s verenika tradition survives church fire scare

As Arlen Goertzen helped fight the flames that were consuming the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church building on that fateful March 7 Sunday, he suddenly realized one more potentially devastating impact of the inferno.

No verenika at this year’s Kansas Mennonite Relief Sale, scheduled for April 16-17 in Hutchinson.

When you’re heading the committee that organizes the making of the 17,000 to 18,000 Low-German cottage-cheese dumplings each year, you think about verenika at a time like that.

“All of a sudden it hit me: all of our boxes and a lot of our equipment were stored down there in the basement,” said Goertzen, who is a volunteer with the Goessel Fire Department in addition to being the town’s public works director.

“I thought, well, there’s no way we’re going to make them this year.

“The next day I was talking to some of our committee members and I said, ‘I don’t think we can make them,'” Goertzen said. “And they said, ‘Well, we have to because you can’t have the sale without verenika.'”

Not to worry, as it turned out.

The dough-rolling machine-the key piece of verenika-making equipment stored in the church basement-was indeed damaged by water. But Goertzen and the committee found a substitute machine.

“We were able to come up with another one from Linden and Dorie Thiessen at Olde Towne there in Hillsboro,” Goertzen said. “They’ve got one we’re going to use.”

So prepare to eat hearty, folks. The annual verenika-making day, scheduled for Tuesday, April 6, at the Marion County 4-H Building in Hillsboro, will go on as planned.

The one-day enterprise is an impressive undertaking by any standard. Some 200 volunteers from several area Mennonite churches converge to make the traditional dumpling delicacy in less than eight hours.

“For volunteers, we just send out signup sheets to the churches involved,” Goertzen said. “We don’t send those to every church involved in the Mid-Kansas sale, though.

“We seek about 100 volunteers for each shift, morning and afternoon. Some do both shifts.”

Before the first shift of volunteers arrive at 8 a.m., the committee arranges for set-up and other tasks.

Like shopping.

Consider the committee’s grocery list of “major” baking ingredients:

n 1,100 pounds flour;

n 1,800 pounds dry cottage cheese;

n 350 dozen eggs;

n 40 gallons of milk;

n 25 pounds of salt.

Oh yes. And some baking powder and cooking oil, too.

Arlen and wife Anita have been on the committee since 1993. Serving with them this year are Lee and Verda Albrecht of Hillsboro, Arlyss and Letha Schroeder from Inman and Norton and Nellie Jost from Hillsboro.

Over the years, the committee and its predecessors have refined the process of mixing the dough, rolling it out and adding the cottage-cheese filling into a fine science.

Volunteers are assigned to specific tasks, and the process resembles a finely tuned assembly line.

“I think it was pretty well the same process when we started,” Arlen Goertzen said. “I know Anita went to help for a couple of years when we lived in Hillsboro. She was working at the Pizza Hut at that time and was familiar with that kind of dough-rolling machine. So that was kind of her job was.

“Then we got involved in the committee. We haven’t really made a lot of changes in the 10 years or so that we’ve been there.

“One of the first years we started, we did change to a different dough recipe that seemed to work better in those rollers. It didn’t have to be kneaded, so it kind of sped up the process because there’s not a lot of handling of the dough now.”

Once the dough circles are filled with the cottage-cheese mixture and the edges of the dough carefully sealed, the verenika are gingerly packed in boxes and transported into a refrigerated trailer, where they are frozen until opening day of the sale.

“It’s something that over the years you figure out,” Goertzen said of the procedure. “And hopefully we keep having people come back who are willing to do that type of work. It is hard work, standing there for three or four hours and running around and doing that.”

The actual cooking of the verenika is done by a different committee, Goertzen said.

“The way they are cooked at the sale, they steam them now-they put them on a tray and then put them in a steamer,” he said. “After the steamer, they are taken out and fried on a grill.

“They used to boil them, but these steamers, which they found two years ago or so, speed up the process quite a bit. They can do more in a short amount of time.”

The cooked verenika are usually covered with ham gravy, but bottles of syrup are provided for those who prefer a sweeter topping.

Some people are hesitant to try the dish if they haven’t grown up with it, Goertzen said.

“They don’t know what’s in it or what it’s going to taste like,” he said. “For some people, it’s kind of an acquired taste. For the most part, almost everybody enjoys them and likes to eat them.

“As Anita and I have been sitting at our table eating over the last few years, it’s kind of interesting to hear comments from people,” he added.

“It’s always kind of neat to listen and then say we’ve been involved in making them. The people are really interested in the whole process.”

Goertzen said he isn’t sure how much money the sale of verenika generates for Mennonite Central Committee’s worldwide relief and development work.

“It’s one of the major food items in the Feed the Multitudes meal there,” he said. “In terms of economics, I don’t know what it would do if we would not have that available. I’m sure it would have some impact.”

Fortunately, no one will have to find out this year. The volunteers should get the verenika made as per usual.

Goertzen said you don’t have to be a Mennonite to help make the verenika next Tuesday.

“It’d be great to have other people who aren’t connected with the Mennonite church-then we could have some cross-cultural things going on there, too.”

You don’t have to know much about making verenika either.

“There’s enough (veterans) around that know what they’re doing that somebody could come in and, with a little bit of instruction, they could pick it up pretty easily.

“We’re open to new people every year.”

Goertzen said the work is hard but rewarding.

“It’s something that I’ve always enjoyed,” he said. “I take a day or two of vacation from my job to come and do that. I always try to tell more people they need to do that just to be involved in it.”

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