“Supper’s at six, and we’re not waiting,” read Mona’s invitation. “Come early and you can tour the garden.”
Now that was an offer we couldn’t refuse.
So last weekend, B and I found ourselves in the gentle hills outside Winston-Salem, cruising past a leafy tobacco field here, a old time smokehouse there. The late afternoon sun lit up a white silo standing tall in a sea of wilted cornstalks.
We were on our way to Saturday night supper at Mona’s mom’s house.
Mom is Evva, also known as Mrs. Travis Hanes, the expert cook who, for half a century, has been baking the best Moravian cookies in North Carolina. These paper thin “crisps” are a local specialty: There’s a pleasing snap when you bite into them, and the flavor, in the case of our favorite ginger crisps, is deliciously spicy. (There are five other flavors as well: sugar, lemon, black walnut, chocolate and butterscotch.)
In the beginning there was Evva’s mother, Bertha Foltz, who baked the cookies in a wood-fired oven. But over the years the business has gotten a bit bigger: Today the Hanes operation—now located in a large bakery on the family land—makes around 10 million cookies a year.
Some things don’t change, though: The dough is still rolled out by hand and each crisp is individually cut with a cookie cutter.
The cookies came here with members of the Moravian church. Originally, this Protestant denomination was based in the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia (now within the Czech Republic), but in the 18th century its congregation dispersed to escape religious persecution. Some members moved to Pennsylvania and Georgia where they did missionary work with the Indians.
In 1753 one group settled in North Carolina where they bought a 98,985-acre tract of land, named Wachovia, on which the towns of Winston and Salem were established and eventually merged. You can read more about the Moravians here and about Old Salem, their original North Carolina settlement, here.
Wachovia, incidentally, is Latin for “die Wachau,” which translates as “meadow of the Wach.” The word referred to a region north of Vienna where the estate of Count Zinzendorf, a bishop and Moravian patron was located. The settlers named their North Carolina land purchase in his honor and because it resembled the Wachau valley along the Danube in what is now Austria.
One thing to know about the Moravians is that they are a peaceful, hardworking,very spiritual people with a strong belief in the power of religion and community. If they’re anything like Evva’s family and friends, they also take enormous joy in each other’s company. Most of the Hanes, for instance, live in houses built on the original family farm, within close walking (or golf cart) distance of each other, and the bakery is right in the middle of it all. The large, very modern church for the congregation is just a mile or two away.
Mona was waiting outside when we arrived, early enough for a whirl through her mother’s garden. It’s a wonderland of shady trees underplanted with feathery ferns, hostas and bright caladiums. Popping up through the colorful foliage are surprises like homemade birdhouses, a trickling fountain and pieces of folk art. There’s something fun to see around every corner.
The rustic fences and gates were made by Travis, Evva’s husband, who, as Mona said, can make almost anything out of “two pieces of wood and a couple of nails.” Around the side of the brick farm house we saw a vegetable garden that even in early fall was still yielding crowder peas (a cousin of the black eyed pea) and juicy red tomatoes.
Six PM and it’s time for dinner! Evva has prepared a bountiful spread—no one else is allowed to cook the family supper, I was told—and there are 20 or more family members and friends in line as we fill our plates at the buffet laid out in the serving kitchen.
Here Evva serves B some cornbread and a wedge of chicken pie, a Moravian specialty. The pie is simple, but very tasty: chicken stewed with pepper and bay leaves, the meat encased in golden brown crusts, topped with white gravy made from chicken broth thickened with milk and flour.
And there were big bowls of buttery whipped potatoes, collard greens, ice box coleslaw, corn, pickled beets and cucumbers, luscious crowder peas, fresh sliced tomatoes and pecans from a tree in the front yard. At the end of the line, Travis offered sweet iced tea made with mint from the garden.
Here’s B’s plate after he helped himself to “a little” of everything. But before we sat down, we all stood around the long table holding hands, saying a traditional Moravian grace which begins, “Come Lord Jesus, our guest to be, and bless these gifts bestowed by thee…. “
There comes a time when a blogger has to decide if she’s going to take notes and photograph—or just enjoy herself. That night, I enjoyed the good company and delicious food. If I hadn’t, after all, I would have missed son-in-law Scott’s amazing tales of his teenage years in Pakistan, including dinner with a tribal chieftain in the mountains near the border with Afghanistan. A whole roast sheep was laid out on a thousand-year-old silk carpet (with knives for everyone) and tea offered in fragile bone china cups that once belonged to a Russian czar.
I would have missed the hilarious repartee between Mona and her best friend, Pat; the pleasure of watching a tiny granddaughter hand out wooden forks to guests; and the graciousness of the family who included us in their Saturday dinner.
Most of the supper recipes can be found in Evva’s cookbook, an appealing blend of family memoir and farmhouse cookery. Not surprisingly, it’s called “Supper’s at Six, and We’re Not Waiting.”
Here’s one of the recipes:
Ice Box Slaw
[My note: This makes a big bowl of colorful, tangy slaw that can be enjoyed the next day, or kept in the refrigerator to serve as needed. It’s an easy and practical recipe for a busy cook with lots of people to feed.]
2 cups vinegar
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
2 green peppers, or 1 red and 1 green gives it more color
1 large head cabbage cut up
Onion, if desired
1 tablespoon salt (or to taste)
2 tablespoons mustard seed
Heat vinegar, water, and sugar until dissolved; cool. Mix remaining ingredients together and pour cooled liquid mixture over. Refrigerate or freeze. Ready to eat in 24 hours. Can be kept refrigerated for months or frozen indefinitely.