IT’S ONE OF the things you experience as a new member of a church — you get invited for dinner. In our case, I quickly turned one of those invitations from our pastor and his wife by inviting them for dinner to our home. We’d do dinner at our home on Saturday night, we decided together.
It would be a party.
And so it was that I found myself preparing dinner on Saturday morning, working on the menu with my wife. Do they eat steak? (they do). What kind of side dishes should we choose? (collard greens, rough-mashed, red potatoes). What kind of wine do they like? (anything red). Most importantly, what kind of dessert?
Ah. The only thing that would do, ultimately, was a chocolate chip cookie served with vanilla bean gelato. And of course (for the aficionado in me), it had to be Talenti.
Once again, I thought of my friend’s elusive chocolate chip cookie recipe.
“O MY GOD!” That’s what you thought when your teeth sank into the soft, buttery goodness of Ada Schlabach’s cookies, goodness that captured the finger-licking sweetness of unbaked cookie dough, that dreamy taste used by Ben & Jerry to build their famous ice cream empire.
There was nothing brittle about Ada’s cookies. They were chewy with melty explosions of Toll House milk chocolate chips because they’d been warmed in the oven just before she served them. There was never anything hard or crunchy about her cookies.
Soft and chewy was the key.
I loved those cookies, and that was way back in my skinny days, way back before I had fallen in love with quality chocolate.
No one made cookies like Ada. They were a perfect accompaniment to any conversation about life, about love, about God. An Amish-Mennonite woman with an impeccable moral reputation, Ada made her cookies like she made her home with her husband Alvin and her three children Dave, Tim, and Melodie.
Her home and her cookies were warm, authentic, heartening.
You didn’t enter Ada’s home through the living room door. Not for cookies anyway. No. Anyone invited to stop by for cookies and coffee was a friend. And friends came through the garage, past the kitschy little sign with painted letters advertising her home — Dew Drop Inn! — and through the mudroom into the yellow delight of her immaculate kitchen, a bright warm paradise of culinary and conversational delights.
I was only one of many people who found their way to that door.
She meant it when she invited you, Ada did. Nothing made her happier than to see a friend’s face at her door.
Her voice lilted high, welcomed you. Her tidy figure and smiling face greeted you, hands gesturing to the always neat table where two small dishes, each with two cookies, sat with a napkin and two steaming cups of coffee.
Effusive in her praise for whatever she’d heard or noticed most recently about you, she’d sit down across from you, eager to hear more of your stories, more of what was going on with you.
“It’s time to party, party, party!” she’d say.
Ada never caught up to the World’s meaning of the word party. For her, a party meant having a delicious snack with a friend, listening to them tell their stories, and sipping rich, creamy coffee.
So you agreed. It was time to party with Ada.
And then you bit into the first chunk of melt-in-your-mouth cookie.
WHEN I FIRST began thinking about those cookies, all I could remember was their deliciousness. Their chocolatey, creamy, out-of-this-world flavor. The fact that everyone who knew Ada talked about her cookies.
So I decided I’d better find the recipe. With their popularity and Ada’s generosity, I was sure anyone from my community would still have it.
I soon discovered it was a secret.
Well, not quite a secret. Actually, Ada had been happy to pass on the recipe.
“Oh, yes,” said Kara Fohner, the first person I called. “I remember those cookies. I think my mom has the recipe. But you know what? They don’t taste the same.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Kara admitted. “I just know they don’t taste the same.”
So I called her mother, Mary Jo. Turns out Ada had given her two recipes over the years, neither of which seemed to deliver the same, exact taste Ada’s cookies did.
Mary Jo waxed philosophical.
“I think Ada had a special ingredient she added to the cookies. I’ve never been able to make them taste the same way.”
That wasn’t the answer I wanted.
I wanted that recipe. I desperately needed to find out how to make the same cookie, to see the faces of our guests light up when their teeth sank into its splendiferous goodness.
“Do you know who could give me the secret sauce?” I asked.
There was a moment of silence.
“What about her daughter, Melodie?” Mary Jo asked. “I think you can find her on Facebook.”
Why hadn’t I thought of that?
ADA PASSED TO the next world on December 29, 2014, joining her husband who had passed several years previously. By then I was living in Seattle, and with the distance, I had lost touch with her.
But during my teen years, she was a monumental force in my life. She was someone I could count on, a true friend.
Back then, I called her my second mother. She was a warm, embracing presence who knew how to pay attention, who knew how to listen. When you talked, her intense, caring eyes focused on you, and you alone.
Ada was the secret weapon of any youth group leader whose job it was to find a place for activities on Sunday nights after church. Going out to a restaurant on a Sunday night wasn’t an option in our church community. So Ada and her husband Alvin made it clear to me that their house was always available.
And so we’d find ourselves over at their home — a virtual cafe in this semi-rural community where restaurants were at least a 20-minute drive away, and Starbucks was still a startup in Seattle. In the warmer months, we’d play volleyball outside on the front lawn. In the winter months, we’d play social games in the downstairs apartment of their house, where they had a rec room. Or we’d spread across the house in small groups for conversation and board games.
Inevitably, towards the end of the evening, I’d find myself drawn to the warm kitchen, where Ada presided, sometimes with her husband, drinking one more cup of coffee before bed (she claimed caffeine never kept her awake), her face upturned in a smiling welcome.
She was no intellectual, her philosophy of faith a simple homespun salvation. She believed that Jesus loved her, had forgiven her sins, and when she died, would have a home in heaven not far from Jesus’ kitchen where she could go on making cookies, listening to stories from people around her, and caring for confused, young people like me.
She wasn’t interested in arguing theological points of difference. At the end of the day, what did it matter? Besides, she was too busy mixing up the latest batch of her cookies.
At least, that’s the way I read her.
IN LATER YEARS, after I returned home from Steubenville and began teaching, I could always count on her being up early as I was preparing for school. She was a morning person, like me. We got our best work done in the mornings. Often, I called her just to connect with someone from my past.
It was lonely living in a world of new friends and colleagues, and I just needed a friendly, nonjudgmental voice to cheer my day.
Ada had no illusions about who I was. She knew I was no longer a Conservative Mennonite. She’d probably heard the stories being told about me — that I had begun drinking alcohol, that I didn’t attend church regularly, that I voted Democrat.
But she never questioned me about my choices. She was just my friend.
No matter how busy she was — and as a mother and grandmother, there was plenty to occupy her time — she always had time to talk. Time was important to her, but she also believed the connections we make to people, the attention we give others, is a worthy use of one’s time.
She never preached to me about what I should be doing. In fact, I barely remember her giving me any advice. Unless I asked. Then her advice was practical but tentative, and humble. She left the wisdom-dispensing to others.
ADA SHOWED HER love through food. How many times, and at how many restaurants, and over how many breakfasts, did we meet? Sharing meals were a crucial part of building and maintaining friendships. She loved to eat with her friends.
Recently, I discovered Sara Miles’ thought-provoking book Take This Bread, in which she argues that food is a sacrament through which God enters our bodies and our lives. The book makes sense to me since my formative years were shaped by a woman who offered me love — and by extension, God — in the form of food.
Or in this case, Toll House chocolate chip cookies with a warm vanilla pudding holding the flour and sugar together.
It wasn’t just I who experienced God’s love through those cookies. Over the years, even after I left, I saw Ada connect with my younger siblings, as well. Breakfast with Ada at The Frontier Restaurant was a thing. There she’d meet young people for breakfast, listening to their stories, her eyes embracing their individuality, encouraging their best work through her constant praise and attention.
And always, she extended an open invitation to Dew Drop Inn, a warm kitchen with perfectly browned cookies, served with warm, heartening coffee.
“Take this bread.”
Over food and cookies, I knew people poured out their hearts to Ada, sharing with her secrets they were afraid to share with anyone else, receiving what she offered best — love without judgment.
And always, the same gift was offered.
“Would you like another cookie?”
ACCORDING TO CHRISTIAN tradition and Scripture, Jesus — on the night he was betrayed — took bread and broke it, saying, “Take, eat, this is my body which was broken for you.”
This is the heart of Christian faith, this mystical ritual.
Theologians and scofflaws have twisted themselves into contortions, trying to understand what this means.
Did Jesus mean us to take these words literally — are we eating dripping flesh and blood, magically transformed during the Eucharistic act? Did the Roman church elevate a barbaric, Dionysian ceremony into a powerful ritual that comforts Christians on Sunday mornings?
The church where my wife and I attend every Sunday morning has made this ceremony the centerpiece of the morning service — available to anyone who accepts the gospel at face value. The Roman Catholic Church, where I sojourned for several years in Steubenville, holds it every Sunday but offers the meal only to professing Catholics in good standing. The church I embraced as a youth held communion twice a year, and only after prayer, confession, and contemplation.
I suspect Ada didn’t much worry about the hows and the wherefores.
Like Miles, she somehow understood that God’s love is experienced in the simplest moments of life, in the meals we share together, in the interest we show towards other people — not in complicated theological discussions.
She preferred a cookie.
WHEN MELODIE RESPONDED, she was happy to share her mother’s recipe with me.
When I asked about the “secret ingredient,” Melodie laughed.
“You know, my daughter Brianna does a better job than I do.”
“What does she do differently?”
“Two things. You have to beat the batter to death,” Melodie said. “It’s got to be really smooth. Me, I’m happy to just mix it quickly and then put in the flour. But Bri spends extra time on it. Her cookies turn out just like her grandmother’s.”
“And I’m the one who taught her the recipe.”
I wasn’t about to give up.
“So what’s the other thing?”
Melodie’s response was immediate.
“Oh, it’s the amount of time you bake the cookies. My mother was very specific about that. The baking time has to be exact.”
“So,” I was struggling to put it all together, “You’re saying the secret sauce for her cookies is time. Is that right?”
“Yeah,” Melodie spoke reflectively. “I guess you’re right.”
There was a moment of silence on the telephone.
That word said it all. That word summed up the secret to Ada’s success in loving other people. That word told me why Ada Schlabach was one of my great soul teachers.
THE MOST FERVENT, true believers within our Conservative Mennonite faith sometimes missed the essential element of Ada’s faith, one that Menno Simons defined as “true evangelical faith.” It’s a faith that among other things, “clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; [and] shelters the miserable.”
Ada’s gift of time went far beyond the baking time she regulated so precisely. It extended all the way to England, during my year abroad, a year I spent stretching the boundaries.
Before I left, over cookies and coffee in her warm kitchen, she made me a promise.
“If you ever need to talk, Steve, you call me. Call me collect. I’m your friend. We’ll pick up the charges.”
She glanced at Alvin, who happened to be in the kitchen that day with me, probably there to let me know that he too was concerned about my upcoming trip abroad. Knowing him, he was showing his support for me, not trying to warn me.
But for whatever reason, Alvin was there.
I know now Ada was concerned for me. I’d be alone in Europe, studying with people who didn’t know me, interacting with the World outside of a tight-knit community that had always held me close, and she knew how much I cared about my friends. She knew I’d get lonely. She was my friend, and to her, a friend was someone who made themselves available to listen when no one else would. So she promised me, “Call me anytime, call me collect, I’ll always accept.”
Back then, collect calls were expensive— especially overseas. But I knew she had done the same thing to another young man who had left our community and gone off into the world to become an airline pilot. I knew he often called her late into the night, and she always accepted his calls.
She listened without judgment. She listened with interest. She listened with love.
Now she was doing the same thing for me.
In the year that followed, on late nights when I had no one to talk to, I took advantage of her gift, again and again. I’d call, and whatever time of the day it was, Ada would pick up, her cheery voice shooting across the thousands of miles between us. At the end of our conversations, she’d tell me how much she looked forward to my return home.
“When you get home, we’ll party, party, party.” Her voice lilted high and happy, a voice of welcome, a voice that embraced rather than condemned.
I was sure she’d heard the stories that were already floating throughout our community, stories that would eventually wind their way across other Conservative Mennonite communities.
But Ada didn’t care.
She and Alvin took and paid for those phone calls gladly because it was who they were. I doubt they did it to prove their love. They didn’t need to.
It was a gift — the same gift of time that went into making her cookies.
HERE’S THE RECIPE Melodie finally shared with me.
Ada’s Chocolate Chip Cookies
- 3 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ teaspoons soda
- 1 1/3 cups butter, softened
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- ½ cup white sugar
- 1 pkg (5.1 ounces)( 6-servings size) instant vanilla pudding
- 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3 eggs
- 1 pkg milk chocolate chips
Mix together butter, sugars and instant pudding mix. Beat until smooth and creamy. Add eggs and vanilla. Add baking soda and gradually add flour. (The batter will be stiff.) Stir in chocolate chips. (You can also add nuts if you’d like.)
Drop large, rounded teaspoonfuls (I actually roll mine into balls.) onto ungreased baking sheets. (I use a baking stone.) Bake at 350 for approx. 10 – 10.5 minutes. The cookies will seem a little doughy, but they’ll firm up as they cool.
Do not overbake!
MAKING THESE COOKIES on Saturday night for dinner is another story entirely: in the afternoon just as I was returning home by ferry with the ingredients and the insulated cookie sheet, the power went out in our rural town. So I ended up preparing the dishes by lantern light, and I even mixed the cookie dough by hand.
I was sure the power would come back on in time. But eventually, my wife and I were forced to pack up everything, jounce across the island, and invade our pastor’s house (which still had power), where I finished the meal on the island stove of their parsonage.
To my surprise, the meal and the dessert somehow worked — warm, gooey cookie pushed into melty vanilla bean gelato. Everyone dug in over the crisis, and conversation flowed over a beautiful red wine.
As an added twist, I had sprinkled sea salt over the molten cookies immediately after I pulled them from the oven.
I thought Ada would approve of this new party.