Mary Schmidt is an old storytelling soul, spinning yarns about life told through the vintage clothing she wears and family recipes she shares.
Born and raised on a dairy farm outside of Marietta, Minn., Schmidt moved to Overland Park nearly two years ago with her husband, Charlie Pautler. An educator by training, Schmidt volunteers and works as a personal and historical storyteller, sharing the delicious dramas of daily life, one bite at a time.
Q: To me, you seem to prove that you can take a girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.
A: I was raised by a Norwegian mother and German father and am the youngest of eight children. Growing up, I always swore I would never marry a farmer, but now Charlie works as a historic farmer at Shawnee Town 1929. So I guess what goes around, comes around.
Because today most people seem to crave a simpler time, farm life has become romanticized to a degree. But farm life is a darn hard life, with lots of work, terrible hours and unrelenting weather. That being said, if you finished your chores, you could have time to explore and play on the farm. And with eight children, there was never a dull moment.
We were a dairy farm — the cows needed to be milked every morning and night — but we also had beef cattle, pigs, horses, sheep, rabbits, geese and chickens. We also had crops of wheat, corn, soybeans and hay. Often when I was doing chores, I would narrate my tasks, telling stories even then.
Q: When the Minnesota accent comes out, you have a sort of Garrison Keillor-esque quality in the way you tell stories.
A: I think what people hear in me is that strong Minnesotan sense of self and a no-nonsense Midwestern sensibility. Garrison Keillor may be more recognizable, but he is a generation older than me, and I am more of a Kevin Kling fan.
When I’m storytelling, I share insights I am learning about how much food varies region to region. My husband was born and raised in the Kansas City area, so I was somewhat prepared, but I still get confused. Kansas Citians have casseroles instead of Minnesotan “hotdishes,” and pan cookies instead of bars. Jell-O fluff is viewed as dessert in Kansas City — if it’s even served at all — while in Minnesota, we call that “salad.”
Q: So, when you were growing up, “salad” wasn’t necessarily green, unless it used lime gelatin?
A: This is a recipe I used for my 4-H demonstration, called Dairy Delight Salad. It called for containers of Cool Whip and cottage cheese, a can of mandarin oranges and a box of orange Jell-O. Stir this all together, and you’re the hit of the potluck.
Cottage cheese was seen as an extravagant purchase for my thrifty mother, Rita Jean, so we only had this salad for special occasions, usually around Easter. We were so busy farming that when convenience foods came around in the 1950s, my mother took full advantage of frozen bread dough and canned goods we didn’t put-up from our garden. How I longed for a sandwich made of Wonder bread growing up, instead of the misshapen slices that were cut from the loaves we baked.
Q: But you also grew up with a Norwegian flatbread. Do you have a lot of stories surrounding the making and eating of lefse?
A: Every family has their recipe for lefse. My grandmother — Theolena Josephina Mattson, who raised my mother during the Depression — didn’t write things down, so I found the basic recipe from the “King of Lefse” Merlin Hoiness and his wife, Zola, from Harmony, Minnesota.
Lefse is the Norwegian version of a tortilla or pita. It can be served rolled up with butter, cinnamon and sugar, which is the tradition at our holiday gatherings. But I have seen it used as bread to mop up gravy on the plate. You can even put in scrambled eggs and have a Norwegian breakfast burrito!
People are particular about how to make lefse. Some have a special griddle — I use my cast-iron skillet. Some use special rolling pins with deep grooves — I use empty wine bottles. My cousin just shared with me that her mom whittled down the end of a yardstick to use as a lefse flipper.
So all of this talk of lefse has my extended family talking. And it reminds me that, as humans, we are hardwired for connection, through the sustenance and stories we share. Everyone’s life is a story, but the telling of those stories is how you deal with life.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. Email her at email@example.com to nominate a cook.
Hear her stories
Join Mary Schmidt at the 17th Annual Storytelling Celebration Nov. 2-5 p.m. at Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods (2601 N.E. Barry Road). For more information, go to KCStorytelling.org.
Makes about 2 dozen (7-inch) rounds
10 medium-sized Russet potatoes, peeled, rinsed and quartered
1/2 cup softened butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
Place potatoes in a large pot and fill with water 2 inches above potatoes. Bring water to a boil over high heat.
Reduce heat to medium-high, cover pot tightly with lid and continue to boil least 20 minutes, or until potatoes are fork tender. (Do not boil potatoes until they are mushy and falling apart.)
Drain potatoes over sink in a large colander. Immediately press warm potatoes through a ricer and measure 4 cups into a mixing bowl.
While potatoes are still warm, mix in butter, salt and flour to create a dough. Allow dough to cool to the touch and evenly divide dough into 24 balls. Onto a lightly floured board, using a rolling pin, roll each of the balls into a 7-inch circle.
Preheat oven to 170 degrees.
Spray a cast-iron skillet or crepe pan with vegetable cooking spray and place over high heat on stovetop.
Place 7-inch circle of dough into hot pan and cook for 1 minute, or until the underside bubbles up and begins to brown. Using a crepe spatula or turner, flip lefse over and cook for 30 seconds more, or until browned on other side.
Slide finished lefse out of skillet and onto an oven-safe pie plate. Cover with a clean towel and place in oven. Continue process, until all dough has been used, keeping lefse warm in the oven.
Finished lefse can be sprinkled with sugar or spread with a thin layer of jam or softened butter and rolled into a cigar shape.
Place in rows on a platter and serve immediately.
Per round: 77.5 calories (45 percent from fat), 4 grams total fat (2.5 grams saturated), 10.5 milligrams cholesterol, 9.5 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 130 milligrams sodium, 0.5 gram dietary fiber.