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A fall festival that helps people help others

The Mennonite relief sale features delicious food and a good cause.

By Joan Donaldson / September 17, 2008

Fall fun: Food and rides are popular features at festivals such as the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts (l.), the nation's oldest agricultural fair.

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/File

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My husband, John, and I were careful about what our young sons ate at meals, and for in-between-meal snacks, we provided popcorn or fruit from our orchards and blueberry fields. Even when strolling through our county fair, we steered our boys away from the cotton candy and foot-long hot dog stands. Yet, we also understood our sons' desire for a time when we would pitch the restrictions and participate in a community celebration. Eventually, we skipped the temptations of the fair and let loose our sons at our local Michiana Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale.

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The first cool mornings in September prompted breakfast conversations about the approaching relief sale held at the end of the month. Anticipation was half the fun as the boys fantasized about what they would sample – from chicken soup to sausage sandwiches – while I looked forward to the quilt auction. Soon the morning of the sale dawned; we hurried through milking our goats and drove across the Michigan border, joining the lines of cars pulling into the Elkhart County 4-H Fairgrounds.

Volunteers from local Mennonite churches filled the stalls normally featuring canned pickles or huge pumpkins and sunflowers. Now teens and elders flipped pancakes, dipped rosette irons coated in batter into hot oil or sliced homemade bread and spread it with apple butter. The fragrance of hot doughnuts, fresh apple cider, and fruit pies drifted through the open-ended fair buildings. The reason John and I chose to tuck away restraint was because every penny earned that day went to assist people recovering from natural or man-caused tragedies.

While the guys munched, I wandered through the quilt sale. Quilts hung from clotheslines that zigzagged through the main fair building. A large-pieced dahlia quilt displayed on a queen-size turntable allowed bidders a full view of the quilt while an auctioneer chanted the present bid. Unlike quilt shows where viewers walk by roped-off exhibits, here bidders could turn a top over and examine the twelve-stitches-to-an-inch quilting. A few times, my own quilting group donated a quilt and claimed the satisfaction of watching our creation earn money to help bring wells to an African village.

By late morning, we had strolled through the food booths strung out across the fairgrounds. Men or women in white prayer coverings stirred large kettles of apple butter hung over open fires while others roasted whole hogs. The motors of five-gallon White Mountain churns rumbled as they whipped up ice cream flavored with Haitian vanilla brought back by missionaries. We enjoyed the last selections from gardens dropped into chicken soup and the first offerings from orchards squeezed into cider. Thousands of other folks meandered beside us, relishing the spirit of the event and the knowledge that the proceeds from the half-moon pies they nibbled would help others in need.

Ever since our grown sons left home, John and I have reminisced about the Mennonite relief sale, yet have failed to return. The demands of farming have pushed this tradition aside, and we also miss the eagerness of our sons to participate in that communal event of food and good neighborliness.

But as maroon creeps around the edges of our dogwood's leaves, and the temperatures drop into the 50s, we are plotting our pilgrimage.

"The whole-hog sandwich," John tells Mari, a young woman working part time on our organic farm. "You have to try one. And the chicken-noodle soup is great." John waves his fork before digging into peach crisp.

"The quilts," I say. "You'll love the auction. Sometimes a buyer will even donate a quilt back so that it can be bid on a second time and raise even more money."

As C.S. Lewis said, we anticipate a response when we make a declaration, and the eager look in Mari's eyes fuels our desire to drive south once again. We plan to introduce her to the vanilla ice cream and half-moon pies. Some events are simply more fun when shared with youth. Once again, we will breathe in the scents of wood smoke and hot rosettes dusted with sugar, and celebrate the advent of fall.

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