Posted on October 6th, 2008
One Sweet Fundraiser
By Rachel Bowman, Daily News-Record
Eastern Mennonite University junior Marissa Benner cuts out doughnuts at the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale on Oct. 4. Photo by Tyler Coblentz
It’s not yet 6 a.m., but Lois Wenger greets everyone with a smile. “What do you think?” she asks, sweeping dough-covered hands to take in the cozy confines of the Chicken Shack kitchen.
This is a changing of the guard, as 34 – no, 42 – forget it, I’ve lost count – people bustle around flour-dusted tables and steamy fryer vats. An array of folks – everyone from cap-clad conservative Mennonite women, to men who look as if they just came from the farm, to jeans-and-hoodie-wearing EMU students – are getting quick tips on making doughnuts from the 3 to 6 a.m. shift workers.
On first sleep-tinged glance, the kitchen seems a maze of activity, an overwhelming operation of flour, dough and glaze with no clear beginning or end.
Donning flimsy plastic aprons, the 6 to 9 a.m. shift workers chat about the early hour as they wait for Lois Wenger to assign tasks. No matter where they are placed, however, they all have a common purpose: to make more than 12,000 doughnuts to feed the thousands of visitors who come to the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale.
Mixing, kneading, rolling and cutting, frying, glazing and boxing; precision organizational skills and many willing hands are needed to produce doughnuts for the relief sale. But, for organizers and volunteers alike, the hours seem to sail by as they make new friends and renew acquaintances – while keeping in mind that the hours of sleep they give up today may help people in need. Read more about the 2008 relief sale, held at the county fairgrounds on Oct. 4…
What Was She Thinking?
Lois Wenger is a receptionist in the development office at EMU and a maker of “thousands upon thousands” of homemade doughnuts for church and youth group events.
Lois and her husband, Robert Wenger, had been up since before 2 a.m. While most folks were still in bed, the couple – Lois, a receptionist in the development office at EMU, and Robert, pastor at Hebron Mennonite Church – were lugging boxes of butter, bags of flour, wooden rolling pins, five-gallon buckets and other items to the Rockingham County Fairgrounds. By 3 a.m., the first shift of 30 volunteers shuffle in, and Lois starts them mixing the batter; by 4 a.m., Robert and several men began frying doughnuts in six deep-fat fryers, in preparation for the customers who start lining up at the sale window before 6 a.m.
The annual Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale, held this past weekend at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds, raises money for disaster relief projects undertaken by the Mennonite Central Committee. Although the sale’s quilt auction draws crowds, many of those visitors also make time to stop at the doughnut booth. There, they may buy a single doughnut for 50 cents or a dozen of the fresh, hot-from-the-fryer confections for $6. Always homemade on the day of the sale, the doughnuts have been a staple of the relief sale for most of its history.
For the 17 years the relief sale was held at Augusta Expoland, several families headed the doughnut operation, which featured volunteers frying doughnuts outdoors in large kettles full of hot oil. By 1999, when the sale moved to its current location, organizers asked the Wengers to take on the task. The couple has been in charge of it since then. “We were told they’ve always been popular,” said Lois Wenger. “That, no question, we’ll always have doughnuts.”
The Wengers seemed the perfect choice. By Lois’ own estimate, she’s made “thousands upon thousands” of doughnuts for church and youth group events. Lois said she’s always used the same recipe, given to her by a friend who in turn got it from a bakery in Georgia, and tweaked it to her taste. By the time she and her husband were asked to make them for the relief sale, Lois said she figured she’d made more than 2,000 doughnuts during the 12 years her husband served at his previous church. When she was told that 16,000 doughnuts had been sold the final year at Expo, she didn’t flinch, confident she and her husband could handle it.
That is, until Lois got what she calls her “awakening.” Months before the relief sale, Lois attended a women’s conference in Philadelphia, at which 17,000 women were also present. As she looked at the women filling the hall, the enormity of the job she agreed to do sank in. “That’s one doughnut for every woman there,” she said. “And I thought to myself, ‘What was I thinking?’”
‘Dough Moves, People Don’t’
With reality settled in, Lois Wenger began planning how to efficiently and sanely carry out the doughnut operation. Knowing they’d be working out of the Chicken Shack, Lois said she visited the building, taking detailed measurements and noting the equipment already there to determine how many people would fit in the kitchen and what implements they’d need to bring. She also broke her tried-and-true recipe into discrete components: how much of each ingredient she needs per batch; the steps taken from mixing to rising to rolling and cutting to frying and glazing, and the utensils needed for each step of the process. She recorded these observations in a black spiral-bound one-subject notebook.
Lois Wenger still carries that notebook; it’s faded and worn now, and filled with pages in her neat handwriting detailing each year’s doughnut production. She knows how much flour, frying oil, sugar and yeast she’ll need to make the doughnuts (825 pounds of flour, 19 five-gallon cubes of frying oil, 15 pounds of sugar and 27 pounds of yeast this year, in case you’re wondering). She knows that one “mix” of her recipe makes a little more than 400 doughnuts, so to meet this year’s goal of 12,000 doughnuts she’ll need enough ingredients for 34 mixes. She premeasures all ingredients so the mixers have exactly what they need on hand.
She and her husband supervise three shifts of approximately 30 to 35 people each. Those people are assigned to work at stations that cover specific tasks of doughnut production. She keeps track of the changes made to the Chicken Shack from year to year, such as the addition of a walk-in cooler, new fryers and an expansion in the production area, and modifies the steps to accommodate those changes. There’s little movement among stations, because “runners” are also assigned to move the doughnuts in their various raw-to-cooked-to-glazed stages.
This attention to each step of production explains how nearly three dozen people are able to work in a small kitchen without bumping into each other and spilling raw doughnuts onto the floor. Lois even has a mantra that captures the efficiency of process she strives for: “The Dough Moves and The People Don’t.” She is also emphatic in her reliance on the notebook to get her through each year. “If I had to think about this every year, it would just be overwhelming,” she said.
A Way To Serve
Fortunately for the Wengers, volunteers are never in short supply. Lois Wenger said Sunday school classes and youth groups from several local Mennonite churches look forward to helping. “Most people volunteer year after year,” she said, with many staking out specific shifts or tasks.
Several of the volunteers say they are amazed at the efficiency of the assembly line method of making the homemade doughnuts.
Debbie Huffman of Rockingham County said she enjoys “watch[ing] the rhythm of it all.” Huffman, who, along with her husband, Wayne, and members of their Sunday School class at Weaver’s Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, ha
s volunteered to work every year since the sale moved to the fairgrounds, said the well-organized set-up makes it easier for volunteers to help out. Huffman’s class always chooses the 6 to 9 a.m. shift, while other groups in the church, including the youth group, meet earlier in the week to assemble boxes for the finished doughnuts.
Martha Martin and several women from Mount Pleasant Mennonite Church near Dayton also return to their 6 to 9 a.m. shift every year to mix batter. Martin, who lives in Dayton, said the women were asked to help out for the 1999 sale, and they’ve gladly come back each year. “Everyone working together, that’s what I like,” she explained.
For Ruth Ellen Dandurand, a junior at EMU, her volunteer efforts enable her to meet people she may not otherwise encounter. A native of Vermont, Dandurand was one of many EMU students in the kitchen for this shift; she and seven girls from her hall came out, as well as members of the EMU volleyball team. As she picked up raw doughnuts from the floured table and placed them on cloth-covered trays, she and her friends chatted easily with other volunteers, trading tales of school days, church functions and summer camp. Sometimes, surprisingly, they’d find they shared common experiences with the older, sometimes conservative, volunteers standing beside them at the rolling and cutting table – classes or professors, July weeks spent at Highland Retreat, church dinner dishes or youth group games. “It’s rewarding knowing that all these people in the process can work together,” she noted.
And, that the work and socializing they do now will help the needy and suffering around the world. “It’s a way to help people overseas,” Martin said. Dandurand, who’s not a member of the Mennonite faith, agreed with Martin. “It’s a way to help with the relief sale itself,” she added.
By 8:45 a.m., the mixers on the 6 to 9 a.m. had mixed 18 batches of batter, and most of the doughnuts to be sold were boxed and ready for hungry customers. Volunteers for the 9 a.m. to noon shift began drifting in, receiving instructions from the tired, flour- and glaze-covered folks that preceded them. Lois and Robert Wenger remained with this shift, which made a few more dozen doughnuts and began clean-up duty. By the time the flour’s swept off the floor, the fryers are washed out and the equipment packed on the truck, the Wengers will have logged more than 12 hours making doughnuts.
As the 6 to 9 a.m. shift volunteers washed up, they readily accepted Lois Wenger’s offers of free doughnuts. Many were heading out to enjoy the rest of the relief sale, planning to buy food or crafts or bid on auction items to further support the relief sale’s mission. A bite of fresh, warm doughnut – fluffy inside, sweetly glazed outside, a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon dancing on the tongue – and the lost sleep and sore muscles from kneading basketball-sized chunks of dough melted away.