August 03, 1981 12:00 PM

Among Mennonite families in Pennsylvania, it was the custom to give a new bride a full year’s respite from entertaining. But Betty Groff remembers that it took her a whole second year to overcome her trepidation and invite 36 in-laws over for dinner. “I don’t think there is anyone harder to cook for than your own family,” she still insists. “They don’t mean to be critical, but they know how it was always done by Mother.” Happily, Betty’s initiation in mass feeding brought a properly appreciative response; all pronounced her to be a cook of high promise.

That was 24 years ago. Today, at 45, Betty Groff is a practiced restaurateur and cookbook author (Betty Groff’s Country Goodness Cookbook, Double-day, $17.95). With her husband, Abe, 47, she presides over Groff’s Farm, a landmark of country dining in Lancaster County, Pa., some 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The restaurant, just outside Mount Joy (pop. 5,128), is definitely off the beaten track (the fourth farm on the left on Pinker-ton Road). Still, food fanciers from all over wend their way to the 231-year-old stone farmhouse, attracted by the hearty Pennsylvania Dutch fare, including such specialties as chicken Stoltzfus (named for an Amish friend and made of chicken chunks in cream sauce over pastry diamonds) and shoofly pie (see recipe, page 78). Only fresh fruits and vegetables, just picked in season or home-canned, grace the tables. Soups, relishes, cakes, ice cream—even the fruit wines used in cooking—are homemade. Declares noted authority James Beard, a longtime regular: “I think of Groff’s Farm as a wonderful example of how great American cooking can be.”

For its husband-and-wife proprietors, both descendants of pious 18th-century Swiss-German immigrants who fled the religious persecution of the Old World, their faith, family and food have always been life’s pillars. Growing up on farms, they frequently saw more than 12 (often including visiting ministers) around the dinner table. An ordinary day’s menu might run through ham and green beans, baked corn pudding, dandelion greens with hot bacon dressing, egg cheese, three-bean relish and rhubarb pie. “There’s nothing as good as fresh sugar peas or baby carrots prepared right out of the garden, or the flavor of succulent squash, eggplant and tomatoes that ripen in the summer,” says Betty. “Mother told me that food must be enjoyed not only by the person eating it but also by the one preparing it; I’ve never forgotten that.”

Her father also ran a butcher shop and smokehouse, and the scent of hickory logs wafted with Betty to school. There she played cornet in the band, with her uniform topped by a Mennonite prayer cap, and won the heart—and stomach—of her high school date with elaborate picnic lunches. “Abe has a ferocious appetite,” Betty says with a grin, “and that’s where I had him.”

The Groffs eventually decided they’d rather cook than farm. Betty prepared the food and Abe came in from the field to carve the meats, but for years their home restaurant barely managed to break even. Then, in 1965, New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne happened by, tasted and declared to Betty that “America is looking for a place like this.” His praise in print helped direct the public to Groff’s Farm. The family enterprise got another boost when son Charlie, 23, returned from the Culinary Institute of America to take over as chief chef. (Tragically, the Groffs lost their younger son, John, in a motorcycle accident two years ago.)

Unlike some of the neighboring Amish sect, who shun all modern accoutrements, most Mennonites adapt. The Groffs, for example, use electricity and have a telephone. In fact, they recently gave over the old homestead entirely to their restaurant (capacity: 120 for each of two daily seatings), moving to a new home nearby with backyard pool. And in her cookbook, the author unabashedly extols such time-savers as noodle machines and microwave ovens. While Betty now dons her prayer cap only for church, she does not forget traditional values. “The secret of the success we’ve had,” she believes, “is that we cook what we know best, make it from the freshest ingredients and treat every guest just like family.”

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