By Amy Bickel The Hutchinson News email@example.com NEWTON - There are no peppernuts in Albuquerque.
"And no one in New Mexico has ever heard of them before," Newton resident Warren Unruh says with all seriousness.
But, observing the longstanding Mennonite tradition, Unruh bought a bag of freshly baked peppernuts as he does every Christmas - shipping them 600 miles to his son so he can have a taste of home.
Yet such gifting isn't unusual at Newton's Prairie Harvest store, where the smell of homemade peppernuts permeates through the store for several months before Christmas. Packages of peppernuts have gone from New Jersey to Hawaii and several states in between.
After all, Harvey County is the heart of where those of the Mennonite faith first settled in 1874 - bringing with them turkey red wheat and many family recipes - New Year's cookies, zwieback and peppernuts.
Now, thanks to increased marketing and shipments across the country by people like Unruh, sales of the holiday treat that contains cloves, ginger and anise continue to grow as more are introduced to the small, crisp cookie, said Marti Nellans, who oversees Prairie Harvest's peppernut-making venture.
Last year, the store sold more than 3,000 pounds of peppernuts, or "enough to fill a cement truck," she said. This year, they will well surpass that amount, although Nellans hasn't figured the final tally.
"It's skyrocketed," she said, adding that they would love to grow the business into every state in the country. "It's a huge market, and we're hoping to see it continue to grow." Mennonite custom
In 1874, the first wave of Russian Mennonites, roughly 1,900 people, settled in a 60,000-acre area in Marion, McPherson, Harvey and Reno counties.
That included Denise Voran-Goertzen's great-grandfather, who brought the recipe for peppernuts - or pfefferneuse - with him when he left the Ukraine for America that year.
Back then, women placed dough into five-gallon crocks. They stored the crocks in a cool and dark fruit room in the cellar. The dough was left to stand for a week or more, which allowed the spices to blend in with the sugar and flour.
Women took the dough and rolled it into ropes, then sliced it into small, round cookies.
For nearly 20 years, Voran-Goertzen and her family made peppernuts. In 2011, when they moved out of state, they sold the recipe and equipment to Prairie Harvest owners Becky Nickel and Carrie van Sickle, who already had been selling the Voran-Goertzen product in their shop for several years.
Nickel said they moved the production into a backroom of the shop and expanded the offerings, which today includes the traditional anise-flavored peppernuts, along with gluten-free, low-sugar and anise-free. The recipe has changed somewhat, as the cookies produced today have no trans fat, Nickel said.
Nickel and van Sickle continue to expand their shipping business and retail clients. In 2011, they had just two retail locations offering their peppernuts. This year, there are more than 15 locations, which include several locations in Wichita, as well as stores in states like Minnesota and Indiana.
Nickel said marketing also has expanded with a new retail labeling, which tells the peppernut story on the back of the package. Prairie Harvest's peppernuts are also a "From the Land of Kansas" product through the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
From the Land of Kansas is the state's agriculture trademark program, which helps brand, support and promote Kansas agriculture products and services from the farm to the fork. The state launched the new trademark program last spring.
"That's opened a lot of doors," Nickel said of their wholesale business.
She said they are currently in the process of securing a trademark for their peppernuts. More than a Christmas treat
Prairie Harvest employee Norma Graber, Goessel, first started making commercial peppernuts with the Voran-Goertzen operation.
But her family has made them for decades, she said, noting that her husband already made batches of peppernuts this year using dates and raisins in the recipe.
"Lots of families still make them," she said of the custom.
Tradition is why Warren Unruh was in the shop on Dec. 23 as the last batches of peppernuts before Christmas came out of the oven. He grabbed a 14-ounce bag of peppernuts off the shelf and reminisced about how his father would make peppernuts every year.
"My dad used to make them special every year for Christmas," he said, "but I don't know why. They're good all year round." *** Peppernuts aren't the only product Prairie Harvest is shipping across the country this year.
The natural and health food store and market has several products made in Kansas that employees sell individually or in custom-made gift baskets, said employee Marti Nellans.
There is soup from Goodland, cheese from Durham, honey from Sterling and salsa from Wilson. There is cereal made in Quinter and jams made in Elbing. Phil Nisly, who lives near Hutchinson, sells the store turkeys and other products from his Phil's Farm.
People come in "looking for a thoughtful gift," Nellans said. "It helps the local economy. It keeps dollars staying in a local place."
For more about the From the Land of Kansas program, visit http://fromthelandofkansas.com. For Prairie Harvest's website or to order peppernuts, visit http://prairieharvestnewton.com.