Eating like a Mennonite

Zwieback symbolizes place of food in Mennonite history, culture

January 29, 2014 | Focus On | Number 3
By Melanie Zuercher | Bethel College

Munching on a fresh zwieback (because sauerkraut and spring rolls would be too messy to eat on the podium), John Thiesen, archivist at Bethel College’s Mennonite Library and Archives, introduced the 2013 Menno Simons lecturer, Marlene Epp.

The roll was meant to reinforce Epp’s overall topic in her four lectures, “The semiotics of zwieback, sauerkraut and spring rolls: Mennonites and foodways.” During the series, zwieback (two-level yeast buns) was a recurring metaphor for the place of food in Mennonite theology, history and culture.

“Food is endowed with complex signs and symbols,” said Epp, a history and peace and conflict studies professor at Conrad Grebel University College, in her first lecture. “Food is itself and more than itself. It is so ubiquitous and so every-day that we almost overlook its value in adding meaning.”

Many Russian Mennonites have direct experience or family stories of being “refugees wrenched from their homes,” Epp said, noting that, for them, “food holds deep religious meaning.”

Zwieback, when roasted and dried properly, is “the perfect travel food,” she said. “It is connected to many often painful memories. It is a unifying social force. Roasting and packing zwieback became a communal ritual. As long as there was zwieback, God existed. There was hope. That connection between bread and life is reinforced in the eucharist meal.”

In her second lecture, “Are we eating ‘just’ food?” she said, “Food is central to faith practices and to the living out of beliefs through food charity. Food can take on religious meaning, as did zwieback for Mennonite refugees, to whom it “meant they would not be hungry on the journey. . . . When I talked to Laotian Mennonites about fleeing war violence, they spoke of the sticky rice they took along. The spiritual role of food in times of death and despair is common to all faith communities.”

Epp began her third lecture, “Eating across borders: Mennonite missions and migrations,” by showing several photos of “food fusion,” restaurants and grocery stores in southern Ontario that feature what she dubbed “MennoMex” foods and cuisine. “The people who run these [businesses] are part of the Mexican Mennonite phenomenon, descended from 1870s immigrants from south Russia who keep going back and forth between Canada and Mexico.”

Food represents “famine to feast” for those who crossed borders amid enormous physical deprivation, she said, noting that things like zwieback, oranges, chocolate and fresh milk were, and still are, symbols of hope for many Mennonites.

During a visit to Congo in 2012, she said she was “struck by what the [Congolese Mennonite] women had in common with Russian Mennonite women in the first half of the 20th century. Foufou, a cassava and cornmeal dumpling, was something akin to zwieback and sticky rice. There is something like this in every culture: the food of life, hope and survival.”

In her final lecture, “ ‘Just’ recipes: Re-reading Mennonite cookbooks,” Epp said, “Cookbooks tell stories, as do all books. [They reflect] changes in economy, women’s roles, the make-up of society. For women, published cookbooks are a means to define themselves and their cultural groups, to preserve the past and save the future.

“The recipe book, ubiquitous in Mennonite homes, solidified the internal and external aspects of community,” she explained. “Cookbooks say a lot about Mennonite women’s lives, but also about Mennonites generally. They have told the world more about Mennonites than any other written work.” As a case in point, she referred to the best-selling “Mennonite” book of all time—Doris Janzen Longacre’s More-with-Less Cookbook—as well as the more recent Mennonite Girls Can Cook.

“Cookbooks [are] signposts of an era, reflecting the changes,” Epp said, adding, “Mennonites often follow the ideological bandwagon, but it can be said that with their cookbooks, they more often lead it.”

“Cookbooks can be understood in terms of their wider goals and impact,” she said. “Cookbooks [project] a female voice amid all the male ones. They have shaped Mennonites’ self-understanding as well as external views of Mennonites.”

In conclusion, Epp said, “We’ve come full circle, back to ‘how to eat like a Mennonite.’ The More-with-Less Cookbook suggests there might actually be a way to do this.”

--Posted Jan. 29, 2014

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