Food as faith formation

August 31, 2011 | Editorial | Number 17
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

What is it with Mennonites and food?

We seem to take great pride in the cultural dishes from our German/Swiss/Russian backgrounds and more recently those national newcomers to our faith—Asian, Latino, African and Eastern European. There isn’t a church potluck or social gathering we don’t like. Before every important congregational decision we seem to think better if we have first dined together.  

Some of our most successful business entrepreneurs from the eastern United States and Ontario are internationally known for mass production and marketing of poultry products, prompting historian John L. Ruth to remark at the zenith of their ventures: “Mennonites have been more successful in exporting their agricultural products than their faith.”

The latest bestseller from our bi-national Herald Press, Mennonite Girls Can Cook, is already in its third printing, having sold 12,300 copies (9,000 in Canada), while receiving rave reviews from the critics. It adds to the list of food bestsellers of the last century: The Mennonite Cookbook (469,300 copies), More With Less (866,700 copies), and Simply in Season (117,250 copies). It has now surpassed the The Naked Anabaptist (10,300 copies), the popular eye-catcher that presents the seven core convictions of our faith brand written by a British newcomer, Stuart Murray.

Next to our food is our ethnicity, most noticeably attracting attention to our Amish and Old Order cousins. The public never seems to let up on its fascination with their quaint, but uncomplicated lifestyle, unencumbered with modern technology and conveniences.  John Hostetler’s The Amish has sold the second highest number of copies by Herald Press (782,139).

    So is this unwanted attention? Do some of us wish these cultural ornaments would just disappear so that we could focus on more substantive issues—like justice, peace, the good news of Jesus and creation care?

Some of us are impatient—sometimes even frustrated and disgusted—with these very un-nuanced public perceptions. On the food issue, some of us who are zealous with healthy eating in an over-indulgent era are not happy with some of the recipes promoted by these bestsellers. Dishes can be high in fat, sugar and calories, contributing to, not negating, the ever-increasing problems of obesity that lead to heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.

But there are some things in which to take comfort.

First, food in the Mennonite culture is very authentic. Historically, we are an agrarian people. Raising our families in rural Europe and North America, we have always been people of the soil.  There is no denying our roots.

We have always taken great pleasure in growing food, in developing seed and soil for maximum production. Our migrations have taken us to the most fertile valleys and plains of the new frontiers. Empires have sought us out for agricultural development because of our farming skills, strong work ethic and stable families.

Second, because farming was hard work, the food on our tables had to be nutritious and substantive for the energy required to work in the fields. Our kitchen tables were sources not only of delicious meals, but good conversation, helping to develop identity and debate, where an intergenerational dialogue passed on important values. This was borne out in the “Conversations with our mothers” sidebar in Mennonite Girls Can Cook.

Our dining room tables were centres of hospitality for fellow church members, neighbours and friends, contributing to the shaping of our narrative as a people and of our faith.

These are things in which we can take well-deserved pride. But instead of turning them into only a commercial advantage and, thus overshadowing the importance of our faith, should they not now become channels of hospitality and welcome for others in the wider society?

Our tables should be, and in many cases are, places of refuge for the weary and isolated, and lead the way to healthy eating through such cookbooks as Doris Longacre’s More With Less and Extending the Table, its follow-up companion that celebrates the dishes of many other cultures.

Only this will redeem our food and identity as enduring virtues worthy of our neighbour’s curiosity. If we only claim them for marketing and cultural landmarks, they could pass with the next generation, ending up as relics of a dying civilization.

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I just had your article brought to my attention. I feel you touched on a lot of pertinent facts about the relationship between Mennonites and food.
Being one of the "Mennonite Girls Can Cook" authors I appreciated your mention of our cookbook.
We get a lot of feedback from those who read our blog daily and from those who have purchased the cookbook.
Two things have come to the forefront when reading the comments from our readers.
The first is that young women and men today are looking to find recipes for real food. Made from scratch with readily available ingredients - often in season and home grown. They have commented again and again that these foods bring back warm memories of parents and grandparents and the hospitality associated with the foods. Yes, we need to be aware of the need to "eat healthy" but even food like vereniky and zwiebach is God given and can be eaten with joy - albeit in smaller quantities and less frequently.
The second thing that seems to be very important to those who purchase our cookbook is the knowledge that all royalties we as authors realize are going to feed hungry children in the Ukraine. In this way the sale of cookbooks can "become channels of hospitality and welcome for others in the wider society"
Speaking on behalf of the "Mennonite Girls" I'd like to affirm your comments about our tables being "places of refuge for the weary and isolated" and a place to share our faith with our friends and families.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your editorial on the relationship of our faith and our food and how they relate and often intersect with one another.

It has been such an incredible blessing to be part of Mennonite Girls Can Cook. When we began our journey in 2008 with a simple idea of documenting our heritage recipes with photos and sharing them freely on in the Internet, we could have never imagined that the project would touch so many hearts and lives.

In addition to sharing our recipes, we share Bread for the Journey each Sunday which is a devotional. If it were not for the routine of the thousands of our readers coming each day to see what is cooking in our kitchens, many of them might never otherwise read a portion of scripture and leave with a word of encouragement. Many of those same visitors have purchased books or are purchasing books for others that might not have a church to call home. Because we have included Bread for the Journey, we know that God's word is being read and we pray that lives will be changed. We can't possibly begin to know each of our readers but God does and ultimately we want to have an attitude of availability in serving the Lord.

We are watching our dream to feed some of the hungry children in the world come true. Because our royalties are being designated to help the needy, we are being given wonderful opportunities to tell our story which includes our faith, our joy of sharing hospitality and the stories of how others being inspired. A local retailer decided that because we were donating all our royalties that she too would give all the profits of selling the book to a needy village in Romania. She raised $3200 and tomorrow, she will be there handing out $20 food hampers to every family in the village. There are 160 families.

Ephesians 5:16 tells us to make the most of every opportunity and the recipes we have published have become a vessel to share what matters most to us which is the Good News of Jesus Christ!

To God be the glory!

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