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.
Food as faith formation
What is it with Mennonites and food?