Manitoba MDS workers cook up a storm

November 23, 2011 | Focus On | Number 23
By Emily Will | Mennonite Disaster Service
Minot, N.D.
Instead of dragging their cook books around with them on Mennonite Disaster Service assignments, Anne Friesen, left, and Tina Heppner, of Altona, Man., use their laptops to look up recipes and keep in touch with their grandchildren.

“Creative cooks to produce three substantial, from-scratch meals per day for groups of five to 35. Successful candidates must be able to travel and remain away from home for up to two months;  work, standing, 12 to 13 hours per day, seven days a week; plan menus and prepare meals to meet nutritional needs of hard-working labourers; shop for ingredients, as needed (often daily); wash dishes, pots and pans, and maintain a sanitary kitchen; exhibit excellent time-management skills; adapt to a variety of cooking/baking equipment; get along with many personality types; work within an adequate, but not extravagant, food budget; and exhibit flexibility in housing arrangements. This non-salaried, voluntary position is especially suited to widows 65-plus years of age.”

While Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) does not actually post this or similar job descriptions, it has such positions and, remarkably, finds people willing, able and even happy to take them on.

Anne Friesen, 71, and Tina Heppner, 68, members of Seeds of Life Community Church and Bergthaler Mennonite Church, Altona, Man., respectively, spent October as cooks for Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) workers in Minot, N.D., where they continue to clean up, muck out, sanitize and repair some of the 4,000 flood-damaged homes in the community. Actually, chefs might be a more appropriate term, as they have prepared pork medallions with peach sauce, which borders on gourmet cooking.

When Heppner lost her husband five years ago, Friesen, widowed for 18 years, reached out to her. Heppner joined a quilting group Friesen belonged to and the two became fast friends.

Heppner had filled in, as needed, as a Bible camp cook with another friend and enjoyed the experience. She knew Friesen had cooked at a private high school before retirement. Why not turn their interests into an opportunity for service and adventure?

Minot was the duo’s fifth shared MDS assignment, each from three weeks to two months long, since 2008. Previously, they cooked for hungry MDS crews in Mobile, Ala.; Dulzura, Calif. (twice);  and New Orleans. They collaborate so well that they only accept assignments together.

“We never need to discuss what we have to do; we just go and do it,” Heppner says. “Baking comes natural to Anne.”

“Tina is at the meat end,” Friesen adds.

This division of labour gets them through the supermarket efficiently. On days when they are buying up to $1,000 worth of groceries, they often miss their afternoon break.

The women rise at 5 a.m. to prepare breakfast and get lunch fixings ready for volunteers to prepare their own sack lunches. By 1 p.m., they’re usually able to take a break—naps, showers, walks—until they cook dinner and clean up after it, from around 3 p.m. to about 8 in the evening.

All meals are “from scratch,” for economy and taste. With her past experience as a school baker, Friesen conjures up oatmeal-raisin cookies and pumpkin-cranberry muffins as effortlessly as a magician pulling scarves from a hat.

Friesen, who had never been far from home, was at first hesitant to leave her Manitoba-based children and grandchildren for extended periods. But both she and Heppner have embraced the Internet and Skype as means to stay in touch. “The time away flies,” Friesen says. “After our two months in New Orleans was up, I wasn’t ready to leave.”

Because cookbooks are heavy to lug around in suitcases, the women employ their laptops to stock a portable base of favourite recipes, many of which come from congregational cookbooks.

“The recipes are tried and true, and don’t use outlandish ingredients,” Friesen explains.

They take advantage of the Internet as well. Their favourite site is They also frequent the Taste of Homes and Kraft Foods sites.

They approach menu planning by creating a “rough sketch of the week,” Heppner says. “We can’t follow it exactly because things change quickly,” she notes, especially when there are leftovers to use up.

The two friends are certainly not in Minot to enjoy luxury accommodations. They’re “camping out” in a little room of the local Congregational United Church of Christ, which has offered its facilities to MDS. The women experiment nightly with different ways of stacking their inflatable mattresses and foam pads, trying to find the most comfortable combination.

“I like to say we go on all-inclusive vacations, room and board provided,” Heppner says with a mischievous sparkle in her eyes.

Instead of dragging their cook books around with them on Mennonite Disaster Service assignments, Anne Friesen, left, and Tina Heppner, of Altona, Man., use their laptops to look up recipes and keep in touch with their grandchildren.

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