In grade 7 I met a particularly tall kid whose nickname was 'Moose.' One day I asked one of the guys that went to the same junior elementary school as him when this nickname came about. I assumed it would have been soon after he hit a growth spurt. The sarcastic answer surprised me. A few years earlier, as I was told, Moose had started asking people to call him that. Moose had created his own nickname, a major social faux-pas.
For almost 500 hundred years, we (Mennonites/Anabaptists/etc.) have been struggling with names. At first the early Anabaptists didn't want to have a name for their group, but they did start calling themselves the Swiss Brethren. Later they were derisively called Ana-baptists, meaning "re-baptizers" or perhaps more accurately "the people who don't think their initial church-sanctioned, state-approved baptism administered by a professional clergyman was good enough so they as corrupted adults had it redone by common peasants." Martin Luther called "us" the swarmers, because we were like bees or some less majestic, more annoying insect swarming uncontrollably all over the place. As though the reputation wasn't bad enough, for a few years some "people who don't think their initial church-sanctioned, state-approved baptism administered by a professional clergyman was good enough so they as corrupted adults they it redone by common peasants" decided that Jesus was coming back and so they should take over a city and wait for the rapture. They instituted polygamy, had all sorts of crazy laws of purity and were generally not good people. But somewhere a group of these people were such responsible citizens that their leader started calling them something else to differentiate them from the bad group, and since they all more-or-less followed the teachings of Menno Simons, they were called Mennists or Mennonites. It didn't really make sense, but since it was better than swarmers or rebaptizers they figured it would do, and it stuck. People in other parts of Europe, like Switzerland, who knew nothing about the dutch pastor Menno were especially confused by this label, but again, it was better than the other options. For the next few hundred years or so, these followers of Menno lived mostly in isolated communities, married within their communities, learned to cook a lot of the same food, and developed their own unique language dialects. So, people looking in from the outside used the same name for our culture as they used for our religious denomination. We can't choose these names, and even if we could, our spiritual ancestors, including our namesake Menno, would ask us to choose a different one than we have now. A denominational name change would be an easier sell.
For a long time, people within our group have been suggesting that we need a different name for these two different aspects, especially since we've welcomed people among us who have the religion and not the culture and we've said goodbye to people who have the culture but reject the religion. There have been attempts for a long time to create a different name for the culture, but it never works. I wonder what Moose's secret was.
In the January 24, 2011 print version of the Canadian Mennonite, MCEC executive minister David Martin suggests that "Mennonite" is an inappropriate label for the foods we eat. He says both "There is nothing 'Mennonite' about the foods we eat" and "Let's keep the food Chinese, Hispanic, Ukranian-German or Pennsylvania Dutch, but not 'Mennonite.'" I have to respectfully disagree. First of all, David is a Swiss Mennonite. In worshipped and/or pastored at predominantly Swiss (Pennsylvania Dutch) Mennonite churches for six years, and during all the potlucks, weddings, funerals, and home visits, nobody ever served me shoofly pie or told me that the food they were serving me was Swiss (Pennsylvania Dutch) Mennonite food. Not because it was inappropriate to use that title, but because it doesn't exist. Second, there is something Mennonite about the food we make: we're Mennonites, we made it. My younger sister surprised me recently when she started quilting. I keep telling her that she should sell them as "Mennonite Quilts." She says it doesn't count, but I tell her, "You're a Mennonite. You made it. How much more Mennonite can it get?
In my interactions with spiritual Mennonites from various ethnicities, they are quite interested in ethnic Mennonite food. They are interested, that is, until they eat it. I've tried to sell them on the nuanced flavour of boiled or fried dough, but they don't get it. What they do get though, is that when we talk about food, Mennonite is merely an ethnic label.
Don't get me wrong. I agree with David's central point. We are extremely fortunate that after centuries of exclusive theological beliefs and social practices, people of other cultures want to join us. The Mexican, Thai, British and Korean dishes at my church potlucks are snapped up much quicker than traditional ethic Mennonite food. When all levels of our church are open to multi-ethnic participation, the end result will be much richer than any church potluck.