When most people think of Mennonite cuisine, they think of perogies and farmer sausage, or perhaps fresh rollkuchen dipped in Rogers Golden Syrup.
Yet at A Taste of MCA, a Mennonite Church Alberta event at Bergthaler Mennonite Church near Didsbury, on April 12, the menu featured dishes like chicken biryani, chicken kabobs and roti, injera and spicy lamb, corn soup and sticky rice.
Karen Janz, the chair of MC Alberta’s Community Building and Programming Committee, said her team created the event to gather folks in an embodied way for one of the first times since the pandemic.
“One of our committee members was asking about a way . . . to bring people from our entire conference together in some way,” she said. “We held our first in-person AGM in March of this year, but often that only attracts delegates, so what else could we do? We thought we could pull something together over food. Our first thought was a potluck meal, but that eventually transformed into this amazing, multicultural event.”
Dishes from 10 different countries were served at the event: Mexico, South Sudan, Germany, Russia, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Philippines, Swiss Mennonite, Italy and Chin people from Myanmar. Displayed at each table was information about the respective dish and the story behind when, where and how that dish was typically served. People from each of the countries represented are a part of an MC Alberta congregation.
“There was so much enthusiasm from the New Canadians to share their food at this event, many of them said they especially love cooking for other people,” said Janz. ”In their home cultures, that’s how they get together, over these big meals, not just over coffee and playing cards, you know.”
The event also featured musical performances by Ethiopian, Pakistani and Chin singing groups, as well as scripture reading in multiple languages.
“A big part of the event, too, was learning to worship with people from different cultures, and singing in their native language,” Janz said. “Occasionally, words that are universal, like ‘Hallelujah,’ would come out. Or, you know, the choruses were kind of repetitive, so by the the third time through people were singing along, and clapping, which is very un-Mennonite. These diverse cultures are part of the Mennonite church, and we want to worship with them and like them.”
There were 127 people around the tables that night, representing 11 of the regional church’s 12 congregations.
Boei Sampok, a 14-year-old from Calgary Chin Christian Church, was one of about 30 people from his congregation who attended the event. He said he came to the event because “I heard there’d be food,” and “to meet people from the Mennonite church. The food was good, tonight was very cultural and diverse.”
Others agreed that it was curiosity that brought them out, and the chance to connect with people and experience some new food together.
As much as people came for the food, it was the seeds of connection and shared stories that were the most beautiful parts of diverse people sitting across the table from one another.
“There was a ton of humble pride in sharing food and, in singing together, we became connected,” said Suzanne Gross, who served as the emcee for the event. “We tried to create space to share the stories from our lives. On each of the tables, we had story prompts, you know, questions like, ‘What sort of games did you like to play as a child?’ Some of the questions were deep, some a bit more casual.
“The whole point was to share these stories with one another and to be in charge of our own narrative. There is a Pakistani family from Calgary who were part of the event. They were so happy to share their food, and we invited them to sing a song. We all learned the ‘hallelujah’ part of the song, and by the third verse we were harmonizing!
“In the iceberg of culture, food and music are above the water, which is great. But I also saw the knitting together, and a sense of belonging happening, which is the part of the iceberg that is below the water. It was such a celebration,” she said, beaming.
This article appears in the May 5, 2023 print issue, with the headline “Hospitality and diversity set a table together.”
Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Alberta? Send it to Emily Summach at email@example.com.
Reuben Tut, left, Manas Ngongjock, Shim Beack, Joon Park, Tim Wiebe-Neufeld, Tracy Brown Ewert and Zander Ewert share smiles and stories around the table. (Photo by Jan Wilhelm)
A Taste of MCA event drew people from ages 1 to 100, including young Sarah Sin and her mom, Lal Pui. (Photo by Jan Wilhelm)
There was no shortage of delicious cuisine served up at A Taste of MCA. (Photo by Tim Wiebe-Neufeld)