My cookbook shelf as a mirror of Mennonite history

— Eileen Kinch
I like to take armloads of cookbooks from my kitchen shelf to Mennonite and food history classes and ask students what they can learn by leafing through these books produced by and largely for North American Mennonites. Cookbooks are history. They reveal much about Mennonites and our changing relationship to immigrant heritage, identity, theology, rural communities, mainstream culture and globalization. But Mennonite cookbooks have also contributed to shifts in our culture in addition to simply reflecting it.
Mary Emma Showalter, author of Mennonite Community Cookbook (1950) wanted to “preserve for posterity our own peculiar type of cookery that had been handed down for many generations.” She noticed that younger homemakers were reaching for modern cookbooks instead of the old handwritten family recipes. Working from submissions from across the U.S. and Canada, she added “favorite recipes of our own day,” such as gelatin salads and casseroles, to more old-fashioned fare like scrapple and fastnachts to make the book more useful and up to date. After almost 75 years, the cookbook is still in print.
Rather than viewing Mennonites as a unified, “peculiar” people (Showalter), The Melting Pot of Mennonite Cookery, 1874 to 1974, by Dr. Edna (Ramseyer) Kauffman (1975) documented and preserved foodways from ten distinct backgrounds of Mennonites who settled in Kansas and surrounding states, especially those from Ukraine and Russia. This is the Mennonite Game in food, a resource for sorting out where certain communities fit into the spectrum of European Mennonite origins and which foods go along with each.
Contrast these old-fashioned recipes heavy on meat, cream and sugar with More-With-Less Cookbook (1976), arguably the most influential Mennonite book of any kind published in the last 50 years. Commissioned by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), it connected North American consumption patterns to the global food crisis of the early 1970s. Doris Janzen Longacre taught that what we ate was not just an individual choice, but had far-reaching consequences that made food and even fabled Mennonite frugality matters of theology.  MWL accompanied many Mennonites to the mission field far and near and stories abound about MWL conversions–those who found Mennonite churches through the cookbook.
Extending the Table (MCC, 1991), by Joetta Handrich Schlabach, expanded on MWL with even more focus on international recipes and stories to “invite us to sit with people we have never met, taste the flavors of their food, feel the warmth of their friendship, and learn from their experiences.” This enticing collection of recipes was novel in the way it included humble, everyday meals from around the world rather than just fancier better-known dishes. Even though an advisory committee included members from India, Jamaica and South Africa, the content drew on the many global experiences and connections of North America Mennonites — mostly through mission, relief and development work. ETT wanted to emphasize a two-way relationship of sharing with Mennonites of the global south who would soon exceed in number those in Europe and North America.
Just as MWL raised awareness among North American Mennonites about the connection between our eating habits and global food scarcity, and ETT brought recognition of increasing globalization into our kitchens, Simply in Season (MCC, 2005) by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert brought the local food movement to Mennonites. Eating seasonally and locally would benefit the health of our bodies, the planet and the local economy.
Simply in Season countered the New York Times best-selling Fix-It and Forget-It Cookbook (2000) by Dawn J. Ranck and Phyllis Pellman Good. The preface notes that slow cookers are “the efficient friend of those cooks who are gone all day but want to offer substantial home-cooked food to their households.” The cookbook appealed to busy families and two-income households. SIS recipes require more energy and time spent on food production, acquisition, preparation and preservation, which led some mothers I knew to wonder how they could feed their families healthfully and sustainably while working full time.  

The golden age of Mennonite cookbooks is probably over. Young people don’t have the same relationship to cookbooks that I have had. Online recipes bring every possibility to our fingertips, free and based on algorithms. What is lacking is a thesis, a worldview — a theology — that a particular cookbook can capture and promote, beyond “easiest” or “best.” Blogs might present a particular viewpoint but are more fleeting and numerous; it is unlikely they will have the same impact on the church that some cookbooks once did.   

Some years ago, my college’s cafeteria featured a “Mennonite recipe of the week,” including MWL favorite Pakistani Kima. This confused some students: how was this Mennonite? I have eaten it at my dean’s home for a new faculty dinner and at a wedding reception; my family makes it often as an easy all-in-one week-night meal. Recipes and cookbooks reflect but also shape culture, and the faces and tastes of Mennonites are changing. Pakistani Kima might now be just as Mennonite as Borscht or Shoofly Pie.


Author’s note: Excellent scholarly treatments include Matthew Bailey-Dick, “The Kitchenhood of All Believers: A Journey into the Discourse of Mennonite Cookbooks,” Mennonite Quarterly Review (2005): 153-78; Malinda Elizabeth Berry,  “Simple Living, Peace Theology and MCC’s World Community Cookbooks,” Intersections: MCC Theory and Practice Quarterly (11 May 2020). I look forward to reading Marlene Epp’s new book on Mennonite foodways, published just as I was finishing this article: Eating Like a Mennonite: Food and Community Across Borders (Montreal: McGill-Queens Univ. Press, 2023).

Mary S. Sprunger

Mary S. Sprunger is Professor of History at Eastern Mennonite University. Her teaching interests include European, world, women’s and Mennonite Read More

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