Marlene Epp, a Canadian historian specializing in gender, migration and Mennonite culture, focuses on relationships between Mennonites and food in Eating Like a Mennonite. She is intrigued by the many ways preparing and sharing food convey meaning, both historically and in recent times.
Epp gives particular attention to the European and Canadian Mennonite food traditions she knows through personal and family experience. Her scholarship also incorporates Mennonite foodways in other parts of the world, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a decade ago she conducted research among Congolese Mennonite women. In this context, she notes that “food hospitality is universal but actually often more prominent in settings where resources are lacking.”
Abundance and scarcity are thematic threads, tied most directly to the immigrant experiences of Russian Mennonites whose histories with war, dislocation, famine and border crossings have been touchstones of identity and culture. In six chapters — on identity, migration, gender, cookbooks, hunger and ritual — Epp draws from archival collections and other sources, including oral histories, poetry, memoirs and blogs.
The book is evocative and expansive rather than tightly hewn and prescriptive. Its title, Epp says, is both tongue-in-cheek and a nod to the variety of Mennonites (and their eating habits) across time, geography, nationality, ethnicity and race, encompassing a spectrum of religious adherence.
Some readers will be skeptical of a book that focuses on foodways as a significant manifestation of religious culture — especially religiosity mixed with ethnicity. Epp notes that in the past decade some have called for “no more Mennonite cookbooks,” given that preoccupation with ethnic heritage in churchwide settings is often perceived as exclusionary.
She acknowledges a critique of Mennonite ethnic identity: When Mennonites champion the maintenance of folkways (like food and language), White racism can be reinforced. Epp responds by noting that “it is important to consider how food and its meaning is a racialized question.” She advocates a big-tent -approach, giving attention to the diverse range of cultural practices among all who identify as Mennonite or Anabaptist.
Eating Like a Mennonite’s strongest historical analysis is its assessment of contact between colonizing and Indigenous groups. As tens of thousands of European Mennonites migrated across the continent, embarked on trans-atlantic voyages and encountered North American neighbors, agriculture, climates and geopolitics, they “embraced, imposed, appropriated and modified foodways to create a continuously evolving cuisine.”
Missionary treks across the globe further broadened eating practices and palates. Epp provides evidence that many 19th- and early 20th-century Mennonite missionaries and migrants modified their diets reluctantly. But it is also apparent that as they crossed borders, the sharing of food provided points of engagement with neighbors, even as these Mennonites’ other markers of identity, like modes of dress and language usage, remained fixed.
Eating Like a Mennonite covers -topics readers might expect and those less familiar. It touches on the bestselling More-with-Less Cookbook, published in 1976 by Doris Janzen Longacre, as a how-to guide for cooks interested in food sustainability. Yet Epp gives prominence, too, to a cookbook titled Food for the Journey, created in 2007 by two men whose marriage in a Canadian Mennonite church celebrated their vow of lifelong commitment.
A chapter on religious rituals is compelling. One anecdote, attributed to the theologian Irma Fast Dueck, recounts preparations for the communion tradition, as practiced among her Mennonite congregation in Manitoba during the mid-20th century. Fast Dueck’s mother provided a jar of borscht (a vegetable and meat soup) to church folk, who, if all was well in their relationships, consumed the soup. If soup remained in the jar, it was a signal that more work — toward resolving conflicts and strengthening relationships — would need to take place.
Eating Like a Mennonite contains two dozen illustrations: recipes and photos underscoring ways in which Mennonites — as laborers and consumers, migrants and citizens, traditionalists and foodies — carry culture across time and place.
Rachel Waltner Goossen of Topeka, Kan., is professor emerita of history at Washburn University.