In lectures, zwieback symbolizes place of food in Mennonite history, culture
by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN – Munching on a fresh zwieback (because, he said, sauerkraut and spring rolls would be too messy to eat on the podium), John Thiesen, archivist at Bethel College’s Mennonite Library and Archives, introduced the 2013 Menno Simons lecturer, Marlene Epp of Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario.
The roll was meant to reinforce Epp’s overall topic for the four lectures, “The Semiotics of Zwieback, Sauerkraut and Spring Rolls: Mennonites and Foodways.” Over the course of three days and four lectures, zwieback was a recurring metaphor for the place of food in Mennonite theology, history and culture.
Epp began both her first and second lectures by showing photos of her parents, Frank and Helen Epp, at Bethel College in the mid-1950s. A scant handful of photos from that time exist, one of them of Helen Epp in the kitchen of the renovated boxcar that served as their apartment, baking einback (a bread relative of zwieback).
“Food offers an obvious glimpse into daily life. [Historically it] consumed an enormous amount of time,” Epp said in her first lecture, “Eating Like a Mennonite: Food and Identity.” “History is about how people lived their lives in time and space, which gives food a primary place.”
She noted The Thresher Table, which the Bethel College Women’s Association published in 1987, Bethel’s centennial year and which “reflected on Bethel history in terms of food and recipes. Bethel historians were well ahead of their time in imagining history could be described and imagined through food.
“Semiotics is the philosophical study of signs and symbols,” she continued. “Food is endowed with complex signs and symbols. Food is itself and more than itself. It is so ubiquitous and so every-day that we almost overlook its value in adding meaning.”
She considered food in terms of three kinds of identity: religious, ethnic and gender.
Some times in the church year are connected with food, such as peppernuts (pfeffernuss) at Christmas or paska bread at Easter. Food holds meaning in religious rituals such as weddings and funerals.
Many Russian Mennonites have direct experience or family stories of being “refugees wrenched from their homes,” Epp said. For them, “food holds deep religious meaning. Food reminds them of home. Hunger is so closely linked to despair.”
Zwieback, when roasted and dried properly, is “the perfect travel food,” she said. “It is connected to many often painful memories. It is a unifying social force – roasting and packing zwieback became a communal ritual. As long as there was zwieback, God existed. There was hope. That connection between bread and life is reinforced in the Eucharist meal.”
In modern times, food has become an important reflection of “Mennonite ethnic identity,” Epp said, which is moving beyond the Dutch/Russian, Swiss Volhynian and Pennsylvania German to embrace Laotian, Congolese, Hispanic and many others.
She noted “the symbolic capacity of food to contain the past.” An item in Canadian Mennonite titled “‘Mennonite’ not eaten here,” Epp said, “suggested moving away from telling family stories in order to be more inclusive of others. I fear the demise of a Mennonite-ness that puts aside family storytelling and cultural practices. Sharing one’s identity might best happen over a meal, where taste buds might overcome cultural differences.
“Some individual find their closest ties to Mennonite heritage through food – many of them are distant from the religious connections. We might bemoan the [food] connection, but if it’s the only one, it’s not one we should lose.”
Food reflects gender identity because, “at least historically, women constructed their sense of self in the food they produced. Women’s authority in or confinement to the kitchen could empower or oppress. Women played crucial roles in maintenance, even transformation, of community foodways – second perhaps only to childbearing in the essential jobs unique to women.”
Epp delivered her second lecture, “Are We Eating ‘Just’ Food?,” to a mostly student audience in Bethel’s Monday convocation.
She recalled a vacation she and her husband took to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where they stopped at a Walmart for groceries and found “queso menonita,” so named because it is produced by conservative Colony Mennonites who first emigrated from Canada in the 1920s.
“Queso menonita is not just tasty cheese, good melted on a black-bean burrito,” Epp said. “It represents a faith tradition, a symbol of culture and economic success, of my ethnic and religious cousins.”
However, she said, queso menonita is more expensive than other Mexican cheeses. “I wondered if your average Mexican could even afford it.”
To think about “just” food means to ask both “Is food only food – just fuel for our bodies?” and “Is food produced and distributed with justice?,” she said. There are three ways in which it is not “just” food.
She spoke first about “eating mindfully,” which comes from Buddhist tradition and encourages “appreciating the taste and the feeling of the food, thinking about where it came from and who prepared it, and about other people in the world who don’t have enough.
“Food activism may be grounded in spiritual beliefs,” she added, “such as: ‘Food is a right for all God’s people’ or ‘Food is part of our care for God’s creation.’”
Second, “Food is central to faith practices and to the living out of beliefs through food charity,” she said. Food can take on religious meaning, as did zwieback for Mennonite refugees, to whom it “meant they would not be hungry on the journey.
“When I talked to Laotian Mennonites about fleeing war violence, they spoke of the sticky rice they took along. The spiritual role of food in times of death and despair is common to all faith communities.”
Finally, she noted, “food is used to create and extend conflict. Peace and reconciliation also happen when food is present.
“Food is never just food,” she concluded. “We must be mindful of its ethical impact on our shared earth.”
Epp began her third lecture, “Eating across Borders: Mennonite Missions and Migrations,” by showing several photos of “food fusion” – restaurants and grocery stores in southern Ontario that feature “MennoMex” foods and cuisine.
“The people who run these [businesses] are part of the Mexican Mennonite phenomenon, descended from 1870s immigrants from south Russia and now among the most mobile people in the hemisphere, who keep going back and forth between Canada and Mexico.
“Multiple food identities problematize and enrich the debate about ‘what is “Mennonite” food,’” she said.
She talked about three ways food symbolizes border crossing.
First, clinging to traditional food and foodways helps “newcomers [immigrants] survive psychologically as they transition in terms of climate, landscape, neighbors and culture.”
Second, food represents “famine to feast” for those who literally crossed borders amid enormous physical deprivation. She noted that things like zwieback, oranges, chocolate and fresh milk were and still are symbols of hope for many Mennonites.
Finally, she looked at eating across borders in a mission context, which represents a new area of study and exploration for her, Epp said.
During a visit to Congo in 2012, she said, she was “struck by what the [Congolese Mennonite] women had in common with Russian Mennonite women in the first half of the 20th century. Foufou, a cassava and cornmeal dumpling, was something akin to zwieback and sticky rice. There is something like this in every culture – the food of life, hope and survival.”
Epp’s final lecture was titled “‘Just’ Recipes: Re-reading Mennonite Cookbooks.” “Cookbooks tell stories, as do all books,” she said. “[They reflect] changes in economy, women’s roles, the makeup of society. For women, published cookbooks are a means to define themselves and their cultural groups, to preserve the past and save the future.
“The recipe book, ubiquitous in Mennonite homes, solidified the internal and external aspects of community. Cookbooks say a lot about Mennonite women’s lives but also about Mennonites generally. They have told the world more about Mennonites than any other written work” – case in point being the best-selling “Mennonite” book of all time, Doris Janzen Longacre’s More-with-Less Cookbook.
Among the cookbooks Epp considered in her lecture: Mennonite Community Cookbook by Mary Emma Showalter Eby (Virginia); The Mennonite Treasury of Recipes, a joint initiative of Mennonite women’s groups (Manitoba); Mennonite Foods and Folkways from South Russia, Volumes 1 and 2 by Norma Jost Voth; and Mennonite Girls Can Cook, which resulted from a blog of the same name written by 10 different Mennonite women.
“Cookbooks [are] signposts of an era, reflecting the changes,” Epp said.
Finally, she said, Mennonite cookbooks “marked social changes or were even catalysts of those changes.”
She pointed to what she called “social justice cookbooks or world community cookbooks. The prime and best-selling example, the More-with-Less Cookbook, challenged North Americans to eat less so others could have enough. It was politically ahead of its time. It was a shaper of ideology and values within the Mennonite community and beyond – which sounds like Harold S. Bender and the Anabaptist Vision.
“Doris Janzen Longacre was from Newton,” Epp said. “I wonder when there’s going to be a plaque put up.”
Two more cookbooks later joined the More-with-Less family: Extending the Table by Joetta Handrich Schlabach, and Simply in Season by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert.
The recognition of the growing primacy of globalization in Extending the Table (1995) and the call from Simply in Season (2005) to eat local and locally produced foods following the four seasons also put these cookbooks ahead of their time, Epp said.
“Mennonites often follow the ideological bandwagon,” Epp noted, “but it can be said that with their cookbooks, they more often lead it.”
“Cookbooks can be understood in terms of their wider goals and impact,” she said. “Cookbooks [project] a female voice amid all the male ones. They have shaped Mennonites’ self-understanding as well as external views of Mennonites.
“We’ve come full circle, back to ‘how to eat like a Mennonite,’” Epp concluded. “The More-with-Less Cookbook suggests there might actually be a way to do this.”
Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 Forbes.com analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.