Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Kitchenhood of All Believers: A Journey into the Discourse of Mennonite Cookbooks

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Kitchenhood of All Believers: A Journey into the Discourse of Mennonite Cookbooks

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper brings together insights from cultural anthropology, religious studies and Mennonite studies in an effort to uncover the ways in which Mennonite cookbooks can be understood as a recognizable discourse (or cluster of discourses) that influences and even constructs Mennonite history, theology and culture. The work begins with an initial exploration of the connections between food and faith, then proposes a distinctively Mennonite understanding of food as material culture, and concludes by reviewing eight specific ways in which cookbooks function as a discourse that mirrors, influences or even creates specific realities of the Mennonite community in North America. This study is intended to sharpen interest in further, more detailed, research of the discourse of Mennonite cookbooks.

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   We may live without poetry, music, and art,
   We may live without conscience and live without heart,
   We may live without friends, we may live without books,
   But civilized [folks] cannot live without cooks. (1)

Within the expanding discipline of Mennonite studies, few scholars have paid any attention to the cultural and religious importance of Mennonite cookbooks. Yet when we consider how central food has been for Mennonites (2) over the years, we might expect to see a burgeoning literature pertaining to the ways in which such things as cookbook publication, food preparation, potlucking, food folklore and food relief efforts relate to the historical construction of Mennonite identity and theology. In the absence of any systematic attempt to grapple with the significance of Mennonite cookbooks, Katie Funk Wiebe finally threw down the gauntlet in 1999 when she declared,

   I believe one of the future records of the Mennonite history will
   be our cookbooks.... A study of the development of Mennonite
   cookbooks could prove interesting. Why are some no different than a
   Betty Crocker cookbook? Yet why are they still called Mennonite
   cookbooks? Which Mennonite church histories will include a section
   on Mennonite food? (3)

Now the challenge is at hand: How do we encourage critical scholarship on Mennonite cookbooks--these publications that make it onto but rarely beyond the kitchen shelf? How do we open up space for substantive dialogue about something that might seem to be trivial, mundane or inconsequential to the "real" master narrative of Mennonite history? Is there any significance to the fact that of the most popular books published by Herald Press (Mennonite Publishing Network), three out of the top ten books are cookbooks, and two of these rank higher in sales than the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective? (4) If the Mennonite community has a strong connection to its cuisine, what is the nature of this connection? How do Mennonite cookbooks function within different Mennonite communities? Why has there been so little systematic analysis of cultural and theological developments vis-a-vis Mennonite foodways?

In searching for answers to these questions, we must comb through numerous Mennonite cookbooks as well as other scholarly sources in such fields as anthropology, history, religious studies and community psychology. In the process, we discover that Mennonite cookbooks often convey much more than just recipes for making particular foods--in fact, they become reflections of and even catalysts for change within Mennonite culture and theology. Such change may or may not be best understood in the context of traditional scholarly terms such as "foodways" or "gastronomy" or "cookery"--indeed, we may need to identify a new field of study named "cookeriology" that more adequately explores the interrelationships between specific foodways and the unfolding of a Mennonite peoplehood. The reader may determine whether or not the issues at hand require the attention of a new scholarly discipline that will focus on the interplay between Mennonite recipes and Mennonite culture and theology. …

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