Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Mennonite Cookbooks and the Pleasure of Habit

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Mennonite Cookbooks and the Pleasure of Habit

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper seeks to understand how Mennonite cookbooks reflect and encourage particular responses to the crisis of world hunger and other justice issues related to food. Whereas American culture promotes a compulsive relationship to food, often through the guise of free will, the cookbook More-with-Less recommends using habit to foster eating patterns that are both healthier and more attuned to social justice. Later cookbooks published by Mennonite Central Committee--Extending the Table and Simply in Season--appear to move away from the imperative of habit to emphasize aesthetic pleasures of eating ethically. Together, the cookbooks suggest that both habit and calls for social justice are best motivated by a sense of pleasure.


In communities familiar with Mennonite cookbooks, it would not be surprising to encounter a conversation on the merits, say, of a recipe for golden eggplant casserole or Indian roasted cauliflower. (1) Cooks of Mennonite recipes tell stories of the occasions when they have cooked a certain dish, and how it somehow always tastes better than the last time. Mennonite cookbooks are part of the fabric of Mennonite communities. This is certain. What is less easily discerned is the precise nature of that contribution--especially how the cookbooks work within and toward a particular relationship with food. In other words, what requires investigation are the arguments Mennonite cookbooks make regarding how we should interact with our food. This question is important for a number of reasons. It could help, for example, elucidate how Mennonite foodways shape and reshape Mennonite theology; or it may bring to life the connective role food plays among individuals within Mennonite communities. But this essay will focus on what Mennonite cookbooks say to us about justice--specifically, how Mennonite cookbooks inform our response to a world in which ideologies of food constantly destroy lives.

Concerns about food ideologies may be best understood in two categories: the global concern of how food should be distributed, and the ethical concern of how we as individuals should respond to the food we have. Mennonites tend to respond to the first category--the question of food distribution--with the religious formulation that Christian faith compels believers to help bring about God's just kingdom on earth. Enacting this means working to end poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth and food by, for example, supporting international Mennonite Central Committee (M.C.C.) personnel in efforts to clean water systems in Bangladesh, encouraging family planning in Zimbabwe, or removing excess salt from farmland in southern India. As the primary texts devoted to explaining food, several widely distributed Mennonite cookbooks have articulated compelling arguments on the question of food distribution--particularly how individual cooks should react to this global problem.

Left largely unexamined in these texts, however, is the second category of concerns, the question of how individuals should interact with food, especially within our North American context. Clearly, North American food patterns are not only unhealthy; they are also deadly. Thousands of young women, and increasingly men, battle potentially life-threatening eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, and millions of adults struggle with significant health problems related to obesity. But whereas Mennonite communities are quite explicit about addressing issues of food distribution, they are not nearly as vocal in regard to food ideologies that foster self-destructive eating. What might Mennonite cookbooks tell us about attitudes toward food, particularly North American ideologies of food?

Cookbooks are a form of text that has remained largely outside the purview of academic study. (2) Perhaps, as foodways scholar Anne L. Bower suggests, cookbooks have been understudied because they deal not with "the unchanging and eternal, the abstract and mental" but instead with "embodied, concrete, practical experience. …

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