Why do Mennonites eat watermelon and roll’kuaka? Where’d their recipe for varenikje come from? And what’s up with all that farmers’ sausage, anyways?
A new food history exhibit at the Mennonite Heritage Village Museum in Steinbach answers those questions and more.
Typical Mennonite foods like kielke (egg noodles, schmauntfat (white cream gravy) and/or pereschtje (meat-filled buns) are all part of a diet borrowed from other cultures, as much heavily influenced by 500 years of migration, as by what types of crops Mennonites grew or animals raised, according to Tastes in Transition, on display at the Gerhard Enns Gallery until early 2016.
Call it a planetary recipe swap lasting half a millennium — and it isn’t over yet.
“The key word here is transition. Mennonite food has changed,” says assistant curator Jessica McKague, who worked with senior curator Andrea Dyck to tell an intriguing story of the how the Mennonites’ diet, despite what most stereotypically think it is, is in fact widely diverse and always changing.
“Mennonites are a kind of a snowball of all the places they’ve been,” she says.
So is their food.
Telling the story
The Steinbach exhibit focuses on Manitoba’s Mennonites, telling a story of how foods like watermelon and knacksot (roasted sunflower seeds) and the Mennonite version of perogy (varenikje) entered their diet, thanks to influences from the Russian and Ukrainian neighbours they had. From Prussia, now Poland, Mennonites developed a taste for potatoes. And, hard as it is to believe, pie hasn’t always been for dessert in Mennonite homes, although foarma worscht (farmers’ sausage) arguably was.
“Pie started here,” says McKague. Mennonites’ love of things sweet and baked really picked up after arrival in North America and increased access to sugar.
Farmers’ sausage, on the other hand, has been eaten by Mennonites for as long as they’ve raised a few pigs, which is a very, very long time. The early-winter gathering of a half-dozen families around a grope (cauldron) for a schwienschlachte (hog butchering bee) provided the ingredients.
Yet even as some foods are instantly recognized as Mennonite, today a Mennonite meal is just as likely to include burrito and refried bean, thanks to time Mennonites spent in countries like Mexico and Paraguay and learning to cook from their Spanish neighbours in other Latin and South American countries.
And with a bigger membership in Mennonite churches now found on the continents of Africa and Asia than all of Canada, Europe and the U.S. combined, Mennonite food is going through another transformation.
“They’re not eating perogies and farmers’ sausage,” said McKague. “They’re eating their cultural foods and those cultural foods have been mixed in with the Mennonite faith. It’s a brand new world that’s happening.”
The exhibit looks at the Mennonite menu from other perspectives. Through their five-century history, Mennonites have lived through times of wealth and freedom, repression and deprivation, making their foods symbolic of both their good times and the very bad. Their faith, and experience of scarcity and new environmental conditions shaped their diet too.
Adapting to a new climate and country is reflected in the ways some foods are prepared. Mennonites couldn’t grow Morello cherries and Damson plums for their signature plumamoos (fruit soup) after arrival in Manitoba; chokecherries and black currents had to suffice.
The Mennonite way of life here began to shift again in the late 20th century too, as many Mennonites left the farm for urban life, buying food in stores and eating in restaurants. That’s resulted in some of the more labour-intensive dishes like varenikje or pereschtje (meat-filled buns) becoming less the mainstays they once were. It’s also meant sharing foarma worscht with others. After the Penner Food store in Winnipeg stocked farmers’ sausage in 1981, the exhibit notes, other supermarket chains followed, spreading the popularity of the sausage well beyond Mennonites tables.
Yet, even as we continue to recognize a range of foods identifiable and distinctly Mennonite, McKague says it’s hoped visitors will go away impressed by just how much Mennonite food has changed, and will continue to change. Mennonite food is an “unfolding story,” says McKague.
“I hope that people’s notions of Mennonite food are challenged and expanded,” she said.