Thursday, September 24, 2015

Mennonite soul food -- fit for the gods

In my childhood home food was always something more than nutrition.  It was the heart of our home. We began the day with breakfast.  Dad had left earlier to tend to the store so Mother read us children a short story from Egermeier’s German Bible storybook.  Then she prayed.  We children glitched over our table prayers, eager to get to the food, but she spoke slowly, deliberately, as if she was actually speaking to someone.

It took many years for me to realize that the war years in Russia followed by anarchy, famine, and flight to Canada were still vivid in her memory, less than decade behind her.  She had known real hunger, so food was something to be thankful for, always. Too many people did not have enough. You always prepared and ate food to avoid waste. Waste was wrong. 

Dinner, our noon meal, was the main meal of the day; Mother spent time preparing it.  It was a coming together. We children rushed home from school and Dad joined us, often with stories about what had happened in the store that morning. Sharing food and stories forged family ties.  This small group of people around the oilcloth-covered table belonged together. And eating together made the bonds strong.  I will never forget the joy of knowing a  large pot of chocolate pudding  made with whole milk was nestling in a snowbank until we were ready to eat it – with real whipped cream. 

Supper was always a simple affair, later on the responsibility of us girls:  fried potatoes with eggs, boiled eggs, peanut butter sandwiches and milk,  fresh vegetables from the garden in summer, leftovers from noon. Mother had done her share of food preparation for the noon meal. 

Factory-produced snacks were  few  because they were out of our budget. After school I rushed home to be the first to grab the leftovers of the morning’s porridge Mother set aside for me.  How can I explain how good these crusty scrapings of oatmeal tasted. In summer, if we were hungry between meals,  we pulled up new carrots in the garden, dusted them off on a shirt-sleeve and ate them. In the evening we found our way down the rickety steps into the dark cellar with its dirt floor to pick an apple from the box. Sometimes a between-meals snack was home-made bread and jam  while wishing it was store-bought sliced bread.

Meals changed with the days of the week, seasons of the year, and in time, with the culture in which they were a part of.   Wash-day we often had bean soup, easy to prepare. Saturdays, at noon, we had pancakes, which could be made one at a time as we girls ate and then went to the store to allow Dad to come home to eat. Food for Sunday, day of rest, was always prepared on Saturday. We learned to expect these rhythms to our food and meals and  to accept them as part of the natural flow of life.

Mother showed her love and expressed her creativity with her cooking and baking. A meal was always a gift to those who shared her table.  It was always her food (“They sure liked my crumb cake”). Women had little to do with the public world so she shone in this private one.  I recall my brother standing on the woodpile and shouting to the world, “My mother is a Royal cook,” both in reference to her use of Royal yeast and her skills as queen of Mennonite cuisine.  She relished seeing family and guests enjoy her wonderfully light rolls.  

When I was working on my book My Emigrant Father I  struggled how to  include this reverence and joy of Mennonite food into the book, for it played an important role in my parents’ early upbringing in Ukraine and mine in Canada. It became a major concern when famine conquered the land.  So I added  a recipe to each chapter  of some significant Low German  food I had mentioned and explained how it was used in early times, how it had changed with the culture, and, especially, how cooking in early homes was always eye-measured and taste-tasted.  Measuring cups and spoons and intricate recipes were not needed. You cooked with the heart, not the mind. This was Mennonite soul food, not a scientifically concocted dish.

In good times the Mennonites enjoyed  abundance,  especially foods made with grains,  eggs, cream and fruit from their orchards.  Many dishes were borrowed from the neighboring Russian people.  During the famine, people resorted to Water Soup, which was just that – water with whatever greens they could glean from gardens and fields. Sometimes there was very little.  Some  households made “beggar’s gravy”  with only cream or milk and onions when meat was unavailable. 

Later on, after Mother could read English and had mingled with neighbors,  her cooking repertoire enlarged to include such foods as a glorious Lord Baltimore cake and  lofty Angel Food cake. I don’t think she ever made a casserole.  Something in a combination of foods was beneath her.

I  hope that readers of  my father's story, My Emigrant Father (Kindred Productions),  will enjoy the glory of  Low German soul food  as I explain how it was  eaten in Russia, in my early home, and later on in my own home. Shipping is from Winnipeg or Kansas. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Thinking together with Methuselah on my 91st birthday

On September 15 I turned 91, almost astonishing myself.  I ponder at what I have learned since I set aside my teaching assignment. Methuselah’s thoughts on his 969th birthday were probably more profound, but here are a few of  mine: 

1.     Life insurance companies want nothing to do with anyone over age 85; in fact, they refuse to accept applications after that age. On the other hand, drug companies relish the thought that I may be living on and on, maybe longer than Methuselah. They want my business.

2.     By the time I am gone the younger generations will no longer know how to converse with one another.  Their hands are always busy with some electronic device but their tongues are mute.  I recall visiting with a family group about ten years ago. I had flown to the site to be with them, but they sat in the living room, each busy  their device. I wondered why I had come. And if, in the future, colleges will be offering courses in “Learning to converse.” I wonder also if cursive writing is really a thing of the past and people will scramble to find someone to read a handwritten letter as if it was a foreign language.  

3.     At my age you get thrown into one general category: old, yet my only resemblance to my-age people is that we have experienced more and have more physical problems than a younger group. We’re very different though we’re treated like a box of factory-cut soda crackers, same size, same shape, same taste. I want to rebel.

4.     We are encouraged to get out more, to enjoy our friends, yet most of our friends are gone. Many days when I check the obituaries, I find the name of another one.  Life gets thin when it comes to friends at this time of life and getting out becomes more difficult.

5.     Talk about death and dying is uncomfortable for many people, yet it is hard for me to dismiss that I have only limited years ahead. I’ve lived a long life, a good life.  Why? The Old Testament saints honored their fathers and mothers wanted a long life to have more years to worship God, their maker and redeemer. I’d like to talk more openly about death and dying but I get few takers. People discuss wills and estates, medical problems, and housing issues, but not death, a four-letter word with five letters. 

6.     Old people spend a lot of time waiting, waiting on God, waiting for someone to take us places we’d rather not go to and those we would. Little old ladies, in particular, because there’s more of them than old men, do a lot of waiting on benches, on chairs, on fancy walkers, alongside walls, in medical offices. But I find that’s the time for watching people. 

7.     Things that clutter my shelves and fill my closets have less importance at this time in life than they did when I was collecting them. It’s just stuff. It’s easier to give away.  Television programs seem more vapid. I get weary with advertisers’ attempts to persuade me to buy; organizations, including church bodies to give to attend. They use the same slick, glossy marketing  tactics. When they all begin  to look alike it is easy to disregard them. Call it overkill, maybe compassion fatigue. 

8.     I tell myself it is still important to have goals, even if only small ones, in order to hang onto life even though I am no longer  caught up in the mainstream of life, but standing on a mountaintop looking  back, as life as  a whole--the valleys,  steep climbs, hairpin turns, and wonderful green plateaus. And recognizing there is still a distance to climb. 

9.     I need to be reminded regularly that God is where I am, in my apartment, in my smaller circle of friends, in my narrower range of activities. Yet it is hard to find someone to share my spiritual discoveries about how God relates to us would-be Methuselahs, small as they may be.

10.  It takes courage to grow old, to be brave enough to accept a flawed world with its excessive violence, unrest, and loss of a moral compass, yet cling to ideals and hang onto an inner core of beliefs and values. It is important to hang onto faith, to trust, and not be afraid.

I am grateful to God for giving me a good long life, and though I ask, “Why grow old?” the alternative is not as inviting – not yet.  If I live many more years, I’ll appeal to Methuselah for advice.  He probably had more to say.  In a few years, I will also.  So I keep trucking.