Food & Writing: In this Issue

“I’m going to need some lunch before I can finish the introduction,” I say to my intern, Kate.

The Food Issue: An Introduction

“I’m going to need some lunch before I can finish the introduction,” I say to my intern, Kate.

I’ve been finalizing the food issue all morning, and I have just looked up at the clock. Almost 4pm.

“Nothing like editing a journal issue on food on an empty stomach,” she points out. “If you put that in your intro, you could get your readers ready for the upcoming humor issue. “

But an empty stomach isn’t quite accurate. A few hours earlier, Kate gave me a delectable lemon and blueberry muffin that has sustained me until now. She had baked it with her mother from a recipe clipped from a local paper years ago. A 4-H winner of a recipe, and they’d been making it ever since.

“I’ve got to have that recipe,” I say.

Food. Nurture. Relationship. Sustenance. Hospitality. Drudgery. Scarcity. Want. Hunger. Craving. Ingenuity. Making Do. Comfort. Adventure. Beauty. Creativity. Self-expression. Culture. Nutrition. Pleasure. Caring. Food is a subject that sustains us, links to the earth, the plant and animal kingdoms, and to each other. Food allows us to share cultures and traditions across borders, as in Naomi Shihab Nye’s memorable poem, Gate A-4, in which an act of mercy and translation ends up in the sharing of date sugar cookies amongst the diverse crowd waiting for a delayed flight. “I learned from my mother how to love/the living,” Julia Spicher Kasdorf writes in her much-loved poem, “What I Learned from My Mother.” This, after all, is the secret of peace. Loving the living. Food preparation has been traditionally—but not exclusively—the province of Mennonite women, a creative outlet in an often demanding and tedious round of chores. Sharing food involves everyone, and provides a means of nurturing relationships as well as crossing borders.

The diversity represented in this issue—from writers steeped in the local food movement in my hometown of Goshen, Indiana to those who have learned and shared cooking in Tanzania; from award-winning and best-selling authors to emerging poets and writers—testifies to food as a great connector and transmitter of relationships across cultures. The issue offers a variety of genres from memoir and reflective essays to poetry, a short story, and recipes. It also includes food for thought in a substantial summer reading feature, an interview with Jessica Penner by Julia Spicher Kasdorf, about her recent novel, Shaken in the Water.

In his In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan laments the absence of pleasure and the loss of real foods in American culture, but most Mennonites I know have not forgotten how to cook. Nor have they forgotten the pleasures of growing, sharing, preparing and preserving whole local foods, the “arc of a summer day,” or the stories that motivate us to take on the drudgery of harvest and transform it into love, sustenance, and beauty, as expressed in Rosanna Nafziger Henderson’s short essay, “The Drudgery of Cherry Pie.”

At least since Mary Emma Showalter’s now-classic The Mennonite Community Cookbook was published by Herald Press in 1950, with its distinctive illustrations by artist Naomi Nissley, Mennonites have solidly placed themselves on the map of food culture. More recently, the More-with-less Cookbook, Extending the Table, and Simply in Season from Herald Press (now MennoMedia) demonstrate how to live in a harmonious relationship with the earth’s resources while celebrating hospitality and local traditions from a global repertoire of places. These cookbooks may have done more to spread the gospel of peace than Harold S. Bender’s paradigm-shifting pamphlet, The Anabaptist Vision. My mother, Beulah Stauffer Hostetler, once told me that Bender, a scholar and college administrator, also enjoyed a good meal—was perhaps even an outstanding chef in his own right, if I'm not embroidering the memory.

Wholesome ingredients and stewardship of time are both time-honored Mennonite values relevant to the contemporary cook, as abundantly expressed in Phyllis Pellman Good’s Fix It and Forget It series, which has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide. The Daily Feast: Everyday Meals We Love to Share by Esther Rose Graber and daughters, also published by Good Books, offers the reader a glimpse into the lives and recipes of a talented and artistic family, inflected with international travel and the love of beauty and simplicity.

Rosanna Nafziger Henderson and Ken Albala’s culturally-oriented and highly readable The Lost Art of Real Cooking and The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home express the physical pleasures of preparing food close to the source and the way of living that these practices inspire—nostalgic in part, but also a healthy resistance to a life-style proscribed by post-industrial business and mass-marketed food products that would take the everyday person further and further from the sources of food and the pleasures of creative cooking.

Mennonite cooking not only reflects the agricultural background of the majority of North American Mennonites—a traditional cuisine in a constant state of renewal, as the recent Mennonite Girls Can Cook and Mennonite Girls Can Cook Celebrations attest—but also an exchange of hospitality across cultures and continents, as demonstrated by Annetta Miller. Her recent African Flavors: Recipes with Proverbs is a delightful compendium of user-friendly recipes with few measurements, interspersed with proverbs that express key African values of hospitality and reciprocity. Keith Miller’s short story, “Furlough,” highlights in vivid detail the ways in which these values are enacted cross-culturally for a missionary kid living between Africa and the USA.

Shirley Hershey Showalter has journeyed across intercultural borders in the US, from Lancaster County Farm girl to college professor, college president, and beyond. Her forthcoming memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World, expresses the grit and grace gleaned from such a crossing in the person of an ambitious, tenacious girl who wanted more than the farm could offer, but kept her relationship with the faith that nurtured her. "The Lunch Box Social" reveals the tension between her discovery of the power of the word and her attempt to use it in a social ritual based on the tradition of cooking to please a man.

Food is deep in the blood and culture of Mennonites. Without being ostentatious, Mennonite church potlucks are the most abundant I have ever experienced. Sometimes they can be competitive. But, on the other hand, as a busy professor I have learned that no one is going to shame me if I occasionally forget to bring something: I have only my own Mennonite guilt to deal with. Perhaps that is because I live in a college town in the heartland of America, where there are always plenty of leftovers. But it is also because Mennonites are a fundamentally gracious and generous people when it comes to food.

Today, the place in which I live, Goshen, Indiana, is enriched by the many farmers dedicated to sustainable agriculture, among them writers such as Ben Hartman and Elise Derstine, graduates of Mennonite colleges, who work the soil and pasture animals alongside the small percentage of Amish who still farm in Northern Indiana. Karen Yoder’s wry poems express the frugality and self-restraint that serves as a counterbalance to this abundance. Katie Boyts’s memoir of her Great Aunt Keturah’s love of lemon-flavored recipes shows the desire of a younger generation to create vital relationships with the past while living a contemporary life.

Food and writing are both forms of communion. Unlike the communion dreaded by Jeremy, the protagonist of Keith Miller’s “Furlough,” they do not require special dispensation or membership. Like partaking of Mama Mweba’s chai, sharing them affirms our basic membership in the human community.

I hope you enjoy this issue as much as I did assembling it, with the help of my intern Kate, and the generous offerings of these writers. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Kate for the muffin—as well as her invaluable assistance during a busy summer, her mother for the recipe, and the community of Mennonite cooks, farmers, writers, and other nurturers who ensure that the tradition of mutual aid continues in all of its creative and life-enhancing forms.

—Ann Hostetler, Editor

15 July 2013

Goshen, Indiana

About the Author

Ann Hostetler

Ann Hostetler is the editor of A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (Univ. of Iowa Press 2003) and author of two collections of poems, Empty Room with Light (Dreamseeker 2002) and Safehold (Dreamseeker 2017). Her poems and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies including The American Scholar, Poet Lore, The Valparaiso Poetry Review,Rhubarb Magazine, Testimonies and Tongue Screws: Poems, Stories, and Essays Inspired by the Martyr's Mirror, Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets (2010), The Mennonite Quarterly Review and PMLA . Professor Emerita of English at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, Hostetler is the web site editor of the Center for Mennonite Writing and co-editor of its Journal. She directed the 2022 Mennonite/s Writing conference at Goshen College.