Mennonite Cookbooks and the Pleasure of Habit
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. 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. 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.” Bower’s explanation suggests a misconception among scholars-namely, that cookbooks do not have complexity worth interpreting. To the contrary, I have found them to offer rich and nuanced insights into cultural assumptions, filled not only with information regarding meal preparation but also with sophisticated theories on how to live. This paper will examine three M.C.C. cookbooks-More-with-Less, Extending the Table and Simply in Season-to shed light on their implicit theories of eating. I begin by looking at how More-with-Less critiques conventional food practices and thus informs its successors. Next, drawing on literary theorist and cultural critic Eve Sedgwick’s writing on addiction to provide depth to American ideologies of food, I elucidate how More-with-Less rejects these ideologies through habit. Finally, after using the work of Sedgwick and William James to flesh out the concept of habit, I explore the second and third cookbooks to show that, while the framework of habit is useful, it does not explain all the complexities in these texts. In fact, what the concept of habit often misses are the personal relationships to food-say, golden eggplant casserole-that people develop over time.
A CRITIQUE OF OVERCONSUMPTION
“Mennonites are widely recognized as good cooks. But Mennonites are also a people who care about the world’s hungry.” With these two sentences, Doris Janzen Longacre opens the preface to More-with-Less, her 1976 Mennonite cookbook, and makes clear the general impetus behind the project. More-with-Less was the first of three cookbooks published by M.C.C. in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Given its impetus, concerns about social justice-poverty, globalization, the destruction of the environment-are, not surprisingly, pervasive. What is more surprising is that this cookbook, as well as its successors, weaves a cohesive alternative to food relationships promoted in America.
The bulk of More-with-Less is, understandably, recipes. But perhaps the most important writing comes in the first fifty-one pages, where the author establishes the motivation behind the book: cooking with the poor in mind. Longacre compiled the cookbook as a reaction to the world food crisis of the 1970s. She argues that, while there have always been hungry people in the world, the 1970s witnessed a new kind of poverty and hunger, where “more people on the planet, more floods, more droughts, and a larger affluent population demanding rich diets have driven world food reserves to a precarious low.” In 1974 the situation gave rise to the term “food crisis,” language which, though perhaps familiar now, rang a bell of warning as it emerged. As Longacre observes, “a crisis comes and goes. The hard facts give us no comfort, however, that this one will go away.” Longacre saw the beginning of an era of global poverty that would not easily subside, and thus requires our active efforts of remediation. But although the political and social context of this cookbook was the world food crisis, Longacre is just as intent that individual Americans change their eating habits, as much for their own good as for the good of others.
In the introduction to More-with-Less, Mary Emma Showalter Eby echoes Longacre’s belief that “someone, somehow must prod us over-fed North Americans to do something about our over-abundance in relation to the world food crisis.” While the coverage of the crisis located it far from suburban homes in North America, both Longacre and Eby insist that middle-class Americans can act productively to alleviate global hunger, but to do so Americans would have to first confront their own problematic relationship to food. An introductory poem by Martin Penner encompasses these two complementary goals. Assuming God’s perspective, Penner writes:
You have heard it said
that because of hunger in Third World countries
we should not overeat.
But I say unto you
that the abuse of your body, mind, and soul
is never justified.
Using the language of the Sermon on the Mount, Penner’s figure of God begins with what may be called a traditionally Anabaptist line of reasoning: do not act in ways that injure the downtrodden. With the turn “But I say unto you,” Penner offers a new line of reasoning-do not act in ways that abuse body, mind or soul. The poem reminds readers of the cookbook’s social justice orientations; but it also insists that More-with-Less will try to establish more sacred individual eating patterns.
With More-with-Less Longacre hoped to teach cooks how to create food with justice in mind: first as a response to the world food crisis, and second as a reaction to unethical and unhealthy food patterns in North America. Her first step toward accomplishing these goals was to help American eaters become aware of how their seemingly normal food patterns fuel a food crisis at home and abroad.
In the section aptly titled “Less with More,” Longacre describes the everyday eating routines against which she is reacting. Common to all the routines is overconsumption. “The average North American,” she tells us, “uses five times as much grain per person yearly as does one of the two billion persons living in poor countries.” Along with grain, “we are overspending money. We are overeating calories, protein, fats, sugar, superprocessed foods. We are overcomplicating our lives.” Clearly, she believes North Americans must stop accumulating and consuming so many food products.
Moreover, More-with-Less makes plain that overconsumption is not simply a moral failure of individuals buying surplus food, but is also an almost inevitable consequence of the policies of the food industry. Because of improvements in food production methods, such as “improved land and labor productivity, higher crop yields, better fertilizers, and more efficient food-processing methods,” Longacre argues that food prices should be lower and nutrition standards higher. But as consumers in a “food-processing system that conditions us to eat fewer real foods,” Americans actually are spending more money for lower quality food. “Because they are cheap, readily available, and can be turned into all kinds of attractive snacks, the food industry produces them. Because they are quick and convenient, we eat them” 
Longacre makes clear that these food processing methods flourish in North America thanks largely to advertising. Advertising, she argues, is particularly effective with children, teaching them at a very young age to consume certain products-often unhealthy, processed foods. Citing a 1972 study done at Columbia University, Longacre notes that “breakfast cereals, cookies, candy, gum, snacks, tarts and frozen waffles make up about two thirds of the televised food advertising directed at children.” Since consuming extra resources means less for someone else, the dietary practices instilled in children eventually result in a population that is both unhealthy and unjust. Ethical consumers will not only fight the urge to buy extra food, but will also learn how to escape the grasp of advertising.
While Longacre is interested in the facts of the world food crisis and the reality of overconsumption, the subtext of the cookbook examines how individuals are affected by the acts that perpetuate the crisis. She introduces the “Less with More” chapter by commenting that “cutting back sounds like a dismal prospect. ‘Let’s splurge, just this once,’ appeals more to North American ears.” The North American love of splurging-of knowingly buying and eating beyond need-is encouraged by the enabling excuse of “just this once.” The phrase, in effect, functions like an addict’s denial. Thus, as Longacre describes it, Americans’ relationship to food may well spiral out of control. Later in the book she writes, “when we invest too much in feeding ourselves, and want too much in return, something goes wrong.” Underneath the practical concerns of eating too much food, More-with-Less worries that North Americans have a spiritually and physically compromising bond with food, one that borders on compulsion or even addiction.
THE PARADIGM OF FREE WILL AND COMPULSION
Charting the course of “addiction” in American terminology, cultural theorist Eve Sedgwick argues that its use is tied to changing conceptions of the self. In her book Tendencies, Sedgwick suggests that, over the course of the nineteenth century, a conception of “the addict” replaced a conception of acts. Writing about opium use in the early nineteenth century, she observes that “for many [people who took it], opium use was functional as a form of control . . . for some it may have been a source of pleasure-if a vice, then a commonplace one. For all of them, it was a behavior among other behaviors.” Sedgwick does not argue that opium use in the past was unharmful. Rather, her point is that opium use was a behavior or an act, just as eating, sleeping and working were acts. Toward the end of nineteenth century, as culture was increasingly governed by a “pervasive medical-juridical authority,” a set of acts became a kind of person, and “opium use” was replaced by the taxonomy of the “addict.”
Adoption of the term “addict” indicated a changed focus in conceptions of substance use and abuse. When drug use is articulated as an act, and repeated drug use as a series of acts, the focus remains on the drug itself. In turn, repeated use and resulting strange behavior occur because of the drug. But use of the term “addict” locates the drug abuse in the drug user more than in the drug itself. One consequence of this change, Sedgwick argues, is that the drug user is inevitably “propelled into a narrative of inexorable decline and fatality, from which she cannot disimplicate herself.” When a person is articulated as an addict, her drug use becomes fundamental to her identity, something she can never escape. Using the term “addict” therefore completely alters the conception of drug users. While this shift may seem logical in respect to extremely physically addictive drugs such as heroin or methamphetamine, use of this term in its further developments during the twentieth century appears much stranger, as addiction to almost any substance became conceivable-or even to no substance at all.
When the word “addiction” first came into use, it indicated a relationship of need with a foreign substance-a substance that does not belong in the body, such as the drugs noted above. But during the twentieth century, the scope of addiction broadened to encompass any substance, foreign or not, including food. As a result, Sedgwick notes, Overeaters Anonymous is now “an explicit analogue to Alcoholics Anonymous.” Food-as that which we must ingest in order to live-is hardly a foreign substance; so if food can be addictive, anything can be.
The culmination of this semantic shift comes when addiction no longer needs an object (or substance) at all. Thus, toward the end of the twentieth century, the term “addiction” began to apply not only to relationships with substances, but also to actions. Words like shopaholics, workaholics, and exercise addicts entered our vocabulary. These new addictions are drastically different from substance abuse, in that they involve no stable addictive substance at all. When addiction encompasses actions, “then the locus of addictiveness cannot be the substance itself and can scarcely even be the body itself, but must be some overarching abstraction that governs the narrative relations between them.” Perhaps, Sedgwick offers, we can think of this abstraction as free will.
At the end of the nineteenth century, William James argued that a healthy free will is one in which impulses do not take over and where abnormal impulses are repressed. The concept of free will appears to be empowering, as it gives any person the ability to choose healthy actions and ignore unhealthy (or in James’s parlance, abnormal) ones. But for addicts it is not at all empowering, since by definition, an addict cannot choose to act otherwise. Thus addicts are rendered as individuals with fundamentally flawed wills, or with no wills at all. If free will is the perfection we strive for, addiction necessarily destroys that perfection.
This paradigm of free will and addiction works hand-in-hand with our consumer society, where addiction is more helpfully called compulsion. Consumer capitalism’s main rallying cry is freedom of choice. Yet, it is precisely this freedom that necessitates advertising that encourages compulsion and even, at times, mocks choice. The Marlboro Man, for example, is a symbol of freedom. As a cowboy he is free to ride anywhere, to wake and sleep when he pleases, and, implicitly, to smoke (if he chooses) whatever cigarettes he desires. But by representing freedom of choice, Phillip Morris taunts smokers, reminding them that, in our culture of free will, their compulsion to smoke has become their own responsibility. They could have chosen differently. At the same time, though, smokers may feel their free will deteriorate in the face of addiction. They are in a double bind, in which as addicts they lose the empowering force of free will, while as free choosers they lose the potentially curing power of admitting their addiction. Additionally, the advertisement paradoxically uses a representation of freedom to tell smokers that they do not have a choice in what product to buy: they must buy this one. While this example may seem to imply that this double bind pertains only to physically addictive substances, in fact, advertisers of every product mobilize the paradigm of free will and compulsion to their benefit.
Nowhere is this paradigm more prevalent than in our contemporary ideologies of food. Cultural critic Susan Bordo deftly articulates this point in her reading of slender bodies in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Concerned, like Sedgwick, with the concept of addiction, Bordo finds that in contrast to early nineteenth-century American ideologies that approvingly associated body fat with wealth, by the end of the century “excess body weight came to be seen as reflecting moral or personal inadequacy, or lack of will.” If slender bodies indicate willpower, then overeating reveals a person ruled by compulsions and bulges of fat was evidence of “uncontained desire, unrestrained hunger, uncontrolled impulse.” Overeating is thus articulated as lack of will, as suggested by the title of Alison Jenkins’s article, “Consumed by an Addiction.” Jenkins’s title inverts our normal sense of the relationship between people and food, where people consume and control food. In food addiction, she argues, food consumes and controls people. If anorexia represents the most extreme version of the free will side of the paradigm (where free will becomes a compulsion), overeating represents the extreme version of compulsion. Thus, our relationship with food, as played out in the body, signifies either our free will or our capitulation to compulsion.
Food advertisements use the paradigm of free will and compulsion with great success. In fact, they capitalize on this food ideology by praising consumers’ free choice and, moments later, declaring that choice already gone. Consider, for example, a 1984 Jell-O advertisement depicting only a large bowl of sugar-free Jell-O. The small print at the bottom states that the gelatin has only eight calories per serving, which means that a weight-conscious consumer could feel good about eating it. But the large print stretched across the top reads, “Give in to the taste,” a pronounced use of the language of compulsion. Thus, even as the advertisement tells consumers that they have the freedom to choose a gelatin that, like this one, is low on calories, it also tells consumers that they are buying this gelatin, not out of choice, but out of compulsion. Even while the advertisement acknowledges a consumer’s free will, it vitiates that will, insisting that all a consumer really has is compulsion. And it makes compulsion normative-to have taste is to be open to compulsion. This spiral from free will to compulsion feels impossible to escape. But both Sedgwick and Longacre suggest that there is another option.
Sedgwick’s alternative to the paradigm of free will and compulsion-namely, the idea of habit-begins, as she writes, with “one step to the side” of contemporary food ideologies. Unlike free will and compulsion, the philosophical tradition of habit looks not at absolutes but at the relationships among the self, its surroundings, and its repeated actions. In a model of one kind of habit formation, these repeated actions, while instantiated with a willful decision, eventually become automatic, making subsequent actions born neither of compulsion nor of decision. For instance, to teach myself to get up at seven o’clock in the morning, I first use my will to force myself to get up; but eventually I do so merely through habit-through a repeated action that is beyond, or no longer requires, my will. This is neither free will nor compulsion for two reasons. First, these actions are not attributable to an intrinsic part of the self: if I do not usually arise at seven it is not because I have a flawed will or no self-control, but because it is not yet my habit. Second, while habitual actions begin with a willful decision, they are ultimately learned, will-less and automatic. For example, while habit alone cannot rid tobacco of its physically addictive properties, smokers can sidestep the question of a flawed will by naming their smoking a habit. In our culture, steeped in the rhetoric of free will and compulsion, everyone’s will inevitably is proven flawed, and thus the notion of habit may provide some relief.
HABIT IN MORE-WITH-LESS
In the light of Sedgwick’s formulations, we may now understand better Longacre in More-with-Less as inviting readers to step out of the paradigm of free will and compulsion and turn instead to habit. Most cookbooks are formulaic in nature, with their step-by-step instructions. But most cookbooks are not used formulaically. In other words, while the cooking process is formulaic, the cookbooks themselves are used rather unsystematically, consulted only when the cook wants to make a certain meal for dinner. More-with-Less, by contrast, presents a formula of sorts for the entirety of the reader’s cooking and eating practices. Whereas a regular cookbook, used unsystematically, offers ways to satisfy compulsion-providing, for instance, a particular dish one desires-More-with-Less suggests that recipes do more than satisfy cravings; it claims that the habit of eating correctly can also alleviate injustices like poverty.
Following the section “Less with More” are some thirty pages detailing how to create a healthy and socially just diet. In the section “Building a Simpler Diet,” for example, Longacre explains in detail not only what to eat but how to eat it to maximize nutritional value. She emphasizes how combining complementary plant proteins maximizes their efficiency and thus lowers our need for meat proteins. Consuming less meat in turn means consuming less fat and less of the world’s grain (used to feed animals), making a meal healthier and more just.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the cookbook is that the author includes not only information-say, on how proteins work-but also provides charts that communicate the most effective combinations of foods, and sample menus to show how to put these combinations into use. One breakfast she suggests consists of oatmeal and milk complemented with whole grain toast. The grains help the body to absorb milk proteins. For dinner the next day, she recommends lentil casserole, broccoli, fruit and a whole grain muffin. The grains in the muffin complement the proteins in the lentils. While diners are not likely to restrict their diets to Longacre’s sample meal plans (e.g., eating lentil casserole three times a week!), a cook could begin by meticulously and actively using her suggestions, and then slowly develop a habit for combining complementary foods in order to take full advantage of non-meat proteins. Over time such choices may become second nature-when the cook decides to make lentils he will automatically also prepare grains. Longacre hopes to teach such new cooking habits that will work against unequal distribution of resources around the world: less beef means more grain and, therefore, more food to go around. At the same time, she gives North Americans an alternative to the deadly paradigm of free will and compulsion: food does not have to be an addiction, but rather a habit with positive ethical and spiritual effects.
Sedgwick, like Longacre, hopes that habit can be a feasible alternative to an ideology based on free will and compulsion. But while More-with-Less has a moral and theological basis, Sedgwick rejects morally based habits. There are, she claims, two potential problems with moralized habit. First, Sedgwick insists, such a conception of habit could simply reinstate the abstraction of free will, this time not in the language of consumer capitalism but instead in that of religion or ethics. The second is evident in William James’s praise of habit as “the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent . . . what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor.” Habits based on moral imperatives can make people comfortable with the status quo, which can help to preserve social inequalities. Expressing unease with this aspect of habit, literary scholar Rene Tursi writes that, “from the realm of the personal to the political, the consequences of habit’s ease toward a customary passivity have never been slight.”
But are ethically motivated habits necessarily subject to these problems? In the preface to More-with-Less, Longacre explains that, while “it may not be within our capacity to effect an answer [to food shortages] . . . it is within our capacity to search for a faithful response.” Longacre suggests here something that could make habits not only useful, but also necessary is a pursuit of social justice. Instead of offering a complete answer (i.e., an abstract idea) to the food crisis, she gives us actions. Habits, then, become more morally productive than abstract beliefs. Moreover, despite his attachments to the “fly-wheel of society,” James’s account of habit includes morally driven action that is not static, but changes in light of injustice caused by the status quo. In Psychology: A Briefer Course, James offers a definition of habit that allows for deep moral feeling, and even suggests that habit is necessary for moral feeling. James sees habit as creating an environment necessary for deep creative and moral thought, in part because it relieves the mind of the stress of new encounters. “If practice did not make perfect,” James writes, “nor habit economize the expense of nervous and muscular energy, [one] would be in a sorry plight.” Not only would a person without habit be physically exhausted, but she would also be emotionally drained from the disorientation caused by continually experiencing things anew. Tursi calls this benefit of habit a “continuing answering trust that habit can coax from our thoughts,” and it is only in this comfort that “thinking becomes believing and gives our ideas their meaningfulness and profound moral potency.” For example, a person first adopting Longacre’s suggested habit of using complementary proteins will initially be absorbed in the new and baffling process of combining proteins, not to mention the task of following the recipes. When this becomes habitual, though, when one stops fretting about what to serve with lentils and how to put together the casserole, then the mind is free to marvel at the justice implications of eating more lentils and less beef. In James’s account habit is not only necessary to moral thought; habit also produces it.
HABIT AND PLEASURE
Habit is a very compelling model for the moral program behind More-with-Less. But the framework of habit does not seem to be as integral to the subsequent two cookbooks that have also been formative to Mennonite eating practices. Neither cookbook lays out habits of eating in the schematic way of More-with-Less. Indeed, one could argue that these two cookbooks reveal a limitation of More-with-Less and of the concept of habit, which is that the routine nature of habitual actions makes pleasure impossible. Or, one could just as easily suggest that Extending the Table and Simply in Season veer toward decadence-prioritizing the sensuality of food over social justice. But I propose that the three cookbooks in fact do regard pleasure, albeit somewhat counterintuitively, as a component of habit.
We often think of pleasure-and of aesthetic pleasure in particular-as a sensation requiring a non-automatic relation to the world; the aesthetic response usually involves a hyper-awareness to the sensory details around us, which the automatism of habit would seem to make impossible. Pleasure, moreover, is concrete and bodily. Thus, if, as Marcel Proust suggests, habit is analogous to having another person (e.g., a servant) complete your tasks, then habit may destroy this aspect of pleasure as well.
Flipping through More-with-Less, one may at first suspect that the habits this text seeks to engender kill pleasure. However, More-with-Less is definitely not averse to pleasure. Longacre insists in the introduction that her goal is to provide a way of cooking that is both ethical and results in tasty food. And the recipes are often quite delicious. Longacre also captures some of the pleasure of cooking when she invites cooks to share their moments of joy in everyday tasks. Granted, most of these moments are still quite distanced from enjoyment, such as this advice: “Make hot dog buns from unsliced bread. Cut thick slices of bread, cut each slice in half, and make a slit for the hot dog.” But occasionally these quotations do express a sense of joy, such as this one that begins, “I am sharing some of the fun and pleasure of experimenting in the kitchen cooking whole kernel wheat.” We begin to get a glimmer of the delight that may come to accompany daily tasks: the feeling of warmth in the kitchen; the smell of wheat; the fragmentation of the chaff. But these examples aside, More-with-Less thrives as a practical text, leaving much of the aesthetic enchantment, perhaps, to a time after the meal has been cooked and the cookbook has been put away. More-with-Less does not explicitly advocate an aesthetic of pleasure in relation to food. But if we view this cookbook along with its successors as a whole, we see a movement toward the celebration of pleasure.
Extending the Table is the second of the three M.C.C. cookbooks, compiled by Joetta Handrich Schlabach. The subtitle of the cookbook, A World Community Cookbook, gestures toward the imperative behind the text. Published in 1991, Extending the Table is an attempt to react justly to the phenomenon of globalization through a focus on food. Instead of trying to create a global marketplace, it seeks to build a global community. In the foreword, Paul Longacre (Doris Longacre’s husband) tells a story about Salustiano Lopez, a Toba Indian church leader in Argentina. When asked how he would relate the Gospel to non-Christian, indigenous people, Lopez responded that he would “go and eat their food.” Eating is a way to connect respectfully and sympathetically with other people. Schlabach writes, “I believe the experience of preparing new foods and meeting people through stories can broaden our understanding of other people and their problems and of our own selves.” Reacting against the effect of globalization that has turned far-away people into cheap labor, Schlabach encourages cooks to try to connect with people around the world in a much more intimate way, through food. While Matthew Bailey-Dick warns that Extending the Table could easily become another way for North Americans to co-opt “exotic” cultures-a reading to which I am sympathetic-the cookbook nonetheless succeeds at reorienting globalization toward the ethical imperative of connecting with people. To be sure, it does not mobilize habit as aggressively as More-with-Less. Instead, it focuses on food, and it gains from this shift in perspective the surprise that automation threatens to destroy.
The vast majority of the stories and recipes in Extending the Table are from outside North America. Thus, they often use ingredients and produce flavors that may startle taste buds. For example, Curried Potatoes, a recipe from India, calls for ghee (clarified butter), ginger, cumin, turmeric, red pepper and cilantro. While readers may be familiar with Indian dishes, it is hard to imagine that anyone could be familiar with the local cuisine of each of the more than 100 countries included. A cook is guaranteed some new tastes. And, indeed, offering unfamiliar tastes is integral to the ethic of the book. Presenting itself as a way to get to know non-North American cultures and eating patterns, it must necessarily contain unknown foods. These unfamiliar foods can pull people out of their routine, automatic eating patterns, thereby correcting a potential limitation of More-with-Less.
The third M.C.C. cookbook builds on the precedent of the second by adding the additional pleasure of visual aesthetics. Simply in Season was compiled by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert and published in 2005. It offers a response to large agro-businesses by promoting the eating of locally grown foods, a growing trend in ethical eating. Following this imperative, the cookbook is organized by season, so that, for example, the “Fall” section offers recipes that use produce available in North America during that time. Additionally, each seasonal section has differently themed anecdotes and quotations sprinkled throughout. “Spring” looks at “the environmental impact of modern agriculture,” “Winter” at “economic factors of food,” and so forth. Like Extending the Table, this cookbook deals creatively with issues of social justice and incorporates its ethical foundations into its structure. It encourages readers to develop the habit of eating locally, although it is no match for More-with-Less in the rigor or volume of advice on how to build good eating patterns. Instead, of all the three books, Simply in Season most brazenly celebrates the pleasure of food-so much so that it may cause one to wonder if it is weakening the call for justice (as enacted through Longacre’s emphasis on habit) in favor of enjoyment.
Simply in Season is aesthetically luxurious. The front cover is a glossy deep green with layered horizontal photographs of food representing different seasons. Lines of asparagus sit atop glistening raspberries, vibrant orange pumpkins and full, round turnips. Between the photographs, written as if in verse, is the subtitle to the book: “Recipes That Celebrate / Fresh, Local Foods / in the Spirit of More-with-Less.” The line breaks at “celebrate” and “foods,” sandwiched between the photographs, encourage a reader to indeed celebrate and revel in these foods and others. This aesthetic continues throughout the book. Seasons are indicated by colors along the side of the page, so that the closed book shows swathes of green, red, orange and purple. Also, each section begins with a large photograph of a food available in that season. All the photographs are shot close enough to reveal not just the color of the food, but intricate details and textures. This text clearly regards pleasure as one of its foremost goals, a priority unique to the group of three M.C.C. cookbooks.
Each of the cookbooks speaks to a different element of a person’s relationship with food, and each builds on and transforms the previous text. First, More-with-Less develops the ethic of habits. Then, Extending the Table introduces new tastes, rejecting the idea that habit must be automatic. Finally, Simply in Season celebrates the pleasure of promoting local foods. In its simplest form, this progression moves away from habit and toward pleasure. This schema, however, is too limiting. Instead, one might conceive of the relation of the books as a kind of trilogy. The two later cookbooks do not need the rigor of the first because the first provides an assumed foundation. The last book uses the sensuality of local food as a response to the injustices of agro-businesses. This trilogy structure still suggests, though, that for pleasure to be possible in Simply in Season, habit has to be abandoned because of its rigidity. Upon closer examination, however, the three cookbooks never regard habit as static, but rather flexible, often providing room for pleasure.
The fluidity of habit first shows up in a willingness to alter recipes. All three cookbooks insist that recipes are not sets of rules but simply guidelines. And in each, play in cooking is part of the moral imperative. In More-with-Less, Longacre gleefully admits, “I have trouble following a recipe exactly. I am a chronic recipe improver. But this is what makes cooking a joy!” Often the improvisation comes to Longacre based on what she has in her kitchen: “Substituting what I have on hand for a missing ingredient not only is more economical, but far more creative than running to the store.” Similarly, Schlabach, writing to the cooks, encourages them to “take liberties as you cook, allow the stories to touch you as you read, and joyfully extend the table as you eat.” Finally, Lind and Hockman-Wert insist that “part of the fun of cooking with the seasons is learning to use what’s locally available, and often that means taking recipes as starting points: a theme on which to playfully improvise rather than a blueprint to follow precisely.” Unlike James’s “flywheel,” these cookbooks allow habit to change when necessary-both to improve taste and to encourage justice. While habit appears automatic, recipes should be used playfully, not automatically. And this play is fun, creative and pleasurable.
The playfulness attending the recipes in these cookbooks suggests that pleasure may, in fact, be a necessary component of habit. Tursi, for example, insists that habit for William James is not automatic and conservative but progressive and creative:
throughout all its shadings of sense, imitation, and import, habit continually makes its own kind of poetry for James. He speaks, for instance, of those countless experiences we recognize as familiar, habit’s strongest quality, and laments that we have only one phrase-“sense of familiarity”-for all its gradations. Often a tune or a flavor will carry this “inarticulate feeling” of recognition so deep into our consciousness “that we are fairly shaken by its mysterious emotional power.”
Although we tend to believe that for something to shake our senses, to startle us and to move us, it must be something completely new, James pushes us, Tulsi says, to think of the familiar as just as capable of prompting acute sensory awareness and depth of feeling. Those who have attended church hymn sings once a month for thirty years will understand how it is possible that an old routine-sitting in a pew, opening a worn blue hymnal to number 580, singing the first lines by memory-can every time be a startling, moving experience. The three M.C.C. cookbooks argue that similar experiences can happen in our interactions with food-indeed, that they should happen. To understand how our food patterns affect others, to experience other peoples through food, to value limiting variety to what is seasonal, we must be more aware of our food.
In a society in which free will is continually lauded as the path to pleasure, and in which that free will is simultaneously dismembered by the specter of compulsion, opting for habit is surely radical. But more radical than that is to suggest that pleasure is inherent in and necessary to habit. Taken together, the three M.C.C. cookbooks approach this radicalness: More-with-Less reveals the social justice of moving outside the paradigm of free will and compulsion and into a practice of habit; Extending the Table revives sensory experience; and Simply in Season shows the moral imperative of allowing habit, each day, to unfurl the pleasure of the familiar.
[*] Rebekah Trollinger is a Ph.D. student in American literature at Indiana University.
1. Doris Janzen Longacre, More-with-Less Cookbook (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1976), 228. Joetta Handrich Schlabach, Extending the Table . . . a World Community Cookbook (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1991), 124.
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. There is a large gap in Mennonite studies regarding Mennonite cookbooks or Mennonite foodways. Matthew Bailey-Dick laments that “within the expanding discipline of Mennonite studies, few scholars have paid any attention to the cultural and religious importance of Mennonite cookbooks” and longs for “literature pertaining to the ways in which such things as cookbook publication . . . relate to the historical construction of Mennonite identity and theology.”-Bailey-Dick, “The Kitchenhood of all Believers: A Journey into the Discourse of Mennonite Cookbooks,” MQR 79 (Apr. 2005), 153-178.
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. Joetta Handrich Schlabach, Extending the Table . . . A World Community Cookbook (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1991) and Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert, Simply in Season: Recipes That Celebrate Fresh, Local Foods in the Spirit of More-with-Less (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2005).
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. An additional complication, as Sedgwick notes, is that the third quarter of the twentieth century saw increased recognition of anorexia and bulimia, in which the compulsion became not excess of consumption, but either refused or controlled and fluctuating consumption.
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. Ibid., 189. Leon Rappoport gives another interesting perspective on this change in How We Eat: Appetite, Culture, and the Psychology of Food (Toronto: ECW Press, 2003), in which he contends that the imperative for control over the body has developed because of “the rise of industrial modernity,” during which “the body [began] to lose its ‘use value’ while gaining ‘exchange value'” (p. 80).
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. Alison Jenkins, “Consumed by Addiction,” Nursing Standard 20 (Mar. 2006), 32-33. John Coveney points out a striking articulation of this switch-the increased use of the term “epidemic” in reference to obesity. This language enhances the sense that obesity is a matter of powerlessness by aligning it with disease, something beyond our volition and with the potential to ravage entire communities. See his Food, Morals and Meaning: The Pleasure and Anxiety of Eating (New York: Routledge, 2006), 7-9 and 141-156.
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. Sedgwick quotes French novelist Marcel Proust’s analogy of stubborn servants to explain this out-of-body experience. Proust writes that habits are like “servants, obscure and detested, against whom one struggles, beneath whose dominion one more and more completely falls.”- Sedgwick, Tendencies, 140. A habit, like a servant, is something a person may employ and have charge over, but eventually this servant learns the method of housekeeping and begins to do the work on her own, sometimes to the frustration of the employer. Proust’s analogy unhinges the active/passive opposition-I am in charge of my servants, but am not actively performing the duties. Thus, habit does not allow for our familiar understandings of free will as perfect action and addiction as complete passivity.
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. For example, she laments how church potlucks have become “tasting parties,” in that there are so many dishes, and thus “no dish gets the appreciation it deserves” (p. 45). Eating more simply, she implies, will result in tastier food because the tastes won’t be overpowered by other foods.
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. Tursi, “William James’s Narrative of Habit,” 82.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Mennonite Cookbooks and the Pleasure of Habit
MQR 81 (Oct. 2007)