Every culture has their thing that they’re known for. In the inner circles. By the members. Usually it’s not the lofty creeds or inspiring words of the founding fathers. It’s something more ‘rubber meets the road,’ an everyday life kind of thing.
I am a Mennonite. Our ‘things’ are God, food, and cleanliness.
The order is not written this way intentionally as all three are mysteriously interconnected with each other. Try telling a Mennonite woman the adage, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” is not in the Bible. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts (because I’m a Mennonite and deep fried dough is pretty appealing) that a strong Mennonite woman can spin a couple of verses to convince you that while the words may not be there, the thought certainly is.
Enter the church potluck. The Olympics of Mennonite culture. It is here the things we value deeply are put on display for all to see.
Pride is not something Mennonites look kindly upon. In fact, our founding father placed emphasis on simple living, shunning the sin of pride. Therefore, the church potluck is an event ripe with temptation.
On the surface it may appear this is a women’s only event. It may seem that men are only passive participants. If you truly believe this, you have either married into the Mennonite culture, or though you were born in, you have lived among the English for too long.
Don’t get me wrong, if your husband cooks at home, that had better be your family secret. The cooking component of the event is not open to male participation. It is also best not to send him down to the church basement to deposit your casserole dish on the buffet table. His presence will not be welcome; the expectation is that you will be the one to carefully position your dish.
If you’re new to this, don’t worry. You will not be alone. A committee of woman will be walking through the process together. They will practice moving through the buffet line, trying to decide if it makes sense to put the sausage casserole next to the wareniki one, or if these Mennonite delights should be spaced further apart.
During this time, it is your responsibility to ensure your dish is expertly located next to one that will show yours off to its fullest potential. Young Mennonite women dream of the time that their dish is moved to the front of the line; it is here the full impact of hungry stomachs and culinary craft collide.
There are some liberal men who will insist on carrying the casserole dish down for their Frau’s. (Again, if it’s because he has cooked it and wants to navigate the complexities of buffet placement himself, you must keep this to yourself!) The man who carries the dish down must be well prepared with a series of off-hand comments that sound natural and unrehearsed.
“Where would you like me to put this?”
“I’ve carried this for my Frau as it is such a hearty dish loaded with meat and potatoes I feared it was too heavy for her.”
“Sorry to impose on you – I’m on my way to set up tables and chairs and needed to carry the casserole dish because my Frau’s arms are full carrying the baby(s).”
Any of these will do.
The initial phase of the competition is for the women. But men have a critical role to play too. When the time comes to load up the plate, they must be focused and strategic. There will be much temptation to give in to base desire and simply choose the food that looks best. The buffet table is a minefield of temptation. However, a strong Mennonite man will not succumb.
He will have trained and prepared on the drive to church and will know which dish belongs to his wife. This sounds simple, but there will be similar casseroles in confusingly homogeneous dishes. Often times casserole dishes are passed down, and though they have been used for generations they still look brand new because they have never seen the inside of a dishwasher. It is critical to know if your wife brought the white dish with the blue flowers or the white dish with the green ones. Does your wife’s casserole have the onions, or is it the one without?
Knowing which dish belongs to his wife, it is imperative the husband also be aware of where the dish is located on the buffet table so he can be sure to save room on his plate for her food. There will be temptations and distractions, especially for the husband whose beloved’s dish is at the end of the table, but he must stay focused and be strong. Many men have the added stress of attending the same church as Grandmothers, Mothers, Sisters, and Mothers-in-law. The complexity of their role increases in direct proportion to the size of their family.
The men walk through the line first as they women look on in eager anticipation. They blush as their husband toss around comments like, “We were almost late for church because my Frau had to go get the vegetables out of the garden at the last minute so they were fresh.”
They nod humbly as their husband’s stifle yawns and stage murmur, “Sorry I’m a little tired. My wife came to bed late after putting the casserole together last night. She likes it to be able to sit overnight so all the flavours come together nicely.”
There are tense moments when husbands go all ‘deer in the headlights’ when confronted with nearly identical casseroles in similar dishes while wives try desperately to make eye-contact and offer support.
Finally, stomachs are full and the Mennonite Olympics come to an end. Medal winners are hand washing casserole dishes that have been scraped clean, while those who did not place are humbly putting plastic wrap or tin foil over their leftovers. For them, it will be a quiet ride home.
The husband has two options. The first is to avoid eye-contact and be silent. Do not comment on the plumpness of your mother’s warenikis or the tenderness of your mother-in-law’s sausages. Simply ride home in silence. You will compete again on another day.
The second option, and you must play this right, is to comment on how there was way too much food, was it because there was much less people than normal? (You must have a keen awareness of average attendance before trying this one.) Perhaps you can slide in a comment on how secretly you’re glad there are leftovers, because now you can look forward to supper tomorrow. Tone is everything. You must convey both enthusiasm and longing and never allow fatalism or resignation to linger on the fringes.
Many a Sunday afternoon nap has ended up with husband and wife in separate rooms because he has remarked how good the food was and how full he is, before noticing the casserole dish of leftovers on his wife’s lap.
The Mennonite Olympics are not mere cultural musings for me.
I have competed.
I created a dish that was both nourishing and delicious. To top it off, it was beautiful. It was in a brand new red dish that looked antique. I was sure it would be the first to disappear.
In a well-engrained bout of Mennonite efficiency, I attempted to carry the dish in one arm, my baby in the other, while still holding the hand of my barely one-year old.
It ended catastrophically. The dish fell. And broke. The baby cried. The one-year old was splattered with what could have been the pride of the potluck.
I showed up late with a terrible secret. The contents of my dish had been picked off the floor. It was a freshly washed floor, of course, and I only took that which had not touched the floor directly, but there was no hiding the fact it was an end of table dish.
I had learned a quintessentially Mennonite, and definitely human, lesson. Where there is pride, a fall is sure to follow.