August 29, 2015


Books

Comfort food

Hutterite life celebrated in tasty fashion

SARAH KEARNEY/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Cottage-cheese pie, borscht, potato and sausage soup and "real good salad," all mixed with a dose of charming humour, fill the pages of Mary-Anne Kirkby's informative and often-entertaining journey through Hutterite kitchens.

The Manitoba-born, Saskatchewan-based writer first burst onto the public stage with her best-selling self-published memoir, I Am Hutterite. The gripping tale focused on how she grew up on the Fairholme Hutterite colony near Portage la Prairie, why her family left and how they struggled to adapt to life outside the colony.

Mary-Ann Kirkby.

Mary-Ann Kirkby.

Her followup is a much lighter, more celebratory look at Hutterite life, their traditions and rituals. Customs related to birth, schooling, marriage, old age and death are all seen through the eyes of Hutterite women and from the vantage point of the community kitchen.

And always there is the food.

Kirkby doesn't seem to want to stir the pot with this one, and her abiding affection for her heritage is evident from the start.

"I was 10 years old when my family left Fairholme Colony and I learned very quickly that my culture had no value in mainstream society," says Kirkby in her introduction. "No one seemed to understand that beneath the black hats and polka-dots lay rich traditions, a proud heritage, and the best cottage-cheese pie in the world."

Unlike her memoir, which read like an enthralling and often pain-filled story, this effort is more of a factual series of little glimpses into Hutterite life. Sprinkled throughout are recipes and pages from a journal written by a head cook who prepares food daily for roughly 100 people.

Kirkby travelled to nearly 50 colonies in order to explore their culture, and skilfully blends a smattering of humour and much tantalizing talk of food with her little stories. They are often difficult to read without reaching for something sweet, comforting and rich to eat.

She reveals the meal-time customs; three o'clock Lunche is the Hutterite version of high tea and often consists of something deliciously sweet. She describes the life of the head cook and the formidable work schedules of the Hutterite people. But, she adds, "After the age of 45, women move into semi-retirement."

She writes of customs and meals surrounding Easter and Christmas ("expensive gift exchanges are not part of the culture"). She shines light on birthing customs, dating practices and marriage customs, also noting "arranged marriages are not part of Hutterite culture."

The extremely efficient and organized work routines, the lives of the elderly (it is considered a privilege to look after the sick and elderly), and customs surrounding deaths and burials are all explored.

Kirkby lovingly describes their ancient dialect, called Hutterisch, where the "th" sound is impossible for some to pronounce and often becomes "d."

"When dey vote in a gardener, da husband is part of da deal. He gets trone in for good measure, a two-for-one special," one woman says with a chuckle.

Some of the information is at times too detailed or too technical, and some of the recipes specifically geared towards feeding a crowd of over 100. Thankfully, Kirkby provides some that are more "family" sized in which her readers can indulge.

Overall, this is an illuminating and endearing look at Hutterite life and like the food that permeates throughout, it is comforting, nourishing and sweet.

Oh, and da cottage-cheese pie is seriously goot.

 

Cheryl Girard probably gained a few pounds as a result of reading this book.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2014 G8

History

Updated on Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 8:25 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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