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Mennonite Foods and Folkways from South Russia Volume I

Book review by Marion Mertz

Voth, Norma Just. Mennonite Foods and Folkways from South Russia, Vol. I and Vol. II. Intercourse, Pennsylvania: Good Books, 1990, 480 pages. I


Come join me for meddach (dinner). It's almost noon. Hurry, or we'll miss out on Holubtsi (cabbage rolls topped with tomato sauce and sour cream), pictured opposite page 225. We're also having borscht, made with ham, green onion tops and dill. Perhaps we'll be lucky and haveportselkje (fritters) for dessert, even though it isn't New Year's Day. Can we dare to hope for kjrakjlemooss made with Damson plums?

Once you pick up this book it is impossible to put it down. It is packed with delectable recipes and filled with folklore steeped in tradition.

In 1786 Empress Catherine II of Russia invited Dutch Mennonites living in West Prussia to settle in the Ukraine. She knew the Mennonites were stewards of the earth, strongly committed to their religion. Catherine offered exemption from military service forever, absolute religious freedom, control of their own schools, and use of their own language.

The Mennonites responded. By the turn of the fifteenth century, villages had been established. By 1855 seven and a half million fruit and shade trees were growing in these villages. In 1870 there were 45,000 Mennonites in Russia. Prosperity followed but was to end. Envious of the achievements of the Mennonites, the Bolsheviks overran the settlements in the war against Germany from 1914 to 1917. Starvation, famine and death followed. Large numbers of Mennonites fled to South America, Canada and the United States. They brought with them their rich heritage, held together by their time-honored recipes. Norma Jost Voth attempts to preserve their traditions through highly pleasing recipes, stories of their background, and many mouth-watering photographs as the results of the recipes.

The Russian Mennonites who came from the steppes of the Ukraine and settled on the plains of Kansas in 1874 spoke Plautdietsch (low German). It was the everyday language used in the home. High German was reserved for use in church, school, and communication with non-Mennonites. Today Plautdietsch is seldom used, but efforts are being made to revive the Russian Mennonite mother tongue. A Low German Pronunciation Guide is given on page 464.

Norma Jost Voth gives an absorbing account of the influence the various countries in which the Mennonites had lived on their ethnic foods. The Dutch were lovers of good food: hearty soups, beer, coarse bread, rich dairy products and lots of vegetables. The West Prussians favored pork: sausage, ham, and pork chops accompanied by sour dark rye bread, kuchen and thick soups. These heavy foods often required the digestive assistance of schnapps. The Russians preferred grains: rye bread, rolls, gruels, pancakes, fritters, noodles, and dumpling. Vegetables, especially potatoes, cabbages and mushrooms were often accompanied by sour cream. In North America beef was introduced. Recipes from monthly publications were tried and resulted in better nutrition.

Many anecdotes and stories of traditional habits keep the reader tied to the book. We learn that zwieback is a good travel food, that pebernodder (peppernuts) can provide a good parlor game for children (35 recipes for peppernuts are given), that oven temperature can be tested with flour, and that yeast can be made from barley, flour, boiled potatoes or hops.

The superb photographs by Mark Wiens keep one turning page after page. Several pages of notes give explanations and additional resource. The bibliography refers to further reading, both in English and German. The index is well organized and cross-referenced. Maps of the Soviet Union and the world help to orient the reader. To taste the Russian Mennonite food, we need only to stop at d's Schtove in Winnipeg to munch on Varenikji, Kjielkje, and Schinkjeflaesch. In case you are interested, page 183 gives the recipe for Wedding Borscht for 100 guests.

Mennonite Foods and Folkways from South Russia Volume I is well printed with glare-free pages, has amply spaced recipes in a variety of typography, and lies flat on the work surface when opened.

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