Com­fort food

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ch­eryl Gi­rard

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 best­selling 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. 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.


Mary-Ann Kirkby

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