Friday, January 14, 2011

My Year of Brethren Food: Why I Want To Eat Brethren-Style

The discovery of my great-grandmother's cookbook has started me on my Year of Brethren Food, but I think I should make some clarifications regarding my previous post.

I don't intend to cook EVERY recipe in the book... I will use my great-grandmother's cookbook to prepare foods I have to make anyway.  We have food allergies in my family, so I can't buy store-bought products the way I used to.  This relatively new situation has forced me to rethink the way I cook and carefully monitor the ingredients in each recipe.  The biggest change is that I have to cook ALL of our meals.  I've always enjoyed cooking and have always cooked the majority of the food my family eats, but now that I HAVE to do it, it's become exhausting.  I never realized how much I relied on convenience foods.  These days, I can't ask my husband to pick up mole burritos on his way home from work just because I'm tired or sick or overwhelmed.  I have to cook if we want to eat.  

I have a number of hopes (dare I say "goals"?) for this project and I think that using my great-grandmother's Brethren cookbook is just the resource I need.  To be clear, I am not Brethren, nor am I a "religious" person.  But I do believe in the power of community to support those in need.  Right now, I need the support of generations of women in my family who fed their families for their entire lives without trans-fats, microwaves, or pizza delivery.  This community still exists in the pages of my great-grandmother's cookbook and I intend to make the most of it.


1. Finding new recipes that are safe for my family to eat.  The most challenging part of cooking for someone with food allergies is trying to hunt down recipes and ingredients that keep everyone in my family safe, happy, and well-fed.  One of my daughters is allergic to soy, which can be found in almost ALL processed foods these days.  My great-grandmother's cookbook was produced at a time when processed foods didn't exist and "exotic" ingredients were hard to come by, which means we can enjoy almost every recipe in the cookbook.  I get a little depressed when thumbing through new cookbooks only to discover that a recipe that sounds delicious requires ingredients that we can't eat.  It will be nice to spend time looking through a large selection of recipes we CAN eat, instead of worrying about what we CAN'T eat. 

2.  Introducing my children to the foods of my childhood.  My great-grandmother's cookbook contains a number of recipes for foods I grew up eating, but that I never think of preparing for my own family.  It's comforting to know that my children will grow up eating some of the same foods that I loved as a child... and that my mother and grandmother loved when THEY were children.  (Fried apples are a perfect example.  I'll share the recipe in a future post.)  

2.  Remembering that in the grand scheme of things I have it easy.  There was a time when someone, usually the mother of a family, had to prepare every meal the family ate.  Unless a family was wealthy enough to have servants, somebody was cooking three meals a day-- without the help of convenience foods and for much of recorded history, without gas stoves or electricity.  In some parts of the world, people STILL cook without these luxuries.  My life could be worse.  Much worse.  By using my great-grandmother's cookbook as a resource, I will be constantly reminded of how "things used to be".  There are no short-cuts in her cookbook.  Just simple recipes made with simple ingredients.

3.  Rediscovering the resources of the women in my family.  I never knew my great-grandmother Alice Turner who owned the Brethren cookbook.  But I knew her daughter quite well.  My Grandma Willie was one of the most amazing people I have ever known.  She was quietly religious and although we always went to church with my grandparents when we visited them for the weekend, I didn't know much about my grandmother's religious upbringing.  It wasn't until I was an adult that I learned that my grandmother wasn't just Brethren, she was raised as a "Dunkard"-- a small sect of Brethren that believe in river baptism.  My Grandma once joked about being a Dunkard and I had to ask her what that meant.  She told me about watching baptisms down at the river and how the members of their church sometimes got together for potlucks after church services.  My grandmother's sense that you can create community through food still runs strong in my family.  I see the strength of that community in her mother's Brethren cookbook when I read the recipes of Sister Catharine Wampler from Dayton, Virginia and Sister Barbara Kindig from Inglewood, California.  Through this cookbook, Brethren women from across the country share their knowledge and their experiences with each other, and now with me.

4.  Remembering that being outside of the mainstream can be a strength if you choose to make it one.  I am not a member of a Brethren Church... but my grandmother's ancestors were since the 1700s and some of my family in Virginia still are.  My husband took great pleasure in telling me that a key tenent of the Dunker Brethren church (according to Wikipedia) was: The Dunkers regard nonconformity to the world as an important principle.  My husband said he believed it must be hereditary.

Okay, perhaps as a video artist/TV producer/photographer/full-time-mother and now full-time family cook, I AM a non-conformist.  My husband certainly thinks so.  But nonconformity DOES seem to run in my family.  I remember my Grandma Willie shocking a local minister with witty repartee that didn't seem like it should come from the mouth of the sweet old lady she appeared to be.  I can't remember exactly what she said, but I do remember that the minister asked her to repeat herself because he was SURE he must have misheard her.   She thought this was hilarious.  Dunkards have been the nice-but-strange-folks down by the river since the first ones arrived in America in 1708 and in her own way, my grandmother carried on that tradition.

And now we're going to be the nice-but-strange family that doesn't eat normally.  My 4 year-old daughter is already the nonconformist who brings her own special foods to school... and to play-dates and birthday parties.  We don't go out of the house without a backpack full of special snacks.  We don't go to Chuck E. Cheese parties-- or if we do we don't eat anything.  Allergies place us out of the mainstream on almost EVERYTHING that has to do with food.

But 300 years of nonconformist Dunkards and Brethren may have shown us the way.  The Brethren CHOSE to be out of the mainstream-- and embraced that choice.

By embracing my great-grandmother's cookbook and her recipes for simple food, I hope I can embrace the strength of that long line of nonconformists.