May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
March 26, 2020
My conversion to the Mennonite church began with a cookbook. In my early twenties, I taught at a school in the Dominican Republic. Although our midday meal was cooked by a Dominican woman, we were responsible for making our own suppers in the school kitchen. One evening, while looking for a recipe to make mayonnaise for my tuna-salad sandwich, I grabbed the More-With-Less Cookbook off the shelf, found the recipe, made the mayo, and then began reading the introductory section while eating the sandwich.
“This book is not about cutting back,” it declared. “Put dismal thoughts aside. This book is about living joyfully, richly, and creatively. . . . Joy that depends on ignorance is not true joy. True joy comes when we face hard realities and difficult choices and do the best we can, resolving to be grateful for what we have.”1 My heart was warmed by the writer’s sensible, matter-of-fact tone and her nonjudgmental, multicultural perspective. An hour later I was still reading the introduction. I wanted to know the writer behind the words—who was this woman who advocated such a countercultural approach to cooking, food, and life?
I grew up in Los Angeles and attended what would now be considered a megachurch. Mirroring the culture of LA, our church admired wealth, beauty, and fame. I chafed against these values as a teenager and young adult, as I believed that there was more to life, that we were called to serve God and others and to measure success by simple living.
I found a kindred soul in Doris Janzen Longacre, the writer and compiler of More-With-Less, who encouraged readers and cooks to consider how their food choices affected the world. As her title suggests, she encouraged people to eat more simply, to devour less meat and sugar and more vegetables, fruits, and beans, but she also advocated living more simply on the earth—consuming less and finding ecofriendly ways of travel, including carpooling, walking, and bicycling. Her ethos spread into all areas of life.
As I later discovered, Longacre married her husband, John, in 1963, and together they decided to serve with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a relief and development organization. They served in Vietnam and Indonesia but eventually returned to the MCC headquarters in Akron, Pennsylvania, after Doris developed health issues. In Akron, they both worked as staff for the Food and Hunger Concerns desk, and it was while working together on the emerging food crisis of the early 1970s that Doris envisioned her book, the More-With-Less Cookbook.
The cookbook was commissioned and written under the MCC umbrella, but when MCC approached Herald Press, an imprint of the Mennonite Publishing House, to collaborate and publish the book, the publisher balked. Cookbooks without cakes on the cover didn’t sell, they said. A cookbook devoted to health and simple living would fail. Nevertheless, MCC persisted and commissioned an artist to design the front cover using the MCC logo of a cross and a dove. That artist used wheat, Swiss cheese, and black-eyed peas to interpret both the logo and the spirit of the cookbook itself.
Herald Press relented but originally limited the number of first-run copies to one thousand. More than forty years later, More-With-Less—sans cake on the cover—has sold nearly two million copies, including twenty-fifth and fortieth anniversary editions. As Malinda E. Barry notes in her dissertation on constructive theology and social responsibility, More-With-Less reflected and spurred on simple living as “a robust movement and expression of Christian faith among North American Mennonites.” Likewise, the theologian Ron Sider has said that “Doris deeply affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world with her widely influential More-With-Less Cookbook . . . her [writing] was a gift to the church, the poor, and the Lord she served.”2
While in college, I had come across references to Mennonites in Christian periodicals like Sojourners and the now-defunct The Other Side. These magazines focused on what was often dismissed by conservative evangelicals as the social gospel, a worldview with an emphasis on social justice and peace issues. During this time—the late 1970s and early 1980s—the social-justice activists (a blend of Catholics and liberal Protestants) were protesting nuclear proliferation and the presence of American military personnel in Central America. Dorothy Day, of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Philip and Daniel Berrigan were very popular in this subculture. I was drawn to them despite the fact that the evangelical church, college, and culture in which I was immersed viewed their focus on earthly justice as a distraction from the essential work of evangelism and personal salvation.
One of the youth pastors at my church was on his own journey of wrestling with the hermeneutical understanding of the gospels in the New Testament, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. He took me and a few others to volunteer at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen in downtown Los Angeles, and that opened my eyes and heart to a surprising way of working with homeless people: Prepare wholesome foods and eat alongside the guests. Don’t require anyone to sit through a sermon. Don’t evangelize. Treat everyone as God’s beloved children. It struck me then that the Mennonites who I read about in my social-gospel magazines were doing the same thing. The seeds of my joining the Mennonite church were planted by the Catholic Workers. Thus, when I read the preface to Longacre’s cookbook while in the Dominican Republic, I nodded my head in agreement and understanding. I had found my people.
Two years later, after I returned to Los Angeles from my time overseas, I searched the phone book—this was pre-internet—for a Mennonite church but couldn’t find one. I perused the cookbook sections in religious and nonreligious bookstores looking for a copy of the More-With-Less Cookbook to no avail. I began dismantling the American evangelicalism of my childhood and adolescence, and I didn’t attend church. I felt guilty to not have a church home, but I had an inner certainty that I needed to read and ponder on my own. Finally, after five years of a kind of wilderness wandering, I visited a local Mennonite congregation. The first time I attended, I knew I was home.
The congregants were not dressed and made up to impress one another like at my childhood church. Posters and signs encouraging people to volunteer at the local soup kitchen were displayed above the church literature table. Someone distributed a Lent calendar of activities from Bread for the World. The pastor did not close the service with an altar call. And for the first time in my life, a young woman, a seminary intern, offered me communion. After a few weeks of visiting that church, I asked the pastor how I could buy a copy of the More-With-Less Cookbook, and he gave me the contact information for the Mennonite Publishing House. At last, my own copy and a home congregation.
My husband and I each brought our own copies of the first edition of the More-With-Less Cookbook into our marriage. My copy is more stained and battered, its card-stock cover almost torn off from the metal coil binding that allows for the book to lie flat or open while cooking. But both of our copies have notes next to recipes. The recipe for Edna Ruth Byler’s Potato Dough Baked Goods, for example, is set for one hundred doughnuts or rolls to accommodate people who are baking for a church potluck or a multiple family event, and I have scribbled in new numbers to make the recipe work for when we have slightly fewer house guests. After more than twenty years of marriage we still have both copies because neither of us are willing to give up our annotations.
In Longacre’s introduction, she begins by establishing that our actions on behalf of the world’s needs are as important as feeding our own families:
Many are saying that it does not really matter whether we eat more or less in North America. The line of reasoning may go like this: Just because we eat less meat this week is no assurance that more grain will be available in Bangladesh next year. If we stop buying sugared cereals and TV dinners, the food industry will come out with something even worse. We may stop eating out every Friday evening, but our friends will go without us, so what do we expect to prove? The problem is first with poor government policy and import-export agreements, or with snail-pace family-planning programs and corrupt governments in Third World countries. . . . All these arguments have elements of truth. But this thinking smacks heavily of a common human attitude—that it doesn’t really matter what one person does, or that what one household can do is so small that it has no effect on the overall picture.3
To have a positive effect on the world, she outlines the following five principles: (1) do justice, (2) learn from the global community, (3) cherish the natural order, (4) nurture people, and (5) nonconform freely. As Barry notes: “While these principles seem obvious to many, the next question Longacre addressed added considerable complexity: How might these theological norms become concrete action?” Using the symbol of a tree, Barry describes Longacre’s intention as “beginning with the basic unit of our social fabric, the household, Longacre’s vison is for individuals and communities to live a connected life from the roots, through the trunk, and into the branches. . . . As she prepared the content of the cookbook and its companion, Longacre understood herself to be blending prophetic witness with pastoral concern for her neighbors around the world.”4
Like a biblical prophet proclaiming her bold message to North Americans, Longacre declares that eating differently becomes a political act: “Once you walk into a supermarket or pull up to a gas pump, you are part of the economic and political sphere.”5 For Longacre, the personal was political—that is, the personal acts of shopping for food, feeding our family, and eating together have meaning and consequences beyond our small orbits. She thus focuses our attention onto the entire globe as a reminder that God does not live only in North America and is not only concerned with North Americans. Rather, God is global.
My copy of More-With-Less has notations for the cheese pizza recipe. Before I met my husband, a former roommate told me to use a fork to prick the pizza dough before baking and to prebake the dough before adding the toppings. That way, she said, the pizza would be thoroughly cooked rather than having uncooked dough in the center. The first time my husband used my copy to make homemade pizza, he read my note, and to this day, he pricks and prebakes his pizza dough. In this way, the community of collaborative cooks and bakers continues.
My copy of the cookbook also includes faded recipes that I have plucked from other sources. There is a black bean soup recipe from the Los Angeles Times. Recipes from friends or family, often written on recycled printer paper, are folded into the back of the book. The Creamy Orange-Ginger Dressing recipe is written on the back side of a bibliography sheet that includes Pornography: Men Possessing Women by Andrea Dworkin and Gyn/ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism with a New Intergalatic Introduction by Mary Daly. I am amused by the juxtaposition.
My husband and I strive to live the More-With-Less way, knowing that “as Christians dealing with human hurts, we have to remind ourselves again and again that we are called not to be successful but to be faithful. Our first directions come from the way Jesus told us to live, not from what we think will work.”6 This means, for example, that we don’t eat a lot of meat, but we do eat some chicken. We go through periods in which we eat only vegetarian or vegan meals, and then, for whatever reason, we introduce chicken or fish back into our diets. We have belonged to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) model, and we visit farmers markets, but we have not tried the locovore diet of eating food that is only grown or raised within fifty miles of our home. And we have had mixed results in growing our own food in our tiny city backyard.
We’ve found ways to make the More-With-Less ethos alive wherever we have lived. We have always recycled and composted, and what we haven’t been able to recycle in a city-sponsored recycling program, we have collected in our back mudroom until we visited the recycling center at the nearby university. We compost our coffee grounds and fresh scraps in a designated covered bucket, which we deposit into a larger compost container in our backyard and then use in our yard or share with our neighbors.
Most recently, we moved to the Hermitage, a contemplative retreat center in rural southwest Michigan. One of our core community values there is to take “seriously God’s invitation to steward the earth.”7 We ask retreat guests to scrape their dishes into the large compost bucket which is emptied into a large compost pile. We have a large organic vegetable garden and are members in two local CSAs. The Hermitage copy of More-With-Less is worn, tattered, and heavily annotated, and all of us live under its influence as we live more simply for the good of others.
Longacre writes that “eating more with less doesn’t just mean aiming for elusive dietary perfection, though it does mean choosing wisely and well. Eating more with less means eating joyfully. It means eating hopefully, aspiring to be a citizen of a world in which resources are shared more equitably between those who have too much and those who have nothing. By eating this way, we develop awareness, creativity, and a taste for freshness. We gain the sense that food is, and always was, meant to be shared.”8
This sense of thoughtfulness and shared joy concerning our daily activities and food has become central to our way of way of life. At the Hermitage we begin our meals with this blessing: “Food is God’s love made edible.” All our meals are homemade, from the granola (recipes found on pages 90–91 of More-With-Less) to the bread (which can be made with gluten or gluten-free), from the salads to the soups and stews. The food is prepared with love and in prayer for the sustenance of the guests who are often participating in silent retreats. Gentle music plays on the CD player during meals to help ease the awkwardness of eating with others but not speaking. As I sit down to eat, I offer prayers of thanks for the food and for those gardeners or farmers who grew the food, for the cooks, for the gifts of the earth. I can eat more joyfully by eating more simply.
June Mears Driedger
June Mears Driedger is a writer, spiritual director, retreat leader, and ordained minister in Mennonite Church USA. She is a resident member of the Hermitage Community in Three Rivers, Michigan.