All I knew of my boyfriend’s Mennonite relatives was that they liked baking bland bread and sending it to him. That is, before I spent Thanksgiving with them at their home in the suburbs of a town in Iowa. Within minutes of arriving, we were ushered to separate quarters by his aunt Hannah, an extremely soft-spoken, smiling woman clad in denim and flannel. Her husband, David, had a face that was drawn and distant, and looked as though he could have inspired Grant Wood. I squirmed in my seat as we ate meals in near silence, with occasional comments about which variety of carrots we preferred and the condition of the lettuce this year. Nothing seemed very definitive and even the most objective observations seemed to be suffixed with “I guess,” “I s’pose,” and “probably.” There was no sex, there were no soft chairs, and there were certainly no stimulants of any kind–even their sizable tea collection was miserably caffeine-free. I lasted exactly 19.6 hours before trekking two miles to the nearest gas station for a cup of coffee.
At dinner on Thursday, Uncle David announced with a chuckle that since everyone was finally familiar with the blessing, we could sing it as a round (of course, I was the only one who had been unfamiliar with it). We feasted on free-range turkey, baked apples, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes, and I found myself not missing at all the marshmallow-buttery goo my grandma somehow manages to incorporate into everything. Later, as I flipped through a Mennonite cookbook from the 1970s, I began to understand the philosophy behind what and how they eat: consume as little as possible of animal proteins and fill up instead on protein-rich grains and vegetables, don’t buy preprocessed, make things from scratch. The night before we left, when Uncle David was preparing rolls for dinner, I shared that my mother used to bake bread in her bread machine from Sears. He agreed that a bread machine would be handy, but said he would miss the tactile experience of kneading it with his own hands. I watched as he tenderly pressed his fingers into the fleshy dough and suddenly felt very dull and insipid compared to him. Maybe I ought to give bread-making a try.