Review: Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen: Unveiling The Rituals, Traditions, and Food of the Hutterite Culture

Mary-Ann Kirkby, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen: Unveiling The Rituals, Traditions, and Food of the Hutterite Culture

(Penguin, 2014). Paperback, 252 pages, $28.00.

In Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen, author Mary-Ann Kirkby returns to the colony, exploring the rhythms and rituals of colony life by way of the colony kitchen. Food, she makes clear, is an essential part of Hutterite life. Daily meals are eaten together, women rotate through kitchen shifts, and food for individual families is distributed with careful intent.

Food is more than mere nourishment—it reinforces the bonds that hold the community together. Throughout the book, Kirkby explores the meals that are prepared both for everyday use and for special occasions, such as Easter and Christmas, births, deaths, and engagements, providing recipes for most of them along the way. These recipes feature simple comfort food such as noodle soup as well as exotic oddities like jellied pigs’ feet. Many appear with their original, enormous measurements, but if readers are not interested in eating leftover sauerkraut for the rest of the year, they can find adjusted versions at the back of the book.

Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen is a book about food, but it’s also—and perhaps because of this—a book about women, and the essential role their work plays in the Hutterite community. Readers who live in Western cities are used to seeing any woman faced with sartorial constraints, from kerchief to burka, as downtrodden victims of patriarchy rather than strong and active community members, but Kirkby’s descriptions of head cooks and skillful gardeners quickly puts that notion to rest. Young women on a liberal colony paint their nails and put the boys’ volleyball team to shame; older women instruct their husbands on how to vote on colony decisions and make sure their feelings are well known by all. They probably wouldn’t call it feminism, but Kirkby makes it clear that these women are the smart, sassy, capable backbones of their communities.

Kirkby’s examination of food customs also provides a way to explore the changing relationships between Hutterites and the outside world. Many colonies have contracts to supply grocery chains in nearby towns, and have to balance the food grown for the colony with the food they grow for outsiders. Farming procedures are becoming automated, and on some colonies, business is managed via computers. Cell phones have even been known to turn up from time to time. As Goliath Vetter from Evergreen Bay Colony tells Kirkby, the challenges faced by Hutterite culture in the modern world are enormous.

The affection Kirkby feels for the Hutterites, especially the women, is palpable, and the book is almost surprisingly uncritical, given the difficulties she described in I Am Hutterite. However, in a world where there is more than one television network producing exploitative Amish reality TV, this calm affection and genuine curiosity is refreshing. Kirkby demonstrates her insider status by peppering her easygoing prose with interesting or common Hutterisch words (for example, Schmierkotz, a cat that wraps itself around your ankles, is used to describe a flirt). Colony members welcome her, embracing her as one of their own, even gushing about how much they loved her previous book.

The fact that Kirkby is welcomed into her former community with open arms is telling, and lends the book its authority and authenticity—we don’t feel so much that Hutterite rituals are being “unveiled” as in some sort of lurid exposé, but rather as though Kirkby is sharing with us a treasured part of her own life. The reader is not positioned as a voyeur, but rather as a welcome guest in a world free from many of the stresses and conflicts of fast-paced modern life. It would be surprising if, after being introduced to a world that shuns the internet in favour of communal living, cottage-cheese pies, and homemade sausages, one or two of Kirkby’s readers were not tempted to run off and join the colony.

Annalee Giesbrecht is a designer and illustrator living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her art and writing have appeared in Geez, Rhubarb, the Prairie Fire Review of Books, and Whether Magazine, where she is the art editor.