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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
More With Less
Imagine the quintessential fresh-from-the-land Midwestern bounty of my Mennonite childhood and you might also imagine the quintessential spread this sort of landscape suggests. Yes, there were Mason jars with halved peaches nestled in perfect stacks, bushels of sweet corn sheared from the cob then packed in juices sweeter than honey. There were braids of onions hung in the carport and a basket of soft pears sitting by the front door, ready to eat.
But, let me tell you, there was also The More-With-Less Cookbook and this, the Bible of Mennonite gastronomy, would be the undoing of the Yoder Family kitchen and of, no doubt, countless other Mennonite kitchens across the heartland formerly full-up with lards and butters, refined flours and sugars, heartbreakingly delicious cheeses, and let’s not forget gravy. But this one book, first published in 1976 and now in its 47th printing, ended an Eden I can only now conjure by imaging what non-Mennonite folks must think our diets are like, that long table of creamy casseroles, clouds of buttery mashed potatoes, whipped creams that invoke heaven itself, pie, pie, pie.
Instead consider this: millet.
Consider: legumes out the wazoo.
Consider: ubiquitous bran, whole wheat flour everything, non-fat dry milk powder as substitute, and liver, all items on the Economical Sources of Protein Index found at the front of The More-With-Less Cookbook, subtitle: suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world’s limited food resources.
In the foreword to my 25th anniversary copy, a pleasantly delusional woman named Mary Beth Lind claims that the recipes contained within the consecrated pages of this book will “help recapture the joy of preparing and eating adequate and appropriate food,” but for me, all this sort of cooking has ever done is fill me with a feral drive to find and devour anything within the Little Debbie family of snack foods.
As Doris Janzen Longacre, the author of the cookbook, writes in the preface to More-With-Less, “Our interaction with food will express our faith.” The concept of “more with less” is not only frugal; it’s holy. And my mother, with aspirations of becoming the most righteous of all Mennonite cooks, took this message to heart, her copy of the good book stained with tomato sauce and oiled with melted margarine.
But here’s the thing: sometimes she went off-recipe, sometimes even off-book. Sometimes my mother went off-earth into full outer space floating around up there oxygen-deprived in the deep black hole of frugal oblivion and it’s here, at the furthest reaches of space and time, that we encounter her most diabolical-yet-probably-nonetheless-ordained-by-God-Himself creation.
It was called The Soup Container.
She kept it in the freezer.
It was a faded cottage cheese container with a piece of vaguely sticky masking tape on the lid that innocently read “Soup” in my her perfect cursive.
If ever there were two tablespoons of yellow juice left over in the Corningware dish used to cook green beans, this slurp’s-worth of liquid was still too much for the compost bucket. One single bite of tater tot casserole? A half ladle of spaghetti sauce? Juice from the venison roast? None of it could be wasted.
I stood in the darkened kitchen contemplating what to do. Could I ever-so-silently pour the bean juice down the drain? Might I be able to very quietly feed the last tot to the cat?
Instead, from her post at the empty dinner table, as she crocheted a fussy little angel from delicate threads, my mother read my thoughts. This was a power granted her by God. Without looking up from the tiny halo she was forming in her hands, she commanded, “Rachel. Put that in the soup container.”
And so I retrieved the soup container from the freezer and pried off the lid. Inside a solid chunk of corn kernels huddled in a layer of mixed broths that was marbled with opaque wisps of creamed something or other. I dumped in the next layer—chop suey or lentil soup or cooked squash—and silently returned the sacred vessel to the icy depths.
Dread. Nausea. Raw fear. These are what accompanied Saturday “leftovers” lunches, when my mother cleaned out the week’s remnants from the fridge and, once every month or two, retrieved the soup container, sometimes even two soup containers, from the freezer and dumped it in a stainless steel cauldron.
I was supposed to feel I relieving world hunger, helping starving children, being a responsible and kind global citizen. Yet still I watched hopelessly as the soup chunk slowly melted into a ripe swill of every meal we’d mostly consumed over the last thirty days.
At the table, as we prayed, heads engulfed in the sacred steams wafting from our full bowls, I asked God to please help me to get through my bowl of soup, to make it taste ok, to keep me from thinking of vomit. But the smell… a note of fish, a note of Chef Boyardee, a note of compost-pile vegetable. And then, as we opened our eyes from prayer, the soup itself, pale off-brown green, bean sprouts and lima beans festering in the broth, ground hamburger and sweet potatoes waterlogged at the bottom.
“Fucking gross,” my teenaged sister said, after which she was banished to her room without lunch.
I hated her.
I smiled at my parents and touched the spoon to my tongue. I would be their favorite child. I would be a model Mennonite.
I would go to heaven.
Rachel Yoder edits draft: the journal of process which publishes first and final drafts of short stories, essays, and poetry along with author interviews about the creative process. Her writing most recently appears in The American Reader and Blue Mesa Review and is forthcoming in The Normal School and The Chicago Tribune. She lives in Iowa City.