Monday, June 3, 2013

More-with-Much-Less: An Anorexic's Guide to Mennonite Cooking

My name is Michelle, and I am a thirty two year old Mennonite who has anorexia nervosa (AN), and I almost didn't become a Mennonite because of the food. 

I have been officially diagnosed with AN for longer than I have considered myself a Mennonite.  I grew up in a Christian home and made two professions of faith as a child and a teenager, but I did not become aware of the Mennonite tradition until my husband was working on his Master of Divinity and I was teaching Spanish in New Jersey.

Actually, in my undergraduate years at Oklahoma Baptist University, I went to church with a girl who was a traditional Mennonite with the long hair and long skirts.  Like most people, I knew Mennonites had something to do with the Amish, but I didn't know much else.

 But during our years in NJ, as my husband worked on his MDiv and I continued my contract as a member of the Army National Guard band, I began thinking about what I believed as a Christian and how that lined up with what my church professed and lived.  I was intrigued by Mennonite theology and practices, and when we knew we would be moving to Waco, Texas, we found a church that seemed perfect.  It was a small, Spanish/English bilingual, Mennonite church.  But like I said at the beginning of this post, I almost didn't become Mennonite because of the food.

When my husband and I began an e-mail discussion with the pastors of the church, I liked a lot of the ideas, but as soon as I read that they ate breakfast together every Sunday morning, I began thinking of excuses for not attending.  The real reason was that I didn't want to eat food other people had prepared.

Over the 16 years that I have had active eating disorder behaviors and symptoms, the disorder has had various phases.  I went through the very low fat diet, overexercising, eating a certain amount of calories, eating only certain types of foods, eating all of my food in the evening, eating all of my food early in the day, avoiding specific foods, picking at my food, eating only food that I prepared, eating only foods that come from a can or box, etc.

At the point that we were moving to Waco, I was in a phase of not eating much during the day and having anxiety about eating food other people prepared.  The food wasn't the only reason Matt and I didn't attend Hope Fellowship as soon as we moved to Waco, but it was the reason that I didn't go out of my way to attend the church.

While attending a traditional, mainline denomination church for several months that was within walking distance to our apartment,  Matt and I had several conversations about joining the church.  They all went something like this:
"We should join."
"Yeah, we should."

The speaker is interchangeable. And the outcome was always the same. The conversation ended there.

There was nothing inherently wrong with the church we were attending.  In many ways, it was just what we were looking for, if we were looking for a traditional church.  And it didn't hurt that they didn't eat breakfast together every Sunday, at least in the mind of a woman struggling with AN :-).

But we longed for a different understanding and vision of what it means to be a Christian and a disciple of Jesus Christ.  I wanted it enough that I was willing to "put up" with food.  So, I re-read the e-mails from the Mennonite church, and we made our first appearance on a Sunday in December of 2006.

It was completely unlike any church that we had ever attended, and my reaction was to think, "It's weird enough to feel right."  Over the years of involvement with the church and the decision to become members, I can now more clearly, if not more eloquently, explain what it is about the church and Mennonite theology that draws me, but I will explain that in future blogs.

For now, I will say that at first the food kept me away, and now the food keeps me there.  Sometimes it is the literal food.  Although I still struggle to eat food that other people prepare and usually don't eat during meals with my church body, I love sharing time around the table with other people.  And the metaphorical food, the body and blood of Christ, tethers me to this specific church and these specific disciples of Jesus.

One of the main tensions that kept us from joining the first church we attended in Waco was the lack of relevance that the Sunday activities seemed to have on the rest of the week and the daily lives of the church attendees.  I wanted a church that was my life, a way to live what I believe.

I didn't want to talk about "the poor" like they weren't part of our body, or maybe even us ourselves.  I didn't want to talk about living with less material wealth, I wanted to have less stuff.
I didn't want to talk about ethics, I wanted to live ethics.

But not growing up Mennonite, I didn't even realize that there was/is an ethic involved with food.  As someone with AN, I made all of my decisions based on restriction.  I restricted food, and I restricted money.  So, I chose foods based on two criteria: less calories and less money

The first time I heard the title of the Mennonite cookbook More With Less by Doris Janzen Longacre, I felt anxious.  I looked at it briefly enough to get a vague understanding of the book: Mennonites need to realize that our decisions about what we eat affect other people. 

I knew that I was not in a healthy enough place with my recovery to read/use the book.  From past experiences, I knew that I would use the book against myself.  It would only add to the guilt that I constantly put upon myself about food and the way that I was living and the person that I was.  I would use the book as a personal mandate to eat less food (as if I needed another voice telling me that!).  I already knew all about the idea of "less".  I was great at it! 

A well-intentioned paragraph out of the preface would have been another whip used for self-flagellation.  Janzen says, "MCC has asked each constituent household to look at its lifestyle, particularly food habits.  Noting the relationship between North American overconsumption and world need, a goal has been set to eat and spend 10 percent less" p. 13.

This paragraph would have been enough to send me into an inner world of turmoil, anxiety, and guilt.  I would want to save the world's poor by not eating my dinner.  I would want to save more money by buying less food. I would include myself in the "North American overconsumption" as I slowly wasted away on less and less food.

If you know anything about the cookbook, the idea is not about restricting, guilt, or self-punishment.  But I would not have been able to understand this if I had read it earlier.  Janzen's statement, "There is a way of wasting less, eating less, and spending less which gives not less but more," would have been completely lost on me.

Now, I feel healthy enough mentally, if not physically, to undertake this project.  I intend to read the book and cook one of the recipes each week and blog about my experience.  You might wonder what the point of this is.  Sometimes, I wonder the same thing.  But I think it is important as Mennonites and other Christians think about the ethics of food, hunger, and the poor, that we do not shape the conversation around the idea of guilt.

I want Mennonites to remember that there are those amongst us who already restrict our food but not for theological reasons.  I want to help myself and others have a conversation about what it means to eat together, share with those in need, and eat the body of Christ and drink the blood of Christ when we take communion together.


  1. Thanks for this! Eager to watch your journey. :)

  2. Thank you for your transparency and openness to sharing your story.

  3. December 2006? That's the month I came back! Didn't realize we share that :-) So pleasantly surprised to learn that you started your blog today and hoping that one of your weekly recipes falls on a Monday!

  4. Thanks for these important reflections. Your voice is an important one to be heard. I'll be interested in following you journey on this blog.

    1. Thank you for reading it and commenting Hannah. I linked to your Blog and am also interested in your ideas and writing. Have you written much about body image and food as it pertains to Mennonites and feminism?

  5. This is so relevant and helpful for so many people! I am praying for you as you seek the Lord. Thank you for sharing!

  6. I LOVE THIS! I'm so glad to be a fly on the wall of your experience. Sneak in a few tidbits for me on your experience of motherhood as well!

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