A Reason for Wheat and Pig

I depart at 3:20pm this afternoon for the Sunflower State. Tomorrow promises cooking with Grandma Boyts, lunch with cousins and aunts, and then a "German" buffet at The Breadbasket for supper. 

In the meantime, I think I strained my arm carrying a pig

I woke up Sunday morning with an ache in my right arm and could think of nothing I’d done.  Nothing other than carrying that pig from table to smoker with Levi.  I was helping him out on a pig roast event. He was helping me on my pig anatomy and butchering. Apparently I still need to learn pig-carrying posture. Sigh.

This anatomy lesson got me thinking on a recent conversation I had with my Grandma Joan Dreier about her memories of pig butchering on the farm. Her job was to clean the casings for the sausage. She called it "neat", her sarcasm not lost on me. Got me thinking about my mother and her prize hog. 

My mother, Teresa, and her prize hog.

It got me thinking of the chapter on pork in Norma Jost Voth’s amazing book, Mennonite Food and Folkways of Mennonites from South Russia, Volume I  in which she describes the Mennonites' love of all things pork.  The first page of her chapter includes a Low German saying:
"He thinks highly of short
prayers and long sausages.
He hellt fal fonn en 
kortet Jebad onn ne lange Worscht."

Pig photos by Janan Markee

 My point here is not to give you strange Low German sayings about sausage to use as party tricks. Though it’s certainly an added bonus.

My point here is to expand a bit on the post “We Are Where They Ate” which gave a wee bit of Mennonite history, explaining that there were basically two Mennonite veins of immigration to North America – the Swiss/German and the Russian. My essential questions today:
Why are there Mennonites in Kansas?
Why are there Russian Mennonites in Kansas?
If these Mennonites are “Russian” why are they talking about sausage in Low German?

My last evening in Portland for a bit - Navarre. Was a perfect departure meal.

Ok, the story on the Russian Mennonites:  In the late 1700’s there was a Mennonite group in Prussia (what is now Poland), many of whom had come to Prussia from the Netherlands. (The Dutch influence being an important point when you're studying food history.)

This Prussian group began a resettlement to southern Russia in the 1780s upon the invitation of Catherine II, the Russian ruler at the time.  Her real aim was to settle land Russia had taken from the Turks in war, a fact the Mennonites likely didn’t quite grasp.  The logic of the invitation being that if the land was settled, it would assure Russia’s continued possession of it.  Tricky, if you ask me. But with land issues at home in Prussia, the Mennonites were pretty well primed to depart.

The deal looked even prettier with the package of privileges the Mennonites were promised. It almost seemed tailor-made:
- The Mennonite communities (often called "colonies") they established could be independent, essentially allowing them to operate in total isolation.
- Complete religious freedom, meaning no more persecution from Catholic or Reformed governments
- Exemption from military service, an especially important point considering Mennonites were and are pacifists. This tended to be a point of contention in most places of residence. 
- Special permission to brew beer and distill brandy, something the Mennonites were famous for in Prussia. Who knew? 

So they moved. And so began a 200+ year history of Mennonites in Russia. Of course moving wasn’t as simple as that. It wasn't packing up a U-haul and driving a few hundred miles at 60mph, listening to the Indigo Girls and dreaming about your garden on the other side. It was the 18thcentury after all. And wintertime. It was also a much more gradual migration from Prussia than this implicates, lasting until about 1870.

Map of Mennonite colonies in South Russia The "Old Colony" was the first

In keeping with pig themes - Navarre's pork pate 

To make a long story pretty short, (the story being what it takes to be impoverished pioneers in a foreign country) the colonies and villages they built in southern Russia were soon thriving. They successfully established their own governing structure, schools, hospitals, orphanages, economy and so on. Way of life in Russian Mennonite colonies is a study in and of itself, to be sure. 

Here’s the crux though – These Russian Mennonites from Prussia spoke Low German, a regional variety of West Germanic languages, from the time they arrived in Russia to the time they left. No, I won't judge you for having to reread that. And because they were given the privilege of living in basic isolation from the rest of the Russian culture the vast majority didn’t ever learn the Russian language, and they saw no need to. The isolation was even more pronounced as proselytizing  was not allowed by the Russian government. This had several implications, one being that there were few intermarriages between Mennonites and Russians. Marriage meant acculturation, the blending of families. 

However something serious shifted in the 1860s when the Russian government began requiring that the Russian language be taught in the Mennonite schools. Cornelius Dyck, a Mennonite historian, claims, “It is possible that this development conditioned the Mennonites to see the German language as an essential part of the Mennonite faith itself.”

Voila… Language becomes part of one’s faith. The ability to view "Mennonite" as part of one’sethnic identity found its fertile ground.

Something even more serious shifted in 1874 when the privilege of military exemption was lifted and replaced with the promise of alternative military service, like working in the forestry service. This alternative just wasn’t enough for many folks though.  So you guessed it… From 1873-1874 about 18,000 immigrants came to the Midwest.  A large group (probably around 5,000) of which chose central Kansas as home. Why Kansas? There were already some Swiss/German Mennonites who had come from Pennsylvania in Kansas, the railroad business wanted them, and land was being sold at a good price - $2.50 cents an acre. The price of my Americano this morning.  

Reminds me of that that Paul Simon song… 
“I’ve got some real estate here in my bag
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies
And we walked off to look for America”.

Except they were on ships with zwieback. Then wagons. Look for America, Kansas, Harvey County.   

Map of Mennonite congregations in Kansas

So colonies were established in the prairies of central Kansas. Interesting fact: The Russian Mennonites 
are responsible for having turned that vast prairie into the vast wheat fields as they are known today. Having tucked a few of those Turkey Red Wheat kernels on the boat and wagon, they planted away. Breadbasket indeed.   

Back to the crux – the language thing.  That the immigrants from Russia spoke German can make for a somewhat confusing history, albeit interesting. It certainly gave them trouble during wars against Germany when people were suspicious of German speakers. That they weren’t actually German was beside the point, or at the very least confusing.

Today in Kansas, many of the foods that the Russian Mennonites brought with them are now called “German” food, not Russian or Prussian or even Dutch.  German. So Friday night I will attend a German buffet that is complete with Russian Mennonite foods, which to be fair, aren't Russian foods either. This all makes sense I suppose… the folks who handed you that roll called it something in German. Called themselves something in German. Called everything something in German. Let us call it German.

Of note, I am not a descendant of Russian Mennonites. My mother’s side comes from Germany and France. The Mennonite part – Keturah's family – from Germany . My father’s side also comes from Germany. Yet the Russian Mennonite food is definitely part of my food story. Because to spend any time in this area of Kansas is to eat the food and know the descendants.  It meant my grandmother learned to make bierrocks and borscht and new years cookies. It meant we frequented the Breadbasket and dreamed of warm zwieback on the sleepy ride from Texas to Kansas, trying to spot the little white church on the horizon that meant the farm was only a few moments away. 


  1. Katie,
    Some of those folks ended up in Henderson Nebraska where I am from.
    Stan Peters

    1. ..and some from Henderson, Nebraska ended up in Dallas, Oregon.

    2. Thanks for the comment AR! The migration paths are fascinating to follow. May I ask about the path from Henderson to Dallas?

  2. ...Mennonite as part of ones ethnic idenity...
    This resonates in me. What a joy to read! I am not much for following blogs, but I'll be back! :)
    Angela Ebersole - Hesston 2000

  3. Stan, So true! I've been told by more than one person that my next trip should be to your hometown. :) Hope things are well there!

    Hi Angela! Thanks for your comment! So glad to have you along. I'm with you the resonation. Such a rich culture.

  4. I am an avid blog reader and follower. I'm so excited to find your blog! I grew up in a Mennnonite home in NW Ohio. I especially enjoy reading about the history. We have numerous books filled with stories and information about not only this area, but my own family members...the Yoders, Eashs, Millers, Aeschlimans, etc! I will be reading your blog and looking forward to the cookbook you are working on! If you ever come to our corner of Ohio I would love to cook some of th recipes my Grandmother made and those that are popular in this area! It's a wonderful heritage!