The political, the personal and the More-with-Less Cookbook

Forty years ago my boyfriend gave me a cookbook for my birthday.  It was a copy of the very first edition of the More-with-Less Cookbook, a brand new cookbook from MCC.  He wrote into the inscription, “Given in the hope that this book helps you to live a fulfilling life.”  I married him a few years later – in part because he understood and shared my yearning to live justly and simply in a world of injustice and inequity.

More with Less
If Esther’s copy of the cookbook still had a cover, this is what it would look like this.

I still regularly pull out my More-with-Less Cookbook, which is torn and spattered and which lost its cover long ago. It is by far the most used cookbook on my kitchen shelf.  More than simply a collection of recipes, More-with-Less has been a steady companion in my faith journey.

Forty years after it was first published, the More-with-Less Cookbook is still going strong.  It has sold close to 957,000 copiesMennomedia, successor to the original publisher Herald Press, has promised a special edition for release later this year.

The cookbook was birthed in 1976 in the midst of a major global food crisis.  The world price of wheat had tripled between 1972 and 1973, while prices for rice and soybeans doubled. It was estimated that 500 million people worldwide were at risk of starvation.  The immediate cause for the food crisis was skyrocketing oil prices (induced by cuts in in oil production by OPEC), but a key longer-term cause was deemed to be affluence and overconsumption in the West.[1]

As an international relief and development agency, MCC watched these developments with great concern.  In 1974, at its annual meeting board members passed the “Hillsboro Resolution” (so named because the meeting was held in Hillsboro, KS) which committed MCC to significant new investments in rural agricultural development, advocacy on food aid policies, and development education aimed at more sustainable lifestyles.

The More-with-Less Cookbook, released two years later, was the signature piece of this development education initiative. For the first time in its history, MCC asked all its constituent supporters to examine their lifestyles – and to change the way they ate – as a way of responding to the global food crisis and sharing the limited food resources of the world.

Lentils and beans
Lentils and legumes — key ingredients in the MWL diet.

The cookbook promoted eating more grains and legumes, much less meat, and eliminating highly processed and sugary foods. According to editor Doris Janzen Longacre, making the shift to a More-with-Less diet would save money, improve health and release resources so that many more people could eat well.  She noted how, if land was used to produce grain and legumes for human consumption, rather than to feed the animals that would become meat, it could sustain thousands more people.[2]

A deeply spiritual person, Janzen Longacre’s call for changed eating habits was intimately connected to her faith and her understanding of how Jesus called faithful people to live.  She insisted that Jesus recognized the destructiveness of the desire to consume and acquire ever more stuff, and she asked, “How can we keep overeating in the face of starvation and be at peace with ourselves and our neighbors?”[3]

Janzen Longacre was quick to point out that simply choosing to eat differently would not solve world hunger.  It was important that unjust distribution systems and oppressive government policies be addressed.  She went on to edit Living More with Less, a book that invited readers to broader lifestyle changes.  In it she wrote, the two realms of personal and political action “are as inseparable as the yolk and white of a scrambled egg.”[4]

Doris Janzen Longacre. Photo

Janzen Longacre died in 1979 at the age of 39.  I often wonder what she would say about the catastrophic environmental crises we live with today – climate change, habitat destruction, species extinction, and the contamination of air and water, to name just a few. I suspect that today, like 40 years ago, she would call for action in the halls of power of government, business and industry, as well as international systems of commerce, trade and aid.

But I believe she would also call on ordinary people to make change, to embody care and compassion for others, and to resist lifestyles of excessive consumption. I believe she would pooh-pooh those who say that technology will save us and free us from having to make lifestyle changes.  She would say now, like she did then, we are called “to live the reality that the kingdom of God is already here.”[5]

Theologian Malinda Berry, who was raised on More-with-Less meals, says the power of the More-with-Less Cookbook (and subsequent MCC cookbooks) is that it expresses and embodies an organic Anabaptist theology, perhaps better than the theology books.[6]  Susie Loewen Guenther, a young feminist theologian, agrees, also asserting that More-with-Less theology affirms the sacredness of what has traditionally been women’s work and wisdom as integral to discipleship.

Janzen Longacre’s legacy lives on in her faith-filled vision of justice and solidarity with suffering people and her call to those of us with much more than enough to live simply and sustainably.  It lives on in the thousands of people, myself included, who have been inspired by that vision and its call to link political action with personal change.

Thank-you Doris.  And happy birthday More-with-Less Cookbook!

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

[1] Esther Epp-Tiessen, Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2013), 144.
[2] Doris Janzen Longacre, ed., More-with-Less Cookbook (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1976), 13.
[3] Janzen Longacre, More-with-Less Cookbook, 22.
[4] Doris Janzen Longacre, Living More with Less  (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1980), 26.
[5] Janzen Longacre, More-with-Less Cookbook, 23.
[6] Malinda Berry, “The Gifts of an Extended Theological Table: MCC’s Work Community Cookbooks as Organic Theology,” in A Table of Sharing: Mennonite Central Committee and the Expanding Networks of Mennonite Identity, ed. Alain Epp Weaver (Telford, PA: Cascadia Press, 2011), 284-306.


2 Thoughts

  1. Thanks for sharing this beautiful reflection Esther! What a great reminder about the personal in the political and some of the things that I love best about Mennonites- this is my theology.

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