It took a long time until I realized that I grew up weird.
Who, after all, doesn’t munch on fried chicken feet, toenails intact, while sitting in her Mennonite grandmother’s kitchen? Or doesn’t take severed pig’s snouts to school for kindergarten show-and-tell?
Who has not slept in a barn hayloft, slurped warm milk, fresh from a milking bucket, and been gifted a paper lunch bag full of mixed nuts, hard candies, mandarin oranges and a King James Bible for Christmas?
It wasn’t until I discovered Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness on a bookstore display (drawn to it’s cover by the illustration of a chicken and a hatchet), that I finally saw this side of my family in the mirror. And when I clearly saw that we might not be “normal.”
Miriam Toews will always be, well, Miriam Toews: the brilliant-yet-very human author who unexpectedly brought my lived, and my family experience, to life with grace and hilarity on the page. The woman who gave us, among other titles, Swing Low: A Life, All My Puny Sorrows, Irma Voth and, of course, Women Talking, the ensuing screenplay for which went on to win an Academy Award. (Entrusted with Miriam’s phone number, I once butt-dialed her. Thankfully, she found this funny.)
Reading Miriam Toews is also how I discovered other Mennonite voices including my first writing mentor, Sandra Birdsell, Andreas Schroeder, Rudy Wiebe, Patrick Friesen, Elsie Neufeld, Dora Duek…and more recently Andrew Unger, Casey Plett, Keanan Byggdin, Jessica Penner, Mitch Toews, Daniel Shank Cruz…etcetera to the point that we have a Facebook group numbering more than 200 members.
As you can see, along with my own collection of short stories, Mennonites are well represented in both literature and on screen.
Besides which, how many times have you heard cracks about horses and buggies and plain-dress modesty culture in comedy sketches, or at your neighbour’s backyard BBQs?
How often have you been been presented with Mennonites (or Amish, our spiritual and literal cousins) featured on episodes of television hospital dramas and even two whole seasons featuring a Mennonite Drug Cartel? And let’s not forget that little nugget from one of the best episodes ever of Schitt’s Creek!
Because we’re weird, Mennonites have become ubiquitous in the popular culture.
But I was also raised Seventh-day Adventist.
And doesn’t every child also have a vegetarian, Sabbath-keeping, apocalypse-expecting, latter-day prophet-following side of the family?
Didn’t everyone, visiting that other side on long weekends and holidays, wash the starch out of a bowlful of flour, in order to keep only the elastic mass of gluten, with which they then made gluten steaks?
And I’m certain we all made sure, absolutely sure, that the bacon bits on our salads were made of soy instead of anything that might have parted the hoof and therefore risked our eternal souls?
Surely no one reading this missed out on quarterly visits by the ABC (Adventist Book Centre), where we lined up outside a semi-trailer to purchase books about demons, along with canned and frozen vege-meats that were invented in the 1950s, and which are mostly made of industrial chemicals and salt?
This is next level weird, you say?
Well, it is.
So, you’d think Seventh-day Adventists would be well represented in the cultural universe of storytelling.
After all, the religion got its start with a group of believers in Michigan who, being certain they had cracked a secret code embedded in the Bible, sold all their possessions, went out into a field, and spent an entire night awaiting the second coming of Jesus.
This, for obvious reasons, came to be known as The Great Disappointment.
Hence disappointed, what remained of these believers took another look at the numbers, chose another date, and went out into the field again.
(Incidentally, I learned all of this by attending two different SDA academies for high school, and by going to Sabbath School and Church every Saturday morning for fifteen or so years. The 28 fundamental beliefs are also required learning before affirming them in baptism, which I did.)
Anyway, with a second disappointment behind them, it was determined that Jesus had never meant to return to earth on either of those nights, after all.
Instead, they realized, on October 22, 1844, Christ had entered the Heavenly Sanctuary (analogous to the architecture of the Old Testament Sanctuary), where He began to judge the living and the dead. There, as Lizzy, my 16-year-old character from Stillwater notes, He’s been going over the naughty and nice list ever since.
And yet, the only times SDAs have been portrayed in literature or entertainment, to my notice, have been with “A dingo ate my baby!” (yes, that was us), a mention in a single episode of House. Then there was (however inaccurately) Seventh-day Adventists Lane Kim and her mother in Gilmore Girls. SDAs are also glancingly referenced whenever someone remembers to point out that David Koresh (of Waco infamy) started off as an Adventist (there’s a new mini-series on Netflix).
Oh, and of course there are books about us, written by us, for us, where we come off very well, and which are sold to us by… the ABC. I remember one such novel where a family was miraculously saved from starvation (think manna from heaven) because they were faithful to the point of near death by not eating the neighbour’s pork chops.
I say “us,” but I left the church a long time ago. Almost twenty years, to be approximate.
I can also say that, while I started writing Stillwater more than a decade ago, it nevertheless has taken me every one of those years to process my experience with Adventism and Adventists into ink for this novel.
And weird ink is good ink. It really is. Which is exactly why I’m a bit worried about the possible backlash. Mennonites, after all, did not take entirely kindly to Rudy Wiebe’s And Peace Shall Destroy Many. Or to Miriam Toews in the beginning and, sometimes, even now. Some did not take kindly to my own Mennonites Don’t Dance, which was banned by the public library system in far north Alberta.
I think I’m ready this time, though.
Because now that Stillwater is out, people (reporters, mostly) have started asking what I hope will come of holding up a mirror to my second, weird family religion?
I hope other writers will follow.
I hope Adventist literature becomes as ubiquitous a sub-genre as books by and about Mennonites.
I hope a hundred mirrors get held up to reflect what goes on behind church (and school) doors.
Because as much as I’ve made light and sport of Adventism and my own experiences for the sake of this blog post, behind closed doors, where many of the (metaphorical) lights are turned off, is exactly the kind of place where darkness is able to flourish. Where purity culture, rape culture and other abuses are swept under the desks and pews. Where the words of a 19th-century prophet, who was hit in the head by a rock before she started to see angels and aliens, still guide the lives and decisions of the adherents inside.
There’s a lot of that kind of thing, too, in the pages of Stillwater.
But I don’t hold the monopoly on having either experienced life as an Adventist, or on telling those stories.
What I hope is, when it comes to both readers for Stillwater and the writers that may come forward next, is to discover that I am, as with the Mennonites who are writing their way out of their individual and collective darkness, with humour and with grace, very far from being alone.
And now, in case you didn’t believe me about the Gluten, here’s the recipe (this and 20+ others can be found in the book).
8 cups organic, unbleached flour
3 cups water
8 cups homemade vegetable stock
Add water to flour and combine. Knead until dough becomes elastic, and
then form into a ball. Place ball in a large bowl and cover with water.
Allow it to soften overnight.
To “wash” the flour, work the starch out of the dough by kneading it in the
bowl of water while making sure to keep the dough together. It will become
more elastic as you work. Discard the washing liquid.
Covering dough with water, let dough rest for about 30 minutes, and then
wash it again in fresh water. Repeat washing and kneading until the water
is almost entirely clear.
Bring vegetable stock to a rolling boil.
With clean kitchen scissors, snip steak-sized slices of the gluten meat into
the stock. Boil gently for 30–35 minutes, until the steaks float to the top.
Remove with tongs.
Coat the steaks in breading and fry in a little oil. Serve with mashed potatoes
and well-cooked vegetables.
Note: Can also be ground up for burgers or spaghetti sauce. (no, really)
– Darcie Friesen Hossack, June 5, 2023
*Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles is the cult revealed in Amazon Prime’s Shiny Happy People. For future reading, bookmark the upcoming memoir by Jill Duggar, Counting the Cost, coming in September 2023.