When I was a teenager, Canadian Mennonites were Manitoba’s Christian Cool Kids Club. They lived on farms that sometimes had ostriches and gave driving directions like, “Turn left at the grain silo and right at the dead tree.” They had oodles of family in the same house at all times and always knew how to make their own fun by attaching things to engines. This is the only reason I know what it’s like to sink a snowmobile in a partially frozen lake.
The wonderful distinctiveness of Mennonite culture stems from the fact that they are an exclusive club, from their low German slang (meddaschlope means “little nap,” as in what my toddler never does), to their endearingly peculiar love of JELL-O salad.
Everything I know about Mennonites I learned from the Penners.
The Penners have been my second family since I was fifteen and gifted their dinner table with bad puns and an obvious crush on their grandson. I’ve seen aunts, uncles, and children become farmers and teachers and nurses, and, more importantly, first-rate predictors of the weather and the scandal of wheat prices.
We would all get together for holidays in Grandma and Grandpa Penner’s basement. The focal point was a shelf lined with models of every tractor they have ever owned and a heavy miner’s hat from when Grandpa Penner was sent to work underground for being a World War II conscientious objector. And Grandma did everything that women do to hold everything together.
Perhaps the most oddly comforting thing about joining the Mennonite club is they insist that suffering never be done alone.
This week, my family gathers in Manitoba to celebrate the life of Hannah Penner, our leader in bun baking, place card calligraphy, and never forgetting your birthday. We honor the remarkable woman who kneaded her Mennonite kin together around one, expansive table covered in baked goods. Grandma Penner taught me the importance of folding people into your life with tender gestures and strong arms.
May your suffering never be done alone, but among good family, good memories, and good bread.
Grandma Penner’s Buns
4 cups water
3 tbsp. Fermipan or any other instant yeast
1 cup oil
1/3 cup sugar
1 heaping tbsp. salt
Flour (about 11 cups)
Mix yeast with the first 2 cups of flour and then add the rest of ingredients, which have been mixed
Mix and knead well
Let rise for 10 minutes
Pound down and let rise again in warm place until it’s above bowl of brown mixer
Now, make buns and cover
Let rise and double in size
Bake at 390-400 for about 20 minutes