Local author brings light to Hutterite life

Jodi Schellenberg
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Although many people don’t know much about colony life, one local author is working to change that.

Mary-Ann Kirkby’s most recent book, Secrets of a Hutterite Colony, gives a greater insight into the lives of those on the colony.

“I guess the book is a response to what my readers wanted,” Kirkby said. “After reading ‘I Am Hutterite’ they seemed to have two reactions -- the first was that I made them hungry and they wanted the recipes for the Hutterite food that I loved and talked about. The second was a curiosity about what my life might have been like if I had not left the colony.”

She said at every book reading and signing, there was someone in the audience that would ask, “Could you go back?”

The newest book explores that idea, a Kirkby spent two years visiting Hutterite colonies and relearning about their way of life.

“In Secrets of the Hutterite Kitchen, I return to my roots and back in the bosom of colony life to give readers a candid snapshot of present day Hutterite life,” Kirkby said.

“Through the lens of the community kitchen I was able to unveil our rituals, our traditions and our foods, along with the fascinating bits of our history that people will, I think, find very interesting,” she added.

It was different from her first book, which was a look back at her childhood. Kirkby’s family left the colony when she was only 10 years old due to a conflict between her father and the head minister.

“My parents always let us know we left a conflict, not a culture,” Kirkby said. “My parents didn’t see any way of a resolution. They made a very daring decision to leave with seven children, which was a big deal in 1969.”

Since she grew up in a Hutterite colony, Kirkby said there are a lot of misconceptions about Hutterite life.

“I think there is a tremendous amount of ignorance about Hutterites and I chose to write my first book to help people understand a fascinating culture,” Kirkby said. “Until then, there really hadn’t been any book available to explain how we live, why we live the way we live and what our history is.

“Somebody had to do it and in the end I honestly really felt like the weight of an entire culture was on my shoulders when I was writing it because there was just such a vacuum of information about Hutterite people,” she added.

There are a few reasons why the information in “English” culture is mostly negative, Kirkby explained.

“For the most part Hutterite culture has been represented by people who have a bitter experience and left the colony or by outsiders who don’t understand the culture,” she said.

She said a lot of that is in the hands of the Hutterite people, because they learned not to trust outsiders and do not write their own history.

“In our history, we were among the most education and sophisticated society in Europe,” Kirkby said. “Hutterite doctors were the personal physician to the emperors, noblemen sent to their children to Hutterite schools and we educated women along with men at that time, which was unheard of.”

In the past, Hutterites were also artisans and their hand-painted ceramic tableware, haban faience, was the dishware of choice for royals.

At the time, there were 60,000 members thriving in Moravia, she said. 

“By the time we had gone through the wars and the protestant reformation, there was 60 Hutterites left,” Kirkby said. “There were just a little handful that went to Russia for 100 years.

“In every country we have called home, we have been persecuted, misunderstood and misrepresented,” she added. “I think that coming from a very sophisticated society, because of the intense persecution, I think the Hutterites decided to bear down, live quiet lives and become farmers.”

Since Hutterites also do not write their own stories, people were hungry to learn more about them.

“I think that is why people were so interested in my book because there was so little information out there and the information that was out there was sometimes quite ridiculous and false,” Kirkby said. “I think that is my motivation, to set the record straight, to say that we’re a beautiful and extraordinary culture.

“We have our troubles, we are not perfect,” she added. “Some people have bad experiences on a Hutterite colony -- my parents did and we left.”

Although there have been conflicts, it is a valuable society, that contributes millions of dollars to Canada’s agriculture economy and are the finest example of community life in the modern world, Kirkby said.

After seeing how interested people were in Hutterite life, Kirkby felt inspired to write a second book on the topic.

“When I thought it over, I had given them a glimpse of Hutterite life 40 years ago and every culture changes and evolves,” Kirkby said. “I felt I could go back and work with the women in the kitchen.”

She visited about 12 different colonies in the past two years, working with the women in the kitchen, garden and water house, gathering stories, gossip and recipes.

“It was exhilarating and exhausting,” Kirkby said. “It was a most enjoyable experience for me.”

Even though she hasn’t lived on a Hutterite colony for 40 years, Kirkby said she easily fit in.

“Because I speak the language fluently and I am so familiar with it, I was surprised how easily I could adapt, except for the pace,” she said.

The women on the colony get up at 4:30 a.m. to bake buns and then clean the slaughterhouse before noon.

“Thank God they nap in the afternoon otherwise I couldn’t have kept up,” she laughed. “It was a hectic pace and I couldn’t keep up with them as far as manual labour is concerned.

“They like to do everything at once, in one day, so they can take their breaks,” she added. “In the winter is a time when they have a lot of time for reading and crafts so when they work, look out, they work.”

While in the kitchen, she was able to jot down some of the recipes from the head cook’s book that she shared in her new book.

“I’ve divided it into two parts  -- one is just as it is written and the other is smaller versions of some of my favourites growing up,” Kirkby said. “They are also quite comical or they will say, ‘The blue bowl full of eggs,’ or ‘as much flour as you need.’

“It would take a sophisticated chef to be able to figure it all out,” she said. “I think they are meant as a bit of a laugh.”

Kirkby said she is excited for her upcoming book tour to share “Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen” with her readers.

“It is interesting when you write a book,” Kirkby said. “For a long time you hardly have time -- you get up in the morning and all of a sudden it is 4 p.m. and you have just sat in front of the computer writing. Sometimes you are still in your pajamas.

“Then, all of a sudden, you get to go out and meet the people,” she added. “I love both parts of it. I love the writing process and I absolutely love meeting the people.”

She will be doing a reading at the John M. Cuelenaere Library in Prince Albert on May 8 at 7 p.m.

“Prince Albert has been very good to me and I am very much looking forward to (it),” Kirkby said.

She also hopes people enjoy her book.

“Cultures are beautiful and profound -- we lose so much in the rush to be homogeneous,” Kirkby said. “Our heritage is our blessing and being Hutterite is my blessing.”

Organizations: Prince Albert, John M. Cuelenaere Library

Geographic location: Europe, Moravia, Russia Canada

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