Neubergthal Heritage Site Trying To Revive Traditional Food

Nearly a century-and-a-half ago a group of Mennonite families left Russia in search of farmland and a place to start their next chapter. In 1876 they settled Neubergthal, a village in south-central Manitoba, just a 15-minute drive from the Canada-U.S. border.

It was here that Mennonite families started to write their legacies in Canada, along with their recipes.

Last week, in what is now considered one of the best-preserved single street Mennonite villages in North America, a group of eager bakers gathered at the national historic site to learn how to bake like their ancestors.

"We know there's an interest and people used to learn this at the foot of their moms and grandmas but in some cases that hasn't happened, so how then do we reintroduce these traditional foods?" said Shaun Friesen, chair of the Neubergthal Heritage Foundation, whose goal is to preserve aspects of this heritage and find appropriate and interesting ways to share and present this heritage, according to its website.

The workshop, led by Suzanne Braun, aimed to garner ideas and challenge the role of traditional foods in the lives of modern families, following the advancement of convenience and technology.

"I think it's just a reality that in people's busy worlds, technology will make a difference. I know how to hand-knead bread, my wife hand-kneads bread, but we've also at times used a mixer ... so at times convenience and need will dictate. I think it's more important that people are in touch with making their own food where they have control with what goes into the ingredients," said Friesen.

One of the treasures of holding a workshop like this, Friesen says, is exchanging tricks and methods and seeing how recipes and techniques differ between families.

"I do have my mother-in-law's recipe, it's the old traditional Mennonite way. I don't use it myself because she uses potato water and that's too much work for me, and I don't knead the bread, I use my machine ... it's just a lot easier and a lot faster," Braun said. "The traditional way of baking I imagine would've taken, I would think, a good half the day. Now I can easily be all done in two-and-a-half hours."

While technology may change the way we craft food, both Braun and Friesen say they don't believe it is killing the art altogether, although it may be endangering it.

"I definitely think it's a threatened skill, and our hope is that we can keep it alive because I think it's important," Friesen said. "Families need to pass these skills on to their kids ... Sometimes busyness and things get in the way but can we at least return so we can sit at a table, talk, and so we all had something to do with the food we created."

Both young and old people gathered at the workshop, a reassuring reflection that the art of baking is not dying.

"It's coming back -- the art of making bread. I could easily go and buy my own bread, but I enjoy baking bread, I like to work with the dough," Braun said.

The Neubergthal Heritage Site has hosted a number of workshops in the past to educate people about other cooking and baking methods, such as fermentation, canning, and noodle making.

"Food needs to be handled by the people who make it because you put your energy, you put your love, you put your care into that and that is shared with family and with community. I personally think that makes a difference," Friesen said.