How I Came to Love the Crunchy Simple Life (with a side of Mennonites)

27 February 2014

Once upon a time I shampooed my hair daily and wore anti-perspirant and had never heard the term lacto-fermentation, and I probably was less annoying then, but let's be real, I was also a lot less cool.

Then enter one son of a hippymama named Jacob Rhodes.

In Los Angeles when Jacob and I were still engaged, my English teacher roommate was arguing with her architect boyfriend one evening about whether potatoes grew above ground or underground. Figuring that I was earthy enough to solve the dilemma, they came and found Jacob and me in the living room and poised the question. I stuttered that I was pretty sure they grew underground even though I wasn't speaking from any kind of experience and looked over at my farmerish fiance for back up. Jacob grinned huge and answered:

"Well the ones we grew always grew underground."

You see, the crunchy ways are not new to Jacob. Jacob was eating kale for breakfast while all other American children were feeling healthy while they snapped, crackled, and popped. But beyond his hippymama, his father had grown up as an old order Mennonite. Horse and buggy Mennonites are nothing if not simple livers, and it was there that I caught the bug.

Jacob lived in the Mennonite community for his junior year of high school and had found some of his dearest friends among his 80ish cousins.

Jacob and brothers and Jack the dog

I'm pretty sure I've posted that photo on the blog before, but there are so few pics from this time in Jacob's life - because of the whole no electricity/no graven image thing - that I'm recycling it. But can you blame me? That's how they dressed the whole year, hats and all!? (He said they would drive the buggy into town and get looks and he just wanted to shout: You've got it all wrong! I'm just like YOU!) (I think it's awesome that my mother in law did this to her teenagers.) (Her teenagers!)

I digress...

Anyhow, when we got engaged it was high time that I met all his paternal relatives in Kentucky. So I went to Goodwill and bought myself some monotone ankle skirts and longsleeve shirts and hopped on a plane to meet my soon to be in-laws.

We walked into his aunt's house late in the evening and the kitchen was lit with one oil lamp and on the table was a huge bowl of popcorn dusted with brewer's yeast that his grandmother had made us. A couple of his cousins came in with their patchy young beards and stared at the ground. Jacob and his brother made Mennonite small talk, and I ate popcorn.

My week visiting the Mennonites was a week of faux pas. One fourteen year old cousin (in the dearest way) treated me like I was nine, and rightly so because I was fumbling all over the place. I talked too much. I slept too late. I went through the men's only entrances. I didn't know anything about anything, and I wanted to know everything, and while my curiosity was kind of flattering to them it was also just awkward. You can't even say things like "darn." I don't know how Jacob turns it off, honestly. He just transitions into Mennonite-speak. I'm the opposite. I'm like a carbonated beverage all shook up in those situations. I trip on my skirt and I say "Shoot." Then "Darn," I realize what I've said. "Geez" I did it again. And it goes on like that for a very embarrassing amount of time. And all the while Jacob is looking at me with raised eyebrows and shaking his head in utter disbelief.

I've digressed again.

Well, it was on this first visit that I encountered the simple life.

I made soap. I hunted fresh eggs. I milked a cow. I witnessed cloth diapering and hand crank washing machines and hang dried clothes and canning and cheesecloths and printing presses and looms. I watched a chicken go from clucking in the yard to boneless skinless tenders in a matter of minutes. Far from being put off, I was thoroughly and royally hooked. The self-sufficiency was so attractive to me.

The real clincher came when I churned butter. Some of the girl cousins and I were walking out to the field where the boys were doing some clearing and one of them had brought a gallon jar of cream. She shook the jar as we walked. I finally got up the gumption to ask her what she was doing and she told me she was churning butter. I asked if I could give it a go and she obliged. So off I walked shaking this gallon jar and watching it. It got thicker as I shook and I made sure to comment on how much it was beginning to look like butter, and the girls just nodded politely. And then it happened. I was shaking this big jar of dense whipped cream when all of a sudden it started sloshing. In a matter of a couple shakes my cream separated, and there I was staring at butter and buttermilk.

The butter sloshing in that jar became a symbol of how far removed I was from the basic ingredients of the life I lived. I was so educated. So so educated. But I didn't even know how to make butter. When I peeked around the blogosphere and found that this whole simple living thing was all kinds of trendy, well I hopped on that wave like white on rice and we're still cruising.

Jacob isn't nearly as gungho about all this business as I am - I'm the overzealous convert -  but he humors me through my various adventures in pickled carrots and probiotic sodas and will probably draw the line somewhere around a self-composting toilet.

I don't want to dump on modern convenience: I like my hot water and slow cooker and refrigerator, but I also just like living in a way that remembers both that food doesn't originate in the grocery store and that the process of making that food is beautiful and rewarding. So I will continue to botch loaf after loaf of bread; I will occasionally find myself stretching mediocre mozzarella; my kitchen will always smell vaguely like bone broth; and every year will bring with it the grandest of gardening aspirations only partially realized.


  1. "the grandest of gardening aspirations only partially realized": I'm with you there! I think we could all use a little more "crunchy" in our lives :)

  2. I admire your gusto so much!!! I wish I were more gungho - I feel like I should be - so it's nice to hear Jacob isn't either. Haha. But. You remind me how exciting and satisfying it is to creatively participate in processes of growing and nourishment. I always think, "one day when I have a home and babies...." Like that's the best time to unleash strange, labor-intensive, time-consuming processes!

  3. I love it! My journey into crunchdom was different, but so much of what you said resonates with me.

  4. I found my inner hippy on the internet, but very much share your appreciation of simpler living (and for lacto-fermented things, and probiotic sodas, and for poorly realized garden plans). Thanks for sharing this! Great stuff!

  5. I love this topic, you are so very amusing, and I can't remember the other thing I was going to say...I will blame it on the children even though none of them are around. Oh, I know, it was my college roommate, a nice young lady who grew up on a farm in Kansas, who stopped in the middle of the supermarket and exclaimed, "You can buy THOSE in the grocery store?!" She was talking about a cucumber! Ha ha. Keep writing and cheering me up! God bless you and your cute little family! Liz

  6. I loved this post, I smiled from start to finish.
    As soon as I finished reading I'm immediately googled 'Mennonites vs Amish', I bet you get that question a lot??!!
    There has been an amazing series on tele here lately 'Living with the Amish', and their simple life is very appealing.
    "I'm like a carbonated beverage all shook up"….I laughed out load. This is me MOST DAYS, but especially when I'm excited or nervous. Soda pop eat your heart out! hahaha too funny kate x

  7. I am so glad you shared this. So so glad.

  8. This is such a wonderful story! How amazing that your husband lived with his Mennonite family as a teenager, and you spent a week in that community. I try, and in many ways fail, to live a more simple, homegrown life too. We recently bought some land and are hoping to have chickens and a huge garden (and maybe some pigs!) once our house is built. I may have to ask you for some tips! :)

  9. Want to start a new brand of Catholic Amish? The husband and I used to dream about it...

  10. Love it all. Life is so attractive when it is simple, yes?

  11. The last line of this post is such-good-writing...i could read that line alone 10 times and I would be happier each time.

  12. I love this - I'm fascinated by the Mennonite life. And I so wish you lived closer - I could solve your bread-making dilemma with a couple of lessons!

  13. "the grandest of gardening aspirations only partially realized"
    You read my Spring, exactly.

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  15. Trying again!

    My husband's family does brewer's yeast on popcorn (I am utterly opposed to this practice)... I've never met anyone else who does. They are not Mennonites, though, so maybe something's gone awry.

    I am the less-crunchy spouse, but I admit to being slowly turned that way.

    Loved the post!

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