Want to cook well during COVID-19? Take some notes from the Hutterites

OPINION: A couple of years ago, I visited a Hutterite colony. What I saw there can help all of us create pandemic-ready pantries
By Corey Mintz - Published on Jul 29, 2020
The Fairholme Hutterite colony is located an hour-and-a-half drive west of Winnipeg. (Corey Mintz)

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In a short span of time, we have radically changed our food behaviour. We don’t go out to eat anymore. And during the Between (the time between maximum social distancing and a post-vaccine world), we’re not going to. Even after that initial burst of panic buying at the supermarket, we’re all stocking our pantries with more so we have to shop less. Our casual stops into stores just for yoghurt have been replaced by bulk shopping for four-kilo bags of rice and coffee. 

People who previously scoffed at bringing a lunch to work are now menu planning and batch cooking. In Toronto, where about a quarter of Ontario’s population lives, real estate is so grossly overvalued that physical space becomes another obstacle to efficiently prepping and storing our food. We don’t all have enough shelf space for those big bags of barley or a basement for chest freezers. 

But some people already have pandemic-ready pantries. And we can learn from them.

A couple of winters ago, I had the opportunity to visit a Hutterite-colony kitchen, where I saw food prep and storage like never before.

storage
A pantry room at the Fairholme Hutterite colony. (Corey Mintz)

And I’ve been in every kind of professional kitchen: restaurants, butcher shops, bakeries, hotels, and catering companies built to prepare food for hundreds. But I have never witnessed anything as large, modern, and efficient as the kitchen at the Fairholme Hutterite colony.

It was two days after Christmas. An hour-and-a-half drive west of Winnipeg, the Fairholme colony resembled a ski resort: a blanket of clean snow was laid over a cluster of bungalows (actually barracks repurposed from Shilo, a nearby military base) grouped around a larger building that houses the kitchen, dining hall, laundry facilities, and church. The original kitchen, shuttered earlier in the year, had served the community since the colony was established in 1959. The invitation to visit the facility had been extended through my mother-in-law, Olga, a quilter who comes here to get her quilts finished with a long-arm sewing machine by Anna Maendel (the Hutterites have a reputation for their work with fabrics).

Hutterites, who are divided into three main branches, practise an agrarian-focused, Anabaptist, communal lifestyle. The progressive Schmiedeleut are mostly settled in Manitoba, North Dakota, and South Dakota; the more conservative Lehrerleut and moderate Dariusleut are prevalent in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Unlike the Amish (also Anabaptist farmers), Hutterites embrace technology, so far as it furthers their agricultural needs and other economical pursuits. Hutterite colonies are also patriarchal, the decision-making controlled by men.

Colonies traditionally split when they get too large, often around 150 people (the rules differ among colonies). But that’s changing. The price of land is making it too expensive to build new colonies, and economic shifts are making it less necessary. In the old days, the focus on farming meant that there were only so many jobs to be done, even as production scaled up. But Hutterites have begun to get into manufacturing: many of the components at Fairholme were constructed at other colonies — pre-fab walls (Avonlea Colony), granite counter tops (Maxwell Colony), prefinished cabinets (Rosebank Colony), stainless steel (Milltown Colony), trusses (Acadia Colony), chairs and roofing (Whiteshell Colony), and windows (Vermillion Colony). Fairholme currently focuses on agriculture but has diverse streams of revenue: hogs, turkeys, beef, pullets (young chickens that are not yet laying eggs), land farming, catering, teachers, nurses, nurse’s aides, long-arm quilting.

While there are presently only 85 colony members at Fairholme, the kitchen was built to accommodate visitors during births and death, when the dining room swells with up to 1,000 people. Most days, the colony eats breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. The kitchen is operated on a rotating basis: every eight to 10 weeks, there’s a new head cook, and, each week, two different women — one for the main kitchen and one for baking — help plan and execute meals. The head cook oversees each week’s cooks the way an executive chef might the cooks in a large restaurant, maintaining standards and cost control but allowing the chef de cuisine creative freedom. In urban terms, it’s a pop-up with a new guest chef every two months, minus the DJ and Instagram promotion.

kitchen
The kitchen operates on a rotating basis: every eight to 10 weeks, there’s a new head cook. (Corey Mintz)

The main cooking area is about 800 square feet and has enough marble-topped counter space for at least two dozen people to work side by side. Two commercial deep fryers stand next to a 30-gallon tilt skillet, a four-range stove, a 40-gallon steam-jacketed kettle, a smaller 10-gallon tilt kettle, and two Rational ovens (a wonder machine capable of programable searing, steaming, and baking — too expensive for most restaurants). Every inch of the space, including the tiled walls and shiny metal exhaust hoods above, was so spotless and gleaming, I’d swear it had never been used.

But, then, I’d never met Hutterites before.

Every drawer in the kitchen was labelled — tweezers, pizza cutters, juice jugs — the interior of each one pristine. A drawer marked “cookbooks” held a pair of three-ring binders. One documents their preservation methods and results, so that tips from other colonies can be tested to maximize production. Flipping it open to a random page, I found the 2005 volumes, yields, and costs for pickling and canning crops of cucumbers, raspberries, beans, celery, and mushrooms. The other was recipes, divided up into breakfast, salads, soups, desserts, main dishes, Chinese dishes, sides, and sandwiches. The lists are a mishmash of traditional German fare and food ideas incorporated from travel and dining, including fast food. For example, there were three kinds of borscht, but also something called taco soup. On the page of mains, potato perogies and fleisch kropfen sat next to pizza pops. Sandwiches included Arby’s, McChicken, and “BC Trip Burritos.” So the recipe books are as much history as manual.

The baking room was dominated by $50,000 of brand-new baking equipment — a Baxter rotating rack oven and proofer the size of three phone booths.

food storage
The Hutterites document their preservation methods and results, so that tips from other colonies can be tested to maximize production. (Corey Mintz)

In a series of walk-in fridges and freezers, I found a room of preserved pears, tomatoes, and corn — at least 100 containers of each — the jars as vibrantly coloured and curated as the walls of Marchesi, Prada’s candy shop in Milan. Frozen stockpiles of apricots, saskatoon berries, pumpkin, and turkey meat could feed an army.

The cooking challenges of the Hutterites are much like those of any family. While the new kitchen was expensive, it’s an investment that can be amortized over a long period. For what was spent on this facility, which will sustain 85 people and counting (as the colony grows), you might be able to buy a two-bedroom house in Toronto.

This spring, after our household’s initial quarantine shopping, as I transferred large quantities of rice and beans to lidded containers, I thought of my trip to the Hutterite colony. Our fridge is 24 inches wide, a third smaller than the standard. So we have to be careful about how we stock it. One big cabbage, if not used quickly, creates a bottleneck. That first week, I moved our onions, carrots, apples, potatoes, and squash to the coolness of the basement in order to maximize their shelf life while making space in the fridge for things like lettuce.

Thinking back on that fantasy of a kitchen, I know I’ll never have a walk-in fridge the size of a subway car. But I can always reorganize how I store my food to optimize production in my kitchen — every shelf lined with clear containers and front-facing labels. It’s something we can all do without fancy equipment. We just need a roll of masking tape and a Sharpie. And it’s also conceivable that I could grow food.

Now that those urbanites fortunate enough to be able to work from home have been doing it for months, some are questioning whether they really need to live in large cities, shackled to outrageous housing prices, a lack of child-care services, and nearly useless public transportation. We’re probably not all ready to join a theological commune. But, as a lot of people consider relocating to more rural parts of Ontario, growing food becomes a real possibility.

“I think most people would be amazed how little they would need and that it is not rocket science!” writes one of my Hutterite hosts over email. “The preservation of what is grown would then follow on its own, with people preserving more and more of what they need and like.”

Through the fence, I can see lettuce, tomatoes, and raspberries sprouting from my neighbour’s yard, and I’m already jealous. I’ve never grown anything. But I’ve also never lived anywhere but Toronto. Maybe one day I’ll leave this wet diaper of a city and be able to grow some of my own food.

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