Having been without a Church fellowship meal for well over a year, I find myself wistful.
I think it is possible that the Church potluck might become a pandemic casualty, never to rear its ugly jello-salad-eating head again. Some will think this loss a tragedy but I prefer to think of it as an opportunity.
An opportunity for faspa.
I have already made my opinions about Mennonite potlucks known and I can’t say that I will be terribly sad if I never see another long table laden with lentil casseroles.
But I do have hopes that faspa will stay the course, replacing the decadent potluck that pretty much defined how North Americans ate in Church through the twentieth century with its more seemly and modest fare.
I recently tried to explain faspa to someone who has no connection to Mennonites at all. I told him it was a cold meal of bread and jam and cheese and pickles and sometimes meat and boiled eggs and salads. I said that it was sometimes called “Mennonite charcuterie.”
He said it sounded wonderful but also like what he ate whenever he hadn’t planned on anything and was just searching through the fridge for supper.
Had he been a Mennonite, I would have suspected that the comment had a healthy dose of passive aggression. As it was, I think that I have simply failed, once again, to convey the absolute perfection that is faspa.
This wasn’t the first time I failed in this regard. Years ago, when I first met the man I would later marry, my attempt at describing faspa resulted in the rejoinder, “People who aren’t Mennonite just call that lunch.” I married him anyway, in full confidence that he would come around with time. We have since eaten countless faspas together and if they haven’t done the trick, nothing will.
Faspa isn’t always a community meal. According to Norma Jost Voth, faspa was a Russian Mennonite solution to the problem of farmers being unable to work nonstop without sustenance. Their solution was the creation of this little mid-afternoon meal that consisted of bread and jam and a few swallows of coffee. It was literally a culinary manifestation of the Mennonite work ethic.
But that is not what I think of now when I wax nostalgic on the glories of faspas past.
No, I think of the Sunday faspa.
Because somehow, sometime in the mists of the Mennopast, that humble workaday faspa met up with Sundays of leisurely conversation and transformed itself into an instrument, not of endless labour, but of endless afternoons of sociability. Some foods were added — cold meats, pickles, cheese and desserts, principally — but its simplicity remained its charm.
People my generation think mostly of faspa as a weekend meal. So much so that I have on occasion heard the assumption that it was a cold meal because of a religious proscriptions against working on Sundays, the speakers imagining that the male Mennonite Church leaders of old actually considered the women’s cooking to be worthy of the title “work.” That was not the case. Faspa was for every day but Sunday faspa outlasted workday faspa because our love of conversation outlasted our love of long working hours. And Sundays were for conversation.
And unexpected guests.
Faspa was the perfect meal for a “drop in” culture when Sundays meant a time when anyone might pop over for long chats and a bite to eat. Which apparently happened a lot on Sundays, back in the day. I remember my parents lamenting the loss of a drop-in culture. Perhaps that culture lasted longer in the faspa-eating Mennonite enclaves to the west but my parents moved to Kitchener-Waterloo before I was born and the faspas I ate at home became private affairs. If guests were expected, my mother would prepare a more elaborate meal knowing that the Mennonites of this region, whether they were Pennsylvania Dutch or recent converts from other cultural traditions, would be unappreciative of our humble zwiebach-centric mid-afternoon repast.
But I maintain that there is a beauty in simplicity. At first glance, it may not compare well against the Church potluck with all its diversity and abundance because faspa isn’t about abundance so much as sustenance. And with a bit closer scrutiny, it compares quite well, indeed.
Ease and Simplicity
Though fancier than a workaday faspa, even a Sunday faspa is simple in comparison to a Church potluck. The menu is simple, the set-up and clean-up requirements are simple, the aesthetics are simple. Potlucks, on the other hand, are not simple. Though perhaps worth the funny stories that come of them, unplanned potlucks invariably end up with too many lentil casseroles and not enough dessert. They are rarely aesthetically pleasing and they require complicated logistics around re-heating hot dishes, the allocation of trivets, and assuring that enough people stick around to do the dishes.
Potlucks frequently feature casseroles with dubious ingredients. Not so, faspa. Faspa might occasionally feature a salad or two with unidentifiable contents but the main items are set out on the table as plain as a yes is a yes and a no is a no. Potlucks, moreover, can easily breed dissension in the community over such divisive points as whether celery belongs in a jello salad (no) and if marshmallows and mayonnaise are an acceptable combination (also no). Faspa may inspire controversy over cheese variety or zwiebach etiquette but these are minor by comparison.
Faspa does not require crowding into a Church basement, but rather is based on grazing and can work for people spread more distantly in a room or outdoors. It can be scaled up to hundreds of people and down to solitary dining. It can be made by one person or parcelled easily off to dozens should guests offer to contribute their own goods and services. In the days of yore, faspa was equally at home at weddings, funerals and wheat fields. The same cannot be said of the potluck which quite literally ceases to exist when guests fail to materialize. Even the faspa menu, though predictable in broad strokes, has room for flexibility, allowing for fancy cheeses and pickles, jams, seasonal vegetables, spreads and dips, and a variety of cold meats, and desserts of all kinds. Some of us will even allow breads other than zwiebach at a fancy faspa.
That’s right. I am here to say that faspa is a purer meal form than the potluck fellowship meal. Potlucks are all about mixing different foods together and just hoping it all works out. That makes for a great metaphor but — quite often — a lousy meal. Faspa has many different foods but they are typically laid out separately each on their own plate, allowing the diners to selectively choose the cheeses, meats, breads and pickles without causing one food item to contaminate another.
Faspa is humble. Even the poorest Church mouse can scrape together some bread and cheese, and the fat cats’ ostentation is held in check by the restrictions of the form. If faspa were to be strapped onto the back of camel, the beast would still have no difficulty passing through the eye of the needle. A well-laden potluck table, on the other hand, will as likely as not break the camel’s back before the poor animal could even stand up. Moreover, while a Mennonite may take a bit of pride in a perfectly shaped zwiebach at a Sunday faspa, this is nothing like the arrogance of a potluck contributor whose dish is the first licked clean.
We are typically a stayed and ponderous people, not prone to spontaneity at all. That faspa promotes spontaneity shows its superpower capabilities. While a potluck requires significant planning and the preparation of a dish in advance, a faspa can be thrown together in a moment’s notice with nothing but a trip to the farmer’s market, a garden and/or refrigerator. Sure, some baking ahead of time is always welcome but it isn’t required.
Finally, I add that faspa is particularly well-suited to accompany a cinq a sept cocktail hour. Yes, I know that faspa was traditionally earlier in the afternoon but its remarkable adaptability allows it to migrate upward an hour or two and be ready for friends who might drop by for cocktails and conversation. It’s just faspa — no need to dress up or stress over timing an elaborate dinner party. And it pairs equally well with gin or whiskey.
The Last Wurst
This cocktail is featured in Menno-Nightcaps with reference to farmers’ sausage but it also goes well with faspa. There is also a cocktail I made that is called “faspa” and you can always make that. I made that recipe first for the blog post on zwieback. This one is a variation on the classic cocktail, The Last Word. It varies only by decreasing the citrus and adding bitters.
- 1 oz gin
- 1 oz green chartreuse
- 1 oz maraschino liqueur
- 1/2 oz lime juice
- a few dashed rhubarb or Angostura bitters
Measure all ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled halfway with ice. Shake thoroughly and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lime wheel or cocktail cherries.