December 29, 2022
By Gary Dyck
Be gentle when you touch bread;
In bread – beauty of sun and soil;
Beauty of patient toil.
Winds and rains have caressed it.
Christ often blessed it.
Be gentle when you touch bread.
-unknown Mennonite writer
It is time for a new year and time for some fresh portzelky (Mennonite New Year’s Cookies)! Mennonites love their dough, so it is no wonder that near the Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) there are wheat fields that our windmill can quickly grind into flour, which our Livery Barn Restaurant then bakes into delicious loaves of bread – always a hot seller on our festival days.
The tradition of Mennonite families cooking portzelky around the new year goes back to our days as a people in The Netherlands. This reminds me of the ‘telephone game’ where one person whispers to another person until it reaches the last person who then usually blurts out something completely different than what was originally said. Always a good laugh. However, I have proof that over these five centuries nothing is lost in the transmission of this delicious custom.
When my partner, Andrea, and I lived in Central Asia, we would visit our local Uzbek family every New Year’s Eve bearing a plate of portzelky for them. One year when we arrived, there was already a plate of this favourite treat on their guest table! How could this be? Andrea had never taught them how to make portzelky, yet here they were – exactly like ours. Earlier in the evening a new Dutch couple had dropped them off. Here we were, five centuries later, in the middle of Asia on New Year’s Eve and the only difference was that they still called them by the Dutch name of oliebollen, which literally means ‘oil cookie’. Tim Hortons sell them as ‘Dutchies’, but anyone who has tasted the original knows there is no substitute for the homemade version.
Both sides of my family are thankful that Andrea can make them ‘as good as grandma’. A couple years ago as we all exclaimed how she had made them perfectly, both of our mothers declared this sacred family duty is now hers. When I looked up the recipe on MennoniteGirlsCanCook.ca I saw several comments like this:
“I DID IT! I am forty-something years old, and I have finally made portzelky! My mom has always made these for our family. In the last couple of years, Mom’s health is deteriorating. She did not make them this year, so it was time for me to give it a go.”
May our older mothers and grandmothers pass on these traditions to the next generations. Sometimes it takes a while to learn. Like the woman who excitedly exclaimed to her Mennonite friend that she had ‘never tasted portzelky with a filling in the centre’. The young baker was too embarrassed to tell her that she hadn’t cooked them long enough!
At MHV’s Village Books & Gifts, you can buy our MHV cookbook which provides some context to traditional Mennonite food, as well as the popular Mennonite Girls Can Cook, the Mennonite Treasury of Recipes, and the new Mennonite Men Can Cook Too. Happy New Year from MHV!
MHV will be closed from December 24 – January 9. Thank you for an incredible year!
MHV Village Books & Gifts shop and Galleries are currently closed and will reopen January 10, 2023.
Exhibit opening: “Resurfacing: Mennonite Floor Patterns,” January 18, 2023, 7 pm – Join artist Margruite Krahn for a presentation followed by a Q&A and exhibit opening. This is an exhibit produced with our partners, the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada and the Plett Foundation.