Life-Changing Cookbooks: More-with-Less

Paste's column on the cookbooks that shape who we are

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My cells have recorded fringed pie crusts turning golden under heat, flaking under forks. One-pot meals, emanating deep smells from slow cookers, remain in my lungs. Family suppers are my bones, potluck dinners, my joints—food almost never eaten alone, food as a way of knowing who we are together.

Blessed are the peacemakers, my Mennonite upbringing still whispers to me, for they will grow large gardens, preserve produce in glass jars, and dog-ear their More-with-Less cookbooks. Food is patient. Food is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. Love your neighbor with your casserole.

From this tradition—before simple was fashionable, before farm-to-table inspired gourmet chefs, before I knew that the young soybeans we steamed from our farm field were called edamame—Doris Janzen Longacre wrote the More-with-Less cookbook. Published in 1976, More-with-Less has provided a culinary modus operandi for several generations of Mennonites and other world-changers.

We strive to be, as Longacre describes in the book’s dedication to her mother and mother-in-law, cooks who are “traditional but creative, thrifty but generous.” In keeping with Mennonite ethics of community, peace, and social justice, More-with-Less is a map for eating well at home, using straightforward recipes and ingredients that minimize harm to the planet’s social and environmental systems. Along with four-part a cappella singing, More-with-Less became a staple of North American Mennonite culture.

Plagued by asthma as a child, Longacre and her family moved, on the doctor’s recommendation, from a Kansas farm to Tucson, Arizona. In the Sonoran Desert, her health improved, and she fed a budding love for cooking, shadowing her mom in the kitchen. As an adult, Longacre and her husband lived in Vietnam and Indonesia on service assignments through Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), embracing satay and curry and nasi goreng. They returned to work for MCC in Akron, Pennsylvania, with their two daughters.

Doris Janzen Longacre attended the church in Akron that raised me, although I never met her—our lifetimes barely overlapped. When I leaf through the More-with-Less, I see names of people I know who contributed and tested recipes. The book includes many voices, with Longacre adding nutrition information and a global perspective in harmony with the food.

Focused on the essentials, Doris Janzen Longacre kept a personal list of reminders to live fully, where she declares that life is too short not to hug your spouse and kids every day, write to your parents, and immerse in nature, and includes my favorites, “life is too short to keep all your floors shiny,” and “life is too short to care whether purses match shoes or towels match bathrooms.” She died of cancer at age thirty-nine.

“Put dismal thoughts aside then,” Longacre writes at the beginning of More-with-Less, “because this book is not about cutting back. This book is about living joyfully, richly, and creatively,” In the original edition, these words appear beside a floating, black-and-white chocolate cupcake, photographed with high contrast so that its light and shadows appear yin and yang.

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