Review of Menno-Nightcaps: Cocktails Inspired by that Odd Ethno-Religious Group You Keep Mistaking for the Amish, Quakers or Mormons by S.L. Klassen (Touchwood Editions, 2021)
This is a unique, fun and practical book about mixology, along with some Mennonite history and culture, inspired by the blog The Drunken Mennonite.
The author, S.L. Klassen, comes from a Canadian “Russian Mennonite” background, while this reviewer is an American of “Swiss Mennonite” heritage – which any reader of the book (or the blog) will recognize as important descriptions of social location. As such, this reviewer had no previous background in mixology and is grateful to the author for laying out the details so well, from the types of equipment one must or need not purchase, to explanations of the names and purposes of the various types of glassware one might find for purchase in a thrift store, to the equally needed section on Mennonite drinking etiquette.
Klassen demonstrates a love of her neighbour by providing directions on how to manage guilt when the cocktails might put the Mennonite mixologist or imbiber outside their window of tolerance regarding worldly purchases or practices. For example, in her description of glassware, Klassen explains that a martini glass is the “epitome of fancy. A Mennonite uses this V-shaped glass only when they want to push the envelope on acceptable worldliness” (8). Klassen actively supports the Mennonite drinker’s experiences throughout by placing at the bottom of each recipe how to mix the drink ingredients, which glass to use and the mode in which a Mennonite ought to sip it. For example, you should sip the Peaceable Gimlet with “the courage of your convictions, remembering that pacifist does not mean ‘passive’” (41).
The author provides opportunity for both the “inter-Mennonite drinking experience” and the “occasion to clink glasses with a cocktail aficionado who is not a Mennonite at all.” The book is meant to be accessible to “the Mennonite, Menno-adjacent or merely Menno-curious” and the “home mixologist” (back cover).
Klassen identifies this book as “a long overdue amalgamation of the cocktail book genre with whatever genre of books incudes everything you never knew you wanted to know about Mennonites” (2). She locates it within the Mennonite cookbook niche but states it doesn’t quite fit there because it lacks the “traditional elements … [no] biblical quotes, inspirational aphorisms and/or exhortations to live a better life” nor stories about hospitality and God’s grace (4).
From a literature point of view, this is clearly an intersectional cross-genre work that includes humor, drink, religion, history, culture and a how-to guide meant to mirror the complexities of Mennonite identities for which it seeks to provide insight. You could make a case for Menno-Nightcaps being used in a catechism context, as it lends itself to discussion of Mennonite history, theology and culture while providing for community building through hospitality – placing it alongside important catechetical materials like The Mennonite Starter Kit and The Muppie Manual. I would also put it within the genre of Mennonite peacebuilding literature because of its capacity to foster greater inter-Mennonite dialogue and to connect people across very different worldviews and tastes.
As a Mennonite history book, Menno-Nightcaps lends itself to greater opportunity for inter-Mennonite peacebuilding in North America by providing an empathic understanding of the many varieties of Mennonite expressions, both theological and cultural, with insight into the infinite ways Mennonites have found to break fellowship with one another. One gets the impression that the author is quite in awe of the Mennonite capacity for schism, well-documented in her ability to incorporate the essence of the ruptures into names of cocktails and admonitions for how to consume them.
Klassen also facilitates the possibility for the inter-Mennonite drinking experience by providing Sunday school sippers (non-alcoholic recipes for some of the cocktails) and recipes that have been scaled up to serve from a punch bowl and thus accommodate invitations to provide cocktails for a “potluck, congregational retreat, barn raising, quilting bee or any other such large group gathering” (139). She even promotes peace when partaking in cross-border Mennonite mingling by providing metric-to-ounces conversion as part of the chart showing how to multiply the ingredients to match the number of servings desired.
In addition to learning how to make mixed drinks and what “bitters” are, this reviewer, raised in the American Mennonite context but having lived in the Canadian Mennonite context for the past two decades, is grateful for learning about mulberries as a source of silk production and the Mennonite czar John Cornies (85); that some Mennonites have an enemy they don’t love, such as Nestor Makhno (95); that there’s a famous Anabaptist named Margret Hottinger who got arrested (possibly while nude) along with Grebel, Manz and Blaurock (19); and that there’s a drink for my favourite card game, Rook (127). An important and unexpected discovery regarding my Mennonite identity that came to me by means of this book was learning about a liqueur called Kirsch, or sometimes Kirschwasser, distilled from the fermented juice of the black morello cherry and made in the Black Forest of Germany, across the Rhine River in Alsace and in the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland.. I’m grateful to Klassen for introducing me to another way of connecting to my direct ancestors by means of a cocktail ingredient, instead of tracing last names.
Perhaps the most important gift Klassen’s book offered this reviewer was a definitive understanding of what “plautz” is, after years of seeing a wide variety of sheet cakes at congregational potlucks, each called plautz but never two the same. Klassen states that this Russian Mennonite dessert can be covered with different kinds of fruit and “it doesn’t matter” because “it’s almost as if we, as a people, can be open to diversity.”