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The importance of rührei

Miriam Toews remembers her Mennonite childhood and the dish that held her family together

Miriam Toews | May/June 2014

I was born in a small town in the middle of an immense Canadian prairie to a restless mother and a melancholy father. My older sister played the piano non-stop; dramatic, crashing pieces that brought her peace but also exhaustion. Summer days were hot and endless. The wind blew like fire, picking up dirt, grit and anything else in its path, coating my family and everybody I knew in a layer of grime and seeds or whatever it was that lay loose on the farmers’ fields. On the hottest of days relief came in the form of apocalyptic rain that flooded our roads and basements in minutes. Once, during one of these storms, my mother and I rafted down Main Street in our bathing suits. I think we might have rafted right out of town, all through the Red River Valley, across the border into North Dakota and then maybe down to Memphis, if it hadn’t been time for my mother to make supper.

“What are we gonna have?” I asked her.

I had flung our battered raft into the garage and the two of us were standing in the backyard while the last of the rain rinsed the mud from our bodies and the pink summer light began to fade in the west.

My mother laughed, her eyes closed, her chin pointed at the sky. My father opened the back door and smiled at us. Strains of Rachmaninov drifted into the yard. The storm was over.

“Oh brother,” she said. “I have no idea. We might have to make do with rührei and wassermelone.”

For my mother rührei meant speed and simplicity. It was a dish you could make on the run. For me it meant joy and relief. It’s a Mennonite recipe made from eggs, milk and flour. And maybe a pinch of salt. It’s basically crêpe dough, but fried in clumps.

My mother was the 13th child of a Mennonite clan that had fled Russia for the Canadian prairies, and she knew about feeding a lot of people on the cheap. We ate rührei drizzled with corn syrup and accompanied by watermelon, if my mother could buy it at four cents or less a pound, and only in the summer after massive storms that made my mother feel exhilarated and free, and that brought my sad father out of his dark bedroom, smiling. At least that’s how I remember rührei.

People from the city made jokes about our town, about the way Mennonites dressed and talked and farmed and ate and slept and thought and preached and procreated, but I didn’t know it at the time. My parents, my sister and I sat together at the blue picnic table in our backyard. My father had painted and re-painted it many times, according to his mood, and there were a few small patches where the paint had peeled away and the exposed layers made rainbow colours. It was very important to me that my plate and utensils lined up precisely with one of these imperfect patches. I could see flecks of red and green and very bright yellow. I examined them. I imagined their origins. I hoped my father wouldn’t paint over them. My family was like other families and my anxiety was very much like any other kid’s anxiety. I know that now. Wherever the fantasies of escape took my mother, or the sadness took my father, or the music took my sister, the rührei brought us back together for a brief moment.

If I was lucky, after we had polished off the rührei, I could cajole my parents and sister into having a watermelon seed-spitting contest with me. I preferred my family to stand in a row—like a police line-up—during these spit-offs, but they’d often beg to be allowed to sit at the picnic table and spit from there; and because I wanted so desperately for us all to remain together in the backyard for as long as possible, I’d allow it. We sat at the table under a darkening sky and spat our watermelon seeds as far as we could, until enough time had passed that we couldn’t see them any more and their trajectory remained a mystery, and I could no longer determine who had won and who had lost.

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