The following is an excerpt from Mary-Ann Kirkby’s best-selling book, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen .
I’m waiting to have a visit with Sora Basel at Blue Hills Colony. She is the oldest women in the community, and I want to talk to her about traditional herbs and remedies used by Hutterite people.
When I arrive, my subject is running around the house with her little oxygen tank looking for her glasses. “I don’t know why I can’t schnauf (breathe) today,” she complains. “You’re not plugged in, Mudder,” her husband Esau scolds, jumping to his feet. He checks the outlet and, sure enough, Sora Basel has unplugged herself again. She has a heart condition that requires her to be on supplemental oxygen. Her cord is so long it travels throughout the house and doubles back whenever she does. “Be careful you don’t trip or hang yourself,” Esau Vetter warns as I step over a maze of cords. “Ach ya,” Sora Basel sighs.
Sora Basel and Esau Vetter are both in their nineties. They live next door to their son and his family. Their descendants number fourteen children, seventy grandchildren, twenty-three great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren. The pair decides to sit opposite me at the dining room table because, as Esau Vetter puts it, “I can’t hear and my wife has ‘cadillacs’” (cataracts).
“Voter (father), I can see as good as you can,” she differs.
The vulnerability of advanced age has made their lived-in faces as beautiful as a child’s—hers pale and round as a pie plate, and his angular and deeply tanned, except his forehead which is in startling contrast to the rest of his facade because of his habit of always wearing a hat when he goes outside.
Between them, they possess generations of valuable data. Sora Basel used to be the colony’s midwife and was prominent among her people for her practical cures and advice for people’s ailments. “Goose fat,” Sora Basel says with certainty when I ask her about the most important remedy in her arsenal. “Warum, why?” she asks herself lifting her brows.
“Because goose fat reduces inflammation and dat is da most important ting. Inflammation is very bad for da body,” she says tapping a jar of goose fat on her varnished dining room table.
“Goose fat is also good for reisen (arthritis), isn’t it Votar,” she continues looking at her husband.
“Well, it’s purdy good, I have to say,” replies Esau Vetter, rubbing his right knee.
Sora Basel’s daughter- in-law Wilma slips in the door with a cake, and we carry on while she serves us afternoon tea.
“Our ancestors were some of da best doctors in Europe,” Esau Vetter says, wiping a carrot cake crumb from his ducktail beard as we resume the conversation. “But dey killed dem all off and burnt our medicine books.”
In 16th century Moravia, Hutterite doctors were in great demand. Known as barber-surgeons because they cut hair as well as performed surgery, they traveled widely with wagon loads of compounds and ointments. Not only did Hutterite doctors treat their own people but they also took care of locals, including Nobility. Intense and persistent persecution led to the destruction of our pharmacies and medicine books killing our most gifted people. By 1874 when Hutterites arrived in North America they were a mere shadow of their former selves.
Hutterites began to frequent mainstream doctors although community members with a certain knack or therapeutic aptitude remained the first line of defense. “When I was a young boy, our chicken man was also da colony dentist,” says Esau Vetter, licking the last bit of icing from his thumb. “He pulled everybody’s teet and even did fillings,” he discloses. “He was a bit rough, but he did a good job. Even our English neighbours came to him. He charged dem 25 cents for every toot he pulled out and 50 cents for a filling.”
“How did he get his materials?”
“Dey said he was good friend’s wit the dentist in town who showed him a few tricks, and so he went and ordered some supplies from a catalogue and set up a little shop in da chicken house. Pretty near put da town dentist outa bisness!” he chuckles.
Mary-Ann Kirkby is a Hutterite Author and Professional Speaker. Her award-winning books, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen, and I Am Hutterite, are available in book stores and at www.polkadotpress.ca. Contact Mary-Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org