ood has the power to tell stories. The dishes we consume and savor tell the world about who we are, what brings us joy, where we live, and what situations we deal with (dire or otherwise). And within the subculture of Seventh-day Adventism the “cuisine” we’ve cultivated says many things about us.
A visit to an Adventist church potluck tells a visitor that we are a social group of people who enjoy a good meal and good fellowship. Our food tells the world that we strive to nourish ourselves in ways that are often unfamiliar to others. And as a church family that includes brothers and sisters from every corner of the earth, our collective cuisine, enlivened by the contributions of global recipes and traditions, brings to our table eclectic snapshots of a multicultural, multiethnic body of faith. Just take a good, long look at the spread at your next church potluck. Each dish on the table has a story to tell, and to find it, you need only look to the cook.
Go Back in Time
Around the time that the Seventh-day Adventist denomination was formally organized Ellen White pointed out the correlation between the foods we consume and their impact on our physical and spiritual well-being. The church, then a North American organization, consisted of individuals who essentially lived off the land. People grew their own food in the forms of grains, fruits, and vegetables, and looked to livestock for meat and dairy products. Recipes were basic and often handed down from generation to generation with little thought given to the nature of the items consumed and their effect on the body. In 1872 Ellen White wrote: “Knowledge must be gained in regard to how to eat, and drink, and dress so as to preserve health. Sickness is caused by violating the laws of health; it is the result of violating nature’s law.”1
In those days, although families were largely responsible for the cultivation of their own food, the ways in which these foods, particularly meat products, were prepared were less than ideal. Those were times when standards in food manufacturing and processing were severely lacking, as was basic knowledge of healthful guidelines for nutrition. Temperance was apparently an issue when Mrs. White wrote that “in order to preserve health, temperance in all things is necessary—temperance in . . . eating and drinking.” She said: “Our heavenly Father sent the light of health reform to guard against the evils resulting from a debased appetite, that those who love purity and holiness may know how to use with discretion the good things He has provided for them, and that by exercising temperance in daily life, they may be sanctified through the truth.”2
Turning from many of the dishes that were really the backbone of American lifestyle in those days was a struggle. Giving up meat and casting away the use of lard and similar cooking products had to have been a mighty sacrifice for early Adventists too, and incorporating more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and using nuts, seeds, and legumes as crucially needed protein sources weren’t always easy. Making those significant diet reforms wasn’t a completely seamless task for the White household as well, but the benefits of a healthier diet were eventually received.3
At Grandmother’s Table
Ellen White’s granddaughter, Grace Jacques, was interviewed by Patricia Mutch, professor of nutrition and coordinator of emergency preparedness curriculum at Andrews University, in 1978. In her discussion with Mutch, Jacques shared several memories of the food served at her grandmother’s table at Elmshaven. A typical menu for lunch included “three hot dishes and a protein dish,” said Jacques. “We had a garden, so there was always something fresh, and I think Ellen White liked cooked greens every day. She couldn’t eat the raw greens as easily as some of the younger folks, but she wanted the cooked greens every day.”4
And what about swapping meat for plant-based protein sources in the White home? Jacques recalled that “they had the Proteena and Nuteena. But we made our own [gluten] quite a bit, our meat substitutes, because my father was on a minister’s salary, and he educated seven children, so we couldn’t always afford [meat substitutes], even though the factory was right below us.”5
Sabbath dinner—that great bastion of social grace, hospitality, and hearty eating after church services for many members—was a special meal for the White family as well. But not quite in the way some of us might expect. Sabbath dinner was special, perhaps not quite as heavy, but special nonetheless, remembered Jacques. “The Sabbath meals that we enjoyed the most came when Grandmother spoke, say in Calistoga, or in Napa. My mother would know ahead of time, and . . . would make a nice lunch.”6
“What would we do about a hot dish?” added Jacques. “We were children and needed something warm. Grandmother was an elderly lady, she had used energy in her talk, [and] she needed something warm. . . . We had fireless cookers, and they were very handy, because all Mother needed to do Sabbath morning was to warm up a couple of hot dishes and put them in these fireless cookers, and put on the lid. . . . That with the sandwiches and fresh things [made our meal]. We put our tablecloth out on the ground, no table, we didn’t need a table. They put the cushions down for Grandmother, and we’d sit around this tablecloth on the rugs and eat this delicious dinner, with something hot.”7
Cereal Loaves and Stacks of What?
To swap out meat for plant-based proteins, Adventists had to learn how to cultivate grains, nuts, and legumes into a format that would be optimally nutritious for a healthy body. In addition, the production of meat analogues, ideally a transitional food for those moving toward total vegetarianism, became big business. According to www.soyinfocenter.com, “Worldwide sales of health foods by church-owned Adventist companies have grown rapidly, climbing from $51 million in 1970 to $96 million in 1974 and $188 million in 1979.”8 And that was 30 years ago—long before eating a meat-free diet was considered trendy and environmentally friendly, as it is today.
The original idea of diet reform was to return people “to eating simple, fresh, wholesome foods—the types of food God created in the Garden of Eden. However, to use “earthy” ingredients in new and inventive ways, Adventist cooks had to tap into wells of serious creativity. After all, how else do you get someone who previously relished nothing more than a juicy Kansas City rib eye to savor the culinary phenomenon known and loved in Adventist circles as Special K loaf?
Speaking of that beloved loaf, if you have grown up in this church and/or attended an Adventist school or Pathfinder Camporee, you have surely feasted on a “roast” made with a certain Kellogg’s brand cereal and piled your plates high with a concoction that can best be described to non-Adventist foodies as a deconstructed taco/tostada/Tex-Mex behemoth of yumminess (see sidebar). These dishes were likely born of necessity. When a largely North American dinnertime staple such as meatloaf had to consist of the loaf but no meat, what was a cook to do? Such a cook gets savvy with grains, vegetarian proteins, binders, and nuts, and voilà—Special K loaf. Although the exact origins of the dish are unclear, its preparation is one that has endeared itself to the hearts of many—vegetarians and nonvegetarians alike.
Also referred to as cottage cheese loaf, because a primary ingredient is cottage cheese, varied recipes can be easily accessed through Web-based search engines such as Google, thus rendering this very Adventist preparation accessible to the masses, as I discovered.
“Ode to Cottage Cheese Loaf” was a blog entry I stumbled upon while searching for the history of the dish. And its author—a blogger named Tana—admitted to making a batch every week to eat for her daily lunch. You read that right. Daily. Comments to this entry expressed love and nostalgia for the dish:
“Amazing. Cottage cheese loaf is one of my all-time favorites. Some of my earliest memories are [of] having cottage cheese loaf on Sabbath afternoon. My friends are always very surprised when I have them over for dinner and serve [it].”
“Grew up with the stuff, still eat it today. Love to make it in a sheet pan [because] you get more crust and it makes great sandwiches as well. Sometimes if available, I put chopped pecans in it, gives good flavor and texture. Even though K has changed, I still use K to make it. Still hanging around with the Adventists, enjoy the potlucks! . . . It’s a good bunch of folks.”9
Another blog devoted to “advice for the not-so-perfect housewife,” titled “Be-a-Bree,” lists a recipe for Special K loaf with the following introduction—both telling and informative for non-Adventists who might be just a little mystified by an entrée made of cereal and cheese. “In the subculture of Seventh-day Adventism,” says blogger Jenna, “most of the churches have a weekly Sabbath-afternoon potluck when every family brings a dish and fellowships together. There are a couple of entrées that are unique to Adventists. One of those common dishes is the Kellogg’s loaf. The main ingredients are cereal, cottage cheese, and eggs. Non-Adventists reading this might be thinking, What?! Cereal should only be eaten with milk, not with eggs! You’d be surprised how great this tastes. Best of all, it’s vegetarian!”10 At the time of this writing, 45 people had responded to the recipe and post. Some offered variations on it, while others just wrote to say thanks.
Good, but Good for You?
Back at my Adventist university, we students would marvel (or sometimes wince) at the selection of vegetarian offerings available in the cafeteria. Some were well received—a well-stocked salad bar, a vegetarian burger station, creative soups, or ethnic cuisine such as vegetarian pancit or FriChik curry. Other dishes, however, such as “cheese loaf,” left us scratching our heads. Though I refused to try the dish, I recall that it was essentially a block of cheese and other items deftly shaped into a loaf formation, baked and served with a gravy of sorts. When some students expressed their confusion about how this was supposedly “healthy” food, I myself couldn’t help wondering.
This is a problem that has plagued many vegetarian kitchens for years. An omission of meat from the diet wasn’t the only thing that constituted dietary reform; rather, it was a return to consuming simple, wholesome food that God had created for us to enjoy—food that would improve our health in every way. Nuts, grains, and legumes are immensely good for the body. However, some potluck favorites that many of us admit to loving incorporate those same ingredients in combination with an excess of cheese, butter, rich sauces, and high-sodium meat analogues. While tasty, are they really doing our bodies good?
Our Changing Potluck Spread
Milton Neblett, a Maryland-based chef specializing in meatless cuisine, notes that with so many Adventists coming from so many different parts of the world, what defines “Adventist food” is rapidly changing. Neblett, a missionary kid who was exposed to global cuisine from living abroad, interprets his experiences into his meatless dishes, incorporating recipes, herbs, spices, and cooking techniques from all over the world.
Adventist potluck food isn’t what it used to be. Though you will still find traditional goodies (to some), such as our beloved cottage cheese loaves, haystacks, potato dishes, and salads galore, our potluck spreads now often represent a mini United Nations gathering. Vegetarian curries, noodle stir fries, vegan entrées, and so many other interesting preparations are bound to get your taste buds humming.
As a church that prides itself on its internationality and unique history, our food, from the old to the new, will keep telling the stories of who we are, where we’ve been, and what we strive to be.
And you thought food was just for eating.
1Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 21.
2Ibid., p. 23.
3Ibid., p. 482.
Adventist Review staff writer Wilona Karimabadi thinks noting says comfort more than a plate of Special K loaf and mashed potatoes. This article was published November 26, 2009.