I was so grateful I had brought a cardigan.
I chalk it up to my Auntie P. “Bring a cardigan,” she tells me, even if it is 85 degrees, and we are leaving the house for approximately 5 minutes, all of which will be spent in the sunshine. “Bring a cardigan,” she says, even if I am already wearing one. And if I refuse? She will carry an extra one for me. She is unstoppable in her quest to clothe the bare arms and shoulders of America. You’d think she had stock in … I don’t know, some company that exclusively makes cardigans (that’s a thing, right?)
The cardigan is, to my aunt, what the towel was to Ford Prefect in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The ultimate travel accessory, it solves all problems, tackles all inconveniences, and somehow, according to her, “prevents you from catching a cold.” And when I left the house that morning, and stepped into the 90-degree Kansas heat, I was thankful that I had it with me.
Within 30 minutes, I had tugged it on. Was I chilly? Nope. I was in the midwest in the MIDDLE OF A HEAT WAVE. But I was more than moderately ashamed of my tank top and shorts. We had just walked through the door of Carriage Crossing – a Mennonite restaurant in Yoder, Kansas, a fifteen minute drive from my friends’ home in Wichita. My friend Christine had to work that day, and her son Jackson was at daycare, so it was just her husband, Jason, dressed in a polo shirt and shorts (he politely removed his hat as we walked indoors), and me. Dressed like a TROLLOP.
The woman behind the counter, wearing a floor length navy blue dress, with crisp white sleeves popping out from underneath, lead us to our table. I found myself staring at her hair as I followed her – pulled back tightly and then tucked under a small starched cap.
She sat us at a table opposite a group of men, identically dressed in collarless button-down shirts the color of eggshells and long, dark trousers. They each sported a long, mustacheless beard. They looked like different iterations of the same person – each one older than the next.
Though they barely took note of us, I was instantly self-conscious.
My understanding of Mennonite culture doesn’t extend far beyond the movie Witness, which came out in 1985 and starred a deliciously young Harrison Ford. Those of you familiar with the film are probably thinking, “Wait, wasn’t Witness about the Amish, and not Mennonites?” At which point I would reply, yes, and that is STILL EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT MENNONITE CULTURE. Plain clothing, piety, and Han Solo’s forearms. Those were my take-aways about a culture I once heard described as “Amish-lite”. Within seconds of sitting down, the cardigan was on.
“Are you cold?” Jason asked incredulously. It was the sort of day you could fry eggs on the sidewalk. Hell, you could have fried eggs on the sidewalk 10 degrees ago.
“Um … sure,” I replied. Sure. I could be cold. Even though I was fairly certain I smelled fire and brimstone, and was likely going to spend an eternity roasting in hell for revealing my shoulders to men who were not my husband, I could be cold, right?
The cardigan would not come off, throughout the duration of our meal. It wasn’t because anyone had said or done anything to make me feel chastised. Quite the opposite – everyone was incredibly friendly (the Mennonite Church is historically peaceful and non-violent, closely linked to social justice causes and providing relief and aid worldwide). But I’m a recovering Catholic. It’s ingrained in us as small children to feel ashamed around those more pious than we, regardless of their religious origin. Be it a rabbi or a Buddhist monk, we’ll quietly lower our heads in shame, knowing that we’re gonna burn. It’s just how we roll.
And so, with a self-imposed threat of damnation upon me, I ate breakfast.
The food at Carriage Crossing is good, though not great. It succeeds on virtue of simplicity and ridiculously affordable prices. Some of the menu items, while no doubt traditional, were foreign to me. I’d seen scrapple (the sort of rustic meat dish that, like head cheese and pate, could only be born of hard times and possibly a lost bet) on menus in the northeast before, but fried mush? This was new. In retrospect, I should have ordered a variety of things, just to try them, but I wasn’t particularly hungry and didn’t want to add wastefulness to my ever-growing list of sins (among them: returning a dress to Nordstrom after I wore it; neglecting to break down boxes before tossing them in the recycling bin; never finishing The Diary of Anne Frank, but still getting an A on the paper I wrote about it. I am going to burn, folks. For a loooong time). I ended up ordering an egg, ham, and biscuits with a small cup of country gravy on the side.
Jason had an extensive discussion with the waitress about the ham. I couldn’t really follow it – “sugar cured” versus “salt cured”? I wanted to scream at him, “Speak English, English!” (because how many times do you have the opportunity to say that? And yet, I let it pass me by.) When the breakfast arrived, and Jason found the ham was not, in fact, sugar cured, he was visibly disappointed. I was too busy trying to turn my napkin into a floor-length skirt (with which to hide my womanly figure) to notice much.
Everything was standard breakfast fare save for the biscuits. They were, forgive me, sinful. Warm and buttery and rich, I could barely finish one of them. Apparently this is par for the course at Carriage Crossing. The food is good, but the pies and pastries and baked goods are infinitely better. I could almost imagine living the pious life if I got to have the desserts of that caliber. And the occasional margarita. And internet. And my Jewish husband.
And leopard print pencil skirts. Can’t live without those.
We finished our meal (Jason was still upset about his ham), and paid our bill at the front counter. As we left, we walked past a collection of Mennonite tchotchkes, books, and souvenirs for sale at the front of the store.
Back outside, with the Kansas summer sun bearing down on me, I took off my cardigan and shoved it back into my bag. The heat began to roast my bare shoulders and legs. I smiled, and a vision of young Harrison Ford flashed through my mind, as it occasionally does. If I was going to burn, either in hell or in Kansas, I was going to enjoy it.