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Letter From America: An Amish Wedding Dinner - or The Light That Failed

"As we sat in the quaint simplicity of an ancient culture to which the Amish cling, one that our forbears had left behind more than two hundred years ago, we were treated to a feast fit for monarchs...'' In this glorious, tasty and altogether unforgettable column Ronnie Bray tells of the time he dined with the Amish.

Gay and, I in company with some missionary colleagues, had dinner in an Amish Farmhouse at Hiram, Ohio. The Amish are a sect of German Protestants that is stuck in the agrarian culture of seventeenth-century Europe.

Because the seventeenth-century did not have electricity, motor cars, telephones, faxes, mobile telephones, radio, television, or any modern labour saving devices, neither do the Amish. Everything is done at a basic level that it is totally enthralling. It is as if one had stepped out of a time machine having been taken back three centuries.

The people who ran the restaurant were personable and engaging, and didn’t call us "English," as they habitually refer to Americans who are not of their persuasion. The women in their long dresses, stiff white aprons, and bonnets, and the men in their dark trousers, white shirts, black waistcoats and beards stood in the kitchen by the cast iron cooking range, greeted us with warm smiles that made their fresh rosy cheeks bulge like apples. Their courteous children, similarly attired, were smaller versions of the adults, minus the facial hair.

They say that when you eat with the Amish, you are not a customer, you are a guest, but they made us feel like family, even though, being Mormons, in their eyes we were probably considered "dangerous heretics''.

From the kitchen, they led us into the adjacent banquet room. Because of its primitive simplicity, it seems inappropriate to refer to it as a banquet room. But it was not because of its furnishings or equipment that I call it the banquet room, rather because of the festive repast that was passed to us endlessly after we were seated, and had thanked God for his bounty.

The banquet room housed a wooden table long enough to seat all thirty of us. Wooden benches were arranged at each side and along its broad ends.

The thin spring sunshine hardly penetrated the room through its few small windows. Light was supplied by oil lamps suspended from the ceiling beams, and a couple of incandescent gas lanterns, that sat atop slim brass pipes that drew fuel from the gas cylinder at their bases.

As we sat in the quaint simplicity of an ancient culture to which the Amish cling, one that our forbears had left behind more than two hundred years ago, we were treated to a feast fit for monarchs.

The first dishes brought in from the kitchen and passed along the table, were huge plates that held a cross between a pie and a cake, it was a traditional Amish wedding treat. We were being served dessert first! Jacob explained that we had the dessert before the meal because we had to taste it –"You must taste it!" – and if it was left to the end of the meal, we might be too full to try it. It was delicious. Somewhere in the dark recesses of our home, we have the recipe book we bought from them, and someday we’re going to find it. When we do, if we feel brave enough, we will try to make the Wedding Treat.

Non-Amish sometimes make wry faces at their dress, their self-denial, their old-fashioned ways, and their odd language, but no one looks sideways at Amish cooking. There are almost three million websites devoted to it. It is celebrated, and rightly so.

The dessert was delicious. So delicious that many of us ate too much and then wondered whether we would be able to eat anything else. We ought not to have been concerned. The Amish have it covered. They do not rush their celebratory meals, and allow time for one course to settle before bringing out the next one.

Therefore, we had a little time before we were regaled with the soup course. Although it was a jolly meeting, not stultified by any sense that our hosts would not appreciate good humour, it was lightened when one of our number needed to see a man about a dog, and he and the two person to his left got up to let him pass, and the bench tilted his wife onto the floor, demolishing the gas lamp immediately to our left as she did so.

Picking herself up, there was little room to render assistance, and regaining her composure, a pair of us who were mechanical geniuses fixed the lamp. It was now a gooseneck lamp, and although it didn’t look quite as right as it had when we sat down, its light was not diminished.

That incident helped the soup go down, and after clearing the massive plates (did they once belong to a giant?), and assuring us that the damaged lamp was of no importance, the aroma of fried chicken wafted to us as the iron stove’s main ovens were opened, followed a procession of smiling servers bearing giant tureens of secret-coated deep-fried chicken.

The chicken was delicious. Although I have long been a fan of Colonel Saunders, provided I don’t get any of those nameless bits that don’t seem to belong to anything that has ever lived, I have to say that nothing like this chicken had ever sent my taste buds into such paroxysms of ecstasy.

How many pieces I ate, I do not know, but the piles of bones on the bone dishes grew so high that some of the shorter people could not be seen over the bone heaps!

Besides the chicken, there were basins of hot potatoes, corn on the cob, broccoli, and other vegetables, equally delightful, lashings of farmhouse butter to help ease it down, and generously-sized hot brown rolls straight from the oven. This was no place for anyone who had lost their appetite. Even the more staid among us were transformed into sparkling bon vivants. Good humour was everywhere. Even the lady who had been unceremoniously plonked onto the floor forgave her husband for ‘letting it happen'.

After the main course, I felt completely sated. I folded my hands across my tummy and eased backwards to rest. Clunk! Benches have no backs to them and I had travelled the distance from my seat to the wainscoting, ceasing in my backwards travel only because the panelling was too hard too let my poor head go through it.

Sitting upright, I got a half smile of understanding from the lady at the corner to my left who had remodelled the lamp with her head, and I smiled back at her with genuine fellow feeling. It was, I decided, time to leave the table and stretch my legs. At that point, we had been there for two hours or more.

Escape was impossible! Not only was I surrounded and would have to disturb a whole side of Amish-fattened Mormons to exit the room – but the thought had no sooner formed itself before the doorway was filled with several ladies all at once, each of whom had an apple pie in each of her hands. Gulp! Trapped!

The pies were as big as cartwheels and could not be ignored. I settled back down to take my punishment like a man. Apple pie and cream without end. I was reminded of Walt Disney’s "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice," in which a naďve mouse cast a spell on a broomstick to have it carry water to fill a tub in the house of the sorcerer. When the bath was full and Mickey wanted it to stop, he couldn’t undo the spell or make another one to countermand the first.

It not only kept coming, but it multiplied itself until eventually the whole place was almost under water. In my minds eye I could see broomsticks carrying pies to our table, sine die. The first piece that I ate was delicious. The second piece was scrumptious. The third piece was luscious and delectable. Normally, I am a "Just a sliver of pie, please," but I didn’t want to upset our gracious hosts, and so I went to three, but thinking four.

So that I might do all I could to justly honour the providers of our feast, I was eyeing that fourth slice. I could tell, even from a distance, that it was delectable, but a sensation at the back of my throat that tasted strangely like crusty apple pie and cream told me that I was not only full, but that if I didn’t walk holding my chin up, I’d spill some. Therefore, I abandoned my desire to complete the quatrain on the grounds of decorum!

I was content to sit and wait, holding Gay’s hand, talking about how good the meal had been, and how full we were, and that if we were ever in Ohio again, we would seek this place out and repeat the experience.

The room cleared slowly. Being among the Amish will do that to you. Being at the back of the room Gay and I were the last ones out. There was just the hint of sinfulness at having to leave so many good pies on the now dishevelled table, and walk away. I did not know the degree of sinfulness and couldn’t figure it because I had left my theological calculator in the hotel. I thought Doggy Bag, but didn’t want to seem greedy.

Those who had for three hours, been our good-hearted servants, stood in a row in the still neat and shiny (how do they do that?) kitchen, smiled, shook our hands, and exchanged words of mutual appreciation.

We wound our way out of the ancient farmhouse, now converted into a famous restaurant, and saw all the signs of its age in its stones and timber, its windows, eaves, and roof. We marvelled at how well it had been preserved by careful use and good husbandry.

Once outside, the show was not over. In a loft over the banquet room was a studio displaying ornate quilts made by Amish women, all stitched laboriously by hand. No electricity, no modern appliances, just the old rural ways.

As Gay and others viewed these thousand dollar plus fabrications, I needed to go and check the inside plumbing. I found the bathroom. The small square window let in only the grayest of lights. I could hardly see.

When I returned, Gay said, "You have been a long time, darling." I was almost ashamed to tell her that I had spent a good ten minutes trying to find the light switch!

Copyright © 2005 – Ronnie Bray


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