Amish Commensality

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Last week I was fortunate enough to experience a rare and unique culinary experience — an open-air lunch with a group of Amish farmers. It was a hot July day, and the group of men and boys had come in from the fields to eat under the cool shade of an oak tree. They had been out since before dawn to thresh spelt — a grain they traditionally fed to their animals, but are now considering to market for human consumption — and were refueling for an afternoon session of spelt threshing. As I’ve learned through multiple meetings [part of my work with the Club des Chefs des Chefs] with the group, and was able to discuss at more length over lunch, something has been happening in Amish farming. Instead of focusing on their own community, some have been reaching out and marketing their products — meat, dairy, and produce — to the outside world. And we on the outside, who are beginning to really appreciate the value of chemical-free, beyond organic, and sustainable foods, are ripe to eat it right up.

So what do you talk about as the only outsider at a lunch intended to fuel a long day of working in the fields? And maybe more importantly, what do you eat?

The second question first. The long table was brimming with dishes from the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. My place setting was a plate, a fork, and a cup. As I sat down, some of the men and boys passed me plates, while from the other table, women came over to serve me. We ate tomatoey meatballs, potatoes with brown butter and pepper, brown bread and homemade butter, a spicy cabbage salad, a spinach souffle, and a casserole of green beans, processed cheese, and hot dogs. This last dish seemed an anomaly; everything else tasted fresh and farm-grown, but the processed cheese and hot dogs overshadowed the freshness of the green beans. Everything was very good; heavy but good. If I were to have worked for 6 hours threshing spelt before lunch and had another 6 hours of threshing afterward, it would have been the ideal energy boost. Sitting in the car for 2 and a half hour beforehand and anticipating another drive back to DC, I almost wanted to join them to work off the meal. Dessert was incredible — apple crumble, homemade ice cream, and raspberry sauce. They passed around a pitcher of raw milk to top it off.

And the conversation? About food, of course. The Oasis Cooperative, which had invited me to the lunch to discuss our upcoming meal with the Club des Chefs, was created in 2012 to market 30 farms’ products to a greater audience than just the local Lancaster area. The farmers realized that their age-old farming practices — free of chemicals, mostly horse-driven (alongside some gasoline motors from the early 20th century), nutrient-focused, hormone-free, and sustainable — are now in vogue and highly desirable by many consumers outside of the community. Why just focus on selling to the local community when eaters and chefs in the big cities surrounding Lancaster County — New York, Philadelphia, DC, and Baltimore are all within 150 miles — are craving such things? The spelt, for example, that the farmers were threshing, had been used solely as animal feed for as long as these farmers can remember. With new interest in finding nutrient-rich grains besides wheat, spelt’s popularity is rising. The farmers were talking about how some of their bakers are experimenting with milling the grain, and with new bread recipes. This is just one of many projects being undertaken by the community. Pastured eggs, free-range chickens, grass-fed cattle, and more of today’s food buzz words are commonplace in these farmers’ lexicons, as have the concepts for many years. They’re even experimenting with community-supported agriculture, which they are selling in DC through Smucker Farms. I am a happy customer of the CSA, having joined after meeting some of the farmers and seeing their practices.

So, what does Oasis’s work at incorporating traditional farming practices into the modern food scene have to do with culinary diplomacy? Plenty. It allows for a cultural bridge between a once-cloistered community and the wider world, and isn’t that what culinary diplomacy is all about? Through food, the Amish are engaging with chefs (up to and including the Chefs des Chefs — the chefs of heads of state!), CSA-enthusiasts, and more. Had it not been for our threshing lunch, I would not have met these farmers and discussed their plans, nor would I be enjoying the fruits of their labor through a share of the harvest. As I’ve discussed before, commensality creates commonality — my clean-shaven big city (well, DC) self and this group of traditional farmers sat down together over a shared meal and discussed our mutual interest: food.


[I apologize for the lack of pictures to punctuate this post. The Amish taboo on graven images meant that I was not about to bring out the iPhone for some quick snaps of the meal. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, isn’t the reverse true as well?]

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