I’ve got the Amish broad-brimmed hat. But could I ever actually convert to the faith?
By John D. Spalding
Lately I’ve been wondering if the Dutch Amish would let me join their “Old Order.” According to “20 Most Asked Questions about the Amish and Mennonites,” by Merle and Phyllis Good, the Amish do accept outsiders. The hitch is, the authors write, “most Americans (and many Mennonites) probably aren’t willing to submit themselves to the demands of the true Christian way.” Amish customs would require me to, among other things, trade my Lexus for a horse-drawn buggy, grow a long beard (sans mustache), dress “plain,” and bid auf wiedersehen to electricity and, needless to say, my computer.
I’d have to choose an occupation “close to the farm and home,” which wouldn’t be a problem, as I already work at home. On the other hand, the Amish “forbid higher education,” so I’d leave my college and grad school experience off the application. I imagine I could get away with that little fib; since the Amish have no truck with modern technology, they couldn’t possibly conduct very thorough background checks.
Oh, and no more weekend debauches at Chateau Marmont. Hmmm...
Anyway, what’s all this talk about my going Dutch? Well, last week I took Cole and Evan, my 3-year-old twins, on an “Amish adventure”—four days in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—Ground Zero, if you will, for America’s Amish and Mennonite groups. I’d been to Lancaster twice before, back when I was seven and nine years old. I have fond memories of those trips and I figured Lancaster would be the perfect low-key getaway for my boys. Dutch Wonderland, an amusement park for little, little kids, would be ideal. Then we’d visit Amish farms and tourist traps, pet some goats, ride in a buggy, eat some shoofly pie.
I suspect the Amish haven’t changed much in the decades since I was last there, but I certainly have—as have my views of the Amish. As a kid, I thought they were weird, so strict and austere. I couldn’t have imagined living without a television, never mind getting up at 4 a.m. to milk cows, and what was with those goofy haircuts and the men’s suits that didn’t have lapels or buttons? But last week I realized that, despite our differences, the Amish and I have a lot in common.
For example, we’re both cynical about American government and politics. We both distrust big business. Neither of us will send our kids to war. We both value family and community. A big difference between me and the Amish, however, is that while I tend to think like a nonconformist, these people really walk the walk. I dream about living on a farm and growing all my own food, never again taking another bite of nutritionally empty, additive-loaded crap or contributing another dollar to the food industries that are ruining our health and the environment. But the Amish have been living off the land by the sweat of their brow for centuries, and they’re among the world’s greatest farmers, producing, according to “20 Most Asked Questions,” more harvest per acre than non-Amish farmers while consuming far less energy in the process.
(Yes, incidentally, I just finished Michael Pollan’s amazing new book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Buy a copy. After reading this book, as the flap copy says, “dinner will never again look, or taste, quite the same.”)
If it were up to Cole and Evan, we’d move to Lancaster tomorrow. They loved Dutch Wonderland. After five hours of rides—from live ponies, the flume and the monorail to Choo Choo Charlie and The Wonder Whip—I had to coax Evan, in need of a nap but kicking and screaming for more thrills, out of the park. The next day was devoted to trains; we rode the Strasburg steam engine through Lancaster County’s farmland and spent the rest of the day at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. Day three was our “Amish immersion.” We visited a couple farms and took in the Amish Experience, a multimedia presentation about the history of the Amish at the Plain and Fancy Farm on the outskirts of Intercourse, the town whose name may very well drive Lancaster’s flourishing tacky T-shirt industry (e.g., “Virginia May Be for Lovers, But Pennsylvania Has Intercourse.”).
Touring Lancaster, I observed that in certain respects the Amish aren’t that different from the rest of us. For example, their traditional garb doesn’t prevent them from wearing sunglasses. They go to banks, roller skate in public, and even shop at Target, though I was disappointed not to find horses and buggies hitched to a post in the parking lot. The Amish are also allowed to drive buggies along busy streets at a really young age. One boy I saw handling the reins out on route 340 couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old. I asked a twentysomething Amish guy when kids learn to drive buggies, and he said at roughly the same age non-Amish kids learn to ride tricycles, which for my kids was under three!
For me, the highlight of our Amish adventure was the “covered dish” lunch buffet at The Family Cupboard Restaurant in Intercourse. The food was grown and raised locally and was prepared by Amish and Mennonite cooks. The dishes—chicken and ham, corn, green beans, and baby carrots, mashed potatoes and gravy—were simple but delicious, offering non-Amish diners a rare experience these days: the taste of real food!
Another uncommon treat at the Family Cupboard was the “Let Us Give Thanks” paper place mats, that included the image of hands closed in prayer and surrounded by grace prayers representing the Amish, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths. The restaurant also sold inspirational books, such as Deborah Smith Pegues’ “30 Days to Taming Your Tongue” and Tim “Left Behind” LaHaye’s “Understand Your Man: Secrets of the Male Temperament.”
So, can you expect to see me lending a hand at a barn raising any time soon? Despite my desire to pull the trigger and become a humble peasant (and despite the fact that in Lancaster I bought myself authentic straw and black felt broad-brimmed hats), I doubt it. For one thing, there’s my wife. As much trouble as I’d have blending in during, say, a community meal at one of those mile-long tables, Deb would really stand out. A former senior Wall Street executive who runs her own company, serves on four boards, and is now at Yale completing her fourth graduate degree, she has ambitions the Amish couldn’t abide. “20 Most Asked Questions” describes the Older Order woman thus:
“She is too busy to participate in a discussion about her own liberation or fulfillment; she would likely prefer to finish painting the hall upstairs, iron the waiting dozen shirts, make soup for the funeral tomorrow, and do a little quilting before the babies wake up and the other children get home from school.”
No, I’m guessing my family won’t go Amish. But we are seriously considering starting a small farm. In the meantime, I’ve got gardens to tend at home. This year’s snap peas are the sweetest you’ve ever tasted.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was And Never the Twain Shall Meet.
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