We're rolling along a rural road in eastern Ohio now and the iPhone's GPS is going haywire. The blue dot jumps wildly to and fro, popping up on empty lots, eventually careening back on track just in time to send us past our destination. Roadside horses appear to snicker at our navigation troubles. Clearly we're not locals.
"There. Yeah, that's the place," says one passenger with a tinge of feigned confidence. We pull a quick U-turn on the just-wide-enough asphalt road running north. The sun is setting. There are no streetlights in this part of town.
Already the driveway is filled with cars. We're late. I slip my phone into the glove compartment, remembering the only warning we were given prior to trucking out here: "There are NO PHONES OR CAMERAS ALLOWED at the dinner. Bring extra cash if you want jam, cashew crunch, fresh bread, etc."
A brisk wind whips around the farmhouse as we pull up to an old barn. We peer inside, wondering whether we're all meeting in there, or...? "6:30 p.m., sharp," we were told. But the group isn't here.
The property boasts three sturdy buildings and several acres of frost-clad pasture. We knock on the side door of the nearby house, and a bearded man welcomes us into what seems to be a fairly raucous and quite dimly lit dining room. The evening has begun.***
We number 20, all told, a mix of young and younger, professionals and hipsters. What force has compelled these disparate groups to trundle to the eastern stretches of the Buckeye State, just more than an hour away from Cleveland, into Amish Country on a Friday night?
It is mid-March, 2014. This dinner event was reserved by one among our party three years ago. The Amish family, our hosts for the evening, serves and entertains large groups like us four nights each week. Phone numbers and the promise of a homemade feast nab wandering eyes at open-air markets in town. The curiousness of such a thing is overwhelming. Other guests have passed around the excursion through word of mouth, hushed like talk of the schvitz.
And they're booked solid until 2017. If you think landing a reservation at Red downtown or a choice seat at Lola on a Saturday night is tough, think again. This quaint, rustic dinner is the toughest table to land in town.
Later on, a guestbook of sorts will be passed around, and eager eaters will pencil in their reservations for another dinner sometime a few years from now. There's no way of saying what life will be like for them at that point — new job, new boyfriend, new house, maybe — but some distant return date for Amish dining awaits. People have been known to travel across oceans to attend these gatherings, one of more in-the-know guests says. Like the queue outside a thrilling roller coaster, some people get off the ride and can't help but get right back in line. The secret-society vibe of the room is unmistakable.
Everyone here has chipped in $20, rounding the whole bill out to $400 — cash. Do the math. If each evening runs like this, that's $83,200 gross every year — again, cash. Not a bad side business. So the under-the-table affair insists on being kept fairly secret. One can almost hear the trees outside hush themselves as the dinner guests settle in, whispering, sshhh... Just enjoy the meal now and don't go spilling the beans — metaphorically or otherwise — about all this when you return to The City. Or everything will be ruined and the reservation book will extend to 2020 or beyond.
Considering all that talk about the money and the Amish's general preference for privacy, our hosts will remain anonymous.
Here's the general rundown of the evening's unrelentingly delicious food, in order: mixed fruit, home-baked bread with maple butter spread, orange Jello pudding, salad resplendent with veggie decor, cottage cheese (featuring Cool Whip, which raises eyebrows among the diners), mountains of chicken breasts and prime rib, stuffing (the depth of flavor in this dish has made grown men cry, we're told), mashed potatoes and the accompanying gravy boat, and the dichotomous seas of corn and peas.
We spoon heaps of the offerings onto our plates as quaint candles flicker against the fading light outside. It's impossible to scoop a serving without remarking on how fantastically scrumptious each dish looks, and the same ebullient mutterings follow once it enters the mouth. This is the inner core of table conversation, as we are collectively unable to stop drooling. The stuffing really is ambrosial. The chicken? Divine.
Our hosts for the evening, an Amish couple somewhere in their 30s, tend to the needs of all guests. They're well practiced in the art of hospitality, and soon enough there's this sense that we've all been friends for a very long time.
"If you ask for something and we have it, you'll get it. If you ask for something and we don't have it, you won't get it. If you don't ask for something and we have it, you won't get it." Our bearded host intermittently casts guidance like that across the dining room. We slowly settle in to the ebb and flow of the proceedings. Judging by portions of the night's conversations, no one is really clear on how formal or informal we should be acting, and it's best that we do away with undue caution as early as possible. For now, we are at home.
"Oh, and keep your forks for pie," our host tells us, his voice thick with the glottal accent of the Heartland. "There isn't any pie, but keep your forks for pie."
We can't help but chuckle. More than one person suggests he gets into standup. We never do find out if he knows what that means.***
The evening rambles onward as food bursts constantly from the kitchen, and the dinner party's roar is interrupted every once in awhile as the hosts impart short kernels of wisdom.
"I hear lots of people talking, but no one's listening..." Our bearded host pauses for a long stretch, allowing that thought to really sink in. We hadn't even seen him walk in the room this time. We all look at one another, sort of wondering what precisely he meant by that remark.
It was true, though: It really seemed like all 20 of us were talking at once at times.
The hosts' living room is a simple affair. A couch and several chairs, mostly comfortable looking, form a tight enclave. Propane-powered floor lamps decorate the room at random intervals. Religious pamphlets stack neatly on a small wooden table. Pictures accent the dining room.
Theirs is a quiet life, one delicately pruned to leave plenty of time for deliberate human interaction. Listening, here, is clearly valued as a daily virtue. Of our hosts, the husband works construction jobs during the day, returning around 4 p.m. to the house. His wife spends time on household affairs before preparing for the dinner. Neighborhood children stop by each evening to pitch in on the chores (bussing, dishwashing). They're paid handsomely in leftovers.
"They try to lead the simplest life possible," one guest says, trying to explain the Amish way of life. He repeats this refrain throughout the night, because most everyone around him has these sorts of general sociological curiosities and no one else can really answer them. "If that means using electricity or technology now and then to get a job done, then they do it, but they try to maintain a simple life."
We continue landing on conversations about these ideas, like the disinclination among Amish for using things like buttons or zippers. Our hosts' shirts are kept intact with needles.
And the immersion into this other world that so few of us understand carries on into conversation about their diversions from everyday life. On the subject of late-night drag racing, for instance, our host comments, "You get two horses that know what they're doing and a flat stretch of road... Believe me, it happens." We sit in awe, all sort of craning our necks the better to hear these tales.
We had come here for different reasons. Most simply reference the sheer "something different-ness" of spending an evening dining with an Amish family. We lead hectic lives. Tonight's getaway offers something of a breath, a respite from the bright lights and politics of The City, not to mention a strange little tale to tell our fellow young professionals over happy hour back home.
Ohio's Amish community, in particular, is known in the newspapers mostly for its tangential connection to Sam Mullet's hate crime convictions last year. Complementing that are plenty of other misconceptions in nearly any direction.
The state's puppy mill problem – a culture of animal abuse tacitly sanctioned by Ohio government – is rooted primarily among rural networks of Amish. One puppy rescue operator told Scene last year that the Amish bought into the puppy breeding world out of a desire to make the quickest buck possible. These days, we've learned, some have turned away from puppies and toward rabbits (future puppy chow).
But those comprise but a small corner of Amish life. Throughout the evening's robust conversation, we do away with those inaccuracies and talk mostly about the truth of the matter.
Our host's farm is a small tract of land, evidence of the Amish community's ever-growing population and ever-decreasing access to land. Several years ago, they met the curiosity of the English (non-Amish in the lingo) and opened their home to those both hungry and social. Business began booming, and the couple soon found themselves booked solid for weeks, months, years on end.
It's simple supply and demand, of course. What the couple is offering is an experience that cannot be found anywhere else. The jam, cashew crunch, fresh bread and, this time of year, maple butter that the couple sells for cash are the sorts of products that line shelves in outposts all over rural Ohio. But here, one interacts with the process behind the food on a unparalleled level.
Toward the end of the night, our hosts truck out an actual dessert cart — like one that gets circled around the suites at Jacobs Field, and just as stocked — and begin serving up a dazzling array of homemade pies. The husband lets loose a list of pie that has our heads spinning: blueberry, lemon sponge, apple, peanut butter, coconut cream. Yes, we all sort of chuckle, there really is pie.
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