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In the adjoining room, someone is singing a vaguely haunting tune, something between a song and a chant. I can't understand the words, which are sung in Swiss, but I know that I'm listening to a sound from another time and place. Surveying the simple yet comfortable surroundings, I have to remind myself that this is neither the nineteenth century nor a remote Swiss village. This is the year 2001, in the heart of Midwestern Indiana, and the Amish woman writing quietly at her well-worn desk is Elizabeth Coblentz, anunexpected heroine known to thousands of adoring readers across the United States as the Amish Cook.
Since one fateful day in July 1991, when I happened upon the Coblentz's weathered two-story clapboard farmhouse, Elizabeth and I have been partners in an unprecedented writer-editor relationship. Every week Elizabeth sends me the handwritten text for "The Amish Cook," a recipe column that currently appears in more than ninety newspapers across the country. Her uncomplicated descriptions of daily life and meals in an Old Order Amish community come to me by mail because the doctrines of Elizabeth's religion forbid her from owning a telephone, or using a fax machine or computer. I type up Elizabeth's words, make sure the recipes are complete, then publish them for the world to enjoy. With all the modern methods of communication closed to us, the production of a weekly column has been nothing short of a monumental challenge. However, the positive feedback we've received from Elizabeth's numerous fans has made the unusual working arrangement more than worth it.
How It All Began
I was standing in the cluttered but comfortable kitchen of an Amish woman named Catherine Eicher when the idea of an Amish cookery column was born. This was in Reading, Michigan, the land of the Amish, where little changes-ever. Creaking barns tucked into the folds of rolling wheat fields lend a timelessness to this land. In an America where mobility has turned family trees into a tangle of untraceable lineage, the Amish family roots sunk into the soil over a hundred years ago have held fast.
As a junior in an Ohio high school I was assigned a class research project. Each student had to select an item out of the newspaper and write a research paper on it. A small article in USA Today captured my interest. It was about a giant chemical corporation seeking a permit to build an incinerator on prime Amish farmland outside of Mansfield, Ohio. I had held a mild interest in the Amish since my teens, when my parents and I stopped at a roadside cheese stand in Adams County, Ohio. My Dad explained that the bearded man selling homemade cheese out of a buggy was part of a religious group that lives very much like the early American pioneers.
That class assignment started a journey that continues to this day. I submitted my paper to the Ohio state legislature and it became the basis for my first published work: a magazine article in Environmental Action magazine. My local newspaper did a story about my article and then offered me a journalism internship for the summer. Soon alter, I took an assignment with a Michigan publication to write a story about the state's growing Amish population, which is how I eventually found myself in Catherine Eicher's kitchen.
I had been exploring the tiny grids of criss-crossing country roads when I met Mrs. Either, a stout, friendly woman who was cultivating tomatoes, radishes, and rhubarb. She invited me into her kitchen, where kettles and copper pots dangled from hooks in the ceiling and the ever-present smell of rhubarb drifted through the room on a scant breeze. Mrs. Eicher had a small stack of handwritten cookbooks that she sold for a couple of dollars. Mother's Favorite Recipes had a blue cardboard cover with flowers on the front, and someone had photocopied the pages and stapled them into book form. I bought one and took it home.
The vision of Catherine Eicher's world-and the charm of that cookbook-stayed with me as I returned to Ohio to write my magazine article. It was 1991, the start of the Internet boom and the last decade of the century. The Amish had stirred something within me. Although they seem anachronistic, they are also vaguely reassuring, a touchstone to a lost era. For me, the Amish represent a living link between a simpler time and today's more chaotic world. They represent one of the last remnants of an agrarian America. I figured that if I had this yearning for something meaningful, then others might be looking for it as well. And just like that, "The Amish Cook" column began to solidify in my mind. Before long, I was headed back to Catherine Eicher's on a mission to persuade her to write a newspaper column.
Searching for the Amish Cook
Leaving at dawn dressed in my best suit, I hit the road for the four-hour trip to Michigan. I figured I'd quickly talk Mrs. Eicher into writing the weekly column, then grab some lunch and make it home by early evening.
When I arrived, Mrs. Eicher gave me a friendly greeting, recognizing me as the young journalist who had visited her a few weeks before. I pitched the idea to her: "I was wondering if you would like to write a weekly newspaper column about your life?" She politely declined. She was too busy with cooking, cleaning, and canning to write such a column.
Undeterred, I stopped by the homes of some of the other Amish women I had met while on assignment for the magazine. All greeted me with polite, but suspicious stares. The Amish are wary of outsiders, whom they refer to as "English" or "Yankees," and I probably appeared to be another huckster trying to lure them into a scheme. Needless to say, they all turned me down as well.
At my last stop a middle aged Amish man with a long salt-and-pepper colored beard gave me a small wire-bound cookbook written by an Indiana Amish woman. It was approaching noon and I had no Amish columnist, so I turned my car around and headed two hours south, to the remote Indiana town where the cookbook's author lived. I went to the address I had been given, only to be told that the woman had left the Amish order and moved to Virginia. Strike two.
Feeling disheartened, I decided to give the effort one more hour, then call it quits and head home. I stopped at Amish bakeries and dry goods stores in this rural Indiana outpost, hoping to find a woman who would become the columnist I envisioned when I first saw Mother's Favorite Recipes. The same polite, but standoffish refusals greeted me until I spotted two Amish women standing in a driveway and took the chance of turning in.
Meeting the Coblentzes
The Coblentz home is surrounded by pastureland on three sides and a small forest on the fourth. A few apple trees litter the lawn with sweet fruit during the summer. It's an area that has changed little since Swiss settlers began tilling the land here over a century ago. On that midsummer day, I was touched by the sense of history that seemed to permeate the land. I wish I could remember what exactly I said to Elizabeth during that chance first meeting. Her daughters laugh when recalling that day, describing me as "very nervous."
As I stood in Elizabeth's driveway and described to her my vision for a column, I couldn't have known that Elizabeth was already a writer, having contributed letters to The Budget for the past forty years. The Budget is a subscription newspaper based in Sugarcreek, Ohio, which is circulated throughout Amish communities nationwide. Without telephones or email, the Amish rely on The Budget to find out news of their friends and families. Writers known as scribes report the news from their communities, chronicling births, deaths, weddings, and anything else of interest. My vision for a column was one that incorporated the same down-home, pioneering spirit as The Budget.
Verena and Susan, who were outside in the driveway saying good-bye to Leah after her visit, got a laugh when Kevin first visited us on that warm day in July. We could tell he was nervous. He greeted us with a hearty "Veegates," the traditional Pennsylvania German greeting. He asked me about writing a column, and I guess I thought I would give the task a try. I had been writing for The Budget since I was age sixteen, so this seemed natural. I never thought the column would be in so many papers. I feel unworthy of all the attention from it. It isn't always easy to think of what to write, so I just put my thoughts down on paper.
Finding a Home for the Amish Cook
After I received Elizabeth's first handwritten column, I put together a crude marketing packet and approached newspaper editors in an attempt to sell the column. One editor in Mansfield, Ohio, looked at my business card and said "Ha, you're an editor? Is your girlfriend your assistant editor? Is this a class assignment?" Another editor, with the Journal-News in Hamilton, Ohio, thoughtfully listened to my pitch and studied "The Amish Cook" promotional brochure. I thought that my salesmanship had finally broken through until he whipped out a red pen and began circling spelling errors and grammatical mistakes. He was right-but I was humiliated. (For the record, Mansfield and Hamilton added "The Amish Cook" to their newspapers eight years after that awkward first visit.)
Our original plan for the first column Elizabeth wrote was to simply call the column "The Amish Cook" without Elizabeth's name attached. However, the newspaper editors quickly rejected that idea, so we used Elizabeth's whole name. If I had to do it over again, I would have created a pen name. While I work hard to preserve Elizabeth's privacy, her celebrity does occasionally cause problems that a typical Amish woman wouldn't experience. Sometimes autograph seekers come to her home, and some show up expecting to be fed a home-cooked meal. Like most Amish women, Elizabeth prefers her anonymity.
I started mailing sales packets later that summer, which was the time between my freshman and sophomore years in college. One of these packets caught the eye of Mike Hilfrink, managing editor of the Quincy Herald-Whig in Quincy, Illinois. "What made the column unique is that it wasn't just a recipe column. Every week, you got a peek into Amish life and values," Hilfrink told Business Week magazine in a 1997 interview.
He decided to try "The Amish Cook," and we had made our first sale. Soon a tiny newspaper in Indiana also subscribed, bringing our total to two newspapers. Today, "The Amish Cook" is in more than a hundred newspapers from coast to coast.
Hard to believe it's been over ten years since Kevin first came here and this column began. How time takes way. The girls always say that Kevin is just like a brother to them, they always say that.
Florists and Carrier Pigeons
Over the past ten years I've had to come up with some creative ways to communicate with Elizabeth. Most editors can pick up the phone and call their columnists if they have a question, say, about how much sugar goes into a Snickerdoodle recipe or what kind of pepper to use in an Amish goulash recipe. I haven't had that luxury. Without phones or electricity, quick methods of communication just aren't possible with the Amish. However, with a combination of long drives, overnight mail, and other creative means, I've managed to communicate with Elizabeth pretty effectively. One time I called a florist and had a basket of daisies sent to Elizabeth. On the card, I included a message that read "Is it light or dark corn syrup?" The note made for a puzzled florist, but the message got through.
Another time I was inspired by the tales of generals during World War II using carrier pigeons to take messages to the front lines. When I consulted an expert on the possibility of doing the same to communicate with Elizabeth, he said "It's a great idea, except for this to work, you would need to have a colony at her place and at yours." Living in an apartment complex at the time, I envisioned a colony of carrier pigeons on my balcony. I tried to come up with a persuasive pitch to my landlord or an explanation to neighbors about their splattered cars. Nothing seemed plausible, so I abandoned the idea.
When Elizabeth and I set out to produce this cookbook, I knew we'd face a whole new set of unique challenges. One time a draft of our Ten Speed Press editor's revisions blew off Elizabeth's buggy as she drove to her daughter's house, scattering the pages across a soybean field. Most of the manuscript was retrieved, but some farmer in rural Indiana probably ended up harvesting a few chapters.
Most of the book was written and edited through the mail. I sent Elizabeth assignments and she completed them and sent them back. Sometimes she wouldn't provide quite enough detail, so I would have to mail her to tell her to send me revisions. This constant snail-mailing stretched the work out over a period of two years. Eventually I realized that some modern technology would be needed if we wanted the book released in this century.
I ended up renting a hotel suite not far from Elizabeth's home. I carted my computer to the hotel, then brought Elizabeth and her daughters Susan and Verena there for the day. Since I was going to be away from home for a few days, I also brought my dog, Kira, with me.
So Elizabeth wouldn't come in contact with my computer, a possible violation of her religious beliefs, she sat in a chair near me while I sat at my keyboard. I asked her questions interview-style, and she supplied the answers for the book. Because Elizabeth's column is very popular in the town we were in, I used a private entrance to the hotel so no one would see her arrive. Anyone who used the back stairwell at the Holiday Inn Express in Celina, Ohio, would have thought it a strange sight to run into me carrying a German Shepherd and a computer, followed by three Amish women.
* * *
This cookbook is the culmination of a decade's worth of hard work.
Excerpted from The Amish Cook by Elizabeth Coblentz with Kevin Williams Copyright © 2002 by Kevin L. Williams, Oasis Newsfeatures, Inc.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted June 26, 2006
Posted February 11, 2005
This book is superb, the only reason 4 stars instead of 5 is my personal issue with weight control. Recipes are high is fat and calories, however, the story and insite make this a worth while read. The art of bread making and a sneak peak into another culture made this book a keeper!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 16, 2004
This is a gorgeous book. I love the pictures of the Amish community and scenery. I like that the author includes memories of her childhood to go with each recipe and that Williams includes old newspaper clippings of her Amish Newspaper Column. Readers looking for healthy recipes will definitely not find them here! Recipes call for lots of sugar and added fats. Recipes are definitely more of the 'comfort food' type and there wasn't a single one I would bother to make. The cultural information in the book is good though.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 23, 2009
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