The USA has been called a ‘melting pot’ probably because ‘stewing pot’ sounds rather rude. But after all these years of simmering, there’s not been that much melting and many of the main ingredients retain a good deal of their original flavour. Outstanding example: the Plain People of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Descended from persecuted Swiss Anabaptists who found religious freedom in Pennsylvania in the 1680s, the Plain People still speak a form of German and refer to outsiders as ‘the English’. On family farms, which are outstanding by any standards, they live and work without benefit of electricity. Their ploughs are mule-powered their buggies horse-drawn.
While the Amish are the most famous of the Plain People, the Mennonites and the Brethren are Plain People too. The more conservative of the sects, the Old Order Amish, practice ‘visible non-conformity’ to American culture in order to preserve their traditional values. So in the country which gave us the Barbie doll, women of the plain people still pin their traditional aprons to their traditional sober-coloured dresses, fearing apron strings might lead them into vain displays of bow tying.
Some plain people are less plain than others, and allow paying tourists to visit their farms and others will ride in your car, giving you a guided tour. Through the Mennonite Center in Lancaster Pennsylvania I arranged for a guide to ride with me and tell me something of the Amish way of life. My guide’s name was Fay and in common with 50% of the less strict Mennonite sect, she wore ordinary clothing, in her case a tweed jacket and skirt.
We embarked on a tour of the narrow back roads that intersect lush, rolling Amish farms. Frequently, one of the horse drawn buggies was ahead of us setting a very slow pace indeed so there was plenty of time for Fay to fill me in on the Amish. Some of the things she told me: Many Amish believe a photograph is one of the ‘graven images’ forbidden by the bible. So be careful where you point your camera. You can identify an Amish farm by the absence of electric lines leading to it and often by green window shades. Some Amish keep telephones in sheds in the field for emergency use. . Boys and girls attend one-room schoolhouses for eight years, all the formal education considered necessary for life on the farm.
The average number of children in an Amish family is seven. Drugs and drinks are causing a problem even in this community. In old age, the Amish are taken care of at home. They neither accept nor contribute to old age pensions. The Amish don’t worship in churches but take turns holding services in each other’s house. They help others unstintingly. When the barn belonging to Fay and her husband burned down, their Amish neighbours promptly built them a new one.
We reached Fay’s uncle’s flourmill and clambered through the stone buildings where a creaking water wheel still grinds the grain in the old way. We went on to a ‘supermarket’, a low, dark structure where Amish ladies, their white bonnets glowing in the light of the overhead gas lamps, pushed their shopping carts. Long rows of shelves held household cleaning supplies, baking ingredients and health foods. The Amish shopkeeper spoke to them in their own dialect of Low German but spoke to me in the English she learned in school.
Our last visit was to a craft shop where a silent Amish woman patiently unrolled quilt after quilt for the inspection of two tourists who were about to pay fancy money for an example of Plain People workmanship. An Amish girl worked out the sales tax on a pocket calculator by the light of the gas lamp, and then filled in the American Express card docket.
Waiting my turn I scanned a few brochures. ‘Take a ride in an Amish buggy owned and operated by Plain People’,’B and B Dinner with Amish Family Arranged”, ‘Enjoy shoofly pie in an Amish kitchen’. The Amish are quaint but they are not backward.