A Dinner with The Amish
Last week, we had the amazing opportunity to have a dinner with an Amish family and experience a small taste of life on their farm. Our friends are good friends with the family and invited us to come along, which was such a treat. When we arrived on the farm, everyone was invited to experience a buggy ride. That was something I had always been really curious about! If you're new to our blog, then you might not know that we live in a fairly large Amish community. It's something I never thought I would get used to, but after living here for almost two years now, I'm finding that seeing buggies and horse poop lining the road is normal to my everyday life. Who knew!
Kalona was founded in 1879, at least that is when it was first put on the map by the establishment of its railroad station. You can still see the original train depot in our historical village! Most of the Amish who still live here today arrived in the 1840s, bringing their customs with them. These customs are called Ordnung, or rules for living. There are five different degrees of conservative Amish in Kalona, including the Old Order Amish, New Order Amish, Beachy Amish, Conservative Mennonite, and Mennonite. I am still trying to learn and discover what the differences between all of these are. As someone who is not part of the Mennonite faith, I find it difficult to distinguish between most of the Old Order and New Order Amish, but find the lesser conservative Mennonites easier to determine. It's really all based on dress and which modern technologies each class uses! For the most part, the Old Order Amish still wear plain, traditional clothing (dresses of no bright colors, prayer caps, and black shoes for the women and brimmed hats for the men) and do not use electricity, phones, televisions, vehicles, etc. Though there are plenty of hidden Amish phones (and even a few who have cellphones) around here. It can definitely be confusing, though, when you see a woman dressed in complete Old Order Amish attire driving a mini van! See? It's confusing. I believe the Amish that drive cars are Beachy Amish and can only drive black vehicles.
On this particular day, we were visiting an Old Order Amish family (or perhaps New Order, they were a bit modernized). They still wore traditional dress, had objections to being in photographs, and used a horse and buggy as a way of transport. So gracious of them to allow us into their lives and home! It was interesting finally sitting inside a buggy and not having the feeling of awe or wonder of just watching them hobble by on the side of the highway. I believe that all humans are equal and should not be held as sources of objectification, but watching someone practice ideals and beliefs that were popular in the early 1800s is definitely a way to separate yourself from someone living a more modern lifestyle; I know a lot of people who are not surrounded by an Amish community feel the same way! What was nice was that even though we weren't of the same faith or level of conservatism, this family was generous and kind and did not let that stand in the way of letting an English family experience life a little slower-paced, a little more connected. After dealing with a lot of tourists when we first moved here and actually had real jobs (ha!!), I think it's important to remember that Amish people are just people.
Tad took a ride in the buggy three times. He absolutely loved it! I rode with him once and laughed myself silly when each time the carriage would return he would yell, "Helloooooo!" at the top of his lungs to everyone standing by waiting. While I was in the buggy, the two of us sat in the front with the gentleman driving. He let Tad hold the ends of the reigns, explaining that when his children were younger he always let them pretend to drive. It was kind of surreal. My mind instantly went back to all of the historical period films and television shows I loved so much, how that was just normal of the time, and how very not normal taking the reigns of a horse was in my life. The other part of the ride that surprised me was how comfortable the seats were! Like really comfortable and squishy, too. The man said that they used to pack ten children plus himself and his wife in that buggy on Sundays. Wow!
After the buggy rides, we were invited to come watch the cows being milked. Now, when we first entered, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I learned later that this dairy farm was in fact a conventional farm, which was surprising! Most Amish owned farms are organic, whether they're certified or not, because it's just easier that way for them. Most conventional methods require modern machinery to accumulate a yield for a higher demand, so an Amish farmer might not agree with those new technologies. If you're growing organic, you can use methods that go along with your beliefs. I didn't ask how many dairy cows he had, but I would say there were at least twenty-five cows within the barn when we were there for milking time. He used a very simple pump to milk, one that had to be dumped by hand every time the milk was collected. He had most of his younger children working the cows because they were shorter and small enough to reach underneath to attach the pump. I found that part of their lifestyle really interesting. I feel like most kids would not be interested in working so diligently to please their parents. The children were working hard and quickly, too. It was like watching little adults making rounds on the farm, and I was really impressed!
We remained inside the dairy barn for quite some time, becoming acquainted with the cows, although they were much more interested in their hay than us. I brought my camera in for this part because I knew I wouldn't be bothering anyone. There was so much activity happening with the milking, and I had only hoped to snap some photographs of the cows themselves. After learning that this farm was conventional, I was a little disappointed. From what I saw, the cows were raised well, and they were eating dried grass from last year's hay harvest. Because they're conventionally raised, that means they most likely eat feed corn in the last few months for the milk is processed, which they're not biologically suited for, and I don't personally believe in that anymore. I also don't believe in the over-processing of milk and other dairy products, so again, a little disappointing, but still nice to see cows that were being kept well and happy and not crowded by any means.
I had a really interesting conversation with some organic farmers recently about the negative feelings on raw milk. We are lucky enough to have a local creamery that sells local milk and dairy products (butter, cottage cheese, greek yogurt, half + half, whipping cream, sour cream, and regular plain and flavored yogurt). All of their dairy products are non-homogenized, grass-fed, batch pasteurized, Grade A, USDA certified organic, and kosher certified. So that's really amazing for us! But what about just regular raw milk? Why was there such a stigma around it? I didn't realize that selling and purchasing raw milk was illegal in Iowa. That was so surprising! And I also didn't realize that the risk in drinking it was no different than drinking whatever overly pasteurized milk you purchase at the grocery store. I want to talk more in depth about the power of real dairy, but for now, just know that if you want to try drinking raw milk you should, and it might be interesting to look into how raw milk is handled in your state.
For dinner, we ate a full three course meal. It was wonderful, but it was definitely not fancy or flavorful. As we passed around homemade bread and a salad that was dressed with mayonnaise, cheddar cheese, and bacon bits, I realized that I cooked with a lot of spice. That my life was filled with spice and flavor. You can learn a lot from the contents of a family's dinner table. Here, I knew that they were plain people, that they didn't explore flavors unfamiliar to them. We ate roast beef, mashed potatoes, and peas. There was no salt or pepper on our table, nor the presence of any other herbs. I was actually kind of shocked! I'm not sure why I expected there to be this gourmet aroma of herbs cooked with the food, but I still did, and my parents kind of did, too.
It took me a little while to realize that I expected the idea of country food that I had come up with myself. But country food doesn't mean that it's filled with flavor, and you know what, I think it should be! All of the flavors of the earth are ours to use to make our food interesting, healthier, better. So we ate, and we enjoyed, and my friend and I waltzed around their dining hall looking at the woman of home's little Chobani containers filled with seedlings. I wondered if she would mind if I came and asked for advice in the garden and wished that she would allow me to help her with hers, but I knew that probably wouldn't ever happen. I'll just have to become the woman that lets a young twenty-something help me in my garden someday. That's what community is; that's what fresh beginnings are.
I left that dinner knowing that this life was good. That although I still felt separated from the Amish by conservative beliefs, that my liberalism and open spirituality made me different from a lot of this community, I still enjoyed living life slowly. There is no moral that can separate the human desire to make things with your hands, to get in the kitchen and cook something for yourself, to grow life within your garden or your womb, to know others and know them well, or to learn every curve and avenue of yourself better and better each day. Every experience I have in the country roots me even deeper within my own self and makes me realize that the best parts of my day are seeing cows grazing in a pasture, watching green grass sprout from underneath the golden decay of last year, and seeing my son get his little hands full of dirt. I hope that young girl shows up at my doorstep one day, asking me how to grow her own food. How wonderful will that be?