When we think of the Amish people in America, the first things that come to mind are their avoidance of technical improvements, their strict daily regime and their old-fashioned clothing. Because their lifestyle differs in so many ways from what we consider to be averagely "Western," Amish communities also cultivate cookery and eating habits which might seem strange to outsiders. But these habits didn’t appear from nowhere. Far from it! Many elements of the Amish cuisine were brought with them from the Europe they left behind. As Christiane Warmbein finds out, discovering Amish cookery means taking a rewarding glance at our own culinary history before industrialisation and globalisation changed our way of life forever.

Photo: Alison Stein Wellner, culinarytravel.about.com
An Amish bakery stall in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

The Amish people emigrated from Europe to Pennsylvania during the 18th century. In 1693, their founder had separated from the Mennonite community. Because they had chosen to live to a more strict, traditional rule, the Amish were persecuted in Europe, so they escaped to the New World, where religious freedom was granted.

The general Amish maxim is the priority of the community over the individual. Because of the importance of keeping the community together, electricity and most modern technical advances were not introduced to Amish households. This may appear strange to those of us who are addicted to technology, but it is motivated quite simply: not using cars means that people stay in the region where the community lives, and family evenings are not disturbed by TV, phone calls and computers. Through this physical distance to the outside world, the community will keep together.

The history of the Amish mean that their cuisine reminds us of European food of the 18th century, but has developed into a unique style of cooking which the Amish lifestyle.

Amish households are far bigger than the average modern family of parents with one or two children. Just as it was in Europe two centuries ago, it is normal to have 6 or 8 children. It is not uncommon for an Amish housewife to prepare food for 15 people. Because of this, casseroles, stews, soups and pizzas are preferred to fried food, as they are easier to prepare for more people. This method of cooking everything in one pot was much more common than frying when the Amish left Europe. One good example of a dish they brought to the New World is Knepfle, which originates in the German area of Swabia (German name: Knöpfle). The name means "little buttons." To make Knepfle, take 500g of flour, 6 eggs and a teaspoon of salt. Beat gently and drop the dough in small pieces into boiling broth. Let them cook for 10 minutes. Knepfle can be served with the broth or as a side dish without it. It is a simple dish which can be varied by adding other ingredients like bacon, onions and herbs.

Photo: Alison Stein Wellner, culinarytravel.about.com
The art of making preserves is central to Amish cooking

Amish food is also strongly influenced by the lack of electricity in homes. Instead of a fridge, food is stored in cellars, iceboxes or barrels with cold water. As this is not practical for a big household, the Amish use old methods to make food stable: the art of making preserves is an essential proficiency. This way, all kinds of vegetables and fruits are made to last. Preserving food was popular in European homes until the middle of the 20th century, but has become less and less common.

Most Amish households have a wood driven oven and cook with petrol or fire. As it is more complicated to fry meat like steaks or cutlets with this equipment, big roasts are preferred. Some classic European roasts were also introduced to America. For example, a Swiss meatloaf is popular among the Amish, as it can be made for as many people as needed and is easy to prepare. (See below for the recipe.)

Photo: Alison Stein Wellner, culinarytravel.about.com
Amish traditional "Springerle" biscuits are also found in Germany.

The Amish produce most of their food themselves. Because their fruit and vegetables are of a high quality, people from outside the community will come and do grocery-shopping in the villages. The seasons are much more closely reflected at the Amish dinner table than in the average American or European household. They live in balance with nature and themselves, so there will be no tomato salad in December and no pumpkin in April. Though this might seem to limit the variety of dishes in each season, eating locally is rewarded with freshness, quality and a vivid relation to what nature gives. These principles were lost for a long time for many "modern" Western people, and are just beginning to be rediscovered, for example through the Slow Food Movement. In this regard one may say that Amish eating habits are - through their very traditional nature - quite avant-garde. Their timeless principles are fascinating to many people who are in search of a lost idyll of natural cooking - especially in the face of fast-food culture and its catastrophic effect on health, and the general loss of understanding for natural nutrition.

Even though their cooking demands a huge amount of butter, oil, and white flour, the Amish are much less likely to contract such "diseases of civilisation" as diabetes, heart attacks and obesity. This is owing to their much purer lifestyle: a far lower use of alcohol and tobacco and no processed food, in combination with physical work and less air poisoning.

So, why not be Amish for one meal and try some new recipes?

Swiss meatloaf

Ingredients (for one loaf):

750g minced beef, 1 egg, ½ cup of milk, ¾ cup of grated Swiss cheese, salt and pepper, ¼ cup of sliced onion, strips of bacon

Heat the oven to 170° C. Beat the egg and add milk, salt and pepper. Then add the minced beef and ½ cup of the cheese; beat gently. Form a loaf out of the mixture, arrange the strips of bacon on the outside of it and bake for 40 minutes in the pre-heated oven. Afterwards, sprinkle the rest of the cheese on the loaf and bake for another 10 minutes. Serve the meatloaf in slices - you could add sauce, potatoes and salad. The rest of it serves cold really well on sandwiches.

Zucchini Bread

Ingredients (for two loaves):

2 cups of sugar, ½ teaspoon of nutmeg, 2 cups of zucchini, shredded, 1 cup of cooking oil, 2 teaspoons of vanilla, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 3 cups of flour, ¼ teaspoon of cloves, ½ cup of chopped nuts, ½ cup of raisins, 3 eggs

Beat the eggs until foamy. Then mix with vanilla, oil, sugar and zucchini. Add all dry ingredients. Grease two bread tins at the bottom and pour in the dough. Bake at 170° C for 80 minutes and let it cool completely before eating.

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