The first guy we met jumped off the buckboard of his corn picking wagon, and he had plenty of apples and some squash (and jalepeno bread-and-butter pickles), but no cabbages and no eggs to spare. But we hit the jackpot at the next one down the road. Bushels of tomatoes, tight-skinned eggplants. Six varieties of peppers! We bought enough to fill the back of our car. The farmer, a white-bearded man named Robert, was new to the area and chatty, interested in politics, especially as they applied to the food system and farming, interested in a wide range of subjects it seemed. He said he was a writer and pointed to a large barn across the yard--full of 6,000 books, he said. Maybe 8,000. We asked him: "would you ever come to dinner at our place?" And he said, "yes, we do that." We walked toward his house and onto the porch, bang into a cloud of intoxicating spices and the delicious spew of leisurely stewing meat. He wrote down his address and the number for their community phone booth.
"Oh my gosh," I said, "what are you having?"
"My wife's making chicken curry," he said.
Something that he'd talked about that day--the tagging of cattle for identification--still had me at two in the morning, so there I found myself, googling an Amish man. And would you believe it, I found something, a link to a typewritten manifesto, over twenty pages long. I stayed up reading his manifesto about NAIS, the government decision to electronically tag every animal in the country in the name of food safety. He makes a convincing argument that NAIS will set insurmountable hurdles in front of small farmers and local food production, and I do believe he has an urgent point here. He also succinctly describes the Amish lifestyle. It's an amazing read. I dragged my husband to it the next morning and we came to the conclusion that he is nothing less than the Amish Wendell Berry. Check it out: Robert Alexander's Declaration
He called us about a month later, from their communal phone, to set a dinner date. As we were hanging up I quickly asked, "Oh, is there anything you don't eat?" This was a question leftover from my fine dining days, and one I immediately wished I could retract. You ask this of bony urban types you suspect of veganism, or of gourmands you plan to serve a tasting menu--not of Amish farmers. He said, "Oh. No. Like what?" I tried to recover. "Oh, no, nothing. Just local food!"
But it does bring up a point: what do you make for Amish folks, especially at the end of February? I opened my canning cupboard and sighed. The shelves gaped with the missing. From my fall canning only apple sauce and apple juice, and one odd jar of beet pickles, remained. I opened the freezer. I did have pork from my fall pig, grabbing the monster boston butt that I had been saving for a special occasion. I dug deeper and found a package of our garden eggplant that I'd smoked and frozen last fall.
So here would be the menu.
To start, a big loaf of homemade bread, to serve with:
fresh cheese (made from local slow-pasteurized milk and some buttermilk) topped with sweet peppers in sour orange vinaigrette
a spread made from the smoked eggplant, mixed with homemade mayonnaise and warm spices
a chunk of Marieke Gouda, an alpine-style cheese from Wisconsin
porchetta-spiced slow-roasted boston butt roast
salsa verde: parsley, capers, tarragon, garlic, basil
risotto with bits of cauliflower and tons of Wisconson Sartori parmesan cheese
carrots caramelized in my cast-iron skillet with maple syrup
grilled mushroom salad with toasted almonds, bibb hearts and fried garlic breadcrumbs
And for dessert, apple tart: a thin layer of apples macerated in reisling on top of homemade quick puff pastry, baked quickly in a hot oven, brushed with an apple glaze and served warm, with a tuft of whole milk yogurt-enriched whipped cream.
It was a pretty ambitious menu for a day which included keeping a three-year-old fed, apple-juiced and entertained, but I managed to pull it together in the home stretch. Just as I was finishing cutting the carrots I saw our friends B and C walk into the porch, and then two dark figures behind them, in capes, one of them with a stiff three-pointed bonnet casting shadows. I mean no disrespect, but the Amish woman's traveling garb is as disarming as a nun's habit in a film noir flick.
Within a few minutes all eight of us were standing around with drinks in our hands (white wine, elderberry spritzers or good beer) and the din of conversation rose high. Which was good as I was still cooking, for which the good women of the group kept me company. Funny, but as we traded canning and preserving stories--what to do with apple juice when the apples have a lot of natural pectin, how to deal with a surplus of cherry tomatoes . . . --we found more common territory than not. We played recipes like chips thrown into the center pot and it grew pretty high.
After all, each of us had at one point or another lived without electricity or modern conveniences. My husband and I lived in our place without any running water or electricity for three summers, and didn't get real electricity run back here until 2007. (When we remodeled the kitchen we painted over dark oval smudges on the rafters, the shadows left from the years we set an oil lamp on the shelf over the sink.) Cheryl just recently got a modern bathroom, after years of taking saunas or showering in the summer breeze--but her kitchen sink still sports a trusty handpump. Amber lives in a adorable dollhouse-sized place in the small town of Hewitt, perfectly set up for the two of them, her kitchen having no plastic slot for a dishwasher.
So we all marveled at mine, just a week old, as it finished its cycle. Looking for more water glasses, I pulled out a hot tumbler and ran water in it to cool it off. It snapped in two even pieces, one for each hand. Embarrassed, I mumbled that it wasn't a favorite, to the chorus of "Don't worry about it! That's okay! We can reuse our glasses!"
Deborah said she liked the fresh cheese. "Do you have a cow?" she asked. "Oh no," I said. "No animals yet." She scooped some on bread and brought it across the room to her husband.
"We have a cow," she sighed. "Just one, but I run out of things to do with the milk. We eat a lot of cheese in the winter."
We finally sat down at the table and talked in rivers, as usual, though I think we found some unusual intersections. It made me think that most people sanction their involvement with modernity at some juncture; the Amish just draw an early and hard line. But some people I know don't want to own two cars. Some drive two cars but limit their kids' TV-watching to an hour a day. Some avoid processed food. Some burn wood for heat. Some hate banks. Some people, more resistant, don't want to be on the grid or use power tools.
I also think that when it gets to this point, to real simple living, that there are more decisions made on the impulse to actively do than to resist. Homesteading, broken down into daily chores, is physically active, really a verb. And it's a lot of work! To drink great water, you need to pound your own shallow well. To eat garden vegetables in the winter you need to can them. Eating meat from around here takes some organizing and, sometimes, some front-yard butchering.
But no matter what you choose to do, the lines we draw eventually make a picture, a form.
Speaking of pictures, here's the apple tart. Needless to say, there are precious few photos from the Amish dinner party. (I figured it would have been rude to snap them, even if I was trained on the food.) But I dragged the tart into the pantry and got this one. I wanted some sort of relic to remind me of the evening and the tart turned out well: I love its rusticity, and how easy it is to assemble. On the plate, the thin lid of apples taste so fresh, even mid-winter, and the billowy puff pastry crust feels weightless and fancy, especially when matched with its weight of downy whipped cream.
Maida Heatter’s Quick Puff Pastry
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) cold butter, cut into cubes
1/2 cup sour cream
5 apples, peeled and cut in half
4 Tablespoons sugar + more for sprinkling on top
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 Tablespoon white wine, such as reisling
for glaze: 2 Tablespoons peach or apricot jelly
Combine flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and cut in with a pastry cutter until the butter is the size of very small peas (work it a little longer than you do for conventional pie dough). Add the sour cream and stir with a fork until the dough clumps. Gather the dough into a disk. Remove dough onto a lightly floured board and form into a rectangle. Chill for one hour in the refrigerator.
We will give the dough two “turns” or the process of rolling it out and folding it into thirds:
Bring the dough out of the refrigerator and give it the first turn: Roll the rectangle into a rectangle twice its size, keeping the same basic proportions. Fold the top of the dough toward you, about two-thirds over. And then fold the bottom half up over the folded dough. It’s like folding a business letter in thirds. Refrigerate for thirty minutes.
Give the dough another turn, repeating the above process. This time refrigerate for at least 45 minutes, or until thoroughly chilled.
Combine the sugar, lemon juice and white wine in a large bowl. Peel the apples, cut in half and remove cores. Slice thinly crosswise into arcs and place in the bowl. Turn gently to cover with the sugar mixture.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Roll the dough out so that it’s an inch larger than a standard sheet tray. Place on the top sheet tray. Arrange the apples in four overlapping rows down the tart, leaving a two-inch border on all sides. (Reserve apple-marinating juice.) Fold the edges up over the apples, making decorative pinched corners if you like. Sprinkle evenly with a couple of tablespoons of sugar.
Bake at 425 degrees for 40-45 minutes, or until the pastry has turned deep golden brown and the apples are tender.
Put the jelly in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat, adding enough of the apple marinating liquid to thin it out a bit. Brush this glaze on the warm tart and serve immediately.