So, how did I end up here?
I had no connection to the Amish growing up. None. I’m from Middletown, Ohio, a dying industrial city in between Cincinnati and Dayton. The paper-mills which employed workers for decades are long gone, the town’s mall is in an unsightly death spiral, our stately, elegant Manchester Inn downtown which hosted generations of high school proms and even boarded Sarah Palin the night before John McCain introduced her to the nation in 2008 (he was campaigning Dayton) has been shuttered for over a year now. The town’s main employer – AK Steel – still churns out steel in the mill. When I was a child my Dad worked for the mill, not in the mill. He worked in management and they sent our family to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates so Dad could sell more steel to the oil companies. It was a wonderfully exotic experience and I learned a ton about different cultures: Arabian, Pakistani, Lebanese, Indian, Afghani, and European. I wish most Americans could see the Islamic world from the inside as I did: peaceful, prosperous and welcoming. All in all I spent around 6 or 7 wonderful years of my childhood there. But nothing Amish…that was about as far from Amish as you could get.
No, it wasn’t until high school that I even heard of the Amish. I was 13 years old and on a warm, July day in 1986 our family set out for a summer vacation to Nags Head, North Carolina. My Dad took a “short cut” onto Ohio’s Appalachian Highway (State Route 32) which slices east from Cincinnati. 30 minutes later the flat fields of the Midwest suddenly give away to a dramatic, rocky smokey-colored hillscape. Welcome to Adams County, where Amish families began putting down roots in 1974. The Amish and their industrious and entrepreneurial ways injected some economic relief into the hills, long the poorest place in Ohio. Hitching posts went up outside banks and post offices in Seaman and Peebles, Ohio. Locals were generally welcoming.
On our trip to Nags Head I was captivated when my Dad suddenly stopped at a horse-drawn buggy that was pulled alongside the Appalachian Highway. A young Amish man with a long black beard was selling homemade baked goods and cheeses from the back of his buggy. We stopped and my Mom bought a brick of Swiss cheese. Two items of note about this first Amish experience:
1) I had no way of knowing it at the time, but this would not be my last encounter with the Amish man selling cheese. Our paths would cross again later and it would change the direction of my life.
2) I long remembered the day my parents stopped to buy the Amish cheese, but I couldn’t remember the date. Years later when doing research for a book I found out the date: July 17, 1986. It would be exactly 5 years later on July 17, 1991 that I would meet Elizabeth Coblentz, quite by chance, and the Amish Cook column would take flight.
Stay tuned for more….