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Jun 2, 2012 08:49 AM

Amish Food

Just wanted to put my two cents in after my road trip through lancaster and philly. For those looking for the transcendant Amish food experience, there is a reason there isnt too much traffic on the boards about it... In fact I would say that the Dutch country farmer's market in my local town of germantown md and laurel md put the food in the restaurants to shame. The real highlights are the baked goods. Yummy breads and pies are the highlight. Sorry to burst anyones bubble but this is for the good of other chowhounders out there to set expectations. As i said on my yelp reviews, i would say the local fare is more geared towards bland country cooking than lard based soul food. For example most restaurants only had oven baked chicken breast.... pls excuse the typos and grammar. Trying to squeeze this post in from my phone in between carting kids here and there. If locals have a diff in opinion, pls prove me wrong as i am sure we making the trip to dutch wonderland again in the future. All my best.

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  1. It would help greatly if you actually mentioned where you ate and got a little more specific about your experience. What were you hoping for, and what missed the mark? I don't disagree with the assertion that most restaurants in the Amish tourism area fail miserably. Did you check previous posts about this topic before choosing your places to eat? You need to get out of that corridor, for the most part, to experience PA Dutch food. However, it will never be loaded with spice, as the culture does lean toward more bland preparations, vinegar being one of the most utilized "seasonings." Growing up, we regularly had a cruet of cider vinegar on the table with the salt and pepper, not to mention the numerous pickle preparations you will find in the cuisine. As for baked chicken, we only rarely enjoyed fried chicken. Most meat preparations are baked or soups/stews - things like chicken pot pie and schnitz and knepp or just ham hocks stewed with green beans and potatoes. It is, indeed, country food derived from a poor (or at least very frugal), rural, farming culture that utilized what was plentiful to them. While lard has long been traditional, not sure where you came by the "lard based soul food" description.

    3 Replies
    1. re: centralpadiner

      I love vinegar being of Chinese decent in particular a specific region of china that likes the use of many types of vinegar, black, red, white, etc... Pickling sounds delectable! Ham hock sounds great too! Where do I find these treats?!? I went off of a few of the chowhounder's recommendations off this board and went to Country Table in Mount Joy. (Drove 20 minutes out of town) I ended up having a water logged "Honey Chicken" breast that was horrible... The most popular dish it seemed with the clientele was the daily special "spaghetti and meatballs"... Oregon Dairy was a bit better, but I was only able to purchase pre-made groceries that I later prepared at home. Ham loaf was good and the olive egg salad was okay. (just finished it) The baked goods did sing, but the other food didn't do it for me. Also got some breakfast at the Central Market downtown Lancaster. Good egg and sausage sandwich until I crunched on what I hope was an egg shell... Sorry I hope I didn't offend. Please let me know if you can provide me with some up-to-date advice.

      1. re: CheapEats

        Take at look at this thread where brookquarry who is a native of Lancaster talks about some of the better places and what to order there.

      2. re: centralpadiner

        I also grew up in PA Dutch (German) country and I agree 100% with centralpadiner's descriptions about the cuisine. The cider vinegar on the table made me smile. We didn't have that but many homes did. My best friend's family used it on everything.

        Most of the common dishes I will never miss. The thought of ham hocks makes me shudder, I had an adversion to fat and that was a meal I dreaded. Others are better in memory and some, like homemade pot pie, are too time consuming.

      3. I find Pa Dutch cooking to be pretty unremarkable, as you say. I think a lot of its fans had that food as a child and it has a spot in their heart. My father was that way, but the gene wasn't passed on to me. I've been to the usual places up there and just can't see the attraction. Except wet shoofly pie, I get t hat.

        15 Replies
        1. re: gfweb1

          Clearly, the Dutch farmer's markets in my local area cater to outsider's tastes. The rotiserrie is flavorful and buttery, the ribs are rich and flavorful, and the roast beef melts in your mouth. Especially with the extra au jus. This was the kind of thing that I was expecting... The folks behind the counter all seem to be authentic Amish though... Not that I can tell the difference. I basically grew up with the burtonsville one.

          1. re: CheapEats

            Part of the problem is that at it's heart is is home cooking and restaurants never measure up. As far as your description of rotisserie chicken, ribs or roast beef - none of those items are particularly PA Dutch to me - they are, as you said, just being make for the local market. I'd be lying if I said I am continuing the food tradition in my own home. Most of the dishes just aren't practical to make in the modern home on any kind of regular basis. I rely on an aging generation of family members to satisfy those cravings and my kids don't get into it at all.

            As far as Country Table - I recommend it, and stand by that as a well above average exposure to local eats. I can't really account for the pleasure locals find in the Central PA version of spaghetti and meatballs - way too sweet for my taste, take me someplace that has a stronger Italian heritage. Looks like chicken croquettes were on the menu that night as the PA Dutch specialty, the ham loaf would be another local specialty. The restaurant is particularly known for it's house made sides - pepper cabbage, chow chow, their cranberry relish, pickled beets, red beet eggs, or stewed tomatoes are the most "dutchy". And even though the salad is pretty much just a pile of iceberg lettuce with some shredded carrot and cucumber slices, I'll get one just for their sweet and sour celery seed dressing, it makes this PA Dutch heart beat a little faster. Personally, I usually get the turkey and gravy, but find the filling a little dry so I get mashed potatoes as a side to mix in with it, and ALWAYS the cranberry relish. If it is shad season, that will be the catch of the day - that with shad roe and bacon with the salad and house celery seed dressing . . . mmm... Now I need to make a trip over there.

            1. re: centralpadiner

              Well, since my post has been referenced, and it appears you tried two of my top reccomendations without sucess, let me respond.

              The Amish don't really have a cuisine of their own, rather they serve the same Pa Dutch cuisine that probably two thirds of the residents of Central Pa used to make 75 years ago. The difference is they still do it wheras the rest of us don'tcook this way at home anymore, for the reasons Central Pa Diner mentions.

              The entrees in this cuisine are not normally highly seasoned , aside from whatever flavorings come from salt, pepper, butter or gravy (the exception to this is pork and sauerkraut).It is certainly comfort food to many of us natives. However I believe that when well prepared it can be flavorfull.

              By contrast the side dishes/deserts tend to be either sour or sweet, as you have discovered.

              I still believe that Oregon Dairy does the best job of this type of food of any area restaurant -when you order from the menu-not the buffet.

              Dishes that my wife and I often order there and enjoy are the ham loaves (Gene Wenger's mix) the meat loaf, the chicken and waffles (stewed chicken served over a waffle-not the soul food fried chicken version), the chicken pot pie (again a chicken stew with noodles-not the pastry crust Swanson frozen dinner version) the smoked sausageand the aforementioned pork and Sauerkraut..

              The sides that Central Pa Diner mentioned are the best pickled 'dutch' ones,but I would add one more lettuce with hot bacon dressing. When done right this is a good blend of sweet and sour.

              As for Country Table we get there less frequently (Its not near my parents home).but I have never had a bad meal there (Although Idon't recall ever ordering the chicken breast) Their Ham Loaf is the same mix as Oregon Dairy's-which you enjoyed- and I agree with Central Pa diner that the turkey is good. The sides and the baked goods are usualy excellant. I am sorry that you had a bad experience there.

              You are right that the items you mentioned at the farmers market in Maryland are not really traditional Pa Dutch items. The Amish are surprisingly adaptable, particularly as their expanding population requires more of them to take jobs other than farming- as quilters, furniture makers and farmers market standholders.

              In quilt shops- even Amish run quilt shops-less than 10% of quilts are the traditional Amish designs you find in museums (black background and geometric designs in solid colors). Rather, they are the prettier lighter and pastel colour patterns with flowers and other decorations which the tourists demand. I am sure the Amish at your market have learned what sells to suburban Marylanders, and being skilled cooks have learned how to prepare it.

              That said, you should give at least Oregon Dairy a second chance, particularly since they are so kid friendly (Ice cream shop, petting zoo, goody bags for the kids,model train running around restaurant under the ceiling) Try the pork and saurkraut, which is the 'sourest' entree.

              1. re: brookquarry

                Thank you centralpadiner and brookquarry for your detailed recommendations and your open heart in providing help in this area. I truly don't mean to offend those that this cuisine affects in a personal way either from memories or from a heritage perspective. I will revisit Oregon Dairy in our next outing and try out the pork and sauerkraut, smoked sausage, and meatloaves that sound more to my taste-buds. So when is shad season? Shad roe and bacon with the salad and house celery seed dressing or even hot bacon dressing! Now you are speaking my language. For that I may make the trek out to Country Table 1 more time...

                By the way, if you hadn't noticed, I am a food nut. I plan my vacations around meals... I spent literally hours reading about Yoders versus Dienners versus Shady Maple versus Family Cupboard, etc... I have a fond memory of Good and Plenty, when I came up to Lancaster as a child for a school field trip. All you can eat anything was a god send back then... I guess I tried to relive the experience and share it with my family. Hopefully try number two will be better.

                1. re: CheapEats

                  Shad season will be next spring, when the shad migrate upstream to spawn. Shad is good, but very bony. Never had the roe.
                  You should definitely skip Good and Plenty. I had not been for 30 years until my wife (who had never eaten there) talked me into trying it again a year and a half ago.It was as mediocre as I remember.
                  By the way Dienners has very good rotisserie chicken.

                  1. re: brookquarry

                    CheapEats - Shad season tends to begin the end of Feb. into March. They will usually put it on their website when the shad are running. To my knowledge, Country Table is the only local place that consistently carries it every Spring. I grew up eating it because I come from a family of fishermen and my mom and grandmother used to cook it but the old men don't get out there anymore. Don't skip the roe, totally worth it and better than the actual fish.

                    1. re: centralpadiner

                      That is interesting that Shad are so early. Perhaps they are catching them as they go to spawn. Our Shad Fest in Bucks County is late April. What accounts for the difference?

                2. re: brookquarry

                  The Amish are surprisingly adaptable, particularly as their expanding population requires more of them to take jobs other than farming- as quilters, furniture makers and farmers market standholders.

                  Very true. The Amish markets in my area definately cater to the mainstream customer and tourists (particularly Asian)

                  I have only seen those dark quilts in private homes and they are stunning. All the stands in my area sell the pastel, small patch style (double wedding ring, stars) that appeals to the general public. There was a bit of a scandal a while back when it was reported that many of the handmade quilts were sourced from overseas.

                  1. re: cleobeach

                    The sourcing from overseas is actually not as big a scandal as it seems. Tourists tend to request fancy appliqued quilts. The Amish and Mennonites, while skilled seamstesses, obviously have no tradition of this type of fancy work. There is a Hmong (ethnic group from the Laotian and Vietnamese mountains) community in Lancaster dating back to the '70's when many were sponsored as refugges by area churches. The Hmong have a tradtion of beautiful fancy sewing.

                    Not surprisingly quilt dealers began farming the fancy needlework to local Hmong. This developed into work being done by Hmong in refugee camps in Thailand.

                    Most reputable quilt dealers will tell you if the work is done by local or foreign Hmong, and anyway, it does not diminish the skill of the needle work or beauty of the quilts.

                    In recent years I have begun to see some more traditional Hmong desings, advertised as such at mudsales.


                    1. re: brookquarry

                      Maybe scandal was too strong of a word. In my experience, many tourists as well as locals that moved into the area have an idealized view of Amish life. They are shocked to learn that their Amish chair wasn't made out back in the shed or quilt wasn't sewn by a group of Amish women by the light of a candle. It never occurs to them to ask, they just assume the goods are Amish-produced.

                      1. re: cleobeach

                        I agree. We have friends who befriended an Amish family 40 years ago and still visit the grown up kids at their farms at least once a year. In recent years we have accompanied them. My wife, who grew up where we live now, with no Amish population was surprised to see the Amish with propane powered refigeratorsand washing machines, tupperware and Laziboy recliners. Of course none of these violate the core Amish prohibitions- whioch are aimed at restricting things such as TV, telephones in the home and cars, that pull people away from a faith and family centered life.

                        1. re: brookquarry

                          hahaha! Yeah, this is definitely an amusement to me and people just don't want to believe it when I tell them.

                          I've lived around the Amish most of my life, but even I was surprised when I happened to be at the Lancaster Toys R Us at the same pre-Christmas sale as a van load of Amish mothers and noticed that the blinking, alphabet singing battery powered toys were particularly popular among them. I realized that they probably love things that help their kids learn English, since they only speak PA Dutch at home.

                          All of the Amish I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking to have been intelligent and much more aware of the world around them then they are given credit for. I regularly see them at places that might surprise the uninitiated, not just Toys R Us. Hersheypark and hockey games at the Giant Center are particularly popular entertainment venues among the young people.

                          cw - I don't know why I have to start checking the website in Feb to make sure I don't miss the shad at Country Table, but I have learned my lesson. However, March was what I always remember as prime shad fishing season, and when I lived in Doylestown for a year, I thought the festival seemed a little late. When is the big tournament in Easton? Is that in March or April?

                          1. re: centralpadiner

                            It's April, which is why I was surprised also, by your answer Maybe the Shad run is earlier on the Susquehanna than on the Delaware.

                            1. re: centralpadiner

                              I also lived around them most of my life. They were our neighbors growing up and my father and uncles did business with them. Later, I worked at a job that took me to their farms and factories. Being a woman, it made for an interesting job at times.

                              The site of an Amish worker, standing on the roof talking on a cell phone blew my former neighbor's mind. She moved to PA from NYC and her ideas about the lifestyle was very different from the reality.

                              And yet I am also currently surprised at some of the things I see. Just recently I was at the grocery store and an Amish woman in front of me was buying lunchables, boxed cookies and soda.

                              I had the pleasure of the friendship of an older woman who was raised Amish and married a Mennonite man. I agree with CPAdiner, they are much more wordly (especially the men) than most people probably realize.

                              1. re: cleobeach

                                as far as I've seen, the Amish tend to be pretty strict (though they will hitch rides on cars for jobs). That said, their teens are actively encouraged to "get a taste"for the way the rest of us live.

            2. 1) Did you get any Lebanon Bologna?
              2) Did you get some handmade pretzels (Gettysburg's gotta decent factory)? Best in the Dang World!
              3) Didja get Grandma Utz Potato Chips (Harrisburg Costco's are reliably fresh--and you'll want the box)?
              4) How about some Gibble's Red Hot potato chips, if you want some spice? (okay, the thai-lover in me cringes, but they are tasty!)
              5) MILK! Third best in the western hemisphere.

              This ain't restaurant fare. Anyone I see trying to find a decent place to eat, ought to consider a picnic! (PA parks are fantastic -- moreso in the mountains, but still...)

              1 Reply
              1. re: Chowrin

                "MILK! Third best in the western hemisphere."

                What are #1 and #2?

              2. On the basis of two positive Chowhound threads mentioning Country Table's consistently good presentations of PA Dutch food, my friend and I went there on a recent Thursday evening, both ordering the chicken and waffles biweekly dinner special, with an appetizer of onion rings, sides of pepper slaw and filling with gravy, and desserts of lemon shoofly pie and graham slam.

                Service was warm, but sloppy, with the server unable to pour water without splashing us each time or clear the table of dishes without us fearing for our safety as the dishes clattered loudly overhead in shaky hands. The server kindly offered free samples of the two out of three soups that were claimed to be better: jambalaya and creamy spinach. The chicken and corn soup was pooh-poohed as nothing special, but the soups we tried were also nothing special, despite our server's warning of the jambalaya's "kick." Neither were good enough to order.

                Onion rings were both underseasoned and soggy. Pepper slaw was unremarkable with a thin tangy vinegar spiced up with plenty of black pepper. Filling was "fine," but could have used some gravy for moisture, according to my friend.

                The chunks of white meat were moist and fine, as was the Belgian waffle they were served on, but the gravy was made with bouillon cubes and thickened with starch. These shortcuts were pretty noticeable and, with trepidation, we ordered dessert. Graham slam was a chocolate cake dessert with a frosting flavored with very poor imitation vanilla and the lemon shoofly pie was filled with canned lemon filling and topped with soggy, flavorless crumb topping. A quick stroll through the closing bakery with salad bar did not inspire us.

                I've enjoyed PA Dutch food for the better part of the last two decades, but do not understand why this dinner had nothing to recommend it. Did we order incorrectly? Should we not have suffered plate regret? Have there been recent changes in ownership or management or staff that could explain the meal we had? I see that we did not order the recommended ham loaf, nor the daily vegetable (which was green beans seasoned with Old Bay), but after this meal, am unsure that those would have been any better. We saw lots of cheap shortcuts and little care paid to the food.

                Country Table fans, what should we have ordered instead?

                ETA: The multiple flies buzzing around during the spring weather were not appetizing.

                4 Replies
                1. re: mookleknuck

                  I am sorry for your bad experience. In all honestly, I have not had opportunity to be back in the year since this thread originated. I certainly sounds like things have changed since last Spring. I do not ever recall a salad bar in the bakery, that sounds odd.

                  I have been more recently suggesting Oregon Dairy. I will take note of your post, and will not be recommending Country Table until I can get back and check it out for myself.

                  I would love to hear where you have had PA Dutch food that you particularly enjoyed.

                  1. re: centralpadiner

                    Most of the PA Dutch food I've had has been at people's homes or church lunches or various farmstands/markets, all of which I have a hard time recommending given that 1) I don't remember the specific location 2) they are not normally venues which most people can access or 3) a lack of consistency from year to year. There's good PA Dutch/Amish/Mennonite food not only near Lancaster/Ephrata, but also in the small towns near Allentown and State College.

                    I tend to think of PA Dutch fare as being at its best in people's homes and I like it for its hearty simplicity. Although the following were not exemplars of PA Dutch food, I do remember a couple of good, fair-ending meals at the Kutztown Fair, where the food stopped us from continuing to explore further and made the drive home tiring. The Grange Fair, near State College, also has a number of different PA Dutch specialties.

                    ETA: As a PA Dutchy grandmother once told me, "If you a(i)n't Dutch, you a(i)n't much!"

                    1. re: mookleknuck

                      And exactly what I said above is, "Part of the problem is that at it's heart is is home cooking and restaurants never measure up. " So, obviously I agree with you. From your post, I assumed you meant you'd had better at other restaurants that we could try or recommend.

                      My PA Dutch heritage hails from Berks Co., so even though I live in Lancaster Co. now and this is the place tourists come to experience PA Dutch culture, you will never hear me saying this is the only place it's at. (well, unless you are looking for things geared toward tourism, like The Amish Farm tour type stuff)

                      I never answered your "what to order" at Country Table question, because I was pretty specific up thread, including the dryness of the filling. But, as I have said many times on this board, I pretty much never count on a restaurant to give me an authentic PA Dutch meal experience. I am Dutchy on both sides and for the most part, the vast majority of my family are still located somewhere here in South Central PA. I am lucky that home cooked is where it's at for me, and I always preface my suggestions by saying so.

                      1. re: centralpadiner

                        I appreciate your sympathy for my recent meal disappointment and was trying to elaborate on some of your points. I do not think that I'd implied that I had better PA Dutch food at other restaurants and repeat that I feel PA Dutch food has not become, as other cuisines have, readily available for public consumption in restaurants or other public locations. It is still, at its best, experienced at home. You are very fortunate to have such great food available at all times!

                        The main thrust of my post was to question my recent meal disappointment at Country Table, which I doubt was due to any lack of familiarity with PA Dutch cuisine. While this thread was originally posted by someone who did not seem to have the same kind of expectations I brought to the table, I wished to highlight that this particular establishment did not meet any standards and is not, in its current state, Chowworthy.

                        I mentioned the other Pennsylvania locations to try to answer your question as to where I have particularly enjoyed PA Dutch food and in the interest of helping future Hounds looking for other places, not because I thought that posters on this board had stated that Lancaster is the only area to try this cuisine.

                        I strongly feel that the chicken and waffles, which may or may not be similar to the turkey with gravy that had been recommended, should not be ordered. The pepper cabbage and filling were both fine and my dining companion had been warned about the latter's tendency to dryness. The baked goods were markedly not excellent. So my question remains: what should we have ordered instead? From this and one other thread, it seems like the things to get there are: turkey with gravy, ham loaf, multiple sides and baked goods. I usually love both celery seed and hot bacon dressings and would love to try their seasonal shad roe, but worry about returning to Country Table for another meal, based on this one meal.

                        I am still looking forward to trying Oregon Dairy. And I thought my chicken and waffles at Country Meadows recently were just fine.

                2. There certainly are a good number of Amish country experts and long time residents here to defend their turf. My contacts with the area were only with a PA Dutch Grandmother. I did love some of the basic PA Dutch foods including Shoo-fly-pie, pot pie and a range of soups. By any standard the food is basic, seasonal and mostly bland. Because of the homer in them many comments are overstated, less than objective and too absolute. "Country food ....from a rural farming culture that utilized what was plentiful...." Seem to be right on target. One needs to set expectation for same when visiting there. In the words of a great scholar and philosopher "it is what it is"!

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Bacchus101

                    I agree with you (and gfweb upthread). It is stick -to-your-ribs food. Heavy and starchy. Better at breakfast than dinner.