Amish open homes for a taste of culture

Posted: Sunday, October 24, 2004

BALTIC, Ohio A 2-year-old Amish boy plays on the front lawn with a pinwheel, barely noticing as 40 tourists shuffle past and into his grandparents' home.

After all, tourists are a common sight at the Hershbergers'.

Although their faith requires a distance from the outside world, a dozen Amish families in northeast Ohio welcome visitors to their homes to give them a taste of their culture.

Serving meals to the public has been a way of life for 15 years for the Hershbergers, who like many Amish have left behind farming for more profitable ventures.

The Amish are a deeply religious group whose simple clothing and tradition of traveling by horse and buggy symbolize a yielding to a collective order.

Sara Hershberger acknowledges there were many skeptics in the tight-knit Amish community when a few families started opening their doors two decades ago.

But even among the Amish times change.

"We enjoy being around people," she said. "Most people tell us this is the highlight of their trip."

On the way to the Hershbergers, the busload of tourists rolled through the rural, hilly region that is home to the largest settlement of Amish in the world.

The Hershbergers don't own automobiles but have a wide concrete driveway that can accommodate at least two buses at a time. Their neat, white vinyl-sided house is three stories high with five bedrooms on the top floor.

The tourists pass by well-kept flower beds and a well-worn pair of work jeans hanging with the rest of the day's laundry, then enter a dining room big enough for 60. The room was an addition to the house in 1995.

Wearing a green dress with her brown hair pulled back under the traditional white Amish head-covering, 18-year-old Amanda Hershberger takes instructions from her mother, who speaks in their native Pennsylvania German dialect.

Amanda and family friend Emma Sue Troyer hustle from table to table serving plates heaped with roast beef and chicken that's so tender and moist it falls off the bone.

Carol Glessner of Country Coach Adventures, who has been bringing tourists to Amish homes for 10 years, warned on the ride over that the roast beef would be the best anyone had ever tasted. It was.

"The beef was so good I didn't bother with the chicken," said Ralph Sandoz, 85.

The tourists rave to each other about the tasty green beans seasoned with sour cream and onion powder. The mashed potatoes are covered with brown butter, a sweet topping that some thought was cinnamon.

Like a busy grandmother at Thanksgiving, Hershberger, helped by the servers, is sending seconds around before the guests have finished their firsts.

"Do they have a dishwasher?" asked one woman, marveling at the number of plates, glasses and silverware that will need to be cleaned.

Amanda holds up both her hands with a modest smile in reply.

As the sun sets on the cool autumn evening, a propane lamp is fastened to a wagon wheel hanging from the wood-beamed ceiling. The Amish version of a chandelier puts a warm glow on the meal and the old washboards and antique farming implements that adorn the room.

The Amish are selective about their use of technology. They don't use electricity, which they view as a link to the outside world and therefore a threat to their culture.

Amanda gets a round of applause from the guests for the sweet and tangy French dressing she made for the meal and her gooey peanut butter whip, a mixture of peanut butter, maple syrup and marshmallows spread on fresh-made bread.

As if she hasn't done enough, Amanda joins sister Cora and Emma Sue in singing "His Creation" and a German song as the guests, if they have room, enjoy pecan, pumpkin, peach or custard pie.

For all of the above, the Hershbergers charge $12, plus a tip. It's a steal, Sandoz said before getting back on the bus.

"I was in the second World War and I've eaten all over the world. I've never eaten anything better than what I had here today," he said with a toothpick sticking out of his mouth.

Tom and Rosemary Bagby, of Cincinnati, agreed.

"They have a talent in making it taste better than anyone else," Mrs. Bagby said. "I think what's so neat about it is they open their home to complete strangers. They're very trusting persons."

After the tourists leave, it's time for the cleanup to the sounds of singing, an important part of Amish culture.

All nine of Sara and Valentine Hershberger's children have taken part in the family business while living at home. They're not sure what they'll do when their youngest, Amanda, leaves home.

"My husband tells me we'll have to quit," Mrs. Hershberger said with a smile.

The Hershbergers end their work around 9 p.m., then pray and read before bedtime.

Mrs. Hershberger will be up at 4:30 a.m. to bake pies and start the bread dough. She bakes about 5,000 loaves of bread a year.

"I'm not afraid of work," she said. "The most rewarding thing is I like to see people are happy. That makes me feel good that I've accomplished something."

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