Thursday, August 27, 2009

Feeling Kinda Amish

As a chef, one of the biggest challenges we face is educating ourselves continually about food, wine, trends, and the latest in new ideas or burgeoning cuisines.  If we don't, we get stale.  So, one of the more interesting trends for me is the idea that "less is more", when it comes to cooking.  Certainly, using quality ingredients and treating them with a deft hand and respect (don't muscle or mute them) allows you to appreciate flavors as they were meant to be experienced.  It's a common theme among the most respected dining establishments and food gurus.  The French chefs, in particular, Christian Delouvrier, formerly of les Celebrites and author of Mastering Simplicity, do it best.  But what about locally?  

The Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish communities throughout the Mid-Atlantic and North East are all about simplicity.  So much so, that they've continued for generations without losing their identity to the information and technology age.  
(If you don't count Rumspringa; and I'll get to that in another post)

I know their obvious beliefs.  And I've been shopping and eating from local farmer's markets for decades.  But, what kind of food would you eat if you sat at the table of an Amish family for supper?  Supper is their dinner, btw; dinner is their lunch, and it's usually a small meal.

When we were looking for a September wine dinner theme at Union City Grille, I wanted to feature local foods.  I wanted to get the full bounty of late summer and I wanted it to be fun and culturally relevant.  Wine dinner themes can get a little tired after awhile.

My eyes have been opened to something that's been right in front of me my whole life.  And I've become a little obsessed with learning more about their way of life.

The Amish raise and produce only what they need.  They are efficient growers and storers of food, and the most dedicated laborers.  They are the ideal locavores.  We owe a debt of gratitude to this culture, simply because we directly benefit from their hard work.  Standing in line at the farmer's market butcher 20 years ago, no one asked "if the sausage is organic".  It just was.  As were the vegetables, home-baked pies, jams, preserves and other food products they sold.  And it's the same today.  No elaborate, trendy packaging, fresh as it gets, priced to sell.  So, why aren't chefs shopping the Amish markets more?  Getting a hold of great ingredients is always an inspiration in itself, but what if you are looking to replicate and even experience a true Amish meal?

The Amish Cook is a remarkably down-to-earth cookbook with traditional recipes, lovely photos, cultural references and clever anecdotes from an old order Amish family.  Elizabeth Coblentz was one of the first Amish women to capture the essence of meals and life in a traditional Amish family.  She passed away in 2002, and her daughter, Lovina Eicher took up the pen and carried on her column, The Amish Cook, and later penned a follow-up cookbook, The Amish Cook at Home.  Both of these books are full of super recipes and ideas for eating locally and seasonally.  They're laid out according to the four seasons and the meal periods of the day (respectively).  And my favorite part: you'll actually read these books.  So many cookbooks are coffee table fodder or have beautiful covers with not much practical material in between.  They're personal by way of the voice they're given.  And the true test of a great cookbook?  It makes you hungry just turning the pages.

Stop back soon for a glimpse of the final menu for the September 23rd wine dinner, A Tribute to Amish Heritage, at UCG...

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