A Tasty Trip Through the Amish Stands of Lancaster County
I've long admired the Amish from the time, years ago, I saw an old Amish couple in an artisans' mercado in Tijuana haggling like ninjas with a guy selling blown glass. What's not to love about a self-sufficient community with a staggering 95 percent success rate in starting businesses and about people who load up on gravy and pie yet make health professionals jealous? And perhaps the greatest point of admiration: the kindness and concern that the Lancaster County Amish immediately showed for the wife and family of the monster who gunned down 10 of their girls in a schoolhouse in 2006, killing five before taking his own life.
It's just a little over two and a half hours from the D.C. area up to the heart of Pennsylvania's Amish country. I'm not sure why I never made the trip before in nearly five years on the East Coast, except I didn't want to be one of those tourists perceived as gawking at the plain people while contributing to the vehicular traffic making the roads a bit more perilous for the horses and buggies. This congressional recess, I decided I needed a bit of time around people who don't give one whit about federal politics. Off to Amish country I went.
I knew there was a 20 percent chance of rain on Friday, but there was a 90 percent chance of more annoying tourists on Saturday, so I chanced it with the rain and got sprinkles. I arrived early in Intercourse, Pa., and first stopped at the oh-so-touristy Kitchen Kettle Village so the puppacita could stretch her paws. She enjoyed lots of flowers to sniff, stores to wander in and out of, the occasional piece of fallen kettle corn and staring at Amish men washing buggies and caring for horses used for tourist rides. I wasn't opening my wallet for the higher prices and gaudy tourist items like the T-shirt that proclaimed "Virginia may be for lovers, but Pennsylvania is for Intercourse." I vowed then and there that I would only buy from the Amish on this trip. And so with a list of tips about good roadside locations in hand, my GPS and I set out to find the best of Intercourse.
Not that GPS is necessarily needed -- if you want to keep it real in Amish country, just follow the horse apples.
Fisher's Bakery & Roadside Stand, 328 North Belmont Road, Gordonville, Pa.: So the Amish aren't supposed to be prideful, but this little stand outside a family farm gives them serious reason to brag. Two very friendly Amish women and a trio of little girls kept a steady supply of treats flowing for the tourists, and I bought a hearty supply of goodies to take back to the Beltway.
"I'm going to be popular now!" I quipped as they bagged up my choices. They just smiled. Oops, that sounded pretty prideful. But it was a compliment.
They pulled a $4 shoofly pie -- a molasses and crumb concoction I'd never heard of before (I'm a Californian and was confused by chipped beef, half-smokes and scrapple when I moved out here as well) -- out of the fresh-baked box that had come down from the house. They had smaller versions of the fruit pies and of the sweet breads; I took home peach pie and zucchini bread. Their fresh loaves of white bread were soft and hearty with a hint of sugar, and their cinnamon rolls were slathered in so much icing you could barely see the roll. I haven't cracked open the pineapple jam yet, but I did try the pumpkin whoopie pie -- cookie-shaped pumpkin cakes with thick creamy filling -- and totally forgot that I usually don't care for sweet stuff.
Immergut Hand-Rolled Soft Pretzels, 3537 Old Philadelphia Pike, Intercourse, Pa.: This little piece of pretzel heaven is a storefront in a row of houses just steps from the more touristy sites -- a guy dressed as a giant vegetable was prancing on the other side of the street, trying to lure visitors into a tourist-themed market. The Amish women at Immergut make a soft, buttery pretzel with dips ranging from cheese to sweet-hot mustard. Specialty flavors include whole wheat, garlic, sour cream and onion, cinnamon sugar and sesame.
And then there are the wraps. Wanting something a bit more substantial (and tidbits I could share with the puppacita) I tried this ham and cheese wrap. That's no Oscar Mayer inside. As soon as I ordered, a women whipped out a chunk of dough and rolled it out for the first step in baking this ooey, gooey treat. They also do the wraps with hot dogs and sausage and cheese -- I wanted to try the latter but they were sold out; I'm guessing it would have been amazing.
Busy Bee Farmer's Market, 3378 Old Philadelphia Pike, Ronks, Pa.: This is where you want to stop for a few bags of produce while forking over a fraction of what you'd pay at the grocery store. Two Amish boys manned this substantial stand in front of the family homestead; one was educating a shopper on how to pick a good cantaloupe versus picking a good watermelon (they had heaping piles of each). Some farms, particularly on the back roads, just put produce out at the end of the driveway with a box to drop cash on the honor system; one advertised $2 watermelons, and tomatoes were aplenty.
At Busy Bee, I asked the boys what they'd recommended to feed as a treat to small critters, and they pointed me toward a giant bin of the biggest cucumbers I'd ever seen. One of those, plus a heaping basket of small white potatoes and another basket of green apples, cost me $4 and change. The boys pounded out the totals on a small solar calculator.
Olde Heritage Rootbeer, 3217 Old Philadelphia Pike, Ronks, Pa.: This rootbeer, sitting on the fender of my Jeep with a random goat in the background, is like the moonshine of Amish country. Rootshine. Sweet, tangy, rich, yeasty root beer is everywhere, and this was a good stop to plunk down $4.50 for a half-gallon glass jug. One can feel a little weird pulling far up onto an Amish family's property to reach their store, but that van in the background was filled with laughing Amish women out for a shopping day of their own, being ferried about by a non-Amish.
This shop also had mini whoopie pies with fillings like strawberry and a selection of crafts. But all I wanted was some root beer after plunking down a quarter -- honor system, naturally -- for a Dixie cup of the brew at this next stop (so I put the cart before the horse).
Countryside Road-Stand, 2966 Stumptown Road, Ronks, Pa.: This farm is a ways off the pike and takes advantage of the space with ample parking and seating for passers-by to sit and enjoy the quiet country view with a root beer float or handmade soft pretzel. The store itself is substantial, with loads of craft items from pillows to birdhouses and quilts retailing for $650 -- God bless Amish capitalism.
Here you'll find fresh Amish butter and cheese sold by the chunk as Amish-tech ceiling fans crank overhead, multiple flavors of homemade fudge, many varieties of chips and popcorn, and a cornucopia of canned items. More creative ones included sweet and sour watermelon rind, and more pedestrian jars included homemade salad dressings -- I bought the thousand island on the suspicion that one could make one mean faux-In-N-Out Amish burger using the stuff.
Zook's Roadside Stand, 3916 Old Philadelphia Pike, Gordonville, Pa.: The puppacita squeezed in a couple of serious front-seat naps as I wandered the countryside in the Jeep and was often drawn back to the main drag. I meandered into this roadside stand, pup in hand, thinking it might be closed because it was dark inside. Duh. No electricity -- but it did have a battery-powered cash register. The woman running the stand rolled out a fresh cart of what I found to be the region's greatest sweet treat: the fry pie. Essentially a down-home version of an icing-coated Hostess pie. I took home the coconut cream and key lime and regretted neither.
For the saltier sensibilities, where my tastes usually run, there was a rack of homemade chips of all flavors: Lay's, eat your heart out. This is also the home of famous handmade chicken sausage pies, frozen to take home in two sizes, and a stark reminder that I hadn't thrown a cooler in the Jeep. No cheese, butter or sausage pie this time.
I did, however, snag a jar of pear butter -- which, naturally, the woman running the farmside stand was way too humble about.
So after a day near Intercourse, one has all the makings for a raging Amish Bowl party for about $60.
The rules for a trip to Lancaster County are as simple as the lifestyle. Take lots of small bills in case you encounter honor-system pay boxes. Bring a big appetite and a list of everyone back home who deserves a truly singular treat. Don't photograph the Amish and show basic signs of respect like taking off your sunglasses before talking with them. Drive carefully around the horse-and-buggy traffic -- this log of accidents involving cars and buggies is no surprise considering the vehicular maniacs I witnessed on the two-lane roads.
And... shop Amish!