Last night, over in Crab Orchard, we attended a benefit turkey dinner for Mervin Miller, a thirtysomething Amishman who has leukemia and mounting health bills. The tack shop where the event was held at a large hillside farm was transformed into a mobile kitchen of a hundred women with pressure cookers and pie racks and loaves of bread and roast turkeys in foil-covered roasters. All week they had been preparing different parts of the meal from their home kitchens. "Everybody does their part," said one woman. For us it was like attending a big communal Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks early. "HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL"–An old abandoned schoolhouse near Holmes County, Ohio–home of world's largest Amish community • Spring 2006
People lined up to get in the door and once inside, the buffet line went like a well-oiled system. [Judging from the crowd at the auction and dinner there must have been over five hundred people.] We were handed a divided plate on a tray and paid our "donation." No specific fee was charged and those who do this at benefits tell me they end up receiving more donations than they might have anyway. There is something about paying what you can that is a very powerful gesture: it taps into one's primal good nature.
Then, bonnet-clad women piled turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, corn and beans on our plates. A helpful Amish man pointed to the dessert table where there were several kinds of pie and cranberry relish (I chose the date pudding and relish and later had a taste of peanut butter pie from my friend Anna's tray). Everything was homemade and there were huge decanters of fresh-brewed coffee and chests of soda "pop" and bottled water. On the tables were sliced loaves of homemade bread, butter and a potentially addictive peanut butter-Fluffer Nutter® mix. PHOTO: Hoosier cabinet at the Yoder Amish Farmhouse bakery, Holmes County, Ohio • Spring 2006
After the meal we were glad to catch up with some friends in both communities–many had traveled by van from Casey County and a busload came all the way from Christian County. At 6:30 the auction began. On the way in I had made the mistake of looking the Jersey steer in his big dreamy doe eyes, knowing my husband would bid on him for our freezer. The deal was that whomever bid on the four quarters (we got the whole cow in the end) would also have butchering included by Joe Yoder at J&V Slaughterhouse (which is how we had heard about the benefit supper in the first place: please see my previous blog entry, "Crab Orchard").
I should explain because, silly me (and this is just how my odd mind works), I thought that you literally got a quarter of a cow ("I choose front right flank!") but no, they said that the processed meat would be divided four ways. [I should also add here that we've been going great guns with cattle fencing on at least part of our farm so that we can proceed with raising our own cattle: this strikes many chords of both carnivore and animal-loving hypocrisy in me, but more about that another time. Let's just say this winter I look forward to reading both Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals as well as the soon to be released Cleaving by Julie Powell–here is her post-Julie and Julia blog. I should also continue onward through Michael Pollan's brilliant writing on the food we eat (and other topics).]
The idea of having grass-fed healthy beef (not certified organic but for all intents and purposes that way) in our freezer this winter for about $2.50 a pound average (and that includes all of the good cuts and ground beef–not the extra organs and bits) was too good to pass up, as was the chance to help someone in need. Of course, now we will have to buy another freezer but we were planning on doing that anyway. [Our cow will be dressed out at likely about 350 pounds–we have to work out the particulars with the butcher but in the meantime, the cow is on a Crab Orchard pasture at the farm where he was raised and will be delivered to the butcher in another month. Right now I'm thinking of delicious roast beef with suet reserved for the Yorkshire Pudding at our traditional Christmas dinner: and lots of suet for bird feeders this winter, too. But I'm also thinking of that Jersey steer. I do love animals so how can I care for them and also eat them without issue?]
Amish buggies at an Adair County Kentucky benefit sale • Spring 2008
So here is Old Order Amish and Mennonite health care in a nutshell: most pay into a larger fund that assists people with aid for basic procedures or needs. When more costly or prolonged health care is required for a person or family (say if their house or barn is destroyed: as they don't believe in property insurance, either), the individual communities pull together to organize benefits like these. "God will provide," seems to be the unwritten motto, but so will the community. I should also point out that Old Order Amish and Mennonite groups do not pay into, or take away, from Social Security or Medicare, either, and farm subsidies are also refused. It goes without saying that they never accept welfare because the community will provide for those in need (and I have yet to not meet a hardworking man or woman from these groups–my Mennonite women friends spin circles around me!).
As for their health, they believe in personal accountability and practicing a healthy lifestyle: chiropractors and different treatments of naturopathy and herbal medicine are often used and they mostly eat what they raise, grow or bake from scratch and there is something in that notion. Clean living. Hard work. Good eating. It's the way that most of us used to live, or subsist, before we became couch potatoes and computer junkies. Their strong sense of community, and keeping the modern world at bay (or at least tuning out aspects of it), is exactly what has kept their culture, language and strong faith going on into the 21st century. I'm not saying it's a perfect or Utopian society by any stretch–whatever is?–but there are so many aspects of it from which I think we "English" can always learn. PHOTO: Caps "for sale"! Well, not really. Photo of Mennonite hats and a coat taken at our shop "frolic" back in February–also on a Friday the 13th now that I check this blog entry!
The men ran the auction, gathered and organized items for sale, and there were many amusing volunteer auctioneers from within the community and also outside of it. The offerings included many donated items liked baked and canned goods (I bid on some of that homemade white bread to take home), tools, a few quilts, hay, split cord wood, porch swings, tack, and other items. I had wanted to bid on a case of homemade ketchup but we decided not to stay into the wee hours as we had an hour's drive home.
Corn shocks along South Fork Creek in Casey County • Fall 2009
So with full bellies and the prospect of a full freezer, we drove a few of our Mennonite friends home, back to our part of Kentucky. They sang a special "Happy Birthday" song to our son Henry, who will be 12 in a few days. [I need to write down the words and it is also a lovely tune: a few weeks ago my friends also sang it to me when they surprised me with a gorgeous cake, at a quilting my daughter and I attended–more on that soon as it is, for now, a "secret"...] Then we all sang some hymns. Ammon even yodeled. It was a thankful and contented carload as we drove on winding country roads to our homes in the balmy November night, a whole big sky of stars twinkling.