Amish food vendors in prayer caps and suspenders have come to Baltimore to sell meats, cheeses, baked goods — and a little bit of fantasy.
The vendors might be Old Order Amish who live without electricity and many other modern conveniences in Lancaster County, Pa., traveling here in a van with a hired driver because they do not drive. But many of the foods they're peddling in the Cherry Hill market they opened last month are modern, industrial products.
There is, for example, the beef, promoted as a grass-fed product from a Lancaster County farm. It actually comes from far-flung, conventional feedlots.
Or the chicken, which hails from Sysco.
And, on the shelves with traditional chow chow, spiced dilly beans and organic spelt flour, the packaged foods full of artificial flavors and colors, trans fats and MSG. Even the Pennsylvania Dutch Old-Fashioned Shoofly Pie mix contains partially hydrogenated soybean oil.
Those of us who learned everything we know about the Amish from "Witness" might be surprised to find out that along with traditional Pennsylvania Dutch specialties, Amish markets carry quite a few products that can be had in ordinary supermarkets. We might even be under the impression that Amish is the new organic. At a time when local, straight-from-the-sustainable-farm foods are all the rage, an agricultural people known for eschewing modernity suddenly seem chic.
But to impose locavore "good food" sensibilities on the Amish is to misunderstand how they live today, Amish researcher Erik Wesner said. They might dress as if they just stepped out of the 18th century, but the Amish bake with Crisco, shop at Walmart, raise crops with chemicals and eat, occasionally, at McDonald's.
"It's a common misperception — we think of the Amish as being sort of all-natural," said Wesner, author of a book on Amish businesses, "Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive."
Most Amish farmers use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, seeing the organic movement as "something new and cutting-edge," Wesner said. They tend to use the same industrial ingredients that most commercial food-makers do, even if their pie-buying customers like to imagine the Amish baker making her crust with butter — hand-churned butter, at that.
"It's very attractive to have the Amish name on your product because of these ideas that we connect with them," Wesner said. But "there's a very practical side of the Amish. … I think they would love to offer all-Amish products. It would be great to have it all come out of Lancaster County, but there's also the business reality of it. I don't think their intention is necessarily to deceive, [to say] that 'This is all-Amish.' We'd love it to be totally pure, but even the Amish have to react to economic reality."
Harsh economic realities are part of what prompted the Amish to open the Baltimore market. Many of them who did construction work lost their jobs when the recession hit. When one of them spotted an ad the bingo hall's owner had placed in the PennySaver seeking vendors to run a farmers' market in Baltimore, they figured that would be a good way to support their families — and work side by side with them.
After renovating the hall themselves over the past year, 15 vendors opened Patapsco Dutch Farmers' Market last month at 3321 Annapolis Road, next to the Patapsco Flea Market. The three days a week the market is open — Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays — the Amish travel 90 minutes each way in rented vans. That sort of nightmare commute would seem to be just the sort of thing the Amish would be spared. But the vendors seem resigned to it.
"You've got to take your product to the people," said Jonas King, owner of King's Pretzels in the market.
Besides soft pretzels, King sells ice cream made by a Lancaster County dairy.
"It's Lancaster County-grown," he said. "It's fresh. That's the old-fashioned ice cream, not the additives and all that."
King conceded that his mint chocolate chip was a shade of green not found in nature, but he said that's simply the hue people have come to expect in that flavor. "People want it," he said.
At Esh's Meats, vendor Isaac Esh said his steaks, roasts and ground beef had been raised on pasture on a Lancaster County farm without added hormones or antibiotics, and slaughtered by a well-known local butcher. But the farm he named, John F. Martin & Sons, turned out to be a company that only distributes and processes meat — all of it raised conventionally on big feedlots across the country.
"The meat that they're buying could come from anywhere," said Jay Martin, a Martin's owner. "It's just regular conventional beef if they're getting it from me."
Esh said he had been misinformed about his meat. He also said he intended to start carrying some grass-fed beef from another supplier — who will get it from a farm in the Midwest.
Another vendor at the market made no bones about where his chicken came from.
"Sysco," J.R. Beiler reported cheerfully. "It's still all-natural, no preservatives, no growth hormones or anything."
Of course, the Amish have as much right as anyone else to sell Sysco chicken and factory-farmed beef. The question is whether someone shopping at an Amish market would assume — even without the sort of assurances Esh initially offered — that the products come from Amish growers, not some international food distributor.
"They take care of their animals," said Antonio Cornick, a water-treatment plant worker who stopped at the market recently to buy what he'd assumed were Amish-raised meats. "They don't give all the hormones and chemicals to make them grow fast. And they're naturally raised."
Asked what is particularly Amish about selling meats raised on industrial farms far from Amish country, Esh replied, "I don't know. I guess it's a million-dollar question."
He added, after a moment's reflection, "We are Lancaster County, and we are coming down here."
The new market is not devoid of genuine Lancaster County products, some of which would please the modern food-fretter. Vendor Chris Zook sells milk from Kreider Farms, a Lancaster County dairy that doesn't use bovine growth hormone, composts its manure and operates a live "Cow Cam" so customers can see online how happy its cows are. Zook also offers fresh cider from a local orchard and an old-fashioned root beer made with sugar, natural extract and yeast.
A large bulk foods section is stocked with many traditional Pennsylvania Dutch food items, some made with natural ingredients, some not. Mrs. Miller's Homemade Noodles, made with 100 percent whole wheat flour, water and egg whites, share the shelves with Home Style Cheesy Bac'n Potato Soup made with imitation bacon bits, Red No. 3, Red No. 40 and partially hydrogenated soybean oil.
Some of the many pies, eclairs, cookies, breads and other baked goods that 18-year-old twins Mindy and Marty Glick make from scratch in the market are free of artificial ingredients.
At a booth called The Salad Garden, Merv Zook, no relation to the milk vendor, sells coleslaw, red beet eggs, pepper slaw and other foods prepared by his wife and 75-year-old mother.
There's also a 90-seat restaurant in the market, Marie's Dutch Kitchen, which makes many foods from scratch, including a dish that tops a freshly made waffle with shredded chicken, gravy, peas and carrots.
Outside the market, there are Amish producing the kind of foods that would prompt a die-hard, organic-foodie-locavore to seek them out. Liz Reitzig drives 2-1/2 hours from her Bowie home to Pennsylvania a couple times a year to buy grass-fed beef, chicken and pork straight from Amish farmers. Reitzig, a raw-milk activist, regularly buys raw milk from an Amish farmer. (The milk can be legally sold in Pennsylvania, but not Maryland.)
In her opinion, the Amish farmers she deals with live up to the flattering stereotype: They have integrity, follow old-fashioned practices and operate on a small scale.
"I've had no problems finding good, sustainable, ethically raised meat," she said.
But you won't find her stocking up on whoopie pies.
"My experience with the Amish is very mixed," she said. "They're all lovely people, don't get me wrong. They don't fully understand what the health-conscious consumer wants. Some of them are offering sustainably raised grass-fed beef or milk-fed pork, and then some of them offer baked goods with hydrogenated oils, or what they call shortening. There's a big discrepancy in the variety of products offered."