Amish cooking isn't simple, exactly. Mostly, it's just unfussy.
In their new book, Amish Cooks Across America, Kevin Williams and Lovina Eicher look at Amish cooking and what makes it distinct. Obviously, the food is made without benefit of electricity. But there is something more to it than that: Amish cooking is hearty, as it has to be to satisfy the caloric needs of hardworking people. And it is what we often think of as wholesome.
"What makes it Amish food is basics," Williams said. "They take what is very basic and available and can do amazing things with a very small number of ingredients."
Even so, Amish cooking is not at all homogeneous. As Amish communities have scattered across the United States, including nearby Sarasota, many dishes have picked up regional distinctions.
In the Northeast, their dishes are made with maple syrup and potatoes. In the South, though not many Amish communities have settled there, okra is king, along with corn bread and pecan pies. In the West, they serve huckleberries and some of the meats that are most readily available, such as elk and moose. (A recipe for creamy moose steaks requires 2 pounds of moose steaks, salt and black pepper, 1 cup of water, 1 large onion, sliced, and 1 can of cream of mushroom soup.)
The cream of mushroom soup stands out as exactly the sort of thing one does not typically associate with the Amish, but Williams said it and such ingredients as Velveeta are making inroads in their cuisine.
"Amish cooking as a whole is changing. There's more processed food than there used to be; they're not as insular as they used to be," he said.
In the Midwest, which has the largest communities of Amish, the ingredient lists run toward apples, tomatoes and corn. And apparently Mexican cuisine, or at least Tex-Mex, is making a sizable impact in Amish kitchens across the country.
The book is full of information about the people and their way of life, including the Amish and Mennonites who live and vacation in Pinecraft, an Amish community on the outskirts of Sarasota, west of Interstate 75, south of Fruitville Road. Its main thoroughfare is Bahia Vista Street.
Most of the book is given over to recipes popular in the various communities. Many of these recipes are for baked goods: pies, cookies and muffins. Though vegetable dishes receive their share of attention, recipes for meat dishes are fairly scarce, aside from a moose-steak recipe or two.
A recipe for Outrageous Chocolate Chip Cookies makes between 120 to 140 smallish cookies. It helps to remember that the average Amish family has eight children, according to the book, and when you feed all of them along with other family and friends you can run through 140 cookies before you know it. It also helps to recall the Amish lifestyle involves a lot of physical work, and they need the calories provided in these gems of peanut butter, chocolate, vanilla and butter.