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The Nation

Amish Woman's Column Mixes Daily, Delicious

With vignettes of life taking in the sect's simple pleasures and chores, the feature has won admirers. And then there are the recipes.

April 16, 2006|Sean D. Hamill | Special to the Chicago Tribune

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Mich. — As Lovina Eicher's eight children swirl around her just before dinner, it's difficult to believe she ever has time to write a nationally known column.

But when you are the Amish Cook, such a scene in an Old Order Amish household is what your legion of readers -- and your mother's readers before that -- have come to expect.

"I just write about my family," Eicher said during a slight lull one March day as the three youngest children competed for space in her lap. "Most of the time, I write my column late at night or early in the morning. It's hard to get peace around here."

In a world of BlackBerries and Instant Messenger, peace is what many readers find in the homespun tales and simple prose, along with recipes, the column has become known for during its nearly 15-year run. Adding to the allure: It also offers a window into the insular world of the "Plain People," who shun electricity and cars, among other modern conveniences.

Eicher, 34, a friendly woman with a warm smile, gets 80 to 100 fan letters a week. She said one woman summed up the feelings of many readers when she wrote: "Don't ever change. You don't know what the world has come to."

The column is well enough known that Eicher, and her late mother before her, have had their share of stalkers, albeit by letter, including one who is convinced he is the Messiah.

"Yes," laments Eicher's editor, Kevin Williams, who screens her fan mail, "even an Amish columnist has disturbed fans."

The column soon could become even better known, thanks to a line of Amish Cook pies -- blueberry, cherry, apple, peach, oatmeal, raisin, sugar cream and shoofly -- that will be sold in stores primarily in the Midwest, starting this month.

Oakrun Farm Bakery Ltd., which makes pies for the Whole Foods Market chain, liked Williams' idea for a line of pies based on Eicher's recipes for the same reason readers are drawn to the column.

"What appeals to us about it is that 'Amish' implies wholesome and a good-for-you product," said John-Paul Ophelders, sales and marketing manager of Ancaster, Canada-based Oakrun.

The weekly Amish Cook column runs in 140 small and medium-size papers throughout the "Amish Belt" stretching from Pennsylvania into Kansas. Each one begins with a short diary of life in the home of Lovina and Joe Eicher and their children, ages 6 months to 11 years.

Her vignettes include everything from the weather ("The colorful array of leaves are in their autumn splendor as the covered buggies in this area make their way down the roads.") to the difficulties of preparing chickens ("We are getting quite a bit faster at butchering. The children help pull the feathers which really helps.") to heavenly wisdom ("It was five years on May 20 that Dad passed away and it'll be three years on Sept. 17 that Mom died. Oh how we still need them here but God knows best. 'He' sees things we don't always see.").

The column always ends with a recipe from Eicher's kitchen, often following the seasons, whether it's homemade zucchini bread when vegetables are ripening in summer, sour cream apple pie for the autumn apple harvest or cold day soup in winter.

It is the only nationally syndicated column about Amish life, said Donald Kraybill, an expert on Old Order Amish culture and a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

"I think there is a mystique about the Amish in American culture, and a public curiosity about how they've been able to maintain their various practices in the modern, high-tech culture," Kraybill said. "The column gives people a connection and intimacy that otherwise you wouldn't be able to see."

The columns use the tried-and-true format begun in 1991 by Eicher's mother, Elizabeth Coblentz, after Williams came up with the idea for the column and then stumbled upon Coblentz's home in Adams County, Ind.

Williams, who is Roman Catholic, was an 18-year-old college freshman studying journalism in Cleveland and researching a story about the Amish.

He said he thought: "Wouldn't it be great to be able to read every week about this culture I'm finding so fascinating."

But finding an Amish woman to write a column proved as difficult as taking photographs of sect members (the Amish believe having their picture taken creates a "graven image" and goes against God). He was turned down by dozens of people in Hillsdale County, Mich.

He finally was pointed to Adams County, Ind., where he had no better luck.

"I decided I was going to try one more home and then forget about the idea if I got turned down," he said.

That last driveway he pulled into was Coblentz's. She had been writing for The Budget, the internationally circulated paper of the Amish and Mennonite community, since she was 16. She jumped at the chance.

A week later, Coblentz sent Williams her first handwritten columns in the mail -- a tradition that continues as she never had a phone or electricity, and nor does her daughter. Last-minute editing is conducted via Federal Express overnight service.

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