By Walter Nicholls
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
I don't plan my dinner menu before heading out to shop the Amish-owned farms in St. Mary's County in Maryland. There's no point. I can't call ahead to see if the Stoltzfus family has fresh chickens today or if their neighbors have dressed rabbits at the ready. These folks don't have iPhones, or even land lines.
Traveling down the rutted dirt lanes that separate the farms of the extensive Amish community near Charlotte Hall, 30 miles from the Capital Beltway, is adventure shopping at its best.
The families, now 350 strong, began moving to the area in the early 1940s from Pennsylvania, and their offerings can change by the day or week or season. Handmade signs, often a scrawled word on a piece of cardboard or wood, come and go along the narrow roads that snake through gorgeous fields of corn and tobacco and lead to enclaves of large clapboard houses with numerous outbuildings and barns.
Even the presence of a sign does not guarantee that a farm will have "guinea hens," "pies" or "jams." The last goose may be gone. There may be no one home. But with luck and perseverance, anyone can easily put together terrific, fresh farm-to-table meals after visiting six or more farms, and along the way will learn a little bit about the Amish way of life.
The best place to start is the North St. Mary's County Farmers Market, where six days a week a dozen Amish farm families operate sheltered stands, their horses and buggies tethered out back under a canopy of tall pines. On a recent visit, the sweet aroma of ripe melons is intoxicating. A first-time visitor can't help but notice that the prices for wax beans, cucumbers -- in fact, for all produce -- are far lower than at farmers markets closer to Washington.
As boys in straw hats and young women in white bonnets stack tasseled ears of Silver Queen corn on wooden farm wagons, their parents refill baskets with fat red tomatoes and plump berries. Long tables are covered with peach pies and homey breads, elderberry jam and jars of clover honey. The families work largely in silence and may appear aloof. But ask a shopping question and they are open and friendly and at the ready with their knowledge of which farms in the area currently sell what.
With a few leads in hand, it's time to head down six-mile-long Route 236, the main Amish byway between routes 5 and 234. At Woodburn Hill Road, past a sprawling sawmill and one farm after another where no power lines cross the fields, I spot a funky collection of signs offering "free range turkeys," "home made butter" and "barbecued pork," and I hang a hard left.
In just minutes, I'll probably be in the back yard of a very private, conservative family, who welcome strangers interested in buying farm goods (but would definitely not welcome tourists out for a joy ride). More often than not, a barefoot child or two will first appear at the kitchen door and then slowly walk toward me. I will call out what I'm looking for. They'll nod and fetch it. I will pay in cash. And then I'll be gone.
But the trail on Woodburn Hill Road turns cold. As a sign near the dirt parking area informs me, no one is home to sell that barbecued pork. Before backing out, I take a moment to admire a row of purple martin houses from which dangle dried gourds that offer additional nesting spaces. The Amish rely on these highfliers for insect control in gardens and fields. A nearby windmill provides energy to pump water for the family. Green czar Al Gore would love this place.
At a farm on Bethel Church Road, I buy a pound of hand-churned butter the color of egg yolks and a fresh chicken that walked the barnyard that morning. Into a cooler in the trunk of the Toyota they go. It turns out I'm lucky this weekday. "Most people know to come on Saturday morning before noon, when we always have chicken," says the farmer. (Note: Poultry and rabbit are exempt from the Federal Meat Inspection Act for on-farm sales.)
I pass signs for "handmade furniture," "bedding plants" and "quilts" before visiting a farm that has beautiful, chunky rhubarb preserves and pickled beets for sale, as well as corn and tomatoes. Afterward, I make one of my favorite stops.
Locust Grove Dry Goods, a charming Amish general store, stocks the basic necessities for an otherwise self-reliant life. I may not need six yards of red crushed velvet for my buggy seat or pressure-cooker parts and canning jars, but if I do someday, I'll know where to find them.
With no electric lights, it's dim inside the store. Don't expect abundance or bling, although they do have garish plastic bead necklaces for children. The range of things for sale is relatively small. The reward is a glimpse of life that is both curious and down-to-earth.
Off to the right is the "art department," with an extensive selection of ink-block stamps and pads, colored pencils and assorted papers. The Amish seem to make greeting cards for every birthday and holiday: Through open kitchen doors, I've spotted dozens of cards strung on lines for the family to enjoy.
Past rows of kerosene lanterns and basic cleaning supplies such as pumice soap is a large area devoted to coarse fabrics, in deep blue, marsh green and jet black, material the locals fashion into clothing that is fastened with pins, without the modern convenience of zippers or buttons.
This day, the shopkeeper is a middle-aged woman who is short on words and gives the impression that she has better things to do than answer questions from an outsider, an "English." (The funny metal thing I ask about turns out to be a pencil extender.) I buy a dozen free-range eggs for $2, a fist-size chunk of goat cheese for $3.50 and a big jar of elderberry jam for $3.75, and I'm on my way.
I follow a final sign on Dixie Lyon Road offering flowers, and a few minutes later I'm walking with three small, dusty children through an orderly, sloping acre of waist-high zinnias, fuzzy cockscomb, delicate lisianthus and much more. The slight breeze ruffling through the surrounding trees makes a minimal sound, but I'm sure I hear soft music. The scene is idyllic.
"How big a bunch, now?" one child asks, widening her outstretched arms more and more. At the going rate of $5 for a sizable assortment, I come away with enough blooms to fill the entire passenger area of the car.
The flowers last only a week, but the memories of Amish farm shopping stay fresh until the next trip.