“If you’re looking for the seven sweets and seven sours, you’ve missed it by 20 years.” So said a waitress at Dienner’s, an Amish buffet restaurant in Ronks, PA, when I visited in 2012. Needless to say, I’ve been scheming to get back and prove her wrong ever since.
I feel at peace in the Amish country of Lancaster County, PA, especially in midsummer when the rows of corn are green and endless. The crop fields and well-kept yards are so tidy, it’s a shock to the system to visit a town like Morganville and see chain stores and sprawling parking lots. I want one of those “kick bicycles” that are preferred by sects which believe chains and sprockets are too worldly. I have not failed to notice that if a younger Amish woman or girl is working at a stand (and they are always women; if there is a man in the area he is doing something out back or else resting on a barrel) and you ask her a question (such as “what is your most popular item”) she will not answer if there is an older Amish woman in the vicinity.
But about the food. Yes, it is simple and carb-heavy as you would expect if you plan to make the most of what you have and load up for hours of hard physical labor. Condiments, AKA sours, are exactly what you want to set off that plainness. And putting up seasonable bounty to enjoy all year long is a thrifty country practice regardless of religious belief. As to the sweets, why not? If you’re going to make one pie, why not several so everybody in your large family can have their preference?
The too long, didn’t read of this story is that I found what I was looking for almost immediately, at the Green Dragon swap meet in Ephrata. Do not fail to plan around this event (it’s open one day a week, Friday) if you are headed this way. Bypass the sellers of cell phone chargers and diabetic socks (unless you are shopping for these things) and head for the main buildings #1 and #6, plus the open air sellers in the space between them.
There are many vendors of sours and I struggled to decide which to patronize till I realized most are selling products from the same half a dozen kitchens which are regulated by the PA Department of Agriculture. So you choose by price and variety, rather than looking for somebody’s proprietary formula. I stopped at 5 but could easily have shot past 7 sours to a dozen or more. I tasted the above assortment when I got home and all were solid mainstream selections, with enough differentiation in taste that you could combine several on a plate.
Sweets were more of a challenge. Miller’s in Building 6 sells the best apple fritter I’ve ever tasted (while you’re there, grab an equally good stuffed pretzel across the aisle at Roseanne’s), and you can get an excellent éclair-type thing called a Long John at Sunnyside Bakery in the same building. But in multiple tries here and the next day on the back roads, I was unable to find an acceptable Shoo Fly Pie. Online recipes praised by those in the know feature molasses and brown sugar as the active ingredients, so it’s going to take some finesse to avoid a sugar bomb. If I could go back to Green Dragon, I’d head for the one outdoor stand where folks were lining up to buy pies.
Ephrata is a bustling, modern town and you could do worse than to linger there. Stop by the museum at Ephrata Cloisters for the strange tale of the town’s cantankerous founders, who kept forming religious communities and then expelling one another. And since you’re now on the west side of town, proceed another mile or so to St. Boniface, an excellent brewpub. My favorite was the double IPA, on tap at a bargain $11 for a growler.
Next: the truth about Amish buffets.