We're rolling along a rural road in eastern Ohio now and the iPhone's GPS is going haywire. The blue dot jumps wildly to and fro, popping up on empty lots, eventually careening back on track just in time to send us past our destination. Roadside horses appear to snicker at our navigation troubles. Clearly we're not locals.
"There. Yeah, that's the place," says one passenger with a tinge of feigned confidence. We pull a quick U-turn on the just-wide-enough asphalt road running north. The sun is setting. There are no streetlights in this part of town.
Already the driveway is filled with cars. We're late. I slip my phone into the glove compartment, remembering the only warning we were given prior to trucking out here: "There are NO PHONES OR CAMERAS ALLOWED at the dinner. Bring extra cash if you want jam, cashew crunch, fresh bread, etc."
A brisk wind whips around the farmhouse as we pull up to an old barn. We peer inside, wondering whether we're all meeting in there, or...? "6:30 p.m., sharp," we were told. But the group isn't here.
The property boasts three sturdy buildings and several acres of frost-clad pasture. We knock on the side door of the nearby house, and a bearded man welcomes us into what seems to be a fairly raucous and quite dimly lit dining room. The evening has begun.***
We number 20, all told, a mix of young and younger, professionals and hipsters. What force has compelled these disparate groups to trundle to the eastern stretches of the Buckeye State, just more than an hour away from Cleveland, into Amish Country on a Friday night?
It is mid-March, 2014. This dinner event was reserved by one among our party three years ago. The Amish family, our hosts for the evening, serves and entertains large groups like us four nights each week. Phone numbers and the promise of a homemade feast nab wandering eyes at open-air markets in town. The curiousness of such a thing is overwhelming. Other guests have passed around the excursion through word of mouth, hushed like talk of the schvitz.
And they're booked solid until 2017. If you think landing a reservation at Red downtown or a choice seat at Lola on a Saturday night is tough, think again. This quaint, rustic dinner is the toughest table to land in town.
Later on, a guestbook of sorts will be passed around, and eager eaters will pencil in their reservations for another dinner sometime a few years from now. There's no way of saying what life will be like for them at that point — new job, new boyfriend, new house, maybe — but some distant return date for Amish dining awaits. People have been known to travel across oceans to attend these gatherings, one of more in-the-know guests says. Like the queue outside a thrilling roller coaster, some people get off the ride and can't help but get right back in line. The secret-society vibe of the room is unmistakable.
Everyone here has chipped in $20, rounding the whole bill out to $400 — cash. Do the math. If each evening runs like this, that's $83,200 gross every year — again, cash. Not a bad side business. So the under-the-table affair insists on being kept fairly secret. One can almost hear the trees outside hush themselves as the dinner guests settle in, whispering, sshhh... Just enjoy the meal now and don't go spilling the beans — metaphorically or otherwise — about all this when you return to The City. Or everything will be ruined and the reservation book will extend to 2020 or beyond.
Considering all that talk about the money and the Amish's general preference for privacy, our hosts will remain anonymous.
Here's the general rundown of the evening's unrelentingly delicious food, in order: mixed fruit, home-baked bread with maple butter spread, orange Jello pudding, salad resplendent with veggie decor, cottage cheese (featuring Cool Whip, which raises eyebrows among the diners), mountains of chicken breasts and prime rib, stuffing (the depth of flavor in this dish has made grown men cry, we're told), mashed potatoes and the accompanying gravy boat, and the dichotomous seas of corn and peas.
We spoon heaps of the offerings onto our plates as quaint candles flicker against the fading light outside. It's impossible to scoop a serving without remarking on how fantastically scrumptious each dish looks, and the same ebullient mutterings follow once it enters the mouth. This is the inner core of table conversation, as we are collectively unable to stop drooling. The stuffing really is ambrosial. The chicken? Divine.
Our hosts for the evening, an Amish couple somewhere in their 30s, tend to the needs of all guests. They're well practiced in the art of hospitality, and soon enough there's this sense that we've all been friends for a very long time.
"If you ask for something and we have it, you'll get it. If you ask for something and we don't have it, you won't get it. If you don't ask for something and we have it, you won't get it." Our bearded host intermittently casts guidance like that across the dining room. We slowly settle in to the ebb and flow of the proceedings. Judging by portions of the night's conversations, no one is really clear on how formal or informal we should be acting, and it's best that we do away with undue caution as early as possible. For now, we are at home.