By: John Carlson—
One cool thing about working in the newspaper business is it affords you experiences you might not otherwise enjoy, like meeting Elizabeth Coblentz.
Name ring a bell?
If so, it’s because she was the original Amish Cook who first authored the newspaper column that has run for years in Muncie’s Star Press and other newspapers scattered around the country. While her column was well traveled, Elizabeth herself mostly lived and worked just up the road near Geneva, which meant I didn’t have far to drive when invited to her home for dinner.
Reading her column, we folks in the newsroom were always amazed how she turned unmentionable meat leftovers into exotic, for us, dishes like “hone poss.” We were also amazed how often Elizabeth scrubbed her house, which was set just off a gravel road far out in the bountiful Hoosier countryside. Indeed, upon entering the place, its wooden floors glistened, along with everything else.
Built like your proverbial fireplug, Elizabeth walked those shiny floors on stout bare feet, dressed in plain gray with a white bonnet. By way of a greeting on this toasty summer afternoon, she surprised me with the coldest can of Coke I’d ever encountered, courtesy of her propane-powered fridge.
She didn’t say much, though. For that matter, neither did I.
We both seemed a bit uncomfortable, a little awkward, as she quietly showed me around her place, including the incongruous-looking trampoline in the back yard. Visits by an “English” stranger weren’t an everyday occurrence. Still, her editor, Kevin Williams, who had discovered her and then syndicated the Amish Cook column to 105 newspapers, maintained regular contact.
For me it was meeting Elizabeth’s husband Ben, gray hair poking from under his straw hat and dressed in well-worn denim overalls, that broke the ice.
A trifle shy yet genuinely warm and friendly, he ushered me around outside while in the distance other Amish farmers worked their fields, their equipment drawn by teams of horses. The more we walked and talked, the more he reminded me of my own grandfathers, which was as ringing an endorsement as I could pay him.
With the sun coloring the western sky, the house began to fill up as Elizabeth’s daughters arrived from their homes or their workplaces, along with one son-in-law who came in from his fields.
Soon an array of foods was spread out on a serving table, the makings of a traditional “haystack” supper. Elizabeth had often written of these casual feasts, with diners spooning a variety of foods into a single bowl. In no time at all I had gotten into the spirt of the thing, piling corn, lettuce, tomatoes, ground beef, pickles, peppers and more into my bowl.
Reaching the final serving dish, I saw it was brimful of chocolate pudding.
Glancing around, knowing no better and finally deciding, “What the heck,” I spooned some pudding into my bowl, took my seat and began to eat.
It was about then that I noticed Elizabeth’s son-in-law, seated across the table, openly staring at me. I smiled, nodded and took a bite, but his intense stare continued. By the look, he couldn’t have been more amazed if I were a Martian.
It slowly began to dawn on me. Having watched me go through the food line, he was thinking, “What kind of weirdo puts chocolate pudding on his haystack supper?” Glancing about, I noticed none of the other folks had put chocolate pudding on their haystack suppers. They had used separate bowls.
Oh well, there was nothing to do now but eat it. Actually, it turned out chocolate pudding on pickles wasn’t half bad.
As dusk’s soft sun began giving way to darkness, someone lit kerosene lanterns in the kitchen, filling it with a ghostly white light. By now I was feeling right at home. Even Elizabeth’s son-in-law was smiling at me. Then as one, all of Elizabeth’s daughters – most of them in their 20s, I’d say – rose to their feet and began the evening’s entertainment.
Singing gospel songs, they performed with smiles but without pretension or apparent self-consciousness. Then someone suggested yodeling, and the daughters did that, too, joyfully filling that lantern-lit kitchen with their unusual yet beautiful music.
It was a fine end to the evening, one I’ve played over in my memory many times, beginning with my drive back home, which taught me something. Nothing is quite so dark as Amish farm country on a moonless night.
Dark as it is, though, the Amish Cook lived in a special spotlight. As a member of the Old Order, she wouldn’t allow her photo to be taken. Nevertheless, she sometimes traveled with Kevin to meet her many fans and autograph her cookbooks.
Elizabeth died of an aneurism on a September day in 2002 at age 66. The following Sunday I bought a copy of the New York Times, as was my habit back then. When I eventually turned to its celebrated obituary section, I was totally floored. There topping the section’s lead page in America’s most-renowned newspaper, illustrated with her column’s logo, was her beautifully written obituary.
The truth was plain and simple. Journeying through life in a horse-drawn buggy, Elizabeth Coblentz had traveled a long, long way.
A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.