Many people, Aaron Beiler was told recently, think the Amish are putting on some sort of show for the benefit of tourists. "A big percentage of people think it's just a big Disneyland or something," he says with a laugh.
Tourists who observe the Amish horse-drawn buggies keeping their own steady, serene pace at the edges of well-traveled Lancaster County roads might be forgiven for mistaking Pennsylvania Dutch country for some sort of Williamsburgesque living-history theme park. The "Plain People" in their long beards and straw hats, or their caps and modest, aproned dresses, are so purposefully out of step with hustling mainstream America that they might be living long, long ago or far, far away instead of thriving right in our midst.
Spending a day in an Amish market, though, can banish a whole lot of stereotypes. Take Mr. Beiler, for instance. The market master (manager) of the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers' Market in Annapolis is "old order" Amish; he drives a buggy instead of a car, and when he's not at the market lives a hard-working, non-mechanized life on a dairy farm near Intercourse, Pa. But Mr. Beiler does not display the dour demeanor one might expect of someone who was born to an austere fundamentalist sect. Friendly and quick to laugh, he is amazingly easy-going for someone so busy.
In an Amish market, visitors will also discover more earthly plenty than they could imagine, from such traditional Pennsylvania Dutch specialties as scrapple, souse, and big chewy pretzels to chocolates and chicken cordon bleu. There's even pizza, made fresh at the market by Amish hands. Some of the markets' goods are made by the invariably courteous stall-holders themselves, others are supplied by neighboring family businesses, cottage industries, and larger Pennsylvania-based operations.
One of the pleasures of market shopping -- right up there with the ruby-red tomatoes and fresh-off-the-griddle doughnuts -- is observing the interesting ways Amish folk culture butts heads with the 20th century. Look, for instance, at the demure young Amish woman who looks like someone in an antique print -- except for the pocket calculator in her hand. Or the girl near the front door, wearing an old-fashioned lavender dress, white apron, prayer cap -- and running shoes. While the older folk in the market are shod in black oxfords, the younger Amish like sportier footgear. "I never thought I would pay that much for shoes, but they're very comfortable. I'm walking on air," says Mr. Beiler of his new black Nikes.
Maryland does have its own Amish communities, especially in St. Mary's County, where buggies can be spotted and shoo-fly pies purchased at outdoor summer markets. But no Baltimorean need venture so far to meet the Plain People and taste their wares.
Closest to home is the small Amish market that sets up shop Fridays and Saturdays at North Point Plaza. The market, according to manager Amos Beiler (no relation to Aaron Beiler) has been at North Point for four years, and before that was on Pulaski Highway. The Amish-run area, tucked inside a larger market peddling more commercial merchandise, comprises only five stalls. Mr. Beiler's business, Pennsylvania Dutch Kitchen, sells dairy products, homemade custards and puddings, meats, and a range of salads. Next to him, his daughters sell fresh eggs and snack foods and make soft pretzels on the spot. Produce can be found across the aisle.
Mr. Beiler's mother-in-law Lydia King takes charge of two areas, a candy stand (fresh fudge, yes, but Ninja Turtles gum, too) and a craft shop. Several Lancaster Countians, especially women who stay at home with small children, supply Mrs. King with crafts, and she makes the quilts herself -- although a couple of the lavishly quilted crib-size models were made by her 87-year-old aunt.
Next to Mrs. King's kingdom is the bakery stand, where among the scores of Amish and Mennonite-made items one can find such country treats as black bottom cupcakes, apple dumplings, sweet-potato pie, and lattice-topped strawberry-rhubarb pie.
The keeper of this stall isn't Amish, although she is from "up home" in the Gap area of eastern Lancaster County. She is, in fact, the Beilers' driver. As the Amish stall-keepers can't make the trip from Pennsylvania to Maryland by buggy, and their faith does not allow them to drive motorized vehicles, they hire trucks and drivers to bring their goods and themselves to market.
(In another compromise with modern times, Amish merchants are willing to use modern refrigeration systems, electricity, telephones and other high tech, as long as they rent, not own, them).
A larger Amish market operates Thursdays through Saturdays in the northern Montgomery County town of Burtonsville. The Dutch Country Farmers' Market, like the North Point market, can be identified by the buggy silhouette on its facade; it shares a former Safeway site in Burtonsville Shopping Center with a Chesapeake Bay Seafood House.