A home-cooked clash stews for Pennsylvania, its Amish

Families open kitchens to busloads of tourists

Pa. says it's illegal, unsafe

July 21, 2002|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BIRD-IN-HAND, Pa. - They started with a prayer, closed with "Amazing Grace," and in between feasted on a procession of Katie Fisher's specialties - apricot applesauce, baked chicken, smoked turkey ham, homemade noodles, fresh blueberry pie.

The 10 guests, mostly tourists, had gathered around the long table overlooking cornfields and a herd of grazing cows to experience something beyond the well-advertised quilt shops and buggy rides of Lancaster County: life at suppertime in a real Amish home.

To the state of Pennsylvania, however, the dinner guests were experiencing something illegal and unsafe: a restaurant operating out of someone's house without a license.

The conflict, which has simmered quietly for several years as the meal services proliferated, became public recently when the state shut down an Amish kitchen outside Intercourse, Pa., after an outbreak of E. coli among a Utah tour bus group. It was the third time in three years that the state had ordered Amish people to stop serving meals for pay at home.

While the crackdown has prompted some of the eight to 10 meal servers in Lancaster County to quit, others have continued, if somewhat underground. And supporters of the famously limelight-shy Amish are lobbying state legislators and tourists to help them fight back.

"We're saying that licensing a private home is out of the question," said Daniel Fisher, no direct relation to Katie. He is fighting the state on behalf of another meal server, his brother, Elam Fisher, who was ordered to stop serving after the E. coli outbreak.

"We're not going away. I'm staying in their face," said Fisher, who says he can speak more freely on the subject because he is no longer Amish.

The issue, loaded with religious and cultural sensitivity, has pitted state officials and restaurant owners against Amish families and bed-and-breakfast operators who benefit from the ability to offer guests an authentic Amish experience.

The Amish, whose religious beliefs instruct them to remain aloof from the world and who thereby shun ornamentation, car ownership, electricity from public utility lines, phones in the home and other modern conveniences, have long clashed with the law on issues such as schooling, zoning and Social Security.

Over the years, soaring real estate values and diminishing farmland have pushed Plain People out of exclusively agricultural lifestyles and into small commercial endeavors to supplement or replace farm income.

Now, with the state cracking down on unlicensed meal service, some Amish people say they're being denied opportunities to benefit from the same tourism that their culture has generated.

"If they don't want us to do this they should take down all the signs that say `Amish,' and `horses and carriages,' Katie Fisher said. "They're just using us."

Officials from the state's Agriculture Department say that anyone who serves food to groups of people in exchange for payment is acting like a restaurant, and the law requires restaurants to be licensed and inspected to maintain safety.

"They have a problem with our laws," said Larry Sulpezio, regional supervisor for the department's food safety bureau. "I'm sorry, I don't write them.

"We're not staking out the highways in Lancaster County looking for busloads going to Amish houses for dinner," he said. "But we are going to investigate any complaint that comes in."

Amish meal servers and their supporters say they are not restaurants but simply private homes that invite guests for a cultural exchange in return for a "suggested donation," typically between $10 and $15, not including tip.

`They know good food'

Amish women, they argue, are accustomed to feeding crowds of up to 300 people at a time - all without electricity. They regularly hold church services at home, followed by a meal, as well cooking for barn raisings, weddings and funerals.

Their homes are immaculate, Daniel Fisher said.

"They've been doing this for several hundred years," he said. "They know good food and they know bad food. A busload is peanuts to them."

But even if they did get a license, many servers in rural Lancaster County would run afoul of local zoning laws because restaurants are not permitted in agricultural districts.

Any attempt to exempt the Amish from these laws would be legally risky, said Frank Howe, chairman of the board of supervisors of Leacock Township, where Intercourse is located.

"If we open that door, we've opened it for anyone, including chain restaurants," he said. "You can't do it by faith. You can't do it by the type of clothes you wear. You can't be discriminatory. It has to be done in a way that's fair for everybody."

Arthur Lenhart, a local business consultant who is working with Fisher on a compromise, has already taught eight to 10 area Amish women the SERVSAFE course recognized by the National Restaurant Association, though Sulpezio said the course does not conform with the state's course, which will be required for certification beginning next summer.

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