WASHINGTON — Kevin Williams knows the Amish. He’s been deeply involved with the Amish culture for the past 20-plus years. Williams is the editor of the popular Amish Cook column that runs weekly in the Times Herald and more than a hundred other newspapers.
Williams paid a visit to Washington Thursday, speaking to a group at Carnegie Public Library. As an 18-year-old college student, Williams accepted a magazine assignment to write a story about the increase in the number of Amish in Michigan. While he researched the story he ran across a woman who had written a small cookbook and had some for sale. That planted the seed of an idea, and Williams thought an Amish cooking column might just be something people would want to read. The problem was finding someone to write it.
Williams visited small stores and businesses throughout the Amish community in Michigan, but was met with a negative response to all those he approached.
It was while he was in Berne, Ind., that he finally found his Amish writer. After being turned down by many, he decided the next Amish home he came to he was going to stop and ask and if the answer was ‘no,’ that was it. He would give up.
The Amish woman he approached was Elizabeth Coblentz and her answer was “I’ll give it a try.”
He went back to his home near Cincinnati, Ohio, and really didn’t expect to hear from Elizabeth, but the next week her first column arrived and the Amish Cook was born. Elizabeth wrote the column from August of 1991 until her unexpected death in 2002. Since her death, her daughter Lovina Eicher has written the column, describing her life on a farm in Michigan with her husband and eight children.
Williams denied he’s an expert on the Amish, but said he is an expert on the Amish he knows.
“They do speak Pennsylvania Dutch or German,” he said. “The children don’t really learn English until they start to school.”
In fact, Lovina, having grown up in Berne, a Swiss-based community, spoke Swiss German and had to learn a whole new language when the family moved to Michigan five years ago.
But language isn’t the only thing that separates Amish communities. Williams explained that while a common cord runs through all the communities they have no overall authority and the bishops in each community establish the rules.
“Lovina was very happy to move to a community that allowed indoor plumbing and gas-powered freezers and refrigerator,” he said.
Williams, who is now married, told about his dating days, describing himself as a “serial dater.”
“They (his Amish friends) just didn’t understand that,” he said. “They are monogamous daters.”
Many asked after Lovina’s children, especially Verena who’s health problems have been chronicled in her mother’s columns. Williams said they are unsure what her latest trouble with her leg is, but she’s having tests next week to try and discover the problem. He also explained that Lovina’s oldest, Elizabeth, is seeing a young man, and he accompanied them on a recent trip to Florida.
“I took the whole family in a 15-passenger van to mark the 20th anniversary of the column,” Williams said. “They had a wonderful time as none of them had ever seen the ocean.”
Editing the column has been challenging through the years as he’s had to communicate with his columnists through the mail leading to some unfortunate errors in recipes. He recalled reading one of Elizabeth Coblentz’s letters and mistaking “some salt” for “Epsom salt,” which some readers actually added to the recipe .Another time he sent off the column saying they served fried children instead of fried chicken, and several papers ran it that way. Williams found a solution to the problem one week when he couldn’t tell how many cups of sugar were needed in a cake recipe. He found a florist near Elizabeth’s home in Berne and sent her the smallest bunch of daisies the florist would deliver. On the note it read, “Elizabeth, how much sugar in the cake, Kevin.”
The delivery boy had instructions to not leave until she had read the note and given him the correct measurement. The florist then called Williams.
“Pretty soon Elizabeth figured out that worked just as well with pizza, and I think there were more mistakes in her columns to me after that,” he laughed.
Williams has enjoyed his time among the Amish so much he’s written an Amish romance that hits the book shelves and Amazon next week titled “Rebecca at the Beach.”
Describing the Amish as very hardy people, Williams laid to rest some myths about their culture, talking about rumspringa and bundling and the fact that many things are handled differently depending where the Amish are located.
“I have a great admiration and affection for the Amish families I know,” Williams said. “They are great people, and I have certainly enjoyed the last 20 years.”