published Thursday, October 10th, 2013

Upton: Of Amish, chocolate and tradition

By Tabi Upton

Lancaster County, Pa. I imagined it to be a vast Eden-like place of soft rolling hills, white fluffy sheep and buggies.

It is home to a large community of Amish, a unique group of Christians who fled Europe under persecution from both Protestants and Catholics and found refuge in the grasslands of America in the 1700s. Of mostly German descent, they still spoke a dialect of the language among themselves and had preserved an austere and plain way of living that shrugged off the conveniences and so-called progress of modern life, attempting to remain separate from the many temptations of the world.

They don't drive cars or make use of electricity. Mostly farmers and small business owners, they use creative and practical measures to power their equipment and trade with the "English" -- their non-Amish neighbors. I'd been fascinated by their culture since I'd first learned of them, so when I discovered that a conference I was attending in Pennsylvania was very near the community, I planned to visit.

In my reading, I stumbled upon a popular village named Intercourse that made me joke, "These people may not be as plain as we thought." I booked a tour bus and drove toward my destination. Of course, I got off track. When I discovered I was headed toward Hershey, I decided to pass through it first. I entered the village on Chocolate Avenue, the wide grin on my face unmasking a sweet tooth or two.

A stranger had already pointed me toward The Hershey Story, where visitors could browse a museum, watch a documentary on chocolate and custom make a candy bar. Inside, I participated in the chocolate lab, where I learned about the varieties of cacao grown in several spots around the world. My respect lay with the Mayans, who understood the mysterious benefits of the cacao seed thousands of years ago and brewed it for special occasions -- like for warriors going off to battle.

Our instructor gave us a tasting. I admired the sharp and bitter beginning of the Mexican chocolate and its cherry notes that emerged while going down. My lifelong passion for chocolate was only deepened through this cherished swallowing.

I made my very own chocolate bar with sprinkles of hot pepper and cinnamon (just like the Mayans) and, after it was adequately hardened in its molding, tucked it into my purse to continue my journey.

I finally arriving in Lancaster and took a tour bus through the farmlands. I was thrilled to see the occasional buggy, apron-clad girls walking along the road barefoot and a thrillingly peaceful church service going on in someone's backyard. It was like stepping back in time for an hour and a half. I almost forgot I was the lone passenger on a big bus, the absurdity swallowed up in fascination. I was surprised to see how many cars and houses of the English were scattered around, mixed in with Amish farms.

Upon my return to the outside, I stopped at a clothing store to browse and, feeling overwhelmed by the options, I thought of the simple life I had just left, where thoughts of what to wear are already decided by the community through hundreds of years of tradition. My tour guide and I had talked about the dating habits of the Amish (three years of official courting) and the importance of family and community.

He discussed the reality TV shows about the group, sharing which ones he believed to be completely fictitious. I respected the fact that, at 18, each Amish youth must make a personal choice on whether to remain in the community or leave for the outside world. Those who choose the latter must do so after tremendous soul-searching and bravery. The ones who remain enjoy the benefits of a peaceful and orderly world, generally more wholesome and predictable than that of most Americans today.

Tabi Upton is a counselor, speaker, and free-lance writer. Contact her at tabiupton@bellsouth.net.

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