Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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I recently had an experience that proves there are always new adventures and new things to learn no matter your age.

Growing up and living in southwest Michigan all my life and visiting northern Indiana towns, I am accustomed to seeing Amish communities and experiencing their lifestyle. Elkhart, IN and the surrounding communities is home to the second largest Amish settlement in the United States, only exceeded by Holmes County in Ohio. Many folks, myself included, have always thought that Lancaster, PA held the largest concentration but they actually rank third.

Amish craftsmen made and installed our new kitchen, we regularly visit Shipshewana and stock up on supplies from local Amish bulk food stores. That being said, I was dumbfounded when Aunt Sharlene asked if I would like to go to an Amish Haystack Supper with her and my cousins. I had no idea what she was talking about.

It turns out that the Amish heartland, particularly the areas around Elkhart, Shipshewana and LaGrange in Indiana are home to the haystack suppers which are held as benefits to help certain individuals or groups in the Amish community. Known for looking out for each other, this tradition is a way the Amish helps those in need. They are held in private homes, barns or restaurants.

The one I attended was staged in a large barn in the country. Now, this wasn’t your typical barn with hay and straw, equipment and grease all around. On the contrary, it was a modern facility with a modern kitchen and bathrooms. Long tables had been set up where folks ate. A row of tables was strung in front of the kitchen area for serving.

As you walked in, you picked up your table service and proceeded down the line of tables where pots and bowls of various foods were lined up. Men, women and children stood behind the tables and kept adding to your plate as you walked along.

The meal started with crushed crackers, then taco meat was placed on top of that. The next ingredients were chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers and other vegetables. Towards the end of the line there were crushed tortilla chips and finally melted cheese, lots of hot melted cheese, was poured over everything. You had the option of having as much or as little of any ingredient that you wanted. Your plate looked like an enormous haystack when you walked away, hence the name.

You can’t end an Amish meal without pie, so at the very end of the line, there were individual servings of pie of all flavors offered. Of course, what would pie be without ice cream? Generous helpings of vanilla ice cream in bowls accompanied the pie.

Needless to say, no one walked away hungry. On the contrary, next time I go I won’t forget my Tums! All of this was served for the price of a donation of everyone’s choice. It was quite an experience.

Most Amish Haystack Suppers consist of ingredients similar to these which basically, when piled together, becomes a giant taco. Many families have concocted their own versions with variations as to what their family likes. There is even a Hawaiian version that features pineapple and more foods of the tropics.

There is also a breakfast option. The Shipshewana Auction restaurant’s take on this starts out with a half of a biscuit topped with hash browns, ham, green peppers, onions and scrambled eggs. All of this is then smothered in homemade gravy and shredded cheese.

The nice thing about these meals is that they can be adopted for any occasion with any ingredients. Since they are all served buffet style, whether someone serves or you help yourself, there are never any measurements for ingredients.

There is usually no set time for these dinners. They are offered when a need arises to raise money in the community and then a benefit is scheduled. The exception to this is the Michiana Menonite Relief Sale which is held in Goshen, IN each year in September and features a haystack supper to start its festivities. It is held at the Elkhart County Fairgrounds and in 2019 the supper will be on September 27, the first day of the two-day event.

This event is one of the largest in the country and raises funds for the Menonite Relief efforts through the sale of food, activities, auctions and a quilt auction. Last year was its 51st year and it brought in $477,800…not too shabby!

This area became known for its haystack suppers when a local Amish school entered the dish in a Paul Newman food contest and won first place.

I can’t imagine the prep that goes into a supper like this, especially when they feed 300 to 400 people in a couple hours. Can you imagine how long it takes just to chop all the vegetables! That’s not to mention how many pies it takes.

There are other takes on Amish fundraisers. One time we went to one in Michigan that was a chicken dinner. The special part about this dinner was the homemade ice cream at the end. We English, as the Amish refer to us, are intrigued by their simple way of life. This is the draw that prompts us to attend these benefits and the food is what keeps us coming back.

I can’t believe I have never heard of the haystack supper before. Amish in other parts of the country are starting to cash in on this idea too, only on a smaller scale. It just goes to show that there is always something new to experience.

Images courtesy of Getty Images

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