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The Amish and the Myth of the Simple Life

"Living simple" can be a lot harder than it sounds.

I know I’m going to come to regret confessing to this in public, but I kind of love Real Simple, the glossy lifestyle magazine that’s not actually glossy, but rather beautifully matte and spare. Real Simple is like O magazine, but without the socio-lurid psychic grandeur that is Oprah; Martha Stewart Living minus performance anxiety; or Everyday with Rachel Ray (which I swear I have never opened) evacuated of the amped-up terror that spunky efficiency might consume every day of your life. Real Simple slides comfortably into the in between of all that with a serene absence of celebrity and modest photography of perfectly ordinary women in white cotton shirts and elegant-but-sensible shoes laughing with sophisticated girlfriends on generous beach house sofas.

But there’s much more, which is perhaps ironic for a magazine one might assume to be focused on less. To be fair, the masthead promises only “life made easier,” not rendered any less laden with consumerist hoarding. “Simplicity” in this light has little to do with little, while having everything to do with organizing objects, time, and relationships more efficiently. 

As I was contemplatively tearing out the helpful “prayer cards” provided in the most recent issue on the eight-step speedy travel workout, how to select the perfect cantaloupe, and how to clean the inside of my car in 15 minutes, I couldn’t help but think about the Amish. After all, the Amish are kind of the Gold Standard of American simplicity, illuminated as they remain by the candlelit glow of their seventeenth-century origins. If the Amish ate shaved aged Manchego cheese on their 15-minute weeknight turkey salads, Real Simple would be their Bible. Or at least we’d like it to be.

Americans have had an enduring fascination with the Amish, and lately they seem to be popping up everywhere. A recent article on the Huffington Post, for instance, reported on new research showing something of a population boom among the Amish, accompanied by a small but notable migration West to establish communities on less expensive real estate. Right on the heels of that, USA Today updated a Wall Street Journal story from last fall by way of covering the new crop of “bonnet rippers”—“Amish inspirational” romance novels that highlight a version of the simple practices and conservative faith (minus much of the radical pacifism that might be distasteful to the prime audience of conservative evangelicals who tend to favor the books) that characterizes life among Plain Folk in the American imagination. What’s up with our renewed interest?

Pimping the Amish

Fortunately, while I was mulling over all this, friends from back East with a vacation cabin in rural northwestern Pennsylvania (an area apparently now teeming with growing Amish families) happened to be in town. The Amish of my friends’ acquaintance are off-the-beaten-path Plain People, relatively unsullied by the tourist trade of post- Witness Lancaster, PA and central Ohio that induced five Amish twentysomethings to fritter away a perfectly good Rumspringa (the period of “running around” allowed Amish after they turn age 16 and before they formally choose to join the church) on the short-lived reality TV show Amish in the City. Neither are their kids the sullen, often violent, beer-swilling tweakers profiled in Lucy Walker’s disturbing documentary Devil’s Playground. They’re all just Adam and Steve’s neighbors—Amos-and-Hannah-from-the-block sorts who are happy to swap recipes for shoofly pie with the “bachelors” down the road. Go figure.

Now, it turns out that if you actually know Amish people (not just see them around town in their buggies or encounter them in the course of tourist commerce, but truly know their names and things about their daily lives on the basis of regular conversation), you will be very popular at a dinner party in Northern California. The mere mention of “Amish-raised, grass-fed organic beef” was enough to provoke spontaneous planning to raise venture capital for an online outlet for Amish goods and services. By the dessert course we were deep into a discussion of tongue-and-groove joinery that was no less pornographic than the staging of the discreet removal of a woman’s white cotton prayer cap in a Beverly Lewis novel. This simplicity—the warm, handcrafted loveliness of an Amish quilt; the rich, golden sheen of the yolk from an egg laid just this morning; the sweet, yeasted smell of bread cooling on a farmhouse windowsill—we all wanted more of this. Lots more.

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