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Guests at Amish-style wedding dinners learn about sect's culture

Here comes the bride, all dressed in blue.

The color of the bride's wedding dress is just one way Amish weddings differ from the traditional.

Amish brides and grooms do not exchange rings. They have weddings only in the fall, winter and spring, so the weddings don't conflict with harvesting summer crops. The Amish -- a religious sect known for a simple, plain lifestyle that rejects modern conveniences -- speak Dutch, but ministers conduct the wedding service in German.

At a monthly Lawrence County event, visitors can experience the closest thing they'll come to an actual Amish wedding, which seldom includes "English" (non-Amish) people. The Amish-Style Wedding Feast -- a project of the Volant Community Development Corporation -- aims to educate visitors about the culture of the surrounding Amish community, and let them experience it for a night.

"There's a great curiosity, and that is one of the reasons that we want people to understand about the Amish culture," said Karen Rockenstein, secretary and treasurer for the development corporation, at a recent dinner. "The Amish are an important part of the community."

Everyone in an Amish community offers the same simple and plain menu for a wedding dinner. The family-style meal, lit by tabletop lanterns, begins with homemade bread and a slab of butter. Guests pass around big bowls of chunky applesauce, cole slaw and carrots, plus a tray with little pickles, Amish peanut butter spread and apple butter.

Diners eat a soup made of navy beans, milk and butter, and salt and pepper. The main course features mashed potatoes and stuffed chicken breasts. Visitors can choose among several pies for dessert.

A lot of the things the Amish eat are very much like what Americans ate during the Great Depression, Rockenstein says.

Between courses, visitors adjourn to the next room, where they sit on pew-like benches and enjoy a quick, Amish-style worship service. They sing hymns like "Amazing Grace" and "Jesus Loves Me." Meanwhile, volunteers from the attendees dress in Amish wedding garb, with a blue dress for brides, black vest for grooms, and hats for both. The dinner leaders instruct guests to think of themselves as young singles, looking for someone to date and potentially marry.

Although the wedding feast contains many authentic elements of an Amish event, the organizers made a few concessions, like giving guests napkins (Amish people use their hankies), and more than one plate for a multi-course meal. Amish people simply wipe off their plates with their fluffy bread in between courses, Rockenstein says. And thankfully, guests can use the bathroom in the house. Were the event completely authentic, they would have to use outhouses with no running water, she says.

"We wanted to be as authentic as possible, yet we didn't want to make people uncomfortable," Rockenstein said. The dinners have been going on for five months.

Dinner guests expressed surprise at some aspects of the Amish culture, such as the differences between two communities. The nearby Lawrence County Amish community is the ultra-conservative Old Order, with very little mixing with the English community and ways. By contrast, the New Order Amish people in Lancaster County often greet tourists and invite them to their homes for a meal, Rockenstein says.

Some guests weren't aware that the Amish vote and pay taxes.

Ruth Massey of Cleveland, Tenn., came to a recent dinner while visiting her sister-in-law. Massey is a graduate of nearby Westminster College, where she used to hear the clop-clop-clop of Amish horse-drawn buggies passing by her dorm. The dinner helped her relive the memories, she says.

"I love it," said Massey, 73. "I can about hear all that again."

Carolyn Lewis, Massey's sister-in-law, was pleased the event lived up to her expecations.

"I thought it would be very fun to do it," said Lewis, 77, of Howland, Ohio. "I really enjoyed it -- very much."

Shirley Crowe, 64, of New Castle, says she has read a lot about the Amish, and enjoyed experiencing the culture.

"I find it very interesting," she said. "And I really enjoyed the food."

Additional Information:

Amish-Style Wedding Feast

When: 6 p.m. Oct. 21 and Nov. 17

Admission: $29.95. Reservations required.

Where: The Meeting House, 600 Main St., Volant, Lawrence County

Details: 724-533-5611

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