Ever wonder if plain living is right for you? Learn these 10 lessons and observations from the Amish and Mennonites (and the differences between them) from author and real life Mennonite background Georgia.
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GV: Plain people are in my background, my Aunties came and visited when I was a little girl. They brought me a pair of pillow cases to embroidery when I was seven and taught me how to embroider and those pillow cases had little squirrels on a tree branch.
MKN: I don’t think many children today are taught embroidering as children like they used to.
GV: I agree, we sewed all of our own clothes growing up, there were 4 of us girls, once we were old enough. Before we could sew ourselves, Mamma made all of our clothes. I remember as a young girl before Christmas service, hemming the dresses like the day before. That was a lot of hemming, but I happened to be a hand hemmer so I was the designated hemmer. I also attended a conservative Amish church as an adult.
I no longer attend that church, but I did while I was raising my kids. I was exploring my roots and I still have friendships from that time.
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MKN: How old were you when you were doing all the hand hemming?
GV: By the time I was 10 I was the designated hemmer in our home. In the public school we attended we had home ec in the 8th grade. I remember that dress, I made a dress and got to pick it all out myself, this bright calico and it was hideously lovely. My mother had to bite her tongue, but she let me do it.
I spin yarn and knit and have raised fiber animals. I still use a treadle sewing machine when I’m using a machine, and many of my kitchen appliances are non-electric.
MKN: My mom has a treadle sewing machine, but she uses her regular electric sewing machine. I’m funny, I prefer to hand sew, with mending and even quilting. The truth of it is, I’ve never gotten really comfortable with my sewing machine, so I like to hand sew.
GV: I get it, which is why I like the treadle sewing machine’s so much. You don’t have to fiddle with them very much. I have a modern Janome treadle machine in an Amish sewing cabinet.
A lot of people will fit them into an old cabinet like the Singer treadle cabinets. Or you can have a finely crafted Amish made cabinet made to fit it.
MKN: What is the actual difference between Amish and Mennonite?
GV: The history of the Amish and Mennonites they were all one group and then they had certain disagreements and then they split off. Generally Amish are considered more conservative, up until fairly recently, Amish were always horse and buggy.
The Mennonites still have some horse and buggy sects, there’s a Mennonite sect that’s the most conservative of them all, that operate that way. But some Mennonites drive cars, but they have rules, they have to be all one color and no red cars are allowed.
The women covered their heads and wear plain dresses made with the same pattern, just smaller or bigger if you gained or lost weight. My perspective, even with in a group, they can vary. Mennonites in general have a church building, and the men sit on one side and the woman on another, and they sing in harmony. Where as the Amish don’t sing in harmony, they sing in unison.
To my way of thinking the Mennonites are more interested in out reach, they have an evangelical outreach mentality where as the Amish are much more closed. Even if you become Amish over time, they still consider you an outsider.
Some of the older women, mostly when I attended the Mennonite church, the older woman had a real cultural bent. In other words, because my family hadn’t maintained their plain roots, I was considered an outsider, they weren’t rude, but you could tell.
In the plain churches its pretty hard to feel totally a part of the community.
MKN: Does everyone live really close to one another in the plain communities? Do the kids go to their own plain school or are they home schooled?
GV:In this community they’re in a school. It might take a ½ hour to get to church because they’re a lot of grass seed farmers in that church, so they’re somewhat spread out, but even though I lived 35 minutes away, people would still come to my house.
If we needed to can something bigger than our gardens could handle (and I had a big garden back then) we’d meet at a u-pick field, about 10 women and all their kids together. We’d do that with strawberries, if you make a ton of jam you need a lot of space to grow them. I personally had fifty-seven mature blueberries so anyone from church who wanted to could come and pick blueberries.
MKN: If you wanted to attend a plain church, are they fairly open to having someone come and visit?
GV: They were very welcoming. My family and I, when we went the first day, we were promptly invited to lunch after church. On one level they were just the nicest bunch of people you could ever hope to meet. The experience was wonderful.
My sons would go to revival in October after harvest. There was a summer Bible school for kids. They would go there and it was really funny, because if you watched a public school play ground you see kids fighting and pummeling each other, but the Mennonite children aren’t like they that, but they’re kids and when they run around and play, they pinch each other. My son said, “Mom, they’re the best pinchers there are.”
MKN: My great-grandmother was Mennonite. She passed away long before I was born and I don’t really have much history on her and the plain history. Once she got out here, there wasn’t a Mennonite settlement or churches so she didn’t have that plain community. I think I’m always especially interested in the Mennonites because of that.
For you having much closer ties to the active Mennonites, what are some of the things you’ve learned from them and put into practice from that direct upbringing?
GV: My mother was my first household mentor. My mother was an interesting woman, she was highly intelligent, but she was also very content to raise 5 children. One of my earliest memories, lets talk canning, I would stand up on a chair and help Mamma with the jams and jellies. She’d melt the paraffin and that was in the days when we used any jar we could and we’d make the jam and jelly and pour it into the clean glass containers and Mamma would let us pour the hot melted paraffin over the top of the jam and jelly.
We always had a garden and I had one lone brother. He gardened with all of us. We always lived kind of closer to the land then a lot of our contemporaries did.
When I got married, eons ago, I married into a family that would have gasped in horror if 100 percent cotton every touched their skin. They asked me for my list of gifts when we got married. I didn’t know they meant things like china and silver patterns, so I put down rake, shovel, and All American Canner.
My future mother-in-law read it and she said what is that? I started to explain and her eyes glazed over, but I got it. I put down cotton sheets and I got some really expensive sheets, because they were Egyptian cotton. They didn’t feel like cotton to me, for me I’ve always lived this way.
I put a garden in our little place and I went to the u-picks and canned around 25 quarts of tomato sauce. If I had to pick one thing I couldn’t be without it would be tomato sauce. By the next season came around I still had some left.
I’d open up my little pantry cupboard door and I felt so rich.
MKN: I’m so glad you said that because I always wonder if I’m weird. Whenever I can something I leave them out on the counter for a few days to admire them. After two or three days its time to put them on the shelf.
GV: I canned 40 to 60 jars of tuna. Do you can tuna by the way?
MKN: No, but just because I don’t have it. We can salmon, we’re on the river and my husband is blessed from his work to get a salmon bonus. I like to lightly smoke the salmon and then can it.
GV: One of my sons is an avid hunter and fisherman. I currently have halibut. We’re saving the halibut cheeks and its like you hide them and you don’t want to share them they’re so good. We take the cheeks and cut them into chunks and bread and deep fry them. We eat them with malt vinegar and its so good I can’t begin to tell you. He also gets, because of where we’re located he gets king salmon, but he started steel head fishing and it is so good.
MKN: We get a little bit of both. When you were talking about the cheek part of halibut I’m giggling because we’re like that with the back strap of the venison.
GV:We always do a back strap BBQ. I had a grouse last night for dinner.
MKN: I love grouse, it’s one of my absolute favorites.
GV: Oh, good, a lot of people don’t know about grouse. I think how can people not want to take care of themselves in these ways.
MKN: I love canning because our power goes out and I know when the power goes out its safe and just sitting there on my shelf.
We even lose power in the summer. Ever year we have a 4th of July BBQ at our home and have lost power even then. I even prefer canned food over dehydrated in certain instances because when the power goes out our well doesn’t work. So I can just heat the canned food on the wood stove and I don’t have to try and find water to re-hydrate or cook the food with.
GV: When I do tomato sauce I always pull off the juice when I make tomato sauce and can the juice. I can quart jars of tomato broth, it looks like chicken broth, it makes a great base.
I always take my turkey carcasses, and I burble that in my biggest pot on the stove with a bit of meat, and I can and make quarts of turkey broth. I can throw a handful of rice into that and cook it and make turkey and rice all in one pot on a winter day.
Do you can dry beans?
MKN: I do, I can dry beans and I grow and can shelly beans fresh. So in the late summer and fall I can those fresh and then I can dried pinto beans because I don’t grow quite enough of the shelly bean for us for the entire years worth.
GV:I know you’re interviewing me but I have to ask it. Your October beans, do you let them dry on the vine or do you lift the plant, because the thing I’ve found in Oregon, is sometimes we run out of growing season.
MKN: That is true, even for us, with those wet summers especially. I try to harvest the first part of the beans and can them as fresh beans. As the rest of the harvest comes on, depending upon the weather, if its dry enough I let them dry and mature on the vine, but if its getting really wet or a storm is coming in then I will pull the vines up and I’ll bring the vines into the house in a big 5 gallon bucket near the wood stove, they’re in the bucket but the lid isn’t on. I’ll leave them in there for a few weeks, checking for mold, for a few weeks as they continue to dry, and then shell them out in the evening as time allows.
GV:I was curious because mold is a real problem and you think they’re okay in the pod.
MKN: I don’t leave them in the pod for the whole winter, I’ve left them in the pod for a month or so, but there was some mold in the pods and I had to toss some. I do shell them out for storage.
GV: I’m glad to hear that because in 1999 I went through the Master Food Preserver course and I’d already been canning for 20 years on my own but one of the best take away for me was to exercise care in the use of canning recipes. I was still using a canning recipe that was my grandmothers for pickles and I realize pretty darn soon it wasn’t safe and by the grace of God I hadn’t sickened anybody.
If I was going to say anything to listeners to make sure when you’re canning you’re using up to date times and methods. There’s a lot of research that goes on for whats considered safe. 30 minute mark
Be very careful, there’s a group of people, I guess preppers is what you call them, and their forums they’re doing crazy things like canning cheese and butter and stuff in the oven that’s not safe. Just get a cow and milk it twice a day if that’s so important to you. That’s really important to me that people exercise care and have everything clean. I always disinfect all my surfaces before I start and clean all my jars and utensils. I’m just really careful.
MKN: I’m glad you brought this up because this one of my pet peeves when people take such risks with canning and if you’re worried about your milk then for heaven’s sake freeze it. My freezer has butter, and that’s where I put things that I can’t safely can. Get powdered milk if you’re worried about having milk in your food storage.
The other thing is some of those older canning recipes, this is where people who don’t know and are just getting into canning, and that’s to know the newer or updated recipes. Flipping jars over or not water bathing the recipes isn’t safe.
Like paraffin wax isn’t safe anymore. When I first learned how to make jam and jelly, my grandmother taught me how to do that. And mold would develop under the wax and its not considered safe anymore.
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GV: We’d scrape the mold off and we even stored it on the table. We’d do that with condiments too and just store them on the table.
MKN: At least mustard and ketchup has a lot of acidity and vinegar in them. A lot of times in restaurants ketchup is left out all day on the table. But I’m with you, I don’t take chances with my canning. To me its not worth the risk to sicken my family, use safety with canning.
I did want to ask you Georgia, I know the Amish and Mennonites are into raising and cooking things themselves. I’ve purchased an Amish cookbook and I’ve been highly disappointed by the store bought ingredients in it, like Velveeta cheese.
GV: I’ve written an Amish cookbook, and Velveeta cheese. The Amish are not frozen in time and maybe a lot of people haven’t consciously thought it, but they have this vision of them being charming pioneers from 150 years ago. They’re very slow to change, but they do change.
Even though we all know the Amish are incredibly hard workers, that’s often a sticking point for people trying to join they can’t work as hard as them, but they’re always trying to find ways that are okay with the bishop to make their life a little bit easier.
Velveeta is a throwback to when they can’t have high line electricity but they can have solar and windmills, but in time past they didn’t. Velveeta came when they didn’t have propane fridges and they’d buy Velveeta because its shelf stable. You can stick in your cupboard and the Amish people glommed onto the Velveeta, think about it, they work so hard they need the calories.
The Amish didn’t care about the nutrition, they liked the taste. When I hear them say this isn’t authentic because of the Velveeta they just don’t know, but the Amish women use the Velveeta in their recipes. A lot of starch and sugar calories are in their cooking. The truly traditional recipes is how we ate, too. My Amish cooking recipes are what I wrote down,what I cooked and ate growing up and fed my boys. We lived out in the country and they were busy boys, I home schooled them, and they had hollow legs I think.
MKN: I’m so glad you brought that point up about the Amish because I do tend to think of them as being 150 years ago, like they’re frozen in time. But really that’s not the case, so I love you could bridge that for me and why I’ve seen that in some of the recipes. Thank you.
GV: As a group they struggle with things all the time, they struggle with modern issues like we do. They might not be the same issues, but they struggle with the use of technology. They’re just trying to walk each day hopefully with God smiling as He looks down on them. They’re not trying to save the world, they’re just trying to live peaceable and godly lives.
MKN: I think that’s what really boils down for each one of us, is to just live an honorable and godly life. That’s going to look some different for each of us, but that’s a great thing to remember.
GV:Amen to that, I also think that as a nation or world, we’ve gotten so far away from the ground. I think that people more and more are realizing that they don’t know the first thing about so much, so there’s that self-reliance streak in a lot of people that encourages them to live closer to the ground.
Plain and simple living because people want to feel like they have some control over their environment, and I think it’s not a fear thing (some are) and I’m sorry about that, because we don’t need to live in fear. But to know how to do things without going to the store to buy them, there’s a myriad of reasons to do that, it’s good for the soul, for the pocket book, for the body.
MKN: We’re cut from the same cloth, but that’s my views exactly. It’s so exciting for me because even though there is the struggle of technology there’s a beauty of it, because this technology enrichment is making people wanting to go back and learn it and we can reach out and teach people we would have never been able to do before this place and time.
GV:It’s funny, when you start talking I think, can she somehow read my mind. That was my thinking exactly. There was the industrial revolution and that changed everything. Now we have the technology revolution and that finds us in the world in chaos and unsettled. When you have those watershed events in history, such as we’re living in now, it really draws people to take long hard looks and say what is it that I’m losing in all of this.
It’s funny because when I was raising my kids, we did things a certain way, and I see my daughter-in-laws and I see these elegant beauties and they’re very modern in a lot of ways, yet they’re learning the old ways. It’s kind of like this new crop and new generation and you’re younger so you can speak to them. I love it and I see that canning has come back into its own. Its’ been since the 1960’s since it’s been popular like this.
MKN: Georgia’s cookbook is the Amish Canning Cookbook, those of you that already have a copy of my book, The Made-from-Scratch life, if you don’t go to and grab my book and you’ll get part of Georgia’s book as well.
Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.