"The Amish Cook" column, the popular syndicated feature that appears on Wednesdays in The Times' food section, is changing after more than two decades of recipes, news of church socials, laundry lists, and gardening and canning advice.
But as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
That's the promise of both editor Kevin Williams, who founded "The Amish Cook" feature in 1991 and syndicates it to more than 75 newspapers around the country, and Lovina Eicher, the Amish author who has penned the column for Williams since 2002. Eicher announced last week she is parting ways with Williams and his Oasis Newsfeatures Syndicate.
The Times has published "The Amish Cook" column since 1995, and the former Vidette-Messenger in Valparaiso, which is now the Porter County edition of The Times, has been running the column since nearly its inception.
Last week, Amy Gingerich, editorial director of MennoMedia Publishing and Syndicate, based in Harrisonburg, Va., announced Eicher has signed a new contract with her firm and would begin writing a new weekly column distributed to newspapers. The first installment of "Lovina's Amish Kitchen" appears in today's Times on page D3.
"We are honored to work with Lovina to continue bringing her writing and recipes to her thousands of loyal readers," Gingerich said in a statement to newspaper editors.
"We want to clarify a few items with regard to how Lovina's new column is related to her previous column, 'The Amish Cook.' As of this week, Lovina Eicher will no longer be writing as 'The Amish Cook.' She has submitted her final column to Kevin Williams. Her new column, 'Lovina's Amish Kitchen,' is now syndicated by MennoMedia. Williams, Lovina's former editor, may be making plans to continue 'The Amish Cook' column himself or with another writer. We are not aware of what he plans to do in that regard."
"Change happens and I wish Lovina and her family all the best for their future plans," Williams, 42, said Monday from his home in Middletown, Ohio, where his Oasis Newsfeatures Syndicate is based.
"While of course, I don't own Lovina's byline, I will still continue the tradition of 'The Amish Cook' column with a new Amish writer, to be announced this month. While Lovina's husband worked in a factory, as do many Amish men, as well as in manufacturing, the new writer's husband will be a farmer, which will lead to many new and fresh column topics and themes."
On Nov. 30, 2002, Times readers packed the Barnes & Noble bookstore on U.S. 30 in Hobart in tribute to the original author of the feature, Elizabeth Coblentz, the first "Amish Cook," who had died just two months prior.
She had just completed her third book, "The Amish Cook: Recipes and Recollections from an Old Order Amish Family," when she died suddenly of a brain aneurysm after collapsing at a book-signing in Blue Springs, Mo. She was 66.
Her daughter, Verena, signed copies that day, along with Williams. "The Amish Cook" column then continued with Elizabeth's daughter, Lovina Eicher, penning it with Williams remaining as editor.
At its peak, "The Amish Cook" column was distributed to more than 125 newspapers at the time of Elizabeth Coblentz's death.
Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ran Coblentz's obituary, describing her as "an Amish homemaker who wrote a syndicated cooking column by hand beneath a kerosene lantern, a kitchen chronicle that touched on everything from the merits of Belgian horses to coping with grief."
Since the Amish do not allow their photos to be taken, "The Amish Cook" column traditionally used a sketch drawing of an Amish horse and buggy to identify the feature.
A member of the strict Old Order Amish, Coblentz lived on a farm near Geneva, Ind. Today, her daughter, Lovina Eicher, who celebrated her 43rd birthday in May, lives at a farm in southern Michigan, where she writes, sharing chores with her husband, Joe, and rearing their eight children.
The catalyst that prompted Eicher to change syndicates, according to Williams, was one of Eicher's friends, also a Times reader. Williams called her "the wedge" that "came between himself and his working relationship" with Eicher, who in her September 2005 "Amish Cook" column announced she was naming her newborn baby, Kevin, as a nod to Williams.
"I always thought of myself as a member of Lovina's family and was treated as such," Williams said. "And her Kevin has grown up to be a wonderful boy."
The Times reader and friend of Lovina Eicher that Williams referred to is Ruth Boss, who lives in South Holland, Ill., and owns a construction company with her husband, James.
"I became friends with Lovina about 10 years ago, quite by accident," Ruth Boss told The Times on Monday.
"I had always read 'The Amish Cook' column in The Times. We have a family weekend home in Michigan, and that's how I happened to meet Lovina. I had an Amish man doing some cabinet work for me, and I just asked one day if he knew the Eicher family, since I was such a fan of Lovina's column. I was surprised when he told me her farm was just down the road."
Boss said after the two became friends, she discovered Eicher was unhappy with Williams' lack of communication about the business matters associated with the column and that he was often behind with payments to Eicher.
Boss said while Williams charged each newspaper as much as nearly $900 per year to run the weekly column, Eicher was paid $40 a week, and often even those payments would come as much as six months late.
Also of concern were financial matters concerning the book-publishing rights to Eicher's work and recipes printed in "The Amish Cook" column.
"Lovina was signed with a literary agent from New York named Janis A. Donnaud, who also represents some very big Food Network culinary names like Paula Deen and Gina and Pat Neeley, and Williams was doing the deals for all of Lovina's cookbooks, and yet she was never paid anything, even though we were informed that more than $150,000 has been paid to Williams in advances and royalties over the years," Boss said.
When asked about the financial matters raised by Boss on behalf of Eicher, Williams said on Monday that "any writer looking for a perfect editor will find it impossible.
"Yes, I admit I made mistakes," said Williams, who writes about his travels with wife, Rachel Diver, whom he proposed to via an October 2004 syndicated installment of "The Amish Cook" column and married in 2009, and their daughter, Aster, who will celebrate her 1st birthday this fall, in his own online blog at his syndicate website, at amish365.com.
"I was young, a 19-year-old college student, when I started this column with Lovina's mother. And yes, I've had to improvise some along the way. There were never any contracts. And now, I wish there had been for both of our sakes. And now, it's time for something different. This time, I'll make sure I have everything spelled out in the contracts."
On Wednesday, Williams further explained some of the financial wranglings associated with producing "The Amish Cook" column.
"Lovina is not owed $150,000," he said.
"We have been paid $163,594 in [book] royalties, split 50/50 leaving Lovina $69,528. Even though, on some books, like 'Amish Cooks Across America,' I did 95 percent of the work, so that is a good deal for Lovina. And 15 percent is then paid to the literary agent. After the 15 percent, then photography has to be paid for, production, promotion which lops a good hunk off the $69,528. And going back as far as 2009, 2010, 2011 she was paid $5,900 a year for the cookbooks according to her own records [supplied at their last meeting]. So Lovina and I need to work out the particulars to see, now that she has stepped down, what might still be due her. But $150,000 is way off."
He also said his payments to Lovina were not six months late.
"The last check paid to Lovina was in June 2014 for May 2014," he said, explaining the annual cost charged by his syndicate to publications to run the column varied in price, depending on the circulation of the print clients.
"Lovina was paid weekly or monthly, we've switched it up over the years, for her column and cookbooks. I work on the column and website close to 40 hours a week and the column takes a couple of hours [for her] to write once a week."
Boss said last year, after consulting with Lovina, they secured the services of an attorney in Schererville, Ind.
"We began to send Williams letters asking for a meeting and requesting he bring all of his business documentation and files," Boss said.
"We had the meeting, but he didn't supply any paperwork, and it became apparent that his business matters and his personal finances were intertwined, making it all very confusing to sort out. We gave him a year to rectify matters, and he wasn't able to, so it seemed in the best interest of everyone to make a clean break."
Boss, who will serve as Lovina's assistant for mailed correspondence, while the new syndicate handles emails, said the fact that all of Eicher's business dealings, as well as those of her late mother's, were done only with "good faith and handshakes," makes it impossible to settle any business matters with Williams. However, the lack of any contract also made it simple for Eicher to leave Williams' syndicate.
"Though Williams was never good about forwarding Lovina's correspondence to her, one letter that happened to arrive to her was from this publishing syndicate that primarily does books," Boss said.
"After some investigating, MennoMedia was a perfect fit. It's not nature of the Amish people to question dealings or make accusations. But Lovina wanted and needed to make this change, which seems ordained by God."
According to the publishing firm's website, MennoMedia is "an agency of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, that seeks to engage and shape church and society with resources for living Christian faith from an Anabaptist perspective. MennoMedia produces faith-based print, video, radio and web materials with ideas for living out your faith for people everywhere from a Mennonite perspective." The Mennonites and Amish share many common faith principles and practices.
Williams said he has co-authored five hardcover "Amish Cook" cookbooks, starting with the original "The Amish Cook: Recollections and Recipes from an Old Order Amish Family," in 2002 written with Lovina Eicher's mother, and four follow-up cookbooks done with Lovina. Previously, there were also four paperback cookbooks of compiled columns sold as self-published works.
In addition to "The Amish Cook" column, Williams syndicates two other newspaper features: "Plain Kansas," a weekly column written by Rosanna Bauman, a young German Baptist woman in Kansas, and "Teacher Mahlon," described as "an Old Order Amish school-teacher in northern Indiana who shares his view from the classroom in his poetic missives."
Williams said on Monday he plans to "diversify the Amish Cook brand." Since 2011, he has raised more than $30,000 in donations using the kickstarter.com financing campaign website. Depending on the amount donated, Williams promises donors "thank you gifts," such as a $150 donation earning "a hand-made pillow from The Amish Cook herself, Lovina Eicher, made from scraps of fabric that she uses for her family's clothing to create this cherished conversation piece that will include beautiful blues, rusts, mustard, and white colors." The campaigns describe fictional Amish novel book projects from Williams, such as "The Amish Appeal," a romance novel and a planned film documentary about the 20 year history of "The Amish Cook" column.
The following recipes are from Williams' first syndicated column installment without Lovina Eicher.
"These are some requested recipes from readers as part of our summer recipe series," Williams writes. Below, an "Amish Cook" reader from Highland had requested a recipe for blueberry muffins with a splash of lemon.
Buttermilk Blueberry Lemon Muffins
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 /2 teaspoon salt
1 cup softened butter
1 1/ 2 cups sugar
2 1 /2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups blueberries
1 1 /2 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
DIRECTIONS: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly greased muffin tins or line tins with cupcake papers. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside. In a medium mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar until thoroughly blended. Beat in the eggs, one egg at a time. Add lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla until smooth in consistency. Beat in flour mixture and buttermilk, alternating dry ingredients with buttermilk, adding about 1/3 each time. The mixture should be smooth and creamy. Fold in the blueberries and mix until the blueberries are even distributed throughout the batter. Pour the batter into the muffin tins, filling the tins about half full, Bake until the muffin tops are golden, 20 - 25 minutes. Allow to cool about 5 minutes. In a small mixing bowl, combine the sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest until a smooth consistency is achieved. Apply to the muffin tops while still warm. Makes 24 muffins
"A reader in Kalkaska, Mich. requested a recipe for ham loaf," Williams writes. "This is a great Amish recipe from Iowa."
Homemade Honey Ham Loaf
1 pound fresh ground turkey
1 pound ground ham
1 cup bread crumbs
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
3 /4 cup milk
1 /2 cup clover honey
2 /3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 /2 cup water
1 / 4 cup vinegar
DIRECTIONS: Grind meat. Mix ground meats, bread crumbs, egg, salt, pepper, and milk. Shape into a loaf. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour. For the sauce, mix the brown sugar, dry mustard, water, and vinegar together. Pour sauce over loaf. Bake for one more hour.
"A reader in Oelwein, Iowa requested a recipe for milk gravy, easy and perfect for campfire meals of biscuits and gravy!" Williams wrote.
Homemade Milk Gravy
1/4 cup pan drippings (bacon drippings or sausage drippings)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk or heavy cream, room temperature
Salt and pepper to taste
DIRECTIONS: Remove the bacon or sausage and place on a plate to drain. Using the same frying pan, over medium high heat add flour and stir until brown with a whisk or fork. Slowly add the milk or cream until the gravy is thick and smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Serve over biscuits.