Foodventurous: Amana Colonies
Repeat after me … Gemütlichkeit. Try again … geh-moot-lick-ite. Now that you’ve said it, what does it mean? That’s an excellent question and the truth is, it is a German word that doesn’t really have a set definition. It’s a feeling, a state of mind. It is a magical combination of peace, comfort, warmth, and good cheer that is created through friendly interactions and the caring of others. Gemütlichkeit will embrace you when you experience the lifestyle, community, and food of the Amana Colonies.
Just 30 miles northwest of Iowa City lie the seven villages of the Amana Colonies. This serene, agricultural pocket in the state of Iowa holds a community of people dedicated to a peaceful, generous, and faith-filled life. The traditions of their German heritage have been practiced and preserved and the residents are eager to share them … and their food … with visitors.
Probably one of the most common misconceptions about the Amana Colonies is that it is an Amish community. It is not. The Amish and the Inspirationists (a.k.a. The Community of True Inspiration) both emigrated from Germany in the 1800’s. Facing persecution, the Amish broke from the Anabaptist church and the Inspirationists from the Lutheran Church, immigrating to the United State to seek religious freedom. The Inspirationists first settled in New York, outside of Buffalo but later sought more farmland and moved to the Iowa River valley in 1855. They named their village community “Amana”, which means “remain true”.
At the heart of their faith was the communal style of living. Working cooperatively and sharing everything created a reliance on, and respect for, one another. The collapse of the farm market during the Great Depression in 1932 took a big toll on this community which relied so heavily on agriculture. During this time, individuals also desired to choose their own paths and vocations. The communal style of living was dissolved but the formation of the Amana Society, a profit-sharing corporation, was formed to manage the farmland and preserve the history and community.
The communal lifestyle may have changed, but the sense of community is ever-present.
The Visitor’s Center pictured above is the place to start when visiting the Amana Colonies in Iowa. What looks like, and is, an old corn crib, has been restored in such a way to house the modern visitor’s center without compromising the historical relevance of the building itself.
So let’s begin … there are many stories to tell!
Rhubarb, Horseradish & Pickles
The Ronneburg Restaurant, one of 50 former communal kitchens in the Amanas, is a step back in time. A step back to the days when families sat around the table, passing the bowls and plates, sharing hearty food and talking about what parts of the meal were their favorites. The menu is a wonderful blend of German specialties, like schnitzel and sauerbraten, and German-inspired options, like the Ronneburg Melt sandwich.
My recommendation when dining at the Ronneburg? FAMILY STYLE! Each person orders their main dish, but all of the sides … and there are plenty … are shared by the table. In the photo above, top to bottom, we ordered the Jager Schnitzel (pork loin cutlet), the Pork Sausage Combo (a fresh sausage, a smoked bratwurst, and a bratwurst), and the Rouladen (a tenderized beef steak filled with carrots, mustard, bacon, onions, and a pickle spear and covered in gravy). The sides included sauerkraut, coleslaw, pickled beets, green beans in mushroom sauce, fried potatoes, bread and butter, and cottage cheese. And just in case this isn’t enough for you, the sides are REFILLABLE!
All of the entrees were delicious but we all chose the Rouladen as our favorite. It came with a small portion of spaetzel, a tender egg noodle. There was just something about that pickle spear in the middle that was so tasty!
Reviewing the menu now, there are definitely items I have put on my list to try on my next visit:
- Amana Poutine
- Smoked Pork Chop with Apples
- Family Style Breakfast
Can you believe I didn’t try the pie??
Yeah, I was really full.
What I wouldn’t give to have this butcher block in my kitchen! Along with the butcher herself and those steaks, of course.
The Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse is the place to stock up on high quality meats, cheeses, and condiments (like the preserves pictured at the top of this section). But before you start filling your basket, say hello to the people working behind the counter. I made a simple comment about how beautiful these steaks were and we soon learned that this lady had been working for one or another of the meat shops in the Amanas for over 30 years, that the fat trimmings from the steaks were cooked down and made into candles (also sold in the shop), and were given a brief lesson and viewing of the “smoke house”.
I would highly recommend the Landjaeger sausages, the horseradish sauce, the white cheddar cheese curds, and the peppered bacon. I highly regret not picking up a few of the smoked pork chops and a jar of the apple butter. There’s always next time!
On that note, remember to bring a cooler with you.
This is Doris.
Doris married into the Hahn family and is now, after the passing of her husband, the sole owner and baker at Hahn’s Hearth Oven Bakery. The bakery was built in 1864 and the oven is the only hearth oven still in use today (more photos in the last section of this post).
Doris opens the doors of the bakery at 7 am, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday (find updates on Facebook) and closes them whenever her stock sells out. The day we stopped, we arrived at 7:30 and were lucky to walk out with an apple streusel! She takes orders in advance (note to self) for bread, cinnamon rolls, coffee cakes, these streusels. Just to put it in perspective, this particular morning she made 180 cinnamon rolls to fill orders.
Having grown up with all kinds of German coffee cakes and pastries, I was not expecting the pillowy texture of this apple streusel. It was light and airy with just the right amount of sweetness from the apple filling and the cinnamon/sugar topping.
So call in your order, get there at 7 o’clock, and be prepared to meet one sweet, friendly lady.
Germans are fond of pickling things: herring, beets, asparagus, green tomatoes, and even ham. The pickled ham at The Ronneburg Restaurant was new to me (and quite tasty) but the pickled RAISINS on our charcuterie board at Indigo Room was a wonderful discovery. Plump and tangy, these golden raisins had been pickled in a brine of red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, water, and a little sugar.
My charcuterie boards just got a new addition!
It wouldn’t be a German experience without rhubarb and beer. Lucky for us, we found a rhubarb sour ale at Millstream Brewery called “Small Town Squabble”. While this option may only be available in the spring and early summer, Millstream has many seasonal options and award-winning favorites for your sipping pleasure. And while you’re sipping, make plans to order some food, play some yard games, listen to music, or grab a BINGO card. The first microbrewery in Iowa is a definite must-stop in Amana.
Simplicity & Craftsmanship
From the brick and stone buildings to the beautifully tended gardens, the simple grace of the grapevines to the quality of the products created, evidence of art and craftsmanship can be found around every corner. Passing down the traditions of the colonists is how the history is kept alive for future generations. The stories told while teaching the craft become an inherent part of what is made here.
Like this soap, which is made from the fat trimmings of the meat at the Amana Meat Shop.
Or this original stone hearth oven which is still used to produce some of the favorite bread, rolls, and cakes around.
One generation teaches another the methods and skills to keep the art alive. One of very few businesses that still creates and repairs caned and woven pieces (like the seats of chairs) is Schanz Furniture. The caning or weaving process is intricate and beautiful.
What do you do with an 8-acre woolen mill complex, largely abandoned and needing attention? You do what the Amana Society stands for: refurbish, renovate, and remember. Once the industrial center of the village, and currently the only remaining/operating textile mill in Iowa, it was important to preserve the history and purpose of the complex. Welcome to Hotel Millwright!
The imposingly beautiful smokestack of the mill (pictured above) draws you right in to this most unique and thoughtfully designed hotel and event venue. While still operating a portion of the mill (which you can view) and a beautiful shop (where you can buy the blankets, table runners, placemats, etc.), the rest of the complex is a destination worth experiencing.
This enormous facility is home to 65 rooms, a restaurant, two bars (did someone say whiskey flights?), and a large event center. Wherever you roam, history is right in front and all around you: enlarged photos and maps, antique machinery and tools, advertising, and a visually stunning wall of yarn spools.
These old mill carts were cleaned up and artfully displayed in the hotel. I discovered what their original purpose was by scrolling back to the beginning of the Hotel Millwright Instagram feed … which by the way is a wonderful display of the process and planning stages.
This hotel is an experience in itself. The history of this industrial icon of the Amana Colonies has been preserved and displayed with the perfect balance of comfort, industrial influence, hospitality, and affordability.
Guided Tour of the Amana Colonies
If I have convinced you to find your way to the Amana Colonies, I have one more recommendation for you: take the Village Voyage Van Tour. For two hours, you will be chauffeured around the historic sites of the Amana Colonies while hearing the stories and history of the villages. From the origin of the canal that powered the mills to the story behind the symmetrical and serene cemeteries, the driver and the volunteers at the various stopping points will share the communal lifestyle of each village.
Can’t imagine sitting perfectly still on these benches for one worship service a week? How about 11? Okay so not all the services took place in a church. The evening prayer services were held in homes, but the important detail is the Inspirationist’s began and ended their days with prayer and praise to God.
Over 50 communal kitchens dotted the villages, providing five meals a day to the community. With one “head chef” and a few “sous chefs”, each kitchen cooked, and served food that had been raised, milled, grown, baked, and butchered by other members of the community.
To experience a communal dinner, click here for more information. The first of these dinners post-pandemic was offered the week after we visited.
I guess I’ll just have to go back!
Who’s going with me??
Pretty sure there’s enough gemütlichkeit for all of us!