Okay, so I was never a very good Midwesterner—I lasted four years, not a day more, so long ago that it seems like another lifetime. Living there, however, there are things that you pick up, certain habits, not easily broken. Broasted chicken is one of them, at least for me; in other parts of the country, people may know the process as pressure frying, and even if they don’t, this is the method that KFC uses.
There is, however, something very different about the way broasted chicken is prepared at the smaller Midwest joints, from cheery country restaurants known for their home cooking, to dank corner joints in unfashionable parts of Chicago where they probably also sell trays of saucy rib tips, alongside wafer-thin pizzas cut into squares, because no serious Chicagoan is ever going to be able to love one over the others, and so the restaurateur is wise to ensure bases are covered.
These are the places that had me falling in love with broasted chicken, simply seasoned, not much more than salt, really, lightly breaded, and always unimpeachably crispy. These days, however, when wandering in the desert, which is anywhere outside of the Midwest, it seems like, I often dream, quite specifically, of the chicken at Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen.
Gloria Yoder is not Amish, but the tables at her restaurant, in her tiny hometown of Mount Hope, Ohio on any given evening, are full of Amish diners; Mrs. Yoder’s, open since 1993, prepares and serves approximately two tons of chicken—delicately fried, dripping juices with every bite—every single week, according to the restaurant. Also served: One and a half tons of mashed potatoes, and thousands of loaves of the housemade bread.
Mount Hope is located in mostly rural, agricultural Holmes County, with a population of just over 40,000 people, and the nearest city of any size, Canton, is nearly 40 minutes away by car. With the highest percentage of Amish population of any county in the country (Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is more heavily populated, but it is also much more diverse), you might assume that Holmes County gets a lot of passing tourist trade, and you would be correct (four million visitors each year was a recent estimate), but Mrs. Yoder’s, unlike most of the popular dinner spots in the region, is a wonderfully local affair—if the waiting horses outside didn’t drive this home already, enter the foyer of the modestly-appointed restaurant, and you’ll see rows of black hats on shelves, because a gentleman simply does not wear a hat to the dinner table, not even in these uncivilized times.
Coming to Mrs. Yoder’s for delicious home-cooked dinners, for the array of generously-dressed salads on the bar, for exemplary homemade fruit pies, is an essential part of the Holmes County experience, where things, as they do in every other Amish country, revolve very closely around eating, and eating a great deal. For such a small county, you’ll find a generous amount of particularly good food, beyond the biggest, flashiest tourist traps, not that there’s anything wrong with a giant buffet, they can be good fun. Still, leave those to the side, at least for how—exploring the back roads and small towns of the region will be so much more rewarding.
Here’s a highly selective guide to get you started.
Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen
Pulling up to this simple restaurant across from a grain elevator and the popular Mt. Hope Auction (go watch, they're fascinating), you’re not expecting much, and then you get everything. The digs may be modest, but no restaurant of its kind in the region cooks quite to this level, with this much care—the chicken dinners are the way to go, and if you’re with friends, definitely order family style. This gets you a healthy portion of chicken, plus all the mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, vegetables, and homemade bread you can eat, not to mention a trip to the salad bar and a drink, all for just $13.99 per person, at last check. (You can add pie, too, for $2.49. You definitely want to add pie. No question.) The restaurant is open for breakfast, but it’s really all about the chicken, served at lunch and dinner every day except Sunday, when they’re closed.
Boyd and Wurthmann
No matter how popular the historic town of Berlin becomes, this delightfully utilitarian coffee shop, which began life as a market back in the 1930s, slowly evolving to become an essential morning stop for local farmers and laborers, appears to be unmoved. Open at 5:30 a.m. and sometimes at capacity fairly shortly afterward, you roll in here, before it’s even light out, for classic diner fare, nothing too challenging. Content yourself with a giant cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee, or get the buckwheat hot cakes with smoky applewood bacon, adding on a small bottle of real maple syrup, which you can afford, because the decor here isn’t the only thing that’s retro. Come back at lunch and dinner for hearty pork chop, ham and liver and onion dinners, served with all the fixings; pie is—once again—a thing here, and it is very good.
Hershberger Farm Market
Let us suppose that you have driven here, and will be driving home, a wise idea indeed—now, you can fill up your car with one of everything from one of the most serious farm markets in the region, which means it also has a very good on-site bakery. From jars of chow chow to kettle corn, to black raspberry, elderberry, all kinds of fried pies, sold for $1.80 each if you buy a dozen or more (do it), there’s a lot to choose from—loaves of simple, hearty bread, too, not to mention all of the local produce the season will allow. Stop by and say hello to the farm animals on your way out.
If you’ve been to Holmes County before, or any Amish Country, really, you’ve probably been burned once or twice by those olde world country stores selling off-the-rack product you don’t need, you know the kind, the local equivalent of those hideous jewelry stores crowding every cruise port in the Caribbean. Walking into this rather vast chocolate emporium, you may ask yourself, what am I in for, and the answer is only good things. Since 1987, and you can watch the makers hard at work if you head down the side hallway to the candy kitchen, Coblentz has been producing some rather spectacular product, starting with the sort of milk chocolate that all American milk chocolate wants to be, when it grows up and gets serious. The difference really shines through, no matter what you taste, but this is Ohio, so start with the peanut butter-filled Buckeyes, a favorite regional treat.
Red Mug Coffee
Plain folk are known for abstaining from many of the popular vices, but coffee is most certainly not among them. If you’d like to join them in a morning cup, this modern local roaster and café just around the corner from Mrs. Yoder’s is a fine choice; the coffee here, roasted capably in small batches just up the road, is quite easily the best in the county.