Plain and Happy Living: Amish Recipes and Remedies

Last week on the Amish quilt shop post I mentioned I picked up a copy of Plain and Happy Living: Amish Recipes and Remedies.  This is a book written by the quilt shop owner’s aunt.  She noted that it isn’t common for an Amish woman to publish something like that (and even less so 20 years ago, when the book first came out).

plain happy living amish recipes remediesSince the issue of natural remedies has come up lately, I thought I’d share a little bit from Plain and Happy Living today.  The book was written by Emma Byler, of the Geauga County, Ohio Amish community, who has since passed on.  The publisher includes this note about Emma and Amish names:

Because so many Amish have the same sur- and given names, they have developed several means to positively identify one another.

One way is to establish nicknames for individuals and couples.  The most common is to combine the husband’s and wife’s names to form the nickname.  Emma Byler, married as she was to Jonas Byler, is known in here community as “Jonas Em.”  You will notice our use of her nickname on the title page.

With an eye on liability, the book includes this disclaimer right up front:

The herbal folk remedies contained in this book are included for information only.  Neither Emma Byler nor Peter Gail are medical doctors, and do not presume to prescribe.  If you choose to use any of these remedies, you do so at your own risk.

It goes on to talk about the dangers of allergies and notes that “It is also very important that you consult with your doctor when ill and follow  his/her recommendations.”

On to the book.  Emma lays out a little background in the introduction:

This book is written as a folk lore so that this new generation can get a glimpse of our lives as they were in the days of yore–let’s say since 1900, the year my mother was born.

Mother can remember when the first cars came clattering down what is now State Route 87 in Middlefield, Ohio which was then still a dirt road.

Doctors of that time, who made their visits in horse and buggy, did not have medicines like we have today to combat diseases.   When Father and Mother set their wedding date early in December, 1918, the flu broke out.  Their wedding date came and passed because no one was able to come to the wedding as the neighbors were all sick.  Many families lost one or two members and when there was  a death, the dead would be buried and the funeral ceremony preached later when peopole were again able to go to church, weddings, and other events…

 From the time I was ten years old, being the oldest, I would tag along with my dad and help him hunt and gather.   I learned much just by being with him and observing him.  After I married at nineteen, I used these things with my family, because we still didn’t have doctors who could come easily, and even if there had been, we didn’t have money to pay them.

Not having money also meant that we couldn’t just go to the store and buy things we wanted for the house or barn.  So we had to make do with what we had around us, not only for medicine, but also for gardening, housekeeping, caring for our animals, making the house fresh, and even for coloring Easter eggs!  I now pass these things along to you who read this to use if you want.

The book is split into 4 Parts–Humble BeginningsLiving Comfortably on Next to NothingAunt Jemima’s Plaster and Other Home Remedies, and Happy Endings.  Humble Beginnings is mainly and account of growing up Amish in the Great Depression.

Chapters in the Living Comfortably section include “Running a Household on Next to Nothing”, “Memories of Grandmother’s Pantry”, and “The Little Niceties”.  In “Running a Household”, Emma shares:


Our good friend, vinegar, was our number one staple for windows.  We mixed 1/3 cup cider vinegar with 2 pints of water.  An old worn diaper was used to wash, and crumpled newspaper was used to dry and polish the window.  We had no paper towels at that time.

The window cleaner I use today is also very easy to make and works very well.  It is made of 1/3 cup rubbing alcohol mixed with 2 pints of rain water.  I mix the concoction and put it into a spray bottle to use.

There are recipes for homemade soap, furniture polish, mildew remover, house-plant fertilizer, and more.  This part contains garden tips, Grandma’s recipes, and how to make potpourri, Easter egg dyes, and other “niceties”.  How about Grandma’s “Poor Man’s Rivvel Soup”:


1 qt. milk

2 tbsp. butter

pinch of black pepper

1 cup flour

1/2 tsp salt

1 egg, well beaten

Add butter and pepper to the milk and bring to a boil in a two-quart saucepan.  Combine flour, salt and egg.  Rub flour, salt, and egg together with the hands until it forms small lumps.  Sprinkle these lumps into the boiling milk.  Simmer on low heat for 5 minutes, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.  Serves four.

There is also a “Rich Man’s: version, which adds in chicken broth and corn.  Another recipe that looks good are the Bushel Cookies, which Emma says are “One of the most common cookies we make now, but couldn’t afford to make during the Depression”.

Amish Remedies

Part 3, Aunt Jemima’s Plaster and Other Home Remedies, covers healing foods, herbal medicines, tonics, salves, poultices and plasters, and even has a chapter on caring for animal ailments.  Here’s what Emma has to say about onions:

To stop a hacking cough, you sliced an onion, sprinkled a little sugar over it, put it where it was warm, and let the juices ooze out.  Then you would put one or two drops of ooze on some sugar and place it in the mouth.  It stopped the cough but wasn’t too popular with the children!

 The book covers remedies for a whole host of illnesses and ailments, from pneumonia to bedwetting, head lice to lead poisoning (see that disclaimer again).  For itching, Jonas Em offers a couple of solutions:


Plain cider vinegar stops itching.  Wash the itch with plain water, pat some vinegar on cotton, apply to the itch, and let the air dry it

teenas quilt shop flyerJewelweed (touch-me-not) is also a very good remedy for itching caused by mosquito bites, bee stings, stinging nettles, or poison ivy and is usually found growing right with or near poison ivy and nettles.  Rub the fresh juice of the stem or leaves on the itch.

Happy Endings is basically a chapter entitled “Amish Folk Wisdom and Humor” with some humorous clippings and personal stories.

You can order Plain and Happy Living online, say at Amazon or other retailers, or, I am assuming through Log Cabin Press.  I got my copy at Teena’s Quilt Shop in the New Wilmington Amish settlement.  I’ve included a shot of one of Teena’s flyers here as well.  Here’s the Log Cabin Press info:


16729 Claridon Troy Road

Burton, OH 44021


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    1. Julie Bair

      What an interesting book! My Dad grew up Amish and to this day cannot stand onions, especially raw onions. Grandma would make onion “syrup” for them when they would get sick. I always wondered how she made it, and maybe you’ve just answered my question! 🙂

      1. debbie donnelly

        Onion Syrup

        I remember many years ago my mother in law(not Amish) made some kind of an onion syrup,seemed to work for her.
        Often wondered what had went into it.

    2. My advice – from experience – is the cider vinegar works for many kinds of itching, but don’t use it if there has been an allergic reaction. The vinegar can release more histamines, and make it worse.

    3. tj

      I checked Amazon and $20 is kind of pricey for a paperback book, but thanks for the review. It does sound interesting.

      1. When I looked there were used copies as well, I think for a few dollars.

    4. Marilyn from New York

      I use to subsitute teach at a school. One day I was leaving the lady maintenance group were cleaning the windows of the school and I asked them what they used to clean those windows so clear. It was vinegar. They used recipe similar to the one above and that really cleaned the windows. Knowing I smoke they told me to use it on my car windows-it would clear all that smoke off the windows. My Mom was born in the hills of Kentucky-she was not Amish, but used many herbs, poultices, salves, etc. I never paid attention to what she did-but I wish I knew as I am now allergic to many modern medicines. When I was a child it was expensive to go to the doctors. Most people couldn’t afford it. Also, there weren’t as many doctors around when I was a child as there are today.

      1. Marilyn I’ve heard vinegar is a good odor absorber for smoking. I don’t smoke but I’ve tried it to thwart my neighbors who do (I’m in an apartment building, and the fumes come in my window from below, ack).

        It doesn’t quite do the trick, though maybe I just need to dump huge quantities while they are lighting up! That may convey the message, at least 🙂

    5. Roberta

      If you don’t want to drop $20 at Amazon for a new copy there are used copies for $3 or $4 plus $4 postage at so you can feel thrifty and help someone to recycle at the same time.

    6. Naomi

      I would love to get a copy. With the present economy so bad, and poised to get worse, I have been wondering what life was like, specifically for the Amish, during the Great Depression.

      As my family has felt the pinch of the current recession, we have turned to home made cleaners such as vinegar, alcohol, baking soda, etc.

    7. Linda

      Rivvel Soup or Rivel Soup

      I like your Poor Man’s Rivvel Soup recipe, without the pepper, but adding a dash of celery salt, and about a half teaspoon of Better Than Bouillon Chicken Base. Thanks for the chicken broth idea. I used to use only milk to make Rivvel Soup, but I like the added chicken base flavor.