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The Flavors of Pennsylvania
By Bob Difley
More than 40 years have faded into the fuzzy, deep recesses of my memory since I took William Graham Sumner’s advice (“Go west, young man!”) and left my birth home in Pennsylvania for the lure of the West Coast.
But the tantalizing brown sugar and molasses in sweet shoofly pie and the pungent aromas of Amish relishes draw me back to the old stomping grounds for another taste tour of the Keystone State.
Dinah Shore immortalized that gooey sweet Pennsylvania Dutch dessert in her 1946 hit song, Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy. For those who hadn’t yet discovered the joys of Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish cooking, new gastronomical delights began to find their way onto American tables. (It’s said that the pie got its name since it was typically set on the window sill to cool, where it would attract flies, which cooks constantly had to shoo away.)
Incidentally, “Dutch”, in this case, comes from the German word for “German” (“Deutsch”). Settlers of German descent brought us this irresistible comfort food.
For “feinschmeckers” (those who know what good is), the joy of RV touring and experiencing the flavors of Pennsylvania is in discovering family-style restaurants – many of which serve the traditional foods – and visiting local farmers’ markets.
Select from their fresh-from-the-earth produce, farm-made Amish Swiss, super-sharp white cheddar and horseradish cheeses, succulent smoked hams, Lebanon and sweet bologna, sausages, apple butter, pickles, breads, pastries and jellies, relishes and old-fashioned candies.
To see how many of the jams and relishes are made, visit the Jam & Relish Kitchen in Kitchen Kettle Village (on Old Philadelphia Pike, in the town of Intercourse), where they create more than 60 varieties of jams, relishes, dressings and barbecue sauces right before your eyes.
Venture out of the urban areas to wander the many rural two-lane roads through scenic countryside, watching for roadside stands as you drive past neat-and-tidy farms.
Pick from the freshest produce, eggs collected each morning, farm-smoked meats and fruit right off of the tree. Many of these stands also offer homemade birdhouses or mailboxes, aprons or crocheted doilies, among other craft items.
The early Germanic settlers in Pennsylvania were a frugal, hardworking people. They produced nearly everything they needed on their farms, buying only salt and a few spices from outside.
Dough in many forms served as a staple of farm life, yielding bread and rolls, sweets like sticky buns, pie crusts`` and noodles. Folks made dumplings to be used in soups, meat and vegetable dishes, and desserts like berry and rhubarb dumplings.
Potatoes, another staple, were also used in many ways, and frequently eaten at all three meals of the day, from hash browns for breakfast, to mashed or boiled potatoes for supper. The settlers devised ingenious methods of preserving food through smoking, drying and pickling, and also made frequent use of dried fruits.
It was from this style of “waste not, want not” living that many of these traditional recipes grew and became an integral part of farm life. The cooking was hearty but not fancy (my mother always said, “It sticks to your ribs”), and the family-style serving guaranteed enough food for everyone … even the frequent drop-in visitor.
Pennsylvania Dutch cooking often reflected the “seven sweets and seven sours” so popular with German immigrants, featuring sweets like apple butter, spiced cantaloupe, cinnamon apples, ginger pears and various spiced fruits. Sours included cabbage-filled peppers, bean-and-corn salad, chow chow, pickled and red-beet eggs (my mouth waters just thinking of them), as well as pickled mushrooms, cucumbers and beets.
Leftovers never saw a garbage can, but were recycled as a different dish or recipe. For example, a leftover roast was shredded and spread over the bottom of a baking dish covered with leftover mashed potatoes, then baked for an hour at 350 F for the popular shepherd’s pie. The modern version uses hamburger and freshly made mashed potatoes rather than leftovers.
Scrapple, a traditional farm staple breakfast, was a by-product of the waste-nothing farm kitchen. Scrap or leftover meats were mixed with meal (buckwheat flour, barley or cornmeal) and spices, formed into thin, flat cakes, and fried. It has the flavor of pork sausage, the crispness of bacon, and you don’t want to know about the calories or grams of fat. You can’t find scrapple any more too far from its roots; the market is small and it is costly to make, so its availability has gradually begun to dwindle. Look for it in specialty stores as well as more traditional, country-kitchen restaurants.
Fun with Fritters
You will find fritters just about everywhere in the state. To a basic batter of flour, eggs, milk and butter, add corn for corn fritters, clams for clam fritters, goose liver for pâté-de-fois-gras fritters (just kidding), spices and so on. You mold this mixture into flat, round cakes and sauté them in oil to a golden brown.
And we shouldn’t forget chicken pot pie (meat or fowl and potatoes in a dough pie, cooked in a kettle on top of the stove, not in the oven), sauerkraut (pickled cabbage), chicken corn soup, schnitz and knepp (also called apples and buttons – the schnitz are dried apples, the buttons are dumplings – combined with ham, onions and potatoes in one pot).
Pennsylvania Pretzel Logic
Universally popular Pennsylvania pretzels were born at Lititz, the home of the Sturgis Pretzel Factory, when according to legend, a hobo stepped off a train in 1850 a half-block from Julius Sturgis’ bread bakery.
Looking for work as well as something to eat, the hobo followed his nose, and though Julius couldn’t offer the hobo any work, he invited him to share a meal with his family. In gratitude for his generosity, the hobo gave Julius the pretzel recipe.
By 1861 his pretzels were selling so well that he ceased all other baking operations and became the very first commercial pretzel baker in America. Now, you can find hard pretzels all across the nation (I am seldom without the pretzels I have enjoyed since I was knee-high to a grasshopper). Try eating them with mustard, or as my favorite: spread with peanut butter and topped with a slice of cheese.
Did You Say Dessert?
No Pennsylvania Dutch meal is complete without dessert, and the cooks excelled at making cakes, cookies, custards and pies, which were baked every day of the week. In summer, they used fresh fruits and berries, apples in the fall, and dried-fruit and shoofly pies in winter.
Pennsylvania Dutch Flavors will be celebrated all during 2006 in Flavorfest events and tours. Visit the Pennsylvania Dutch Country website or see the end of this article for more information.
Foods of the Coal Regions
“Coal crackers” came from all parts of the world to both eastern and western coal regions of Pennsylvania, bringing with them many traditional foods. Some of the recipes remained traditional while others mixed and mingled.
The popular Polish halupkies, “galumpkies” or “blind pigeons” are cabbage rolls stuffed with meats, rice, onions and spices. Bleenies – fried potato pancakes – are often served at festivals and church bazaars.
As you wander around, you will find many more delicacies than those mentioned here. Be brave … try them.
When you find dishes you like, copy the recipes or ingredients and try reproducing them at home or in the campground. I’m sure you will find plenty of willing tasters around your campsite once they catch a whiff of what’s on the wind.
For a listing of campgrounds around the area, consult your Woodall’s North American Campground Directory.
For More Information
Pennsylvania Dutch Visitors & Convention Bureau
(800) PA Dutch