Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine
The food of family
Story by Jill Gleeson
I’ve been happily munching on Pennsylvania Dutch food for almost 50 years. My parents, and their parents before them, and on back, were born in central Pennsylvania, more or less ground zero for the cuisine. But trying to classify it isn’t easy, even for me. To begin with, the name is a misnomer: Pennsylvania Dutch fare has spread to Maryland, Virginia, Ohio and the Midwest. To make it more confusing, it’s not Dutch either. The term evolved from the word “Deutsch,” the German word for German, which referred to German-speaking settlers who immigrated long ago to the Keystone State.
According to Dr. William Weaver, internationally known food ethnographer and the author of 17 books dealing with regional foods and foodways, these settlers hailed from three regions: Baden-Wuerttemberg, the Rheinland-Pfalz, and the Upper Rheinland (Switzerland-Alsace). “They brought dishes specific to their homelands,” he explains. “This mix then evolved over 300 years into one unified style of cooking…Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine is both a fusion cuisine composed of varied European roots, plus a regional cuisine in that this fusionism adapted itself to the Pennsylvania landscape and thus assimilated native ingredients.”
To me, partially the product of these immigrants (my maiden name is Shroyer, an evolution of the more Germanic spelling Schroyer), Pennsylvania Dutch food is simple, hearty and home-cooked. It’s farm food, frequently starchy, and often combines fresh produce with some of the more arcane livestock bits. Perhaps the most iconic dish, pot pie—which bears no resemblance to the baked dish with a pastry top—is created from leftovers. My father makes it, as my mother’s grandmother taught him, with thick square noodles crafted from water and flour he flattens just slightly with a rolling pin. He boils them with a ham bone and leftover bits of meat in a big pot, adding potatoes. It’s absolutely delicious.
Part of Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine’s charm is that recipes tend to vary from family to family. Chef Adam Diltz, who is in the process of opening a restaurant in Philadelphia’s hip Fishtown neighborhood, makes his pot pie a bit differently than my father. “My great-grandmother would have a five-gallon tin of pork fat, from butchered hogs in her kitchen,” he explains. “So for my pot pie I use pork fat, eggs and flour for the noodles, and then I add in in celery, onions and potatoes. At home I generally make the stew first, and then pop the noodles in—that’s what my great-grandmother did.”
Diltz plans on making pot pie for the forthcoming fine dining eatery he has dubbed Elwood, in honor of his grandfather. He says he’ll be serving other Pennsylvania Dutch delicacies, like shoofly pie—a molasses crumb cake or pie that was traditionally eaten in the morning, with strong coffee—and chow-chow, a pickled relish. Elwood’s menu will include Pennsylvania Dutch cookery as well as more Mid-Atlantic and historical fare; even pork and sauerkraut, which are traditionally eaten for good luck on New Year’s Day, will make an appearance.
My family makes pork and sauerkraut, as well as other Pennsylvania Dutch goodies, like ham and bean soup, as well as red beet eggs, which are soaked in beet juice and vinegar. We don’t prepare homemade scrapple (pork trimmings mush); my father buys that in local markets, frying it up nice and crispy. We also buy Lebanon bologna, a tangy, all-beef sliced sausage used in sandwiches that we sometimes, believe it or not, smear with ketchup.
My absolute favorite Pennsylvania Dutch dish is fried green tomatoes, which many food scholars believe originated not in the South, as commonly thought, but in the North—perhaps with those German-speaking settlers who immigrated to Pennsylvania. The tomatoes aren’t dipped in cornmeal and deep-fried, but instead simply coated with flour and salt and pepper, and then cooked until brown in a skillet liberally doused with corn oil. My family tosses some Parmesan cheese on top, and it’s a little bit of heaven on earth.
According to Weaver, the Amish account for only five percent or so of the Pennsylvania Dutch community, but should you want to find family restaurants serving the fare, head to Lancaster County, in the south-central section of the state. A tourist trade developed there in the 1930s, focusing on the mysterious and fascinating Mennonite sect known for its adamant rejection of modern conveniences. This led to the birth of eateries dishing out Pennsylvania Dutch cookery, like Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant and Smorgasbord.
“My favorite dish is the chicken pot pie,” says the Bird-in-Hand Corporations’ Director of Marketing, Terry Buda Moser. “It’s a family recipe dating back to Grandma Smucker…our chicken corn soup is also a favorite of mine, especially on those cool fall Lancaster County days. Our recipe includes farm-fresh corn, egg and shredded chicken. It’s a must have on our menu and when visiting the area. The final one would be our shoofly pie, famous in our area!”
Or, you can take a bike ride with Intercourse Bikeworks in Intercourse (Amish towns are known for their interesting names). The relaxed eight-mile tour, which winds along gorgeous farms, ends with a rare opportunity to have dinner at an Amish family’s farm. Dave and Naomi Stoltzfus serve Pennsylvania Dutch dishes like chow-chow and ham loaf, but the hosts steal the show.
“I always revel in the moment when the table goes from a group of strangers to a happy group of new friends…and that moment always happens,” says Rebecca Branle, owner of Intercourse Bikeworks. “The food is comfortable and warm, and so is the family and the setting. We dine on the porch of the Stoltzfus’s home, which is perched on a hill overlooking unspoiled Amish and Mennonite farmland. As we eat, the sun sets in front of us…the perfect end to what most guests agree is the highlight of their trip to Lancaster County.” Comfortable and warm. For those of us who grew up eating Pennsylvania Dutch cookery, perhaps nothing could define it better. This is the food of home. This is the food of family.