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“fill Yourself Up, Clean Your Plate”
Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, both plain and fancy, the milk is yet, the schnitz-un-gnepp delights the soul, and the soup is thick enough to stand on
April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
At the close of the nineteenLh century Rudyard Kipling saw southeastern Pennsylvania as a land of I “little houses and bursting big barns, fat cattle, fat women, and all as peaceful as Heaven might be if they farmed there.” This is the home of the Pennsylvania Dutch, and even today, when the face of rural America elsewhere has changed drastically in appearance, the Pennsylvania Dutch region still looks much the same.
It is a country of “fatness,” in the fine, Old Testament phrase. Its well-watered farms, fertilized and guarded against soil erosion for centuries, have improved with the passage of time until they have become the most valuable nonirrigated farmland in the United States. From the same rich soil the towns and cities of mellow red-brick houses draw their own character. At the food stalls in the farmers’ markets of Lancaster, Mennonite and Amish ladies in trim bonnets preside over the most appetizing array of food to be found anywhere—fresh butter elegantly stamped by a mold which is a family treasure, bursting white cauliflowers, mountains of golden pumpkins, and stacks of gay cakes and cookies, shoo-fly pies, smoked hams, and sausages. A glorious army of glass jars contains the homemade condiments-including pickled oysters, corn relish, fox-grape jelly, apple butter, and ginger pearsfrom which a Pennsylvania housewife selects the “seven sweets and seven sours” which traditionally accompany a meal.
Here, over a period of nearly three hundred years, has grown up the most enduring American regional cuisine. Well into the age of advanced homogenization, Pennsylvania Dutch cooking has held its own. It has done even better. As billboards along the highways attest, it has become a major tourist attraction. From all over America, as they have been doing for a long time, people come here just to eat.
It is interesting to speculate why. The Pennsylvania Dutch are predominantly German in origin—with a strong admixture of Swiss, Moravians, and some Hollanders among them—and many of their favorite dishes, like sauerkraut and pickled pig’s feet, are available anywhere that Germans have foregathered. Others which the Pennsylvania Dutch can take credit for introducing, like scrapple, waffles, apple butter, and Philadelphia pepper pot, have long since joined the nationwide menu. Still others, of course, like chicken corn soup or schnitz-un-gnepp (made with slices of dried apple soaked back to original size, dumplings, and ham or pork), are available only here. No one else seems to know how to make a shoo-fly pie from molasses, brown sugar, flour, and spices. (The name may have come from the fact that a cook working with these ingredients on a hoi summer day wotdd have winged visitors.) But the genius of this cuisine lies not so much in its unique dishes as in the fresh touch which these people give to the conventional American food obtainable anywhere. They have quite a way with common things.
They are gifted pancake cooks, for instance. Their buckwheat cakes may contain—besides buckwheat flour —corn meal, potato water, and a touch of molasses. The Pennsylvania Dutch know how to bring to greatness a simple meal like the classic breakfast of fried mush, fried apples, and sausages. They are connoisseurs of corn-meal mush, to begin with, always choosing yellow meal, preferably from corn that has been roasted for extra flavor before grinding. And unlike New Englanders with their “hasty pudding,” the Pennsylvania Dutch like to let mush bubble happily away in a big iron pot for hours. They may eat it hot with cold milk or cold with hot milk, but always with a puddle of melted butter in the middle. When it is fried, they pour all sorts of good things over it—old-fashioned dark molasses from a country store, comb honey, pure maple syrup, or their own apple butter, which is dark and spicy with cloves, cinnamon, or sassafras and quite different from that found elsewhere.
They choose the tastiest kind of apples for frying, depending on the season, for they have a choice of many kinds on the orchard slopes of their misty blue hills. The apples, of course, are lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon before serving. The sausage is homemade, delicately seasoned and smoked.
This is a cuisine of abundance, created by thrift and hard work. “Fill yourself up, clean your plate,” is a popular motto.
Like the people themselves, their cooking can be either plain or fancy—parsnip fritters or oysters and caviar. Both varieties will be good, and both, whatever the more exquisite type of gourmet may think, could well appear on the same table. This cuisine is completely without class consciousness. What is good—and not what is novel, fashionable, or easy to fix—determines what the Pennsylvania Dutch eat and serve to their guests. “No trouble,” they always say politely to appreciative visitors. By this, they do not really mean that good cooking is no trouble. They mean simply that the results are worth it, in terms of human happiness.
Appetite is the basis of any good cuisine, but the roots of Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine go even deeper than this, into a background of suffering and privation which drove them from the Old World to the New. Here they created on free soil an authentic, distinct culture of which their food is only one—although a very important—element. This particular regional cookery is like living history. So, in some ways, are the people themselves—especially the Plain People.