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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
Now the plain and the fancy, reunited on the rich soil in the valleys of the Susquehanna, the Lehigh, and the Schuylkill north of Philadelphia, began to build the culture that became known as Pennsylvania Dutch, because to their eighteenth-century neighbors anyone speaking any variant of the German language was a Dutchman ( Deutscher ). And it was in fact their particular dialect which did most to unite them and keep them separate from other Americans. That dialect, which can still be understood in parts of the Rhineland today, is neither the “Low Dutch” of Holland nor the “High Dutch,” or classical German, in which their Bibles were printed. Thus, it distinguished them both from other German immigrants who came later and from their “Low Dutch” neighbors in New York, as well as from the English-speaking Quakers, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians all around them. It was a language without a written literature, and for centuries they lived in a world apart, continuing to paint hex signs on their barns and observing many other Old World customs which had long ago died out elsewhere. Several of their own words, of course—like “dunking,” for a local custom with doughnuts which became widespread—joined the American language.
In a strange, wonderful way Pennsylvania Dutch—as Englished—makes very good sense. “My off is on,” for instance, means “My vacation has started.” “Do you think it will make down?” is “Will it rain?” Or, “the cream is all,”—gone, of course—“the milk is yet.” And there is the classic story of a sign on a front door, “Bell don’t make—Bump.” But all these are the trivial aspects of this culture. Its mainspring, which set it going, was the common memory of the fertile, lovingly cared-for farms and orchards of the Rhineland, and as rapidly as they could clear the forests the Pennsylvania Dutch set out to reproduce these in Pennsylvania and to stock their larders.
In anything pertaining to food they were especially inventive. To bring home more game, they designed a longer, more accurate rifle, mistakenly called the Kentucky rifle after Daniel Boone took it there from Pennsylvania. The first American cookstove was cast here, at Mary Ann Furnace in 1765. They made a long-handled waffle iron, imprinting a tulip design, for use on the open hearth. Instead of diamonds, which were notably scarce, young men gave their sweethearts handsomely carved rolling pins as engagement presents.
In fact, a rich folk art grew up around their cooking and eating. Many of their early stoves were so decorated with biblical scenes that they have been called “the Bible in iron.” Henry William Stiegel’s glassware, a treasure today, was blown here, and they made gay pottery. And inevitably, from this rich soil and these busy kitchens a surplus of food began to emerge. Therefore the Pennsylvania Dutch invented the great Conestoga wagon, a ship on wheels, to transport their produce to fairs and farmers’ markets. Since good food knows no language barrier, their own diet became the standard for the region. For example, the bachelor President James Buchanan, a Lancaster man, was famous for his sauerkraut suppers after he left office; he won the hearts of a Dutch family with whom he sheltered one night by insisting that the big bowl of corn-meal mush which was all they had planned for supper was exactly what he wanted.
By the time of the American Revolution, Philadelphia had become famous as the capital of a land of good eating, and one of its Pennsylvania Dutch bakers became famous for his usefulness to the American cause. Christopher Ludwick, the city’s first gingerbread baker, was commissioned by the Congress as baker general of the Continental Army. He must have been a good baker. Washington, who called him “my honest friend,” often had him to dine. Somehow he kept the ovens going even at Valley Forge. After the Revolution, in which Ludwick lost his property, he built another estate from the profits of his baking and left it to be shared by all the churches of Germantown, Catholic and Protestant, and to start public schools.
This admirable citizen was also the first American on record to employ food as a weapon in psychological warfare. Learning that the British had quartered German mercenaries on Staten Island, Ludwick—who was a native of Hesse—obtained permission from Congress to go there as a secret propaganda agent. He did not discuss ideologies, in which one assumes the Germans were not much interested. Instead he told them, as Fredric Klees has written in The Pennsylvania Dutch , “of the wonders of Philadelphia, of the milelong market in the High Street with counters laden with plump chickens and sausages, with crisp fresh bread and buns fragrant with cinnamon, with cherries and sparrowgrass and peas and other vegetables in season; of the snug inns where a man could sit at ease before the fire and down his pot of liquor, or turn in between fresh, lavender-scented sheets.” At the first opportunity, dozens of Germans deserted to the American lines. Many of their descendants are in Pennsylvania still, but they are not usually counted among the Pennsylvania Dutch. That title is generally reserved for those who had emigrated before the Revolution and had already created this abundant fare.