“fill Yourself Up, Clean Your Plate”


Throughout the nineteenth century the life of the region changed surprisingly little. The railroad came to replace the Conestoga wagon. Lean and hungry Confederate armies invaded several times, the Southerners writing home their astonishment at such peace and plenty. In the latter part of the century, as commerce began to rival agriculture in importance, many of the Reformed and Lutheran families began to move to town. But many others, along with nearly all the Plain People, stayed on the farm. No group of Americans has ever loved the land more intensely. (One of them asked to be buried standing up so that he could still “look over his farm,” and his strange grave, topped by a small brick arch, is still to be seen near Collegeville.)

Well into the twentieth century these farms were still food factories such as have never been excelled, and their housewives became celebrated in verse:

She stews and she fries, She makes pumpkin pies, She shines pot and pan, She darns for her man, She sews and she knits, Dries cherries and schnitz.

One historian of the region, J. George Frederick, has documented the legend in detail, from his memories of his grandparents’ farm in the i88o’s. His grandmother bought almost nothing from the store except sugar, salt, pepper, and coffee. From clay on their farm they even baked their own earthen pots, crocks, and pie plates—in the winter, when farm work was light. Every day after milking, of course, there was cream to be separated by hand. Making butter and cheese went on steadily and so did baking. The oven, in this home as in most, stood outside the house. It was breast-high, fired by loads of brushwood burned to ashes, which were then raked out. Loaves of bread, pies, cookies, and crumb cakes were placed on the hot brick hearth, and when these were done the remaining heat was used for drying fruit.

In the spring there was a big garden to plant, allowing a surplus for the market. Dandelions were made, into wine, and raspberries and blackberries were picked for pies or for drying. For most of the year fruit was constantly being dried, in the sunshine or in the oven. From these dried fruits the Pennsylvania Dutch baked probably the world’s greatest variety of pies the year round. But the universal favorite, of course, was Schnitz (a German word meaning “cut”), which is dried apple slices and which even today is still among the basic facts of life in Pennsylvania Dutch country. (“What do I get if I slice an apple in half?” asks the arithmetic teacher. “Halves,” the children reply. “And if I slice the halves?” “Quarters,” they say. “And if I slice the quarters?” “ SCHNITZ !” cry the children.)

Schnitz , which was also used as chewing gum before the arrival of the store-bought variety, is even on the map. A farmer on his way to market once upset a wagonload in a creek; the slices swelled up in the water to flood the whole valley, and today this is Schnitz Creek.

One of the busiest fall activities among the Pennsylvania Dutch was the storing of vegetables for the winter: beets, turnips, potatoes, and pumpkins. Mr. Frederick’s grandmother took prizes for pumpkins at the county fair. Before frost she cut off the best, leaving a tail of vine which she stuck in a jar of milk, through which the thirsty pumpkin continued to grow. Fall was also the time for gathering chestnuts for stuffing fowls, and walnuts for pickling or cookies. And of course sauerkraut was made in the autumn. An unnamed Pennsylvania Wordsworth once sang:

All my soul is in delight When mommy fixes kraut just right.

Kraut, in the early days, was made by men who “stomped” the cabbage with their bare feet, like peasants pressing grapes for wine. It is now, of course, made by quite sanitary methods, and the Pennsylvania Dutch, who adore it, try to give it an aristocratic background, pointing out that it was reputed to be the favorite food of Charlemagne. It is, in any case, a favorite of theirs. And it is best accompanied by pig meat. The home-grown poet quoted above continued: