“fill Yourself Up, Clean Your Plate”

PrintPrintEmailEmail Calm my troubled, sinful mood— Oh, but pork is always good!

He had ample nourishment for his spiritual aspirations after hog butchering and meat packing on the farm early in December. For this season the men of the family joined the food factory. They brought in specially selected woods for the smokehouse, each chosen to give the best flavor to sausages, tongues, bacon, pork, and ham. (Pennsylvania Dutch country smoked ham was perhaps the inspiration for the saltier “country hams” of the South, for the Dutch early began to spread from Pennsylvania down through Maryland and the valleys of Virginia deep into the southern mountains, where they are found today.) Nobody has ever made more thorough use of the pig, not even the great meat-packing houses. The feet, of course, were put up in jelly, and the boys even saved the hog bristles, which they were allowed to sell in town to buy Christmas candy. From the tiniest scraps of hog meat, unusable elsewhere, they made scrapple, one of their truly great contributions. And when the butchering was all over, each respectable family set aside some of the choicest cuts of the hogs, or perhaps some sausages or a side of bacon, as presents for neighbors who had helped or as gifts to the poor at Christmas—a time when nobody in the Pennsylvania Dutch country was allowed to be hungry.

At Christmastime, too, cookies were baked by the bushel in every home; the treasured old cooky cutters, shaped like animals, had come over from the Old World. Also made for Christmas were sandtarts, doughnuts, Lebkuchen (a honey cake usually containing almonds, citron, or orange peel), and mince pies—called Christmas pies. The Moravians, those highborn cousins of the Pennsylvania Dutch who were finally settled by Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, their leader, at Bethlehem, outdid themselves at Christmas. They erected a four-sided structure on tables to form a cooky pyramid-a forerunner of the Christmas tree, which the Pennsylvania Dutch introduced to this country.

The first Christmas tree of record appeared in the upper Rhineland in 1608; for two centuries thereafter it remained a custom in this region of Germany, whence it was brought by the emigrants to America. An issue of the Saturday Evening Post for 1825 described what a lovely sight the trees made, hung with cookies and candies, glimpsed through Philadelphia windows. Such jollifications were not usually the doings of the stern Plain People. It was mostly the gay Dutch who—at a time when Puritan sentiments predominated in this country and the great festival was largely ignored—made the American Christmas merry. Until the twentieth century, in fact, one day was hardly enough. They celebrated the day after, too. In the towns of the gay Dutch, Second Christmas was even livelier than Christmas Day. The local hotel might serve free drinks all day, there would be greased-pig races and shooting matches, fireworks, a cannon might be fired, and Santa Claus—who is partly a Pennsylvania Dutch invention—might arrive from a neighboring town on a special train.

Special foods followed the cycle of the Christian year. For example, doughnuts called fastnachts were prepared in abundance for Shrove Tuesday, a day when even the women ceased work. (To sew on Shrove Tuesday, some believed, might sew up the hens and keep them from laying eggs.) The fastnachts-still baked in large quantities at this season—might be round or square, and a hole in the middle was optional. But they were very powerful medicine. The last person out of bed on Shrove Tuesday morning was called the Fastnacht; he had to do extra chores and was teased and tormented about it all day long. If you wanted to grow large heads of cabbage it was essential to eat lots of fastnachts. And the lard in which they were fried was kept to heal sores or grease wagon wheels.

Ash Wednesday, of course, was not a feast day (ashes were scattered over garden and livestock), but with the approach of Holy Week many preparations had to be made. Dandelion greens had to be gathered to be eaten as a salad on Maundy Thursday, sometimes called Green Thursday. (The favorite dressing was a hot cream gravy made with bacon, and if this sounds strange for use on a green salad the only advice can be to try it.) The dandelion salad would help to keep fevers away all year, and in fact its vitamins were good to have at this season. But the great culinary activity centered around eggs.

The Pennsylvania Dutch introduced the Easter egg and its proud parent, the Easter bunny. (To make the point entirely clear they used to bake a big cooky rabbit in the act of laying an egg, until the squeamish objected.) All winter long, housewives had been saving red onionskins and other natural dyes. For a fancy design, eggs could be boiled in tightly wrapped flowered calico. Each worshipper at the Moravian Easter service received an egg marked “The Lord is Risen.”