April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
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
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.
Outstanding among these are the Amish, who still wear black hats and long beards, drive their buggies along Lancaster County roads, and fasten their outer clothes with hooks instead of with buttons, which were associated with the nobility and the military. Their ancestors first began to come to southeastern Pennsylvania in the seventeenth century. Conditions in the Palatinate—a province of the Rhineland in Germanyhad been nothing less than dreadful. Beginning with the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, there were persecutions of Protestants by Catholics, of Catholics by Protestants, and—most bitterly sometimes—of Protestants by Protestants. Toward the end of the century, an especially vindictive army from France invaded the Palatinate and took pains to cut down the fruit trees, dig up the vineyards, burn the farmhouses, and turn the people out in the dead of winter. Their sufferings were observed with sympathy by William Penn, who was planning a commonwealth in the New World devoted to religious liberty—and peace. He circulated his prospectus throughout the Rhineland and twice visited the region in person to invite its distressed survivors to join him. The Mennonites—followers of Menno Simons, an early sixteenth-century religious reformerwere the first to accept. In 1683, at German town, near Philadelphia, they made the first German settlement in America.
The Mennonites were Plain People, members of the radical wing of the Reformation which disavowed all established churches, Protestant as well as Catholic, sought to recover the simplicity of New Testament Christianity, practiced pacifism, and, to emphasize their separateness from the world, dressed in plain, dark clothes. They were, of course, pleased that their new Quaker neighbors also “dressed plain,” were pacifists, and held religious views not unlike their own. Other Mennonites soon came, and other Plain People of various kinds—the Dunkards, or Brethren, who baptized by total immersion three times; Moravians from Bohemia, followers of John Huss, who was burned at the stake in 1415; and a small group called Schwenkfelders, who like the Moravians had been persecuted for centuries, driven from one country to another across the map of Europe.
They all arrived hungry, if only from the long sea voyage. The Schwenkfelders, when their ship dropped anchor in 1734 near New Castle, Delaware, obtained their first fresh water in months, along with apples and fresh bread. They still commemorate this occasion each September, sharing, after church service, a meal of the same basic ingredients—apple butter, fresh bread, butter, and water, “spiced,” as a Quaker observer noted, “with cheerful talk.”
In one way or another food became a sort of religious symbol with all of the Plain People. After worship, the Dunkards held love feasts, suppers at which the main dish was a lamb stew commemorating the paschal lamb. The House Amish, fundamentalist Mennonites who felt their brethren were backsliding, held their services in each other’s homes and followed them with a memorable dinner for all. The Moravians, at Bethlehem, became famous for their baking. Their delicate love leasts consisted of rolls and a beverage, served in church and shared in a spirit of devotion and brotherhood.
The Plain People were followed to America in the early eighteenth century by many of the “church people,” members of the Reformed and Lutheran churches, with some Catholics, too, who had remained behind in the Rhineland. (These, of course, were the “gay” or “fancy” Dutch, and their descendants in southeastern Pennsylvania came to outnumber the “plain” Dutch by ten to one.)
Conditions in the Palatinate had not much improved. In the terrible winter of 1709, it was so cold that birds allegedly froze in the air, and wild beasts, in the forest. Men looked into each other’s eyes, one historian reported, and said, “Let us go to America; and if we perish, we perish.” Pennsylvania, however, was not their original destination. Queen Anne of England invited the Lutherans and Reformed to go to New York, which the English had taken over from Holland.
This frightfully mismanaged project provided the gay Dutch with a legend of suffering almost equal to anything the Plain People had known. On ship board, with inadequate food and no sanitation and no light or air below decks, they died by the hundreds. By the time they reached New York Harbor, typhus had broken out. They were installed in tents on Governors Island, where hundreds more died of disease and as the result of the rigors of the voyage. The survivors were sent up the Hudson, told to build their own villages, and fed salty meat and short rations of bread. A minister among them wrote home that “they boil grass and ye children eat the leaves of the trees.” When a letter of invitation reached them from Pennsylvania, one hardy band accepted. After that the church people emigrated from the Rhineland direct to Pennsylvania.
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.
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:
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.”
Eggs were important all week long. An egg laid on Good Friday was a real treasure and could advantageously be eaten on that day and its shell saved to drink water from on Easter morning. On that day, as soon as the children had found the bunny’s nest, eggs appeared in enormous quantities. Some were made into “Easter birds”—charming, toothpick creatures; others were stuck on an Easter-egg tree. But most were eaten. Boys meeting on the street “picked eggs”; that is, each would thump his hard-boiled egg, at the base, against the other’s. The egg with the weaker shell would crack and be claimed and eaten by the winner.
The Easter egg and the Christmas tree will no doubt always survive (along with Santa Claus, if he can be rescued from the Chamber of Commerce). But most of the holiday customs which the gay Dutch introduced with their feasts have long since disappeared. And looking ahead, it seems clear that it is their more self-denying relatives, the Plain People, who will do most to keep alive the Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine in its full glory for generations to come.
The Amish, in particular, make it part of their religion to farm. They are not allowed, except under rare circumstances such as physical disability, to earn their livelihood in any other way. With a tenacious judgment—and it is hard to see how they are mistaken—they realize that if their way of living is to survive, it must almost totally exclude the twentieth century. They discourage educating their children above the eighth grade and prefer them to attend their own one-teacher schools with a privy in the yard. They have no telephones in their homes, indeed no electricity at all, and use no tractors on their land. (“The tractor, it don’t give no manure.”) It is almost unheard-of for an Amish family to purchase food from the store. Frozen foods would not keep, and no Amish housewife would think of feeding her man “outen a can.” Their own products are far better anyway. Just as in the old days, an Amish farm is a food factory, preparing good foods the whole year through. Any surplus will bring a good price from “the fancy” at a farmers’ market.
To enforce their separateness from the world, the Amish will not only excommunicate a backslider but “shun” him completely—even in the marital relationship. (It was over the necessity for this stern point of discipline that the Amish separated from the other Mennonites in Switzerland, some 270 years ago.) However, they have other, more genial methods for helping each generation in turn to keep in the old paths. A newly married couple, for example, will not take a wedding trip “into the world,” but will embark in their buggy on a series of honeymoon visits throughout the neighborhood. In each house they are made welcome and feasted, and from each housewife in turn the bride learns more and more of the arts which go into preparing a feast. In Amish hands the old-fashioned Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine should be safe for many years to come.
Yet it is only fair to say that, as of this writing, many gay Dutch still cherish this heritage too. A few miles north of Lititz, for example, a venerable log tavern can be found filled with neighborhood families eating nothing but Pennsylvania Dutch food and drinking beer, both in substantial amounts. A visitor will be warmly welcomed and invited to come back next day for an “all-day raffle.” (The prizes will be live turkeys and Black Angus cattle, the price of one dollar will include raffle ticket, Dutch soup, and free beer with eggs pickled in beet vinegar.) And in a store window a sign advertising a church fair recommends, “Bring container to take home soup.” Such soups there will be! Corn soup with popcorn floating on top, pretzel soup, calf’s-liver soup, pea soup “thick enough to stand on.”
This is still a country of abundance, where good people make good food and lots of it.