In rural Pennsylvania, an underrated and distinctive regional cuisine
By Ed Simon
On a winding country road in the gentle roll of rural eastern Pennsylvania, just outside of the small town of Kutztown, there is a red, wood-paneled building that evokes nothing so much as a barn. It’s named Dietrich’s Meats and Country Store, and, for me, it is basically the Xanadu of smoked meats. At the deli counter, shoppers can load up on thick, serpentine coils of ring bologna flecked with bits of porcine fat; of souse, appearing as gelatinous slabs studded with offal; thinly-sliced circles of sweet, fermented Lebanon Bologna; and, of course, bricks of the coarse-ground pride of the Commonwealth, scrapple. Dietrich’s has more than just meat—there are gleaming jars of preserves made from every conceivable fruit grown in these climes; of every vegetable that can be pickled, including the distinctive mélange of tomatoes, carrots, and peppers known as Chow Chow; of cheeses, from the smoked nuttiness of an Amish cheddar to the pungent acerbity of Limburger; and then, of course, the desserts—crumbly, molasses-drenched Shoofly Pie; the chimeric child of cake and pie known as Funny Cake; and whoopie pies, that Pennsylvania Dutch specialty tasting like the Platonic form of giant Oreos.
Dietrich’s wasn’t my introduction to Pennsylvania Dutch food—I’d been enjoying Lebanon bologna, ring bologna, scrapple, and (non-alcoholic) birch beer my whole life. I grew up in Pittsburgh, demographically among the least Pennsylvania Dutch of all municipalities in the state, but my father was from the environs just outside Reading, and my brother and I spent weeks of the summer at my grandparents’, visiting the sort of homestyle buffets whose entranceways featured fifteen-foot ceramic statues of a muscular Amish farmer hoisting a pitchfork, or of a pot-bellied, plain-dressed mascot with a bowl cut—an Anabaptist version of Bob’s Big Boy. My father used to make giant jars of pickled eggs dyed red with beet juice, or he’d assemble salads of dandelions from the garden with warm bacon vinaigrette. And Several years of my adulthood were spent living in the Lehigh Valley, where my local supermarket featured shrink-wrapped, irregularly shaped ends of ring bologna for under a dollar, and I’d occasionally make pilgrimage to Dietrich’s, loading up on head cheese, scrapple, and souse. Spend time in the small cities and towns of the eastern end of the state, and you imbibe some of that culture like birch beer.
As the national food scene occasionally rediscovers regional foodways, resuscitates past recipes, and reinvents what meat-and-potatoes-heavy “New American Cuisine” tastes like, that fertile region between the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers is often unjustly overlooked. Douglas Madenford—author of several books on regional culture and who also appears in the documentary Hiwwe wie Driwwe: The Roots of the Pennsylvania Dutch—joked that the cuisine is “Simple and brown—neutral in colors, but not in flavor.” It’s a food that’s “Very organic, simple, coming directly from the land. Nothing went to waste, snout to tail,” he says. The sort of food that a few years ago filled gastropubs and New American Cuisine bistros in Brooklyn Heights and Red Hook, but that you’ve always been able to but at a buffet or a firehouse fundraiser in towns with names like Blue Ball or Intercourse.
About half an hour out from Philly, Pennsylvania gives itself over to a distinctly unique region of Americana where colorful, circular hex signs are placed prominently on the sides of barns (to protect against any wayward magic that could harm the inhabitants) and German dialect terms from the eighteenth century are still sprinkled into everyday conversation. For three hundred years, across an area larger than Switzerland—predominantly Berks, Lebanon, Lehigh, Lancaster, and Bucks counties, and some twenty others to varying degrees—the Pennsylvania Dutch have developed a unique cultural identity and cuisine—and spent the last three centuries preserving their unique language (a dialect of German similar to Yiddish), their religions, and their food.
But the culture is far more complicated than the black hat stereotypes from the 1980s Harrison Ford feature Witness, or Beverly Lewis’s paperback bonnet-ripper “Amish Romance” series. Steven M. Nolt, Professor of History and Anabaptist Studies at Elizabethtown College and a Senior Scholar at the school’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, told me that among those who arrived in colonial America from Europe, “only a small minority were Mennonites, Amish, and so on.” The vast majority were Lutheran, with smatterings of Moravians and even a few German Catholics who, by dint of when they immigrated, could be considered Pennsylvania Dutch. From this mélange developed a uniquely New World Germanic culture that, though largely assimilated, is still in evidence throughout Pennsylvania, as well as Maryland, Ohio, and points both south and west.
Despite their name, the preponderance of the Pennsylvania Dutch came from the portions of central Europe which would become Germany, as well as Switzerland, French Alsace-Lorraine, and, more predictably Holland—the ethnicity traces itself back to the province’s eighteenth-century settlers from the Rhineland and Palatine, descendants of low church Protestant radicals persecuted by the monarchs of central Europe. In America, Pennsylvania Dutch culture evolved diverged from its Teutonic roots, which included the development of a unique dialect (which is still spoken, especially among members of the Amish and Mennonite religious communities); folk art such as the elaborate, colorful, and beautiful baptismal and wedding certificates known as fraktur; and the distinctive, painted furniture. And a multitude of customs and holidays, including the vaguely menacing Christmas gift giver Belsnickel and the truly delightful and strange mythic-hoax animal of the Elberdritsch, a horned chicken.
Then, of course, there is the food—always the most enduring cultural artifact, which remains even after assimilation has taken its toll. Things like the jellied donuts known as fasnachts eaten on Shrove Tuesday, or making sure to serve pork and sauerkraut on New Years Day for good luck (a tradition in my family, prepared by my Italian mother). From Bethlehem to Lititz, Reading to Allentown, the diners, corner restaurants, bars, and firehall fundraisers feature the likes of pickled red beet eggs and chicken pot pie. They might not think of themselves as offering a uniquely Pennsylvania Dutch menu, but those foods were baked in the kiln of colonial America and endured over the centuries. Food ethnologist William Woys Weaver, author of dozens of books including As American as Shoefly Pie and the cookbook Dutch Treats, explained that Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine is a “complex amalgam of culinary influences from Swabia, the German Palatinate, and Switzerland… it is neither Old World German nor colonial English. It is a New World cuisine.”
That menu is sturdy, filling, and often delicious, even while more delicate sensibilities might blanche at jellied pork or pig’s feet. There is Doctoral-level Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine—dishes like hog maw, a pig’s stomach stuffed with potatoes, herbs, and sometimes smoked sausage, which looks a bit like an American haggis. After that we could perhaps classify the Masters-level foods, things like souse and scrapple. The latter, of course, is one of those mystery meats of Pennsylvania delectableness—a brick of the stuff-that’s-left-over-from-the-pig, fried as a breakfast side with the consistency of toast. It’s unironically delicious. (And an example, as Madenford emphasized, of a completely American cuisine with no exact corollary in Germany.) Finally, there are the Bachelors-level foods—those that are so omnipresent that most Americans have no idea of their Pennsylvania Dutch origins. Chicken pot pie, whoopie pies, and birch beer, but also diced chicken and gravy over waffles, spaetzle, and apple dumplings. And finally, the most iconic of delicious Pennsylvania Dutch innovations, available everywhere from steaming food carts in Philly and New York to airplanes and vending machines—the humble pretzel.
New American Cuisine, a culinary movement popular a decade ago that seemingly proliferated across every medium-sized gentrifying city, emphasized a meaty, feral, and woodsy approach to dining. Bone marrow on toast and liver with onions in a balsamic demi-glaze. It was the sort of food made by and for bearded men in tailored flannel with tribal sleeve tattoos, who took shots of bourbon with pickle juice chasers. Now, Madenford says, Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine is “going through a bit of a revival, as this farm-to-table concept becomes popular in a lot of restaurants.” He told me that several high-end Philly restaurants have expanded and developed Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, even innovating a type of fusion cuisine, while microbreweries increasingly feature traditional Pennsylvania Dutch Bock beers and lagers. Weaver, who is the winner of a Julia Child Cookbook Award and has presented with the great chef herself, told me that there are a “number of regional chefs dedicated to perpetuating or to reinventing Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine,” with “more artisanal restaurants of this kind [rewriting] the future of Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine.”
But what I keep coming back to, over and over, is the food’s simplicity and total lack of pretension, a commitment to making even the most unappetizing part of the beast somehow delicious. My own favorite Pennsylvania Dutch dish couldn’t be simpler: two slices of white bread with three or four slivers of sweet Lebanon Bologna (favorite brand: Seltzer’s) and a thick cut of garden-fresh tomato ripened in the August sun, topped with a liberal heaping of cracked pepper. Before my father died, we’d have at least one sandwich every year, because simple foods go with simple necessities—family, fellowship, friendship. “Food is part mystic,” Sam Neff, a forty-year veteran food vendor at the Lancaster Central Market told me. “People are curious about how it all fits together. Food follows them.” ■
Ed Simon is a contributing writer at Belt Magazine, a staff writer for The Millions and author of An Alternative History of Pittsburgh.
Cover image by Christopher Paquette (creative commons).
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