Deep Fried Meets Dutchified: Food Mirrors the Culture
In the Pennsylvania Dutch language "Dutchified" (uffgedeitscht) is slang for anything that is gussied up to look, taste, or in some way made to appear Pennsylvania Dutch whether or not it really is. A lot of locals use it specifically in reference to an overdose of decorative statement—such as a diner covered with neon hex signs—yet it can apply equally to people who accept or "convert" to the culture, to a peculiar way of talking, and even to a style of cooking or to a genre of folk art. Dutchification, if I may create that noun, is purely subjective and implies a heavily nuanced value judgment expressed within the Pennsylvania Dutch community; the general tenor is that the end result may border on gaudy and perhaps even tastelessly comic, since there is a hint of dry humor whenever the expression is used.
For aficionados of popular culture, things Dutchified probably represent a subcategory of kitsch (in Pennsylfaanisch Edelkitsch, something so tasteless it creates a new definition of "good"). Likewise deep-fried food, which is not a feature of traditional Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine except for festive fare such as Fastnachts (Shrove Tuesday fat cakes) has been served up in bountiful platters of grease as though it represents a taste of our authenticity. French fries, fried chicken, fried scrapple, fried everything: easy fast-food fare has been conjoined with Dutchification in the manner of culinary Siamese twins to create a tourist cuisine that has come to exemplify the worst of gluey tourist-trap shoofly pies, or more generally the ambiguous and overly saccharine food of family-style restaurants proclaiming the "Amish Experience." This is a tale of kitsch begetting kitsch. There is perhaps no better example than the stultifying aroma-therapy scent sold in Lancaster County gift shops under the name of "Amish Friendship Bread"—as though all the day-to-day realities of an Amish farmhouse kitchen can be released from a bottle. And yet behind this shopping cart filled with strange culinary mutants stand fascinating agendas that have pushed them to the fore. External issues from the larger world stage such as Hitler's accession to power in Germany, American isolationism, and the need of many urbanized Americans to take comfort or to seek reaffirmation in the old-time values of a lost agricultural age all bore down on the Pennsylvania Dutch in ways not well understood by the outside world.
The story that unfolds is a complicated one, not the least because the foods and foodways of the Pennsylvania Dutch represent the largest regional land-based cookery in the United States in terms of square miles covered, much of it outside Pennsylvania. Contrary to popular misconceptions, this is not the colorless, homogenized, deep-fried food peddled as the "Amish table" in the centers of Amish tourism in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere. This is a food culture with authentic roots, a highly developed culinary tradition of classical preparation, and an extraordinary degree of internal diversity.
Within the original area of Dutch settlement in southeastern and central Pennsylvania—the cultural heartland about the same size as Switzerland—over sixteen hundred distinctive dishes have been documented, most of which are not available in restaurants or even in local cookbooks. When we consider that there are at least thirty variant forms of milk tarts (Schlappkuche, Millichflitsch, and so on), more than sixty variations of pocket dumplings or "mouth slappers" (Mauldasche), and several hundred sauerkraut dishes, the number sixteen hundred may even seem conservative; a great many more recipes lie waiting to be discovered through fieldwork. The complexity or diversity of this amazing regional cookery is one of the reasons that it has been difficult to encapsulate it in cookbooks and why there are so many mixed messages about its core characteristics in tourist literature today. Food, like culture, does not stand still; thus this is a book about food in motion, food moving from old forms toward new identities, new authenticities, and above all else toward a new culinary voice.
It is my hope that the common theme of food will draw together the disparate topics I have chosen as vantage points for viewing Pennsylvania Dutch culture from unusual angles: what it was, what it is today, how it is affected by class boundaries, how it is depicted in literary fiction, and of course how the Old Order Amish have been exploited as a lucrative culinary symbol. One of the recurring motifs in all that follows is an exploration of tourism and how in recent times this has imposed certain demands on culinary tradition. Over time these demands have shaped the way people within the culture, as well as those on the outside, have come to view the cuisine and to equate it with a stereotypical menu that evolved during the 1930s to fulfill the expectations of Lancaster County tourism. This was the beginning of the Amish motif in mass media culinary literature, which found its unintended endorsement at the Kutztown Folk Festival during the 1950s.
As we shall see, this tourist menu is a fictional cuisine. Rather than deriving its distinctive identity from actual home cooking, a subject taken up in Chapter 1, it was informed by local-color novels and by travel journalism and then grafted onto 1930s urban rathskeller cookery under the guise of Amish—the culinary epicenter being the 1935 menus of the German Village Restaurant in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Old Order Amish, who took no part in this evolutionary process other than to serve as objects of intense curiosity, were soon promoted as the only true representatives of the term "Pennsylvania Dutch," a misleading equation championed by the journalist and author Ann Hark, whose book Hex Marks the Spot and many magazine articles during the 1940s gave national currency to this idea. For Ann Hark, the plain sects and the other hoi polloi were Pennsylvania Dutch, while the true keepers of the culture were the Pennsylvania Germans, a nuanced distinction that was shaped by her personal construct of class and cultural divisions within the Pennsylvania Dutch world: a presumption of the fundamental superiority of the Moravian social circles in which she grew up.
Hark visited the Amish community much like a grand lady, moving from place to place in a touring car, arriving with a personal chauffeur (who was also her clandestine lover) in search of the quaint relics from the Middle Ages that she was convinced lay hidden in this closed religious sect. Like Ann Hark, I too have gone into the countryside and have spoken with the Amish and hundreds of other Pennsylvania Dutch of all religious persuasions, although I hope not in the same condescending frame of mind that distinguished Hark's Moravian worldview regarding the "other Dutch." In addition, rather than cast the Old Order Amish as players on a stage of my own making, I have let my subjects speak for themselves. They share many of the same concerns you and I have about the way tourism has distorted the truth about them and about Pennsylvania Dutch culture in general. The only qualification with my material is that several people I interviewed declined to have their names published, but I was comfortable with that, given that their answers were honest and uninhibited, and from their standpoint safe from unintended exploitation.
Another misunderstood voice heard from is that of the gentleman scholar and fellow Dutchman Cornelius Weygandt (1871-1957). I do not believe he was the nemesis of Ann Hark; they knew one another well enough, although his approach to the culture was entirely different, somewhat nostalgic but much more sensitive, much more in tune with the real roots of the Pennsylvania Dutch people, and he was deeply alarmed by the manner in which the Amish and other plain sects were being subsumed as the only symbol of who we are. Many writers on Pennsylvania Dutch culture have cast him as a maudlin witness to the decline of plain culture; that was not his foremost concern. He was disturbed by the wholesale loss of cultural identity then taking place in all parts of the United States and how this would play out for better or for worse.
For a long time it never dawned on me that Weygandt's firsthand observations and special clear-sightedness were among the key influences affecting my thinking about the culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch, but they were, and I have learned to read and reread his books carefully because they are written in the linguistic code of someone raised according to the mores of the old Philadelphia social elite. That side of his persona is probably best expressed in his elegantly written collection of essays called Philadelphia Folks, which says as much between the lines as it does within the text.
My loss is that I never knew Dr. Weygandt personally, but his early books such as The Red Hills and especially the later one called The Dutch Country captured the spirit of a Pennsylvania Dutch landscape very different from that of today, and his firsthand insights into people, events, and ideas of the times have created a framework for my own thoughts on these subjects. Unlike Ann Hark, Weygandt was conversant in Pennsylfaanisch, the language of the people: he could go to the heart of the problem with words only locals understood. He was also a wordsmith, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and—perhaps surprising given his other interests—an expert on the Irish theater.
Ireland is where he and I first crossed paths intellectually, because while finishing my doctoral work in Dublin, I discovered that I needed Cornelius Weygandt to help me untangle the meaning of the term "Pennsylvania Dutch." I knew or at least thought I knew what this moniker meant, and yet the outside world is still confused, and even the Pennsylvania Dutch community is sometimes divided over the use of the name.
One thing I learned very quickly from Dr. Weygandt's writings is that the other name for our people, Pennsylvania German, was given new meaning in 1891 by the founders of the Pennsylvania German Society for elitist and not altogether spotless reasons, even though the term is tossed about today as a more "scholarly" label. Weygandt was adamant in his objection to the Germanophiles who embraced the Bismarckian racial concepts that lay behind this—he knew all of the major players. It disturbed him greatly that the society's founders attempted to define who was Pennsylvania Dutch and who was not based on the purity of their blood. One of the other subjects I deal with in this book is how the terms "Pennsylvania German" and "Pennsylvania Dutch" have been manipulated by certain segments of the Pennsylvania Dutch community with competing agendas. The dynamics of tourism often worked hand in hand with the goals of the Pennsylvania German Society, which in turn inspired museum curators to create a mythological lifestyle designed to fit decorative arts displays and by implication a cuisine to go with it. A number of living dioramas dot the Lancaster County landscape even today, and with stage sets of vastly more opulent and costly objects, they also furnish many leading museums with similar Dutched-up inventions.
The word "Dutchified" as I use it in the title of this introduction probably needs some explanation for people outside the regions where the Pennsylvania Dutch live. I did not invent the term; it first emerged in 1829 in the writings of Ernst Ludwig Brauns, who came to Pennsylvania to serve as a Lutheran minister, who was soundly defeated by the intransigence of the congregations assigned to his care (they disliked his petty personality), and who then returned to Germany as a self-appointed expert on the culture that had rejected him. He refused to learn Pennsylfaanisch and in all of his books maintained a sense of cultural superiority that many German Americans slip into when confronted with the farmish yet thoroughly American rubes of rural Pennsylvania.
This tension between the perceived superiority of Old World German culture over the raw creations of the New has shaped the way various Dutch communities view themselves. In turn this has influenced attitudes about the food and its traditional identity. A few years ago I interviewed an elderly lady in Berks County well known for her cookery and asked, "Are you Pennsylvania Dutch or are you Pennsylvania German?" She thought for a moment and responded, "No, I am American." Of course she had for the moment outwitted me: my question was intentionally loaded, but her telling answer was even more so. With uncanny predictability it echoed a similar answer to a similar question posed by the German travel journalist Johann Georg Kohl, who toured among the Dutch in the 1850s: a denial of a cultural or emotional connection with Old Germany.
What the Berks County cook meant was that Pennsylvania Dutch culture is an American culture, a New World creation born on these shores, not a Little Germany captured like a butterfly in amber, a relic of eighteenth-century Europe frozen in time. The Pennsylvania Dutch are as American as the Cajuns, and the Old Order Amish are only one of several images used to represent this complex and ever-evolving culture. In terms of the larger culinary story, the Amish are mostly marginal anyway because the real centers of creative Pennsylvania Dutch cookery were in the towns and not to be found among the outlying Amish or Mennonite communities, even though today the Mennonites have attempted to preempt the Amish as their cultural public-relation handlers and in their Amish and Mennonite cookbooks to press for "Christian" culinary values—whatever that may mean.
Throughout this book I prefer to use the term "Pennsylvania Dutch," not only because I have a right to choose who I am—thirteenth-generation Dutch with Swiss rather than German ancestors—but also because this is the historical label used to describe my old highly diversified culture. William Shakespeare referred to all Germans as Dutchmen, and my own Swiss ancestors were called High Dutch by colonial Pennsylvania authorities because they came from the upper end of the Rhine Valley, while the Low Dutch lived in Holland. "Dutch" is the colloquial name used by the English for German-speaking peoples since the Middle Ages, and there is nothing wrong with it. It is good, basic Anglo-Saxon.
That said, the Pennsylvania Dutch are not German Americans who entertain a lingering nostalgia for the Vaterland; there is no interest among the Pennsylvania Dutch in German literature or art or the faux Oktoberfests that bring German Americans together in other parts of the United States. As that old Berks County cook stated in no uncertain terms, the Pennsylvania Dutch are Americans with a singular focus on their own landscape. That may sound hopelessly provincial, and yet the Pennsylvania Dutch are a special kind of American; they just happen to think and speak in a different language and to cook a different style of food. The centuries-old right to be who they are, to be different and yet one with mainstream American society, is another one of the complicated threads that make the culinary narrative in this book so unique and yet so much a part of the larger and ever-unfolding American story.
Now something about the recipes: from the very inception of this book, I always entertained the idea of including fieldwork recipes—they represent a sampling from many thousands of examples I have gathered during fieldwork devoted to this rich and diversified cuisine. Real local-harvest, home-cooked, belly-warming food is my métier, and its recipes provide excellent hands-on instruction to illustrate culinary concepts and terminologies unfamiliar to readers who are not Pennsylvania Dutch. After all, dishes such as Gumbis or Schnitz-un-Gnepp remain vague mental abstractions until you make them. Thus the recipes in this book are instructional: they are intended to give concrete shape and meaning, as well as firsthand enjoyment, to many of the core dishes of classic Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine discussed in the text.
There is also an ulterior purpose embodied in my recipe selection: a reality check against the highly artificial portrait of Pennsylvania Dutch foods and foodways painted by mainstream literature catering to tourism or to things Amish. Common poverty foods almost always are left out of that conversation; I have included a few of those dishes for ethnographic reasons as well as for their teaching value about the internal workings of the culture and the frugal mindset that shapes it—not to mention that these recipes represent the kind of warm comfort food almost anyone can relate to. Likewise the high-end cookery is never mentioned in tourist literature, and that too is represented here. Most important I have taken this opportunity to peel away the anonymity of the women who have contributed so many of the classic dishes.
Their names sometimes appear in early twentieth-century charitable cookbooks, but who were they? These women lived real lives and made valuable contributions. So instead of passing off the recipe for funnel cakes as the handiwork of an anonymous and long-forgotten "Mrs. John Weinhold" (to provide but one example), I tramped around the graveyard at Bowmansville, Pennsylvania, and found her: Lizzie Brendle Weinhold (1884-1958), a real flesh-and-bones Pennsylvania Dutch cook; a little further help from Ernest Weinhold, the family genealogist who interviewed her children, filled in a few more details about her life story. Wherever possible I have provided the names and dates of these remarkable home cooks. They deserve a special niche in the culinary history of the Pennsylvania Dutch; their descendants welcome the recognition, and their recipe contributions will hopefully find a new place in the continuously evolving cuisine of the Pennsylvania Dutch.
In several of the recipes I have called for a Schales pan (pronounced SHAH-less). A large, round, shallow dish that went by a wide variety of colloquial names, it was absolutely critical to any traditional Pennsylvania Dutch kitchen, and no Pennsylvania Dutch cook should be without one. Like the Spanish paella pan, which they resemble, Schales pans were handed down as valued heirlooms. On the other hand, few truly old specimens have survived because they were put to use for so many different cooking tasks that they were literally "cooked to shards." A good number of the very old iron ones were patriotically melted down during the Civil War to help with the shortage of metal for the war effort. I speak as a connoisseur of old iron when I say that the surviving cast-iron specimens from pre-1860 are still the best because the quality of the iron gives them special heat-transfer characteristics, and vigilant picking at Pennsylvania flea markets often yields rewards in this respect, especially when you know what to look for. Otherwise the more recent versions in heavy redware are just as good for baking. Dorothy Long's Eagle Studio reproductions of the 1980s are especially noteworthy.
Last I should mention that all the recipes have been revised to conform to a standard recipe format, and wherever possible the proportions have been adjusted so that each recipe is more easily doubled or reduced to half. I began testing many of these dishes in the early 1980s, so over time I was able to iron out some of the knots and kinks that surface in old sources. Most of the proportions will serve four to six persons, but in the case of preparations such as Amish Roascht, bread soup, Gumbis, or Schnitz-un-Gnepp, they are not practical unless made in larger quantities.
Another point worth considering: contrary to popular belief, real Pennsylvania Dutch cooking does not have to be starchy or heavy—unless you want to make it that way. In every single recipe using lard or butter, you can just as easily substitute olive oil or vegetable oil; true purists could use chicken fat, since this not only was preferred in many households but also was used in home remedies, whereas butter could be sold for ready money. Michelin three-star chefs in Alsace know the value of chicken fat (and goose fat) and are quite adept at transforming their basic traditional fare into delightfully creative light dishes. There is no reason the same cannot be done with Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine since we share the same basic culinary repertoire.
A new cuisine is already in the making because the younger generation of Pennsylvania Dutch cooks has converted enthusiastically to locally produced artisanal cheeses, not to mention wine, olive oil, hot peppers, and an abundance of fresh herbs—ingredients their grandmothers may have passed over. Perhaps also surprising to outsiders, there are many dishes, for example bread soup and the saffron-flavored potato potpie, that are meatless. Neideitsche Kiche (nouvelle Dutch cuisine) is actively reviving this traditional meatless peasant fare because it meshes very well with contemporary ideas about lifestyle and diet. On that note, I will finish here with the old Pennsylvania Dutch dinner expression that greets anyone coming to the table: Hockt eich hie mit uns, un esst eich satt! (Sit down with us and eat until you have had enough!).