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Regional Cookery and the Pennsylvania Dutch
IF YOU travel into the South, or into New England, or into Pennsylvania Dutch country, can you find the cookery of these regions? The alarming truth is that you cannot, unless you are a good hunter, or lucky. Mostly you will get the indifferent, standardized American food, and few indeed are the places where regional cookery pride is maintained. Yet the traditional regional cookery standards of these regions, still known to a limited few, are far above the common food commonly served there now.
The whole United States—speaking in terms of food—is rapidly being rolled over by the broad steam roller of standardization. Rapid transportation, national advertising and the desire of the young to imitate Paris and New York are the causes. The day of regional differences in food is so swiftly passing that the historians of the delectable dishes of various parts of the country are encountering much difficulty. The younger people of the past two generations have not been interested. They want to eat only what everybody else eats. The old people who had the secrets of old cookery have been dying off.
Regional cookery sprang out of regional isolation, and as isolation ends, regional cookery too tends to disappear. This definitely means, in some respects, deterioration. It is necessary to work fast if historians are to be able to do anything but pick over the dry bones of inadequate old records and the uncertain memories of octogenarians. The practiced old hands at such cookery are now alarmingly few. It is part of the modern sophistication for young women to go to business rather than to learn what their mothers knew about cookery. From the point of view of regional cookery this is a grave misfortune. This is true even of New England and Southern cookery, which, together with the Pennsylvania Dutch cookery, form the most authentic triumvirate of regional foods in the U. S. There is no disappointment so aggravating as to visit in a land of long-reputed good cookery and be served poor ordinary food.
Pennsylvania Dutch cookery has been the most lamentably neglected of all. There are volumes written about New England and Southern cookery, but except for a few purely local pamphlets and books, Pennsylvania Dutch food is represented in most peoples' minds by only a few superlatively good things—Philadelphia scrapple, Shaker dried corn, Reading pretzels, Philadelphia pepper pot soup, Berks cup cheese, Lebanon sausages, etc. Yet these are only single items in a very considerable repertoire of special cookery, ranging literally from soup to nuts. On the whole the Pennsylvania Dutch is a regional cookery which I think need bow the knee to only one other regional cookery repertoire, namely the Southern. Without disparaging New England cookery, it is true that it has a definitely more narrow range than Southern or Pennsylvania Dutch. The number of dishes peculiar alone to New England is much less than those peculiar alone to the Pennsylvania Dutch cookery. Southern cookery, inclusive of the sub-regional specialties of Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina and Louisiana, is admittedly a very extensive regimen of food and special dishes. Nothing else in all America can compare; on this all authorities agree.
But if one faces the fact that the Pennsylvania Dutch territory comprises only five or six counties of the Keystone state; that it is a mere tiny fraction of land in comparison with Southern territory, or with New England territory, it becomes clear that no other similar small piece of territory in the entire United States ever acquired so notable a reputation in gastronomy. It may be that we must say that New Orleans, as a concentrated spot, holds the greatest laurels, but after New Orleans the Pennsylvania Dutch must surely rate; its five cities (Philadelphia, Reading Lancaster, Allentown, Bethlehem) being the interrelated capitals of Pennsylvania Dutch cookery—although the rest of it is in the country surrounding these cities—each with some individual features, but all united through other features. There is a unity achieved in Pennsylvania Dutch cookery not boasted by any other regional cookery.
It will prove to be a distinct national loss if the careless ways of modern American generations succeed in plowing under all regional cookery, everywhere. The national spirit, the national yardstick of sophistication, the nationizing forces of commerce, education, and transportation, and especially the great addition of foods available out of season and from afar,—all these have made most of our younger generations indifferent, in regions historically notable for cookery.
Fortunately this callow phase is to some extent passing. We are awakening to our local heritages. In the past ten years there has been more attention paid to regional cookery than in fifty years before. Men and women who had considered dull and matter-of-fact the regional foods of their earlier life are now opening their eyes (as they become adult and literate with regard to food, and after traveling abroad, and in the rest of America, or living in large cities). They see that their regional, traditional foods were precious, rich traditions; a pyramid of the skill of countless generations, highly individual and often also highly delectable. The Southern girl who during her school days complained about corn pone, now in sophisticated New York delights to make it for her admiring friends. The New Englander who considered his beans a dull food, may learn (like the late Cyrus Curtis, the famous publisher, born in Maine) to place New England baked beans at the top of all his food preferences. Similarly the Pennsylvania Dutchman who perhaps scowled as a youth when his mother too often served him scrapple, now (like the famous writer Joseph Hergesheimer, a Dutchman himself) smacks his lips over it, boasts of it, and sniffs indignantly when Vogue mistakenly calls scrapple "hash."
It is all somewhat like the habit of upstanding American men to leave their homes early, to be impatient, scornful, and eager to go to far places—only to return a little later in life, enraptured with a new appreciation of the old homestead—like Owen D. Young, famous industrialist, who has gone back to Hornellsville, N. Y.; or like Henry Ford, who is spending millions to re-create the scenes of his early boyhood. So it is with regional cookery which has basic merit. Those who were reared in the regions of America where a real cookery tradition prevailed may leave the board of their mothers, but they suffer often a gastronomic disillusionment elsewhere, for their palates never lose the thrill of those original delights, which seemed in restless childhood to be uninteresting. Even if they fall victim of the Parisian siren, and worship at the feet of Brillat-Savarin and Escoffier—famous masters of the French cuisine, now supreme around the world—still, they almost surely come some day to the point when their palates turn homeward bound again.
If they acquire real food discrimination they do not over-value any cuisine—including their own regional one. They acquire a real individual approach to food; one suited to themselves; one capable of sifting all cuisines to eliminate the over-elaborate or unsuitable, and yet one capable of appreciating at least a portion of the regional dishes of America.
Lucky indeed they are if they have New England, Southern or Pennsylvania Dutch regional food memories of feasts of many kinds, and for this reason have acquired, almost unconsciously, a higher standard of taste. I have a theory that those people who were not born and fed in regions which had special culinary prides and repertoires, virtually never acquire any real food discrimination. They will placidly eat "railroad station pie" or drink "coffee shop slop" all their lives without rebellion; scarcely knowing that they are entitled to something better. Their palates have been ruined during the impressionable period of youth, and food never matters much to them thereafter, except as necessary nourishment.
Not so the regional person who was cooked for by someone inheriting regional cookery pride and skill. Something is swallowed with such food which conditions a person for a life-time, even though there may be interim periods of indifference. A standard has been set; a memory etched; a yardstick of food delight notched accurately, by which all other food ever taken will be measured infallibly. Possibly this explains why the two foremost newspaper food editors in New York—Edith Barber of the Sun, and Esther E. Kimmel, head of the Herald-Tribune Home Institute, are Pennsylvania Dutch.
Pennsylvania Dutch cookery stems of course from the German, for "Pennsylvania Dutch" is a colloquialism for Pennsylvania German. As Prof. Cornelius Weygandt says, however "it is pedantry and worse than pedantry to insist on 'Pennsylvania German'." There is every sound basis for preferring the colloquial terms; indeed there was some Holland Dutch in the early emigration. The Pennsylvania Dutch, coming from the storied Rhine Valley, the Palatinate, and even from German Switzerland, brought with them the very best and most individual German cookery. And, as Henry T. Finck, America's greatest gourmet, was wont to say, Parisian cookery has been a little over-advertised as the world's greatest cuisine; the German cuisine ranking very close, indeed.
Thus the Dutch of Pennsylvania, arriving even before 1700, have had centuries in which to adapt German culinary skill to the American situation; and since the French nowhere except in New Orleans set up their high standards in early America, these Pennsylvania Dutch standards quite logically rank with those of the French colony in America. The locale determined the fundamental differences. In New Orleans seafood was superabundant, and thus we have New Orleans cookery almost concentrated upon it. It was a hot country, too, and therefore, as in all hot countries, high spicing was the rule. Moreover, New Orleans was a city.
In the Pennsylvania Dutch country a quite different situation prevailed, even though Delaware shad and oysters were fairly plentiful at the lower edge of the territory. The prevailing mode of life was rural, and fairly sparsely settled, too. The Dutch farm was more or less isolated, and from a food point of view had to be self-sustaining. The Dutch cuisine, therefore, based itself upon a farm technique; which for winter foods had to depend upon preserves, dried and smoked foods and those provisions which could be stored for many months. (Some people think the dried apple which the early Dutch used extensively, was disdained elsewhere. In Mac Master's History of the People of the U.S. he tells how beef, pork, salt fish and dried apples "were the daily fare in Boston about 1800 from one year's end to another.")
This was a superb culinary challenge. The palate's long winter tedium could only be relieved, first by great agility in gathering, preserving and storing foods for the winter, and second by exceptional skill in cooking those foods and developing variety by combination. For this reason the Pensylvania Dutch farm from 1700 to 1900—two full centuries—and on a number of farms even today—was made into a food factory of amazing scope and range. I have attempted in a later chapter to describe this graphically by depicting a full season, from May to December, on the farm of my grandparents, whom during the late eighties I visited frequently as a small boy.
The Pennsylvania Dutch have never been accused of being undernourished or badly fed. Their diet was, from our modern sedentary point of view, perhaps rather too lusty and hospitable in earlier days, and from the point of view of modern out-of-season food facilities too limited during winter days—but this was no fault of the Dutch. Florida lettuce, Texas broccoli and California oranges were not delivered to a 1735 farm door in February, as in 1935! We are a very spoiled people today in regard to food, and inclined to discount clever cookery in favor of sheer variety.
Furthermore, it is true, as in the South and in New England, that very few individuals were ever master of the whole range of Dutch cookery. Each one of the Pennsylvania counties (and even parts of counties) had specialties of their own; and indeed preferences, dislikes, habits and disadvantages of their own. For these reasons the very best of Dutch cooks have usually been limited in their repertoire. This book represents the very first time in two and one half centuries of Dutch history when practically the entire repertoire of Dutch cookery was brought together. Even so, I have omitted a number of recipes which have been current somewhere in Dutch-land at one time or another—largely because they are of no particular modern interest.
To an increasing degree Pennsylvania Dutch cookery (as in the case of Dutch furniture and pottery, etc.) is being accorded recognition, and I predict a still greater degree of interest. The liking for Scrapple, Philadelphia Pepperpot Soup, Reading pretzels, etc. is now more or less national, and still other items may become equally so. In her Fifth Avenue, New York restaurant and shop Mary Elizabeth recently made a window display of her old Pennsylvania Dutch family recipes and proudly boasted that some of her specialties were made from them.
In the Dutch country itself there is arising an insistence that there be available country and wayside inns and restaurants where the old Dutch cookery might be found.
Until several decades ago there were several famous Dutch gourmet paradises, especially near Reading. Operating for years in a secluded nook on Mt. Penn, close by Reading, "Kuechler's Roost" acquired fame in half a dozen states. To this restaurant came famous people from all over Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Old Kuechler was given high praise for his Dutch dishes by men who had dined at the best places of the world. Unfortunately Kuechler's death and the depression ended this famous gourmet's retreat. The same fate overtook Carl Schaich's and Frank Lauer's places near Reading, also Steigerwald's and Spuhler's. In Philadelphia, Lancaster and Allentown similar misfortunes overtook old gourmet retreats; but as even famous old restaurants in Paris are meeting the same fate (as for example Voisin's and Montagne's and Ciro's), it is not to be wondered at.
The old inns in Dutch-land also dropped Dutch cookery about a dozen years ago, stupidly believing that the American cookery level of the wayside stand was all that was wanted. But there is developing a new food consciousness demanding some of the unsurpassed cookery of old Dutch days. Some intelligent hotels and restaurants are seeing their new opportunity.
While Dutch regional cookery is not, in my opinion, without some faults and limitations, this is true of any other regional cookery, even the southern; but the recipes in this book should make clear why Dutch cookery in my humble opinion, has points of superiority to any regional cookery in America.CHAPTER 2
Pennsylvania Dutch Soups
LIKE OTHER European peoples, except the French and English the Dutch often relied upon a good soup to make the main dish of the meal.
A really quite astounding variety of unique soups is presented here. Some of these soups are very rich, but others could well be called—(indeed have been called)—poverty soups.
In those long pioneer years from 1700 onward, when the Dutch homesteads had to be operated with iron economy, the ingenuity of the Dutch hausfrau came to the fore to produce some singularly cheap and yet singularly flavorful soups.
The Brown Flour Soup (Braune Mehlsuppe) is distinctive of these, and I well remember that during the 1893 panic when my parents had to feed six children on very little income indeed, I was very frequently fed this soup; also the Dutch Potato Soup; also the Brown Potato Chowder; a kind of combination of both. All good cooks will agree that flour carefully browned develops a very appetizing flavor; it is the very source of the appetizing appeal of bread or pie crust, so why shouldn't it be good? I can relish it today. The Potato Soup, Brown Chowder, and the Pretzel Soup days in my home were always good days for me!
The Dutch masterpiece, Philadelphia Pepperpot Soup, was already on its way to being nationalized before the Campbell's Soup concern (with its great factories right in the Dutch territory) made it international by canning it. It is made with some local variations, but it is a man's soup in superlative degree. The ladies sometimes complain that it is too "hot," but men would not do away with the cayenne in it. I provide two recipes from different counties.
The Dutch make, of course, such standard things as vegetable, bean and noodle soup, but their noodles when home-made are not the fine-cut Hungarian type; they are broader and thicker. They also use soup balls and egg drops in soup broth.
Clam soup was not a frequent treat for the Dutch, but it was liked.
Excerpted from Pennsylvania Dutch Cook Book by J. GEORGE FREDERICK. Copyright © 1971 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted September 6, 2010
No text was provided for this review.