Pennsylvania Dutch food historian William Woys Weaver is thirteenth-generation (!) Dutch, with Swiss ancestors. He’s written many culinary history books, directs the Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods and Food Tourism, and maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection for heirloom food plants. But his latest book, “As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine” is perhaps closest to heart, a life-time’s worth of ongoing work and research that seeks to set the record straight on Pennsylvania Dutch food, exposing the “fakelore” and hopefully sparking some New Dutch recipe revivalism from this 350-year-old American culture. LRF chatted with William at his home in Pennsylvania.
LRF: What are the three most pernicious misconceptions people still hold about PA Dutch food, and what are the contrasting truths?
WWW: 1. Probably the most widespread misconception is that PA Dutch cooking is “Amish”. The Amish represent only 4% to 5% of the total PA Dutch population. So, in reality, PA Dutch cuisine is a composite of many regionalisms and stylistic variations. There isn’t an Amish cookery any more than there is a Presbyterian cookery or a Roman Catholic cookery. 2. Another myth is that PA Dutch cooking is heavy. This idea evolved out of the general public’s exposure to lowest-common-denominator food served in family restaurants where vast quantities of food are churned out to serve many mouths cheaply. The reality is that even dumplings can be delicate, depending on ingredients, combinations of flavors and style of presentation. It is possible to go into fine Italian restaurants for elegant ravioli. The same can be done with PA Dutch Mauldasche, which are essentially the same thing. 3. Another widespread misconception is that PA Dutch cookery is “German” or “ethnic.” I would throw both terms out the window. The reality is that PA Dutch have lived here for more than 350 years and their cookery is a variant form of American cookery, not something separate from it.
LRF: You’ve voiced relief that we’re coming out of the “dark age” of PA Dutch cooking typified by dumbed-down pot-pies, cream-filled whoopie pies, fried foods and other not-Dutch-at-all cooking that was served up at all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants. But your studies have shown that most true PA Dutch cooking is not available in restaurants or even in local cookbooks. What will it take to get “real” PA Dutch dishes into the collective American consciousness?
WWW: The issue of finding “real cuisine” in the home as opposed to restaurants is a discussion that’s gone back and forth since the 1920s. There once were several places where one could get the “real thing,” but those restaurants did not last. Kuechler’s Roost in Reading; Jolly Molly’s in Lebanon & Newmanstown; the Black Horse Hotel in Rheinholds….these offered good PA Dutch cooking where aficionados could find culinary epiphanies. But mass marketing, urban sprawl and bus-tourism all tilted the restaurant business model in favor of the lowest-common denominator cuisine that gave PA Dutch food such a bad reputation. The only way to change this is to shift the paradigm with the establishment of a few highly-creative, small-scale restaurants where chefs can show off their talents with true PA Dutch food and journalists will wax euphoric over the meals served there. The talent is already there; but it also takes money and creativity.
LRF: Another challenge you discuss is that the PA Dutch who make the authentic cuisine in their homes assume, “Who would want to eat this old food?” How do you convince them otherwise?
WWW: The PA Dutch have always been diffident about their cookery. They do not eat it to prove their Dutchness, it’s just something that is a natural part of their life, and this is probably a good thing because it measures the vitality of the cuisine in an interesting way. The brick wall that many of us come up against is that food memories are personal and each person creates their own reality of the past, and their own sense of authenticity whether or not this jibes with historical fact. The older generation complains about the “death of the cuisine,” but what they remember is the bland cookery of 1930s restaurants, which are indeed dying out. (A good thing in my opinion.) But it’s not the gray heads who are going to save the cuisine from extinction: That task belongs to the younger generation, which is re-learning Pennsylfaanisch (the PA Dutch language) as something “cool” and are beginning to explore the cuisine, too, as a lost patrimony and a rediscovery of self. Thus, the old food will undergo reinvention and this is a good thing. When it moves from “cool” to “hot” it will take care of its own future.
LRF: One tricky thing for outsiders to “get” is that while the “Dutch” in PA Dutch actually refers to Swiss, German Palatinate and Swabian cooking roots, the generations-old best representations of that are truly American. What are some of your favorite examples?
WWW: My real favorite is the Sweet Buckwheat Bread–especially when you add Chinese five-spice instead of anise; it give a new twist to the bread but keeps to its Dutchness because it is baked in a traditional Schales pan (a large, round, shallow, earthenware pan similar in shape to a Spanish paella pan–sort of a cross between a frittata pan and a shallow casserole dish). On Schales: I am beginning to find all sorts of recipes that evolved out of Schales cookery, although the original names have been lost.
LRF: What about chicken and waffles? So many people assume the combination was purely African-American. But you tell us in your book that chicken and waffle dinners were so well known in PA Dutch hotels, that by the late 1800s, chicken and waffles were considered emblematic of PA Dutch cookery.
WWW: It is a myth that the dish chicken-and-waffles was first created by African-Americans. Unsweetened waffles served with chicken gravy over them or with fried chicken beside them are well documented on printed menus all over Dutch Country in the 1800s. In fact, research is now being done that suggests the date-line of PA Dutch chicken-and-waffles goes back all the way to the 1830s, setting aside the already well-documented catfish-and-waffle origins. A few thoughts behind the dispersion of the dish throughout the country: The Cartwheel restaurant in New Hope, PA, served many sorts of Dutch-style meat gravy-and-waffles on the menu and since this was a New York artist colony with many actors-in-residence, New Hope may have been one of the northward dispersion points for the dish as customers took the idea home to New York, and then to 1930s and ’40s Harlem. There is also no doubt that in the 1920s and 1930s, black cooks worked in local Pennsylvania restaurants making this dish, so it seems logical that they would have made it at home and in their own circles, too. One thing is absolutely certain: Chicken-and-waffles is an American invention because nowhere in Europe will you find waffles served like toast under a meat gravy.
LRF: Some very-common PA Dutch ingredients are dried (or parched) corn, and dried apples. There are even two types of dried apples that PA Dutch distinguish between in recipes: tart and sweet. While PA Dutch know how to work with these ingredients the average American does not. Give us some pointers.
WWW: Parched sweet corn and dried apples (schnitz) do stand out as PA Dutch ingredients. You can find them in nearly every farm market in the Dutch Country. They are usually reconstituted by soaking in hot water. The hot water becomes flavored by the ingredients which are then used as part of the recipe. For example, you can reduce the liquid from soaked apple schnitz to make a syrup to baste roasts. With parched corn, if it’s being used in a bread, you reconstitute it only enough to return it to its corn texture–it finishes cooking as it is baked. But if you use it in a waffle batter, I soak it until very soft and then puree it, giving body and a rich, corn flavor to the waffle batter. And yes–there are two types of apple schnitz: sour and sweet, and they are always marked on the package as such. Generally, sweet schnitz go into stews and tart schnitz go into pies (since sugar is added.) On that note: there were many heirloom apple varieties prized for their schnitzing characteristics. Fallawater, also called Tulpehocken, is a local apple found in markets that was considered one of the best, tart schnitzing apples.
LRF: I love that historically, the PA Dutch made use of a very wide range of wild vegetables and herbs and were among the first to harvest native-American ramps because they resembled the wild bear garlic found in German forests. What are some other foraged items you think are ripe for revisiting?
WWW: Traditional PA Dutch cookery always relied on a wide variety of foraged foods. Dandelion greens and morels stand out as the most typical. But if you read the historical sources–such as Sauer’s Herbal, from the 1760s and ’70s–there was an amazing array of plants brought in to the traditional kitchen. Among them, not many people outside Dutch Country know about teaberries, (most commonly known as wintergreen) but they were (and still are) favored by locals–especially as an ingredient in ice cream! And only a month ago, I found a recipe for teaberry cake from the Big Valley in Mifflin County. Likewise, Blue Mountain tea, which is actually sweet goldenrod, is a wonderful native herb that was so popular at one time it was simple called “Dutch Tea.” Its anise-like flavor is refreshing in tea, but who is to say it can’t be used equally well in pastries or confections? It might even make an interesting sauce for meat, if properly handled. Another old, PA Dutch favorite showing potential: Bladder campion–a now-common weed originally introduced as a garden potherb, is now sold commercially as seed in Italy where it has undergone a revival in cookery. And chickweed! I put a chickweed pie on the cover of another of my books–Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking–because it has such amazing flavor. The nice thing about both chickweed and bladder campion is that they’re prolific and easy to grow, making them ripe candidates for market farming and CSAs.
LRF: Looking ahead, with current interest in recipe revivalism among young chefs interested in using seasonal/regional ingredients, the future looks bright for PA Dutch cookery in new restaurants. But, it may be tricky to find ways to take authentic dishes–especially things like stuffed pig stomach–and getting them to appeal to the restaurant-dining public. How do you see chefs working out these challenges?
WWW: The most logical place to look is Alsace, to see how chefs there have transformed traditional dishes into Michelin three-star food. In some cases, as with Alsation Baeckoffe, they miniaturize a dish, or, upgrade the ingredients, such as using duck and truffles instead of pork and wild mushrooms. I think the best way to present modern PA Dutch-style cooking is to create what I call the PA Dutch Mezze: lots of little, tasting dishes which allow people to graze. While they may not want to order a golden-brown slab of stuffed pigs stomach (similar to sausage) as a main course, they may—with a good white wine in hand, sample a small tidbit. Thus, the tasting menu becomes a learning process and a flavor adventure. With this approach to New Dutch Cuisine, I think people will be surprised at the variety, depth of rich flavors and most of all, the ingenious way local ingredients are transformed into something elegant, yet essentially American. –LRF
To close, here is a sample recipe from William’s book for a Bacon & Onion Tart with Cornmeal Crust (Zwiwwelkuche mit Welschkarn Gruscht.) William tells us that no PA Dutch recipe collection would be complete without an onion tart—one of the most common snack foods of years past. His version, rich with bacon, egg & sour cream, updates old-fashioned recipes by building the tart on a crunchy, cornmeal crust instead of bread dough. The best way to bake it is on a round, handled, cast iron griddle of the sort once used on cast-iron cook stoves. (I found mine for $8 at an antique store; they’re also often on eBay.) The griddles retain heat, which will give you a nice, evenly-crunchy crust for your tart. (They also work well for heating tortillas!) Try the finished tart with hard cider or a cold beer.
Makes one 8-inch tart
Bacon & Onion Filling Ingredients
- 2 ounces country slab bacon (substitute Danish slab bacon if necessary), finely diced
- 1 1/2 medium onions, peeled, cored and very-thinly sliced
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1/4 tsp caraway seeds
Cornmeal Crust Ingredients
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup organic yellow cornmeal
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup vegetable or olive oil
- 1/2 cup ice water (use only as much as needed to form soft, pliant dough)
- Make crust: Sift the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt together twice. Place in a deep bowl and make a valley in the center. Pour in oil. Using a fork, stir the oil into the dry ingredients to form a smooth, even crumb. Add the ice water 2 Tbsp at a time, stirring to incorporate until a pliable dough forms. Turn dough out onto a cornmeal-dusted work surface. Form the dough into a ball and flatten, shaping the dough into 9-inch circle. Roll & pinch the outer edge up to form a rim–you’ll want to end up with an 8-inch circle with a 1-inch-tall rim. Crimp the rim decoratively, if you like. Lightly grease an 8-inch griddle, or, small pizza tin. Slide the crust on to the tin. Set aside.
- Make filling: In a heavy skillet, fry bacon until fat is rendered and bacon browns and crisps on edges. Scoop bacon out of pan. Set aside. Add thinly-sliced onions to the pan and sweat/saute over medium heat until the onion begins to brown–about 3 or 4 minutes. Remove the onion and spread evenly over the cornmeal crust. Scatter some of the bacon over the onion.
- Preheat oven to 425. In a deep bowl, beat the egg until lemon-colored and frothy; stir sour cream into the beaten egg. Pour over the onion and bacon and smooth to evenly cover the crust. Sprinkle remaining bacon over all. Scatter with caraway seed.Place griddle with tart on it in preheated 425 oven for 20 minutes. Remove griddle with finished tart from oven and cool on a rack. Slice tart into 8 pieces and serve.