A little over a year ago I was browsing through the local interest section of a Lancaster-area bookstore when a title caught my eye.
As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Folklore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine wasn’t just coming home with me, it was moving to the top of my reading list.
I indulged my appetite for learning while discovering the history of dishes I hold dear like chicken pot pie and schnitz und knepp, as well as some that have fallen out of favor through the years, including hairy dumplings, and catfish and waffles.
It was engaging and enlightening, so when I found out that author William Woys Weaver would be making an appearance at the Ephrata Public Library, I made sure I cleared my schedule.
Weaver is a food historian who has traveled the globe, but remains deeply tied to his Pennsylvania roots as the leader of the Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Food.
His talk, like his book, traced the history of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking from 18th Century farms to 21st Century restaurants.
The title of the book, As American as Shoofly Pie, is important to note as Weaver stressed that Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine is not German, it’s American. Much like America is a blending of cultures, so too is Pennsylvania Dutch cooking a blending of cultures.
Shoofly pie, for instance, is a distinctly Dutch dish that consists of old-style breakfast cake poured into an Anglo American pie shell. It’s just one example of two cultures coming together to create something unique.
Even among the Dutch, there were deep divisions based on class. The Buckwheat Dutch were the poor country-dwellers. With little money, they lived off the land, eating poverty dishes like gribble (a mix of hot water and buckwheat flour mixed to create something resembling bread crumbs). Groundhogs and pigeons would have been delicacies to people who would often use dumplings as meat stand-ins.
On the other end of the social scale were the Hasenpfeffer Dutch. Named for the braised rabbit dish that was a favorite of the well-to-do, they enjoyed a meaty diet with rich sauces.
It was this type of high-class Dutch cooking that inspired restaurants like Reading’s Kuechler’s Roost. Located along the Mount Penn Gravity Railroad, Kuechler’s Roost served locally made wine with foods like hasenpfeffer, pig roasts, and chicken and waffles. Unfortunately for Berks County foodies, the Roost burnt down on July 4, 1919.
Along with lamenting the loss of the Roost, Weaver lamented the loss local heirloom vegetables. The Keystone Kitchen is heavily involved in preserving and repopulating heirlooms, many of which are down to a handful of seeds that are still known to exist. Slides showed unique squashes, red carrots and 18th Century potato varieties.
After the talk, I got my copy of As American as Shoofly Pie signed (and it is now the most legible autograph in my collection), and I’m not ready to put it back on the shelf.
In the back of the book is a collection of recipes that spans the full history of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking. Some are familiar favorites (schnitz und knepp, pot pie), others are uniquely intriguing (lemon-rice pie, chicken gravy with ham waffles), and others sound less-than-appealing (browned flour soup, stewed squirrel with steamed dumplings).
At the end of his talk, Weaver said he is working on a new project: a book of Pennsylvania Dutch baking. I am already anxiously awaiting its release. In the meantime, the recipes in As American as Shoofly Pie should provide plenty to keep me busy.