The Middle Atlantic States

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The Middle Atlantic States

The waves of European ethnic settlement in the mid-Atlantic colonies in the United States prior to the Revolution produced regional culinary patterns that have influenced American cookery down to the present day. These areas of settlement have been described as "culture hearths" by folklore scholar Henry Glassie because they created a continuous emanation of influences. The cumulative effect of these culture hearths has been twofold: an evolution of distinctive mid-Atlantic foods and foodways, and a spread of this coastal culinary identity into the interior of the country, especially into the Midwest.

The succession of settlement begins with the Holland Dutch, who in 1624 carved New Netherlands out of the Hudson Valley of New York and adjoining parts of New Jersey, with significant settlements in Delaware (direct from Holland), and in Pennsylvania in the form of migrations from New York and New Jersey. The Swedes and Finns settled among the Dutch in the Delaware Valley beginning in 1638 with the foundation of New Sweden (over Dutch legal objections). All of this initial settlement, which was represented by relatively small numbers of people, was later numerically overwhelmed by large immigrations from the British Isles, headed principally by the English Quakers who founded New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

The Quakers themselves represented a mixture of English, Welsh, Scots, Irish, and Ulster Scotch-Irish elements, and each of these groups brought Old World foods and foodways to the region. The Quaker policy of extending settlement opportunities to continental Europeans suffering from religious persecution virtually threw the entire region open to a vast mélange of new settlers from Germany, Switzerland, Alsace, Austria, andFrance. These non-English-speaking settlers created in the Middle Colonies a cultural diversity that has come to represent American food culture as a whole. Yet each group has left its legacy, the most important perhaps being the German-speaking element, which gave rise to the present-day Pennsylvania Dutch. In terms of area, the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch settlement region was about the same size as modern Switzerland and just about as varied. Close behind the Pennsylvania Dutch were the Scotch-Irish who settled the hill country of Appalachia and who created a regional culinary culture known as Cohee.

From a historical standpoint, the most recent treatment of the foods and foodways of the New Netherlands Dutch is Peter G. Rose's translation of The Sensible Cook (1989), which explores Hudson Valley Dutch foodways via an old Holland Dutch cookbook. The original Sensible Cook (De Verstandige Koek ) appeared in 1667, at a time when Dutch gardening was undergoing a horticultural revolution. The Dutch infatuation with exotic plants and kitchen gardening was transplanted to the New World, especially through the medium of Dutch Mennonite seed and plant merchants, who controlled much of the trade with New Netherlands and the Quaker colonies to the South.

The Dutch Cuisine

In spite of persistent Old World contacts, New Netherlands Dutch evolved into a dialect of its own with a large array of food concepts fully unknown to the Old World Dutch. These dishes would include suppawn (a type of cornmeal mush) and pumpkin pancakes, but intermingled with such Old World dishes as olie-koecken (a type of fat cake), soft or yeast-raised waffles, and kool sla (cabbage salad), served hot or at room temperature. Modern American coleslaw is probably the best known legacy of this old Dutch cooking tradition. However, the small Dutch New Year's cake called a kookjie has also entered standard American English under the more generic form of cookie (small cake). The true New Netherlands kookjie was in fact the so-called New Year's Cake, which evolved into a high art form in New York and Philadelphia. Many elaborately carved molds survive as a silent testimony to this lost art of ornamental pastry. The New York atelier of baker and mold maker John Conger produced some of the most elaborately carved molds to survive from the 1830s and 1840s.

The English Cuisine

By contrast, the English cuisine in the Middle States, as illustrated by the Quakers of Philadelphia and Baltimore, was basically a British Isles cookery adjusted to New World ingredients and climate. Nineteenth-century Quaker cookbook authors such as Elizabeth Ellicott Lea (Sandy Spring, Maryland), Elizabeth Nicholson (Philadelphia), and Hannah Widdifield (Philadelphia) mention a number of dishes associated not only with their religious group, but with the general population at large: white sweet potato pie (Quarterly Meeting Pie to Quakers), lemon butter and rusks, and the ubiquitous dried beef gravy. This last dish, which was served over toast, was often known as "Quaker gravy" throughout the region. Its chopped beef and onion version has survived to this day under the rubric of the Philadelphia cheese-steak sandwich.

The Quaker element was especially well known for its dairy culture in the form of substantial spring houses for the production of high quality butter and cheese. Philadelphia cream cheese (a soft cheese resembling French brie) was famous in the nineteenth century, although today it lives on in name only in the form of a processed cheese spread. The rich milk and cream that produced the popular cheeses and butters of the region also served as a major ingredient in Philadelphia ice cream, at one time a highly sought-after food on the American luxury market.

Quaker farmers were also skilled gardeners and orchardists, and some, like the Bartrams of Philadelphia, Humphrey Marshall, and William Darlington, studied native plants and trees and exchanged seeds with their European contacts. The Quakers also kept up an English preference for tea-drinking over coffee. Among the urban Friends of the nineteenth century, Quaker Tea Parties were synonymous with catered balls, a menu heavy with rich cakes and fancy side dishes, and a beverage selection awash with the best wines and champagne. In total opposition to this show of opulence, were Friends who promoted vegetarianism and abstinence from alcohol long before these themes became commonplace in American culture. In fact, the first health food stores were opened in Philadelphia by the Quaker Martindale family during the 1860s.

The Pennsylvania Dutch element introduced food concepts found in the traditional peasant cookeries of southwest Germany, Switzerland, and Alsace-Lorraine. The pioneer generation ate simple, one-pot meals like sauerkraut and pork or Schnitz-un-Gnepp (dried apples and dumplings with ham and ham stock) reproduced from the homeland. They consumed more soups than their English-speaking neighbors, as well as numerous flour-based preparations like noodles and filled dumplings. Since the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers settled in what soon became the colonial wheat belt, a vast array of pies, cakes, breads, and festive cookies were added to the immigrant menu. Outdoor bake ovens were once a common feature on nearly every farmstead in the region, and travelers through the area never fail to mention the popularity of Lotwarrick (apple butter), salads with hot dressings, and Schmierkees (cottage cheese), especially Schmierkees flavored with chives.

In spite of the culinary quiltwork that once represented the region, most ethnic groups did not initially like or adopt the cuisines of their neighbors, except out of necessity. Thomas Hill, a New Jersey Quaker passing through eastern Pennsylvania on his way to settle along the west branch of the Susquehanna River, remarked in reference to the Germans: "My breakfast this morning, two cups of coffee without sugar, and three eggs; bread baked hard, and crust wet." For another meal: "Salad with milk, oil, vinegar, bonny clabber and bread; good God! How can they work so hard on such food!" A melting-pot effect did eventually overtake such aversions, especially in urban areas and in families in which intermarriage between ethnic groups occurred. This kind of hybrid mixing resulted in such regional specialties as pop-robin pudding (grated dough baked with cinnamon and butter), mush muffins (cornmeal Welsh muffins), and chicken salad served with fried oystersto name a few.

Due to religious tolerance, this part of the United States was the first to witness many charitable food-related events, such as the church supper, fund-raising cookbooks, camp meeting dinners, and Sunday school picnics. The spread of these blue-collar social institutions was due in part to the publishing industry that once characterized Philadelphia's literary scene. Writers like Eliza Leslie and Sarah Josepha Hale gained national prominence through Godey's Lady's Book, a prominence the city maintained into the early 1900s with The Confectioners' Journal, Wilmer Atkinson's Farm Journal, Sarah Tyson Rorer's Table Talk, as well as Curtis Publishing's Ladies' Home Journal and Country Gentleman. Every one of these publications is chock-full of recipes reflecting trends in American cookery during this period. Sarah Tyson Rorer in particular managed to take her culinary agendas well beyond the walls of her once-famous Philadelphia Cooking School. Her crossover into product promotional literature and specialized recipe books for everything from ice cream to vegetables made her a household name by 1900.

From a historical standpoint, colonial New York and southeastern Pennsylvania have left a lasting impression on American cookery via such foods as coleslaw, crullers, shoofly pie, soft pretzels, and rye whisky, not to omit New Jersey's once famous apple brandy known affectionately as "Jersey Lightning." Much of this emphasis on regionalisms has been revitalized through the efforts of the Kutztown Folk Festival, founded in the early 1950s and considered the first of its kind in the country. While the festival may attract New Yorkers in search of rural roots, the movie The Age of Innocence has recaptured the sumptuousness of the culinary scene during New York's Gilded Age. This was an era when American food as social display by the robber barons reached its ultimate apotheosis, since the grand dinners were also social events staged as much for the participants as for a spectacle-hungry public. In this exchange the seeds of many mythologies were sown.

The Origin of Current Trends

It is often forgotten today that the cowboy in American mythology and the "chow" cookery now associated with cowboy fare were not created from scratch on the Great Plains, but in the townhouse study of blue-blood Philadelphia author Owen Wister. His romantic novel The Virginian (1902) was a launching point for this very pervasive image in American culture. Immigration has also contributed to an ongoing evolution of more recent icon foods, such as New York's bagels and Reuben sandwich and Philadelphia's hoagies (known elsewhere as grinders or submarines).

New York has evolved into a truly international metropolis with a fascinating food story that would consume all the pages of this encyclopedia. Its position on the international scene was firmly fixed after World War II with the establishment of the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan. But it was New York's role in the American culinary revolution that has had its most lasting effect on our food. The transformation of the classic French cookery of such restaurants as Le Pavillon (which opened in 1941) into the likes of The Four Seasons and the celebrated Windows on the World in the World Trade Center is the story of an Americanization process in haute cuisine that emanated primarily from New York City. Added to this were the TV personalities of James Beard and Julia Child, whose impact on American cookery has been fundamental. The James Beard Foundation, with its annual awards for chefs and food writers, has continued to focus on New York's leadership in many branches of American food and culture.

As a counterpoint to this, Philadelphia and Baltimore have managed to retain a regional American character, especially in terms of culinary identity. Philadelphia established itself as the American culinary capital in the early nineteenth century, with roughly one-fourth of its immigrant population either European or Caribbean French. This contributed to a Caribbean accent in its urban cookery, hence the turtle soup and pepperpot vendors. It was also the cultural mecca where the Old South wintered. PreCivil War Philadelphia was indeed a city whose lifeblood was derived from Southern money and shipping, which brought to its larders vast quantities of foodstuffs from Asia, the Caribbean, and South America. Its economic rival was sister-city Baltimore, which today has preserved much of its Federalist Era culinary culture as defined by the Chesapeake Bay.

Both Philadelphia and Baltimore became centers of manufacturing after the Civil War, which changed elegant streets of stately row houses into smoke-congested corridors of noise, shuffling foreign labor, and crime. The rich left for the suburbs; thus, in both cities, dining culture retreated to country houses or into the hands of dining club managers and African-American caterers. In Philadelphia, the Augustin family (originally from Haiti) became the most important catering family on the East Coast and prided itself on such specialties as oyster fritters, creamed terrapin, and rasped rolls. At one time the Augustins owned railroad cars with kitchens so that elegant meals could be served as far away as Boston, Chicago, and Washington.

It was the Chesapeake Bay that eventually saved Baltimore, because the city has revived its culinary identity within the last thirty years on such local Bay specialties as soft-shell crab, beaten biscuits, stuffed ham, sweet potato pie, and Lady Baltimore Cake (another Owen Wister invention). With the restoration of historic Society Hill, Philadelphia culinary culture was revived in the 1970s by La Panetière, the haute-cuisine launchpad for what has become a culinary renaissance in that city. Philadelphia's annual spring food festival called Book and the Cook (created by White Dog Café owner Judy Wicks) has done much to bring national attention to the City of Brotherly Love. Unlike New Orleans, which depends primarily on tourism for its restaurant business, Philadelphia's success story has been the result of a grassroots appreciation of good food paired with its old loyalty to farm markets and regional produce.

The anomaly for the entire region is Washington, D.C., which for its first century was largely an artificial city carved out of Maryland farmland. Aside from the White House, where lavish dinners were de rigueur but not under every administrationWashington was a boardinghouse town for congressmen and not noted for its good food. By the early 1900s, the city evolved into a more cosmopolitan place, yet retained a provincial Southern character well into the 1960s, when the Kennedys brought a new kind of flair to the capital, and Georgetown and northwest Washington underwent a cultural revitalization. However, there were always a few popular restaurants, such as Marjorie Hendrick's Watergate Inn, which served regional American specialties, even a respectable Pennsylvania Dutch menu. More recently, the influx of Vietnamese immigrants and the renovation of numerous downtown buildings have led to an exciting new mix of culinary choices.

See also Foodways; Germany, Austria, Switzerland; Low Countries; Restaurants.


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Don Yoder

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The Middle Atlantic States

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