Pennsylvania Dutch Food

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Pennsylvania Dutch Food

Also referred to as Pennsylvania German and incorrectly as Amish, this rural style of regional American cookery underwent its greatest flowering during the nineteenth century. It became one of the primary regional cookeries of the Middle Atlantic and Midwestern states, encompassing communities scattered throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin, and of Ontario, Canada. Each area of settlement developed its own regional specialties or regional interpretation of shared culinary themes. The heartland of the cookery, however, is southeastern Pennsylvania, where it first evolved in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Because they represent a composite of several German-speaking cultures that settled in colonial America, Pennsylvania Dutch foods and food-ways are remarkably diverse, incorporating elements of Swiss, Southwest German, and North German cuisines but transformed into something essentially American.

If a unifying thread once existed, it was in characteristics shared with the regional cookery of Alsace, France, as exemplified by the cookery books of George Girardey (1842) and William Vollmer (1856). The differences between Alsatian and Pennsylvania Dutch cuisines are much more acute, since a large number of the Pennsylvania Dutch shifted from daily wine consumption before the Civil War to near total abstinence. Wine was replaced by sugar, especially in the tourist fare styled as Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch. Also opinions vary over what to call this ethnic cookery, reflecting an evolution both of the group's self-perceptions and how it is seen by outsiders.

The term "Pennsylvania Dutch," the oldest label, derived from the colloquial English use of "Dutch" to designate anyone from the Rhine Valley, be they Hollanders, Germans, or Swiss. Even William Shakespeare used the word in this sense. The term was given popular currency by the travel writer Phebe Earle Gibbons in Pennsylvania Dutch and Other Essays (1872). One body of American scholars who study this culture prefers the term "Pennsylvania Dutch" since it implies a native hybrid that evolved in North America as opposed to German American cuisine. An opposing body prefers to use the term "Pennsylvania German," a label that came into vogue during the 1890s among a group of scholars, mostly Germanophiles, who viewed the culture as a pure, uncreolized European transplant. These two opposing points of view, an American-centered definition and cultural vision defined by Europe, remained in tension into the twenty-first century.

With the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, the term "Pennsylvania German" fell into disfavor due to anti-German sentiments in the United States. This shift was exemplified by J. George Frederick's Pennsylvania Dutch and Their Cookery (1935), which struck a patriotic note by highlighting famous individuals from the culture and the very Americanness of the cuisine. At the same time the Amish Mennonites, whose agrarian lifestyle represents a co-mingling of Old and New World themes and whose pacifist beliefs were fully opposite to those espoused by Hitler, provided a new and convenient symbol for the culture as a whole. Numerically, at the end of the twentieth century the Amish represented less than 5 percent of the total Pennsylvania Dutch population, yet tourism after the late 1940s exploited them to such an extent that "Amish" became a muddied synonym for both "Pennsylvania Dutch" and "Pennsylvania German."

A stylized and highly limited menu format created by the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival at Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and its many spin-offs during the early 1950s led to a canonized cuisine, including chow-chow pickles, whoopie pies, chicken corn soup, and red velvet cake, that most restaurants claim is Dutch. The foods on this limited menu neglect the wide range of cooking styles prevalent in the community, emphasizing only peasant roots or once-popular Victorian farm fare, cracker pudding for example, at the expense of the more sophisticated ethnic dishes. The term "Amish" is also commonly misapplied to this menu and serves as an advertising gimmick for such dubious products as Amish Polish pickles, Amish tortillas, or Amish friendship bread. The implication is that, since the Amish live close to the land, foods associated with them convey values of purity, integrity, simplicity, and homemade goodness, commercial connotations formerly associated with the term "Quaker" in the nineteenth century. Thus the Amish theme has given rise not only to a type of interior decoration (the Amish are forbidden to decorate their homes) but also to a spate of Amish-style cookbooks promoting those values.

Historically, the best Pennsylvania Dutch cooks and cookbook authors, like Mrs. J. A. Keller, Edith Bertels Thomas, Ruth Hutchison, Ann Hark, John Levan, and Preston Barba, came from the ranks of the mainstream groups, such as the Lutherans, Reformed, or Moravian. Professionals from that segment of the community operated the inns, the once-numerous wineries, the hotels, the bakeries, and the confectionery shops. The plain sects, like the Amish, were the farmers who provided the cuisine with high-quality, fresh materials, keeping alive a system of farm markets that survived into the twenty-first century. But due to their religious restrictions, they could not indulge in fine cookery, such as goose liver pie or wine noodles, of the sort taught in Moravian girls' schools. This dichotomy of cuisines based on differences in income and religion is perhaps best exemplified by Moravian sugar cake, a rich pastry served with coffee, and the various kinds of Botboi (potpie) eaten by farmers for Sunday dinner. Both dishes are of medieval origin.

Moravian sugar cake is a festive bread sweetened with brown sugar and cinnamon. It originally was baked in large, round loaves that were broken apart and served during Moravian love feasts, a congregational celebration. The Botboi (pronounced BOT-boy), originally an English colonial one-pot meal boiled in an iron pot lined with dough, gradually evolved a Pennsylvania Dutch identity by replacing the dough, which the English made with suet, with flat egg noodles. The concept of layering ingredients between noodles, similar to lasagna, traces to classical antiquity and may represent a technique preserved in the medieval cookeries of southern Germany and Alsace. In any case, Botboi further evolved among the Pennsylvania Dutch so that each Pennsylvania region could claim its own identifying dish, such as the chicken-and-saffron Botboi of Lancaster and Lebanon Counties, the pea Botboi of the Cumberland Valley, and the peach Botboi of Somerset County.

Other types of Pennsylvania Dutch dishes include the Schales (pronounced SHAH-less), a species of baked casserole normally made with legumes and shredded vegetables; the Gumbis (pronounced GOOM-biss), a deep-dish casserole consisting of layered ingredients; and various distinctive types of meat dishes and sausages. The most popular form of Gumbis is a dish called Schnitz-un-Gnepp (pronounced SHNITS-oon-NEPP), a baked or stewed mixture of dried apples, ham, and dumplings. Among the meat dishes, Panhas (pronounced PAN-haas), a word derived from ancient Belgic pannas, is sold in most farm markets as a breakfast dish. The word "scrapple" is replacing the dialect name Panhas. Of Lower Rhineland origin, Panhas was eaten as a porridge on butchering day but became a pot pudding, made with the leftovers of pork butchering, that is sliced, fried, and eaten with a variety of condiments. The primary thickeners are buckwheat and cornmeal.

Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, Seimawe (pronounced ZEI-maa-eh) is considered a "national" dish. A pork stomach is stuffed with potatoes, sausage, bread, and various herbs, poached, then baked. Served with great fanfare, the best are those that can be sliced like sausage. The origin of this dish is quite ancient and probably traces to pre-Germanic cultures in the Rhineland. Other signature foods are sauerkraut, de rigueur for New Year's dinner; summer sausage, also called Lebanon bologna; and shoofly pie, a molasses crumb cake baked in a pie shell that was first introduced commercially at the U.S. centennial in 1876. Of all the Pennsylvania Dutch contributions to American culture at large, the most lasting have been the Christmas panoply of gingerbreads, candies, and pastries; pretzels of all kinds; and vegetable gardening, which has persisted as a symbol of biodiversity and small-scale sustainable agriculture.

See also Christmas; Germany, Austria, Switzerland; Sustainable Agriculture.


Girardey, George. Höchst nützliches Handbuch über Kochkunst. Cincinnati, Ohio: n.p., 1842.

Hark, Ann, and Preston A. Barba. Pennsylvania German Cookery. Allentown, Pa.: Schlechter, 1950.

Vollmer, William. The United States Cook Book. Philadelphia: J. Weik, 1856.

Weaver, William Woys. Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.

Weaver, William Woys. Sauerkraut Yankees. 2d ed. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2002.

William Woys Weaver

Gingerkraut (Imbergraut )

This is a Christmas dish generally eaten with turkey or roast goose. It is also served at New Year's.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

¼ cup (60 ml) walnut oil (olive oil may be substituted)
2 Tablespoons (15 g) white mustard seed
2 medium onions (300 g), sliced
2 cups (500 ml) turkey or chicken stock
2 pounds (1 kg) sauerkraut, drained of liquid
3 Tablespoons (50 g) coarsely shredded fresh ginger root
15 juniper berries
3 Tablespoons (15 g) chopped red bell pepper

Heat the oil in a deep nonreactive saucepan. Add the mustard seed and sizzle until they pop and begin to turn gray (about 1 minute). Add the sliced onions and cover. Let the onions sweat for 10 minutes, then add the turkey or chicken stock, sauerkraut, ginger, and juniper berries. Cover and simmer over a low heat for 1 hour. Add the chopped pepper as a garnish and serve immediately.

SOURCE: Weaver, Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking, p. 174

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Pennsylvania Dutch Food

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Pennsylvania Dutch Food