Surrounded by James Beard Nominated chefs from across the United States I am silently slicing dozens of oranges into supreme garnishes, glistening jewel-like sections free of any bitter white pith. I carefully place a shaved miniature coconut circle on top of each wedge accompanied by a single fresh herb leaf. Between the constant chaos of French chatter and the loud shuffling of plates for first course, I lose focus. The Four Seasons New York Hotel kitchen is swarming with the successful and celebrated. Guests surround Emeril Lagasse so much so that you can barely see the top of his head. I stay in a back corner, near the dishwashers, focused on my tedious task. In the near distance I can see long vividly colored gowns dragging along the floor, million dollar smiles enjoying fresh oysters being served near the sauté station. Suddenly the kitchen had become part of the cocktail hour. As I am putting the last of the hand plucked fresh herbs in place, I notice a bald gentleman with glasses, in a simple suit and tie as he sets his drink beside my cutting board and enjoys his oyster hors d’oeuvres.
“Are you a volunteer?” he asks.
“Yes. From Drexel University. A little nervous. How is everything?” I asked.
“Great. Where are you from?”
“Philadelphia for now,” I said “But originally from Harrisburg.”
“Oh wow, what made you choose the city?”
I explain my James Beard Scholarship and before I knew it we were talking about my Lancaster county heritage, my great grandmother recipes, her Hard Times Cake and Montgomery Pie, and sharing stories of beautiful farms and of wholesome tastes.
Suddenly, covered head to toe in Gucci, Julian Niccolini, owner of The Four Seasons, burst into the kitchen. Overwhelmed with offers of tasty morsels, by hugs and smiles he is greeted by almost everyone in the kitchen. “Beautiful girl, what are you doing back here?” was the first thing to come out of his mouth just before I get smooched with a wrinkly kiss on the cheek. Totally caught off guard I stutter a silly comeback I can’t quite recall. Upstaged, the bald man leans over and hands me his business card before heading into the dining room. “Send me those recipes of your great grandmother. I would love to try them out.” As he moves away, I glance at the card as I slid it into the pocket of my orange juice stained chef jacket. William Yosses, Executive Pastry Chef, The White House with an official golden seal on the top. I do a double take and shake the card like it was a fake.
A few weeks later, scanned copies of my great grandmother’s recipe book were submitted into The White House archives. The pages are so stained from drippy cake batter and greasy lard that the book is almost untouchable. Her handwritten notes are straightforward with the distinctive cursive we both share. The book’s final days were spent in my mother’s kitchen cupboard. After a few emails back and forth with Chef Yosses, he ensured that they would not only be kept in good hands but they would be mentioned in an article he was working on. When next I traveled up the Susquehanna River I told my grandparents the great news. They plied me with farmer’s cheese, sweet Lebanon bologna, Utz potato chips, and homemade fudge, I ached with how much I missed this place. Grandma reminisced about our relatives, pulling out recipes and photos that she scattered on her hand quilted placemats. She made me promise that I would never lose trace of where I came from. But, to do that, I needed for her to explain why my ancestors moved to Central Pennsylvania in the first place and how I could express our heritage through my passion for cooking.
The story she tells began in 1848, a revolution had broken out in Sicily that was the first attempt at unification of the Italian Peninsula. The unrest spread to France. Soon Southern and Western Germany was devastated, leaving tens of thousands of people dead. By 1850, over 400,000 Germans had arrived in the United States searching for safety and religious freedom. All were united by an unshakeable devotion to God, a common German dialect, and a love for “the food that the good earth provides.” Mass immigration into the Americas continued until the 1920s. By that time, an estimated five-million Germans, the largest ethnic immigrant group in American history, had come to the United States — including my ancestors.
Today’s Pennsylvania Dutch were built with the chips and debris of Europe’s humanity sent here so long ago, joined together and were encouraged to flower into a people uniquely diversified and especially gifted. By the late 1840s, forty percent of Pennsylvania’s population spoke German (Deitsch or Pennsilfaanisch). Parts of Pennsylvania like Harrisburg and Lancaster were settled so thickly with German Immigrants that road signs were in German, and many had no contact with English or the English (as non-Germans were known than, even today). Originally published in 1848 in German by a Harrisburg, PA printer, Die Geschickte Hausfrau (The Handy Housewife) was one of the first truly ethnic cookbooks to appear in America. Many of the Pennsylvania Germans helped framed this country’s cuisine with their foodways, food related businesses, and breweries, which soon became America’s number one industry that eventually spread to the Midwest and across the nation. By 1879 there were 317 breweries in Pennsylvania including D. G. Yuengling & Son established in 1829.
The success of Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876 inspired other cities to host fairs. Extravagant fairs and expositions that followed exercised a great influence on what Americans ate. An estimated 27,000,000 million people visited the World Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893. It was there that two German immigrants, Fredrick and Louis Reuckheim, coated popcorn with molasses and a shower of peanuts and sold it at their humble stand. What we now call Cracker Jacks, invented and popularized by the Reuckheim Brothers, is a homemade, crunchy, “All-American” treat I often buy at farmer’s fairs and even occasionally receive as a snack from my father.
German immigrants also had everything to do with the popularization of the hot dog. Charles Feltman, operated a pushcart at Coney Island during the 1870s selling “daschund” sausages and sauerkraut on a “milk roll”. German sausage culture invaded the ballpark by 1893. St. Louis Bar owner, and owner of the St. Louis Browns Baseball team, German immigrant Chris Von De Ahe, is credited with taking the hot dog out to the ball game. By the 1890s, Feltman’s specialty became known as the hot dog. As a kid growing up in a Pennsylvania German Household, sauerkraut was fetched from a simple stone jar mingled among the rows of glass jars of garden preserves in the basement. The sauerkraut, some ‘put by’ pickles were combined with a pack of hot dogs or sausages from the butcher shop if we were lucky. It was an inexpensive meal for six that would feed the family’s ethnic fix.
Most Anglo Americans during the 19th century considered any type of oats or grain an animal feed. One of my ancestors, Ferdinand Schumacher, originally a shoemaker (as the name implies) in Germany, opened a grocery store in Akron, Ohio when he immigrated to America. His oat sales were so high that he decided to specialize in oats. Four years later he set up the German Mills American Oatmeal Factory in Akron. He became the largest oat miller and was known as the Oatmeal King. He was tired of tradition, searching for a successful venture to call his own, an entrepreneurial spirit I share. The Pennsylvania Dutch were Lutherans, Anabaptist (Amish) and Mennonite like my grandmother. Some were rich enough to eat hasenpfeffer, rabbit braised in wine, and some were so poor they rarely ate meat but instead survived on shredded potatoes and dumplings. Finances, good or bad, never stopped them from being creative, from opening new doors to frugal cooking — the emblem of Pennsylvania German Cuisine.
The Pennsylvania Dutch have always been intensive gardeners, with at least a kitchen garden to supply their own table like the one I had growing up on an Appalachian mountainside. Because farms in Pennsylvania were much larger and less specialized than in Germany, the immigrant farmers were able to diversify and add livestock, cattle or sheep. Even though they lived more than a hundred miles from the sea they were not denied its bounties. The Delaware, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna rivers, then major inland waterways, were fished to the fullest. And we had, and still have, big, wrinkled, aromatic morels that are found on the high riverbanks, underneath hemlocks and were added to the stockpot. The stockpot, Kochkessel, that symbolizes the Pennsylvania Dutch, was often used for religious fellowship and even communion. Much later it became known as the Crock-Pot, long before the appliance became ubiquitous. Grandpa only bought Hammonds made-by-hand pretzels made by the Lichty family since 1931. Pretzels were meant to symbolize traditional Pennsylvania Dutch values. The twist representing a bond of marriage, the open ends are away from you because your prayers are open to heaven, and the ends are configured to create three holes for the holy trinity. There were angel food cakes baked on egg noodle making days to use up the extra egg whites. Green tomato, vinegar or milk pies were served for breakfast and there was hearty soup for lunch. Everything was made with an eye for what we call today, sustainability, using only what was available and freshest because it was a way of life.
In time a “New” Dutch Cuisine in restaurants seeking out ways to blend the traditional with the changing times. In 1941, Marjorie Hendricks launched her well-known Water Gate Inn in Washington, D.C at the suggestion of Eleanor Roosevelt who loved her popovers . Hendricks elevated Pennsylvania Dutch cookery and provided the inspiration for others to do the same. Daniel Stern’s modern American cuisine at R2L and MidAtlantic, Philadelphia, or Andrew Little Pennsylvania farmhouse cuisine at Sheppard Mansion in Hanover, PA might be thought of as recipients of Marjorie’s legacy. The influence of Pennsylvania Dutch traditions can be whimsical as when Timon Balloo, head chef at Sugarcane in Miami, garnishes an ice cream dessert with a handful of crunchy Cracker Jack. Sitting in his quaint dining room beside my oldest sister, watching the southern rain wash down the street, I taste an echo of Pennsylvania Dutch cookery in a new world persona. The saltiness reminds me of the sweat that dripped from my forehead after pulling dandelions under the intense sunlight in my grandfather’s field as he prepared the glass jugs and tan corks for his dandelion wine. But the sweetness I pick up from the spoonful of ice cream, is just like my grandmother’s kisses when I first I arrived on her doorstep and always before I left her. But I was sick, or finished with a long day of work, it was the dandelion wine that would cure my sore throat, or the chicken noodle soup to clear my sinuses. No hugs or kisses made me feel as good as cooking ever did. •