By the very nature of our Republic, America is an amazing gathering place of people and their native cultures. In no other venue is this as true as it is in the food traditions they brought with them, many of which have survived the passage not just of decades but of generations. The very roots of human memory are tied inextricably to that place on the world map where our progenitors lingered long enough to become part of the soil and soul of the land and its bounty. This is very true of those who were drawn to Pennsylvania and its’ “open arms” attitude and policies. Since the previous columns explored the background of the larger story it seems only natural to spend some time considering the culinary gifts those adventurers brought to our shores.
The settlers we have introduced came largely from Switzerland, Alsace-Lorraine and Germany, having in common an understanding of various dialects of Germanic origin, and most of the religious communities studied the German bible and spoke a form of German in their homes. The Amish and Mennonites used the term “English” to describe “outsiders” and all things foreign or of questionable worth, so it follows that the accepted lexicon was a reflection of all this. As we speak of their food favorites, we will cite with italics the foods and menus expressed in what students of this vernacular call Pennsylfaanisch. Then too – as we also do – they exult in the use of whimsical “pet” words, such as the word Paffefatzle (meaning preacher’s f-rts) for small Christmas fritters, or bottelhinkel for a worn-out old hen ready for the stew pot.
A favorite grain among the Deutch is Spelt (an ancient relative to wheat,) but known to the Amish and their neighbors as Dinkel. (I store and grind this old grain to make my own Dinkelbrod.) They also use it in a thick soup; Dinkelsupp mit Hickerness-Gnepp,or Spelt Soup with Hickory Nut Dumplings. The folkways of these peoples are firmly grounded in a deep respect for the land and the crops it produces and they try not to be wasteful or imprudent in their practices. If, for instance, you were present at slaughtering time in the front yard of a typical November farm, you would find that virtually every part of a butchered pig has a use, from the jowls to the twisted tail, in products from head cheese to pickled feet and a dozen kinds of sausage, smoked cuts and of course, all that lard.
The Pennsylvania”Dutch” have long been known for their precocious application of preserving techniques, and a delicious offspring of that artistry reaches into the kitchen itself. One of my own favorites is a slow-roasted Sauerbrode or Braised Beef. In the old days, the Pennsylfaanisch folk made a special black vinegar with dried cherries and molasses which was allowed to age over long periods. Nowadays, I use about a quart of balsamic vinegar which, with dried cherries and a half-cup of brown sugar added, I boil until it is reduced by half. That rich syrupy sauce goes into an enameled Dutch oven the right size for the 3-4-pound beef roast which sits on a trivet that keeps it over, but not quite touching, the black liquid. I rub the meat with coarse sea salt and ground pepper, place three or four garlic slices into slots in the roast, and set the Dutch oven – covered tightly with aluminum foil, plus the cover - into the center of a 350 ͦ oven. After one hour turn the temperature down to 300 ͦ. Roast until tender; about another 2-3 hours.
Remove and cover the roast with aluminum foil. Move the sauce to a top burner, adding water and finishing the dark gravy. I like to serve the beef slices with a side of sweet-and-sour red cabbage (rodekohl) and garlic-mashed potatoes.
Unlike traditional sauerbraten, this version is not marinated before cooking and is served on very special occasions in a Pennsylvania Deutch home. Al Cooper Photo