Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Book Review: As American as Shoofly Pie

When I hear the phrase "Pennsylvania Dutch", I think of the Amish. I think most people do. So when I received a review copy of William Woys Weaver's latest book on the culinary history of Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine, As American as Shoofly Pie, I have to admit I wasn't too excited. What's there to learn about pickled beans and shoofly pie really?

Well, as it turns out, the Amish are only a subgroup of the Pennsylvania Dutch (PD). Weaver explains that the PD include all German speaking (Dutch in the context of PD is a bastardization of Deutsch, the name for German language) peoples that immigrated to Pennsylvania during the 17th and 18th centuries. From Wikipedia: "The majority of these immigrants originated in what is today southwestern Germany, i.e., Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg; other prominent groups were Alsatians, Swiss, and Huguenots (French Protestants)". Weaver goes on to explain that about a third were the Palatinates, a third were Swiss (and this includes the Amish), and a third were the immigrants from Wuttemberg (known as Swabians - and these folks gave us the pretzel).

Weaver spends a lot of his pages describing in detail the cultural and culinary differences between these three major groups of PD and it's quite interesting. Among other things, we learn about the lost or forgotten PD recipes (like hairy dumplings), we learn how PD sauerkraut is made differently than the German variety, and we learn how the Amish culinary table (or what we think of as their culinary table) came to dominant the entire image of PD cuisine. And it's on this last point that Weaver seems quite bitter. To sum up his resentment in two clauses: it's unconscionable that everyone thinks PD=Amish and it's unconscionable that their food (as marketed and sold in restaurants and farmstands) is seen as THE authentic PD when much of their cuisine is derivative and can't be traced back to the old world.  For example, their chicken pot pie is just a riff on the traditional English recipe. And shoofly pie is just a variant of maple syrup pie made by the Canadians and New Englanders. But the Amish get all the press bc of their non-standard attire and their plain sect culture. Oh and he also has a beef with calling the PD German bc only 2/3rd of them immigrated from what is now Germany (don't forget about those Swiss and French!) and even those who did can't really be considered German since Germany was not a country at the time they came over.

The last section of the book is filled with PD recipes, both those that came over from the old world and the new that were created in Pennsylvania. As it turns out, I'm not much a fan of PD cuisine (its a bit too similar to German food which doesn't suit me) so I haven't attempted any of the recipes yet, but they're still delightful to read.
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