A Look Back in History by Richard L.T. orth Frontier apple culture and healthy PA Dutch

Submitted by AFI This crude mill and press are among a few surviving specimens of the early Appalachian cider industry that once extended from Maine to Georgia, as demonstrated by an Oley Valley High School student during the Lobachsville Cherry Fair in 1977.

The most recent flu season and its danger garnered my attention as to whether or not our diets have been vastly compromised to fast food binges that are not nearly as nutritious or immune system fighting as traditional wholesome foods which our ancestors have engaged in from frontier times, having harvested on traditional farms. The adage that An apple a day keeps the Doctor away, has merit, but has been replaced with junk food i.e. chocolate, pretzels, chips, soda that we eat daily, watching television programs in our comfortable living rooms, instead of eating fresh fruit.

The Apple Culture among the PA Dutch farmers was a huge success in early American days, when we stored large quantities in root cellars on almost every farmstead in the Dutch country. A surplus was always left over after farmers had boiled and canned enough apple butter and applesauce for their familys personal diet. Out of all the American ethnic immigrants who developed this American apple culture, the PA Dutch were smart enough to include this fruit as a major staple in their PA Dutch diet, whether it was in apple dumplings or homemade apple Schnitz pie.

But typically on the farm, apple pie slices were usually drenched with milk, eaten in a bowl for breakfast and topped with cinnamon spice. However, next to apples on the farmstead, was an unusually large quantity of onions, also raised in the family garden but were tied in bunches and strung in the attic to be dried for the familys diet. Or sometimes they were spread on newspaper sheets on the attic floor, until the onions were dry enough to be stored safely downstairs in the pantry.

Onions were eaten in a large quantity by the average PA Dutch family and added in various delicious (objectionable) Dutch family recipes, according to family taste. I remember Mr. Shaner telling me many times his grandmother, Sally Kulp Shaner, had a yearning for onion pie, a favorite among the hardcore PA Dutch of Montgomery County but did not always make her very popular with the rest of the household when she baked these pies. My wifes family is another that brought the average up, mine not so much.

Ironically though, among certain folk people, mine growing up included, there is the belief that eating or housing onions in your diet may curb catching the flu or perhaps other colds. And some individuals firmly believe and have stated that the mere presence of sliced or whole onions in your home may give one a better chance to escape catching the flu. Most recently, my wife, Nicole, who is a nurse, came home and reminded me such a folk belief is still practiced today as one of her patients told her she kept sliced onions around her house to protect her from the flu virus. In our household, it is no longer practiced, but probably should be as all of us were very sick with the exception of our eldest.

All and all, the current flu vaccine might be a better suggestion, in addition to eating a healthy diet to avoid winter problems or at least adding more from the family garden. Oh yea, the diminishing family garden; more fruits and vegetables are the point and less sugar! But as the frontier diet habits of our PA Dutch people have changed drastically, those habits allowed them to survive 300 years ago through fierce winters! And defensive onion lovers that include my wife, French onion soup was always and has long been a gourmet dish with the country folk. Even the younger generation still eats scrapple but may be more apt to top it with ketchup, instead of tasty, traditional apple butter, another traditional practice or foodstuff consumed before fast food and commercial syrups et al became in vogue. I swear Im the only one in my household that eats apple butter anymore, as a jar lasts!

Richard L. T. Orth is assistant director of American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.

Join the Conversation