A Look Back in History: Once consistent Pa Dutch food staples

Being a descendant from frugal Pennsylvania Dutch families mostly living in Berks County, many hillside farmers were hard pressed to feed their families when downturns in the national economy created not only a scarcity of jobs, but a deficiency of food in household pantries. But being Pennsylvania Dutch, there was always a traditional food or innovation which seemed to suffice until the economy resumed normalcy, and perhaps the hardest of times were in the winter months when our pantries were no longer filled with the fruits and vegetables of our small orchards and country gardens, which included canned and dried foodstuffs. Also, supplementing the diet were the potatoes, apples, and other root crops in ground cellars.

My older kin assured me there wasn’t always meat on the table and often a hardy potato soup or the like became the main entree. However, talented Pennsylvania Dutch housewives who knew their herbs and spices could whip up a dish that just might be superior to any beef roast. Not uncommon back in the day, households purchased flour by the large sack at the local mill, and when talking of delicious “Oyer brode” (egg bread) commonly known as French-toast, PA Dutch families often applied apple butter instead of syrup or popular molasses back then. My grandmother would often inquire as a joke to neighbors or family if they still “stretched the beaten eggs adding flour to the mix before they dipped the bread,” and disappointed if one did not engage in this frugal practice (anymore). She would also lament that her old recipe for Oyer-brode tasted better with toppings, as well.

Sausage stew made from hickory smoked sausage, potatoes, onions, and parsley was also a common dish among many hill folk that many a grandmother in their old ages would revere anyone who would still bring a long piece from the local butcher. However, there was no better a phrase that caught the attention of my kin than the conversational comment, “she likes to bake,” or the observation that a Dutchwoman was a very good baker. My family being typical Pennsylvania Dutch, several of my aunts liked to bake pies and all seasons!

There was always shoo-fly pie to stave off hunger pains or to accompany coffee mostly but also hot chocolate during a winter mid-morning break. Since many local Deitsch housewives were good apple pie and dumpling bakers, several older locals smile at the mention or acknowledgement one enjoyed a breakfast of dumplings or apple pie slices soaked in a bowl of warm milk, sometimes with cinnamon sprinkled on top, but a seasonal treat after harvesting small orchard crops.

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This was universally identified as a hearty breakfast in the winter months by Dutchmen, but I guess they also knew in being an eager eater of such a high calorie meal they were going to work it off by shoveling snow or manuring the stables on the farm. Molasses was also a food staple of any ordinary PA Dutch family who used it to top off their fastnacht cakes and homemade butter bread, but mostly has fallen by the wayside. My grandmother always had a jar, however, shoofly pie still seems to be the most delectable dish consumed by these molasses loving old-time farmers; and since we traded with Caribbean nations ever since Colonial times buying their sugar and rum molasses imports, it is very likely that our ancestors and descendants have acquired their innate appetite for PA Dutch shoofly pie from our historic Colonial trade with Caribbean countries based on the molasses, sugar, and rum Americana trade.

Coupled with the mere fact that our farm housewives in Colonial times had baked an enormous amount of hearth bread to export when their PA Dutch husbands sent grain and other commodities to the port of Philadelphia, it may have also contributed toward later PA Dutch farmwomen baking a large number of pies within our rural folk culture, as local farmers markets on the Eastern Atlantic seaboard became quite successful. Thereby, PA Dutch farmwomen continued to develop this expertise, baking a large variety of pies for their neighbors, as well as their families and export trade. However, the historic shoo-fly-pie born out of our native trade with the Caribbean may have become their most outstanding Americana contribution from their baking expertise, and almost every PA Dutch family in Berks County was accustomed to farmwives baking a large number of delicious pies and cakes to feed their families.

Traditionally, the favorite day of the week for a PA Dutch woman to bake was Friday, and so, she baked enough for several days. This more common at a time when each successful PA Dutch farmer took his grain and corn to the local gristmill usually returning home with a huge bag or two of fresh ground flour. Baking superior shoo-fly-pies and apple dumplings, etc. became a natural pastime resulting in one’s culinary expertise besides earning extra cash on the family’s behalf. Many area churches that still make excellent shoo-fly-pie and canned chow-chow.

Winter especially is less of a challenge and snow easier to shovel when fortified with shoofly pie! Many of these same churchwomen who use old family recipes also recall Fridays at the farm their moms or grandmas baked so many pies, they had to set them on all the deep seated windowsills of their stone masoned farmhouse. However, it was those shoo-fly-pies with their pie crusts filled with sugar and molasses that drew more flies than any other one cooling on the window sills before they could be stored in their family’s pierced tin pie safe hanging in the cellar way. Thus, older natives in Berks County always latched on to this colorful name that was properly associated with this thick sugar and molasses filled crimped pie known as shoo-fly.