Editor's Note: Richard Shaner wrote about traditional Pennsylvania German butchering and cooking in the Jan. 7 and Jan. 14 issues of The Kutztown Area Patriot. This is the third installment of the series.
Butcher George: Berk's County's Traveling Butcher
Home butchering was kept alive in the 20th century by Richmond Township farmer and road supervisor, George Adam (1910-2002), a traveling butcher who would go from farm to farm assisting local families who wished to butcher their livestock. A beloved Pennsylvania German, 'Butcher George' demonstrated butchering at the Kutztown Folk Festival for many years and was a jovial farmer ready to help anyone at a moment's notice.
George was especially good at making scrapple and would bring to the farm site his large iron kettle, sausage stuffer, and all the necessary butcher equipment to complete his butchering service. All the farmer needed was to supply the 'firewood and water.' A special butchering house was later built for George on the Kutztown Fairgrounds, meeting the board of health requirements, and one which allowed tourists to witness the complete butchering process, which the Adam family and friends demonstrated at the Kutztown Folk Festival in Pennsylvania German fashion. Of course, there was always some 'snickle Fritz' who amusingly pinned the cut off pig's tail to the rear of some farmer's bib overalls to the delight of co-workers.
Although some young moderns viewed slaughtering and butchering of animals as an unusual ritual, farm people know the process as a normal God given act for man's survival. Lard rendered in large quantities among Berks County's farm families was the mainstay of pie dough, bread making, and the frying agent for potatoes and fastnachts. Hence, periodic butchering was a fact of life.
But in today's commercial economy, less calorie-laden substitutes have replaced lard, which no respectable Pennsylvania German housewife would have fallen short of in her larder. There is no doubt that the difference of gourmet Pennsylvania German cooking is the traditional source of butchered meats, one that in the mass produced and chemically preserved butcher products of today has caused all of us to read the ingredient label first.
Although farmers butchered in November, it was the winter-Christmas butcherings that are remembered best among the Pennsylvania Germans. With the age-old German custom of 'Metzelsupp' sharing at these butcherings farm families sent gifts of freshly made sausage or scrapple to their neighbors, as well as to the needy in the community.
Gathering wood to fire up the iron kettles into which meat puddings were boiled in the cozy small farm butcher shop, closed off from the howling winter winds outside, are memories never forgotten from the old homestead Christmas. Having relatives and friends assist at this time of year with homemade liquid refreshment (cider) made the task all the more fraternal. Then, there was the customary metzelsupp sharing of the cooperative day's achievement-delicious fresh sausage and many pans of 'Ponhaws' chilled by the winter air.
Cooking Secrets and Tricks at Butcher Gatherings
Old time tricks and cooking secrets were part of a butcher gathering on the farm as grandparents and uncles tried to impress youngsters drafted to chop piles of wood to fire the large, iron kettles. Invariably, during the day someone would slice a potato to carefully fry 'potato chips' in the large kettle of hot-rendered lard. Most unbelievable was the 'trick' where the boiling iron kettle of scrapple was swung out of the fireplace on its crane and someone placed their bare hand on its outside bottom (to the horror of everyone) without burning themselves from the intense heat. Only done by an experienced butcher, the dangerous trick had to be properly timed to do correctly!
It was by cooperative farming chores like butchering that the younger generation learned the Pennsylvania German culture and came to respect the proper use of a butcher bench. Every Dutch butcher had 50 to 100 scrapple pans, and often they were filled and lined up on the seven-foot long butcher bench to cool in autumn and winter; scrapple was not made in the summertime.
Willard and Verna Dietrich, who butchered on their farm at Kempton in the 1950s, are a typical example of a Pennsylvania Dutch family gone modern with their large butcher-store located on Old Route 22 at Krumsville. Their sons, Marlin and Lynn, together with the rest of the family butcher and prepare traditional Rhineland folklife meats popular in the area. Verna Dietrich still makes tasty Sack Warscht for Michael Stern's Quality Shop restaurant in Kutztown for his traditional Dutch breakfasts, which is sliced and fried with eggs.
At farm auctions, liquidating farm families occasionally bid up their butchering cutlery kept in a special custom box, so revered as a family memento. It was part of their legacy and the traditional source of survival for the extended family. Large, iron kettles kept 'licking clean' in which gourmet meat dishes had been stirred were often sacrificed at auction to outsiders who disrespectfully filled them with ground and planted them with flowers on their front lawns to eventually rust and crack. It was a heartbreaking finale to a family's pioneer past, but a definite end to the kettle's man-made culinary purpose-never to feed the needy anymore!
Author's Notes: In the butchering process, the killing and slaughtering of livestock is sometimes done a previous day, and the cutting up of meat and cooking is done after the carcass has cooled in the cold winter weather (or in a cooler) so that it is suitable to be handled by the butchering party.
Whenever I write about the Pennsylvania German culture as regards to their dialect and German publications or fraktur, I prefer the term 'German,' but when referring to their social interaction on the American Continent separate from their Rhineland roots, I choose the term 'Pennsylvania Dutch,' which is the Americanism that includes the collective cultural base of all Rhineland groups that contributed to their culinary arts, not emphasizing any one group. But rather the uniqueness of the American experience, though they all shared the German dialect.
1. Ponhaws, sometimes spelled panhaas, literally translated from the Pennsylvania German means 'pan rabbit,' which on occasion is said in jest by old-timers.
2. Metzelsupp, often written metzel soup, refers to a butcher day-stew made and eaten by ancient Rhinelanders during the butchering season in Germany. In America, the term is associated with the sharing of butchered meats and by- products by the farm neighbors and those who assisted in the daylong chore; also remembering the poor with their gift giving during the Christmas season.
3. Davis, W.W. and Setley, Abram. Recorded in the Pennsylvania Dutchmen, Volume IV, No. 12, 1953 and 'New Holland Clarion,' 1909 and 1911.
For Further Reading
Weaver, William Woys. Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking. Published by the Pennsylvania German Society, 1993.
Eaby, Theila J. 'The Country Butcher,' Kutztown Folk Festival Issue, 1983: Pennsylvania Folklife Magazine supplement, Vol. 32 No. 4.
An interview with Elton Muth, nicknamed 'Juppy,' the grandson of 'Butcher George' who assisted George Adam for many years butchering and setting up the Kutztown Folk Festival.
Long, Jr., Amos. The Pennsylvania German Farm, published by The Pennsylvania German Society, 1972.
Richard Shaner is the director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.