Being from a small town less than an hour outside of Philadelphia, I was always exposed to the ever-so greasy and ever-so tasty food of the city. People from the area were less than picky. Aside from the ten pound cheesesteaks and buckets of fries there were plenty of options that took influence from other countries. Japanese, German, Italian and Thai cuisine are common. I was fortunate enough to be born with what I call an “open mouth”, or the appreciation for all foods no matter where it comes from. I spent a little under half of my life living in the small town of Lansdale, Pennsylvania before moving to northern Berks County. It wasn’t until years after the move that I realized the difference in food preference between my family and the Berks County natives, the Pennsylvania Dutch. During the first few months of the move we clung to the food we knew best from back home. Cheesesteaks and pizza were common in our new household as to avoid the stress of home cooking every meal.
Since I’ve been introduced to this food diverse world, I can say that I’ve only had positive experiences when it comes to eating. I’ve been blessed with the luxury of having home cooked meals nearly every night. My mother, at a young age decided that her course in life, aside from a full-time job, would be homemaker. She learned how to cook and bake at a young age and has treated her family ever since. Each night was something different and as I grew older into college age I realized the importance of a free meal and time with your family. A common dinner in our house was Chicken Pot-Pie. As it may sound, chicken pot-pie was in fact a pie. A flaky, buttery crust in a pie dish filled with fresh peas, carrots and delightfully tender, seasoned chicken, all mixed in a creamy sauce with a layer of crust covering the top. When baked for the recommended time, the pie would be cooked enough to be cut into steamy slices, overflowing with creamy chicken goodness. After years of preparing this dish, it was ludicrous to think that we had been doing it all wrong. It hadn’t occurred to us until months later that the PA Dutch were some of the most “closed mouth” individuals on earth.
The Pennsylvania Dutch take their food seriously and can’t be bothered with a willing-to-try-this attitude. They want what they want, when they want it, and they get it too – preferably in a timely fashion to avoid outrage. My father (not from Berks County) typically sticks to the meat and potatoes that he grew up on, but this minor preference was trumped by the food snobbery of the locals. After coming to the conclusion that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, we were quickly and sternly alerted that our methods of cooking wouldn’t fly in this county. If we wanted to appeal to the PA Dutch food culture, we had to throw out our obviously alien ways of food preparation and start thinking logically. For example, it is definitely not Chicken-pot-pie, but Chicken-pot-pie. After years of creating a chicken filled pie dish we were introduced to the correct way. Chicken pot-pie is created in a soup-like manner, first laying large, flat noodles in broth and cooking it similar to chicken noodle soup.
This was an earth shattering revelation to our family, one that simply made my mother scratch her head. “How could these people possibly be so mislead”? she thought of the pot-pie. However, this was not the only difference in our food culture. A traditional dish served at our Thanksgiving dinner table is stuffing; stuffing does just as it says, it stuffs the turkey. One could even say that it fills the turkey, but I would not suggest saying that within five miles of the Berks County line. Stuffing and filling are two extremely different dishes and getting them confused is the 8th deadly sin. As I’m sure many of you know, stuffing is crumbled bread pieces seasoned with basil and other spices, and stuffed into the turkey before baking. Filling is a mash up of boiled potatoes stirred with milk and chicken stock; like thick mashed potatoes with more flavor (courtesy of the celery and onions mixed in). This may leave you asking, “Doesn’t the stuffing technically “fill”? No, in fact, asking such preposterous things is second only to yelling “fire” in a movie theater. Stuffing stuffs and filling does not fill, it just is. Crazy, right?
Recently I had an experience of the closed mouth kind. In order to properly assess the opinion on the great Filling v. Stuffing debate, I brought the topic up in a class discussion. My inquiry about the feelings on stuffing was met with distaste from a student who had lived most of her life in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. “There’s a huge difference” she said as she looked around with a look of “You should know this already”. I chuckled to myself and realized the potential for this to become serious. “Stuffing is disgusting and filling is good”, she continued as to end all further comments. My professor (originating in California) was as baffled as I about such a strong preference for something neither of us had known existed until we moved to Berks County.
After learning to accept our differences, from the food-crazed Pennsylvania Dutch, we began to appreciate, partially unwillingly, some of the things they have to offer. For example, it would be considered rude to enter the home of a local and not be offered something to eat or drink upon stepping on the hex sign floor mat. Aside from somewhat snobbish attitude about their eats, they create some of the tastiest and most unique dishes I’ve ever experienced. Chicken and waffles may sound like a ridiculous combination, but I can assure you that judgments need not apply. Nothing complements the syrupy sweetness of a fluffy waffle like the salty, flaky skin of a fried chicken leg. Another oddity specific to the PA Dutch is scrapple. Scrapple is a delightful mixture of every unwanted scrap of pork, mushed together with wheat flour, cut into slabs and cooked in a pan and is, despite the grotesque description, quite delicious. Scrapple is most commonly served during breakfast in place of sausage or bacon and – as my family has discovered – is incomplete without being dipped in apple butter (another Pennsylvania Dutch creation).
In spite of my frequent complaints about the situation I’ve found myself in, it may seem to you that I’m becoming soft, or an advocator, to the traditions of these Berks County natives. Being born with a larger-than-normal sweet-tooth, I am sympathetic to the desire to gorge myself with every dessert that I can reach from my seat; this is something that I learned during my time here. With pies bigger than your head, five-layer cakes and doughnuts that would make Homer Simpson empty his wallet, I have found comfort in knowing that I am not alone. Farmer’s markets specialize in baked goods as well as “mom and pop” bakeries that provide fresh pastries each morning. Who other than the Pennsylvania Dutch would think to put an entire pound – or so it feels like – of sweet cream in between two soft sandwich cookies and call it a “Whoopee pie”? The answer to your question is the same people from Intercourse, PA (yes, that’s a real place) who brew a beer called the “Blue Ball Porter.” If you’re not noticing the trend, allow me to elaborate. Around here, food is sex.
It’s been over ten years that I’ve lived in Berks County and miraculously I’ve managed to not gain a single, unwanted pound. After criticism for our “strange” manner of eating, I’ve gotten used to the way things are done. Less than fifty miles from my origin lay a county so different from the outer-city hustle I was accustomed to. When broken down and given thought, it can be put into one word, amazing; amazing that a short distance can provide a long list of differences. I can’t say “come here for sex” as that would be advocating prostitution, so allow me to put it like this, come to Berks County to taste Intercourse brew and make Whoopee…pies. Food has the potential to curb the disagreement of cultures, and we here in Berks County are no exception. You may not agree, but you’ll be stuffed (not filled).