Journey with me now to southeastern Pennsylvania, the area around present-day York and Lancaster, for this topic voted on by supporters at patreon.com/yourbrainonfacts, where you can get swag and bonus content and you totally should. My name’s…
In the 1600’s, most of the people living in the area that is now Pennsylvania were Native Americans, the Algonquian Lenape and Susquehannock among others. By 1700 or so, all that changed as the Dutch and English tried to lay claim to the lands on either side of the Delaware River. A century later, settlers from Europe poured into the area and claimed more land. Many of these new arrivals were German-speaking, and some had fled religious persecution in their home countries.
They brought with them a number of different religious traditions; although many of them were staunch Lutherans and Protestants, there were also Amish, Mennonites, and Anabaptists. Many of the practices these settlers brought with them were religious traditions with origins from the period prior to the Reformation. They venerated the saints of the Roman Catholic Church and used prayers and liturgical blessings for everyday activities. When it came to matters of healing, they often included consecrated objects and invocations in tandem with herbal remedies. Sacred symbols were invoked for protection; more on all that later.
These Germans in PA became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. They weren’t Dutch, as the previous sentence indicated. So why? The most common explanation is that Dutch was a corruption of Deutsch, which means German. But it’s more likely to be what the word Dutch meant at the time. In 18th and 19th century English, “Dutch” was used to refer to the whole broad Germanic region, encompassing modern-day Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland. At the time the Pennsylvania Dutch left Europe, Germany didn’t exist, it was an amorphous mass of duchies, kingdoms, and states. Let me throw a surprise third contender into the ring, “PA Deitsch,” Deitsch being the language of the community in question. Deitch most closely resembles the dialect of the region known as the Palatinate (Pfalz). In fact, speakers of standard German can for the most part, understand and communicate with speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch. This name was even promoted by the Pennsylvania Dutch themselves in the 19th century as a way of distinguishing themselves both from the European Germans whom they had left behind, whom they called Deitschlenner, and the later waves of German immigrants who became German Americans. The language isn’t confined to the German settlers descendants. While most Amish and Old Order Mennonites are of Swiss ancestry, nearly all speak Pennsylvania Deitch.
Like a lot of mame loshen, mother languages, Deitsch is diminishing year over year, but the idea that Deitsch could die out is absurd to their Amish, whose population grows steadily. “It’s actually considered the fastest-growing small-minority language in the United States,” said Patrick Donmoyer, director of Kutztown University’s Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center in Berks County. Among the Amish, the average age of a speaker of Pennsylvania Dutch is 17. For the rest of speakers, the average age is 75 — a number that he and other enthusiasts are trying to lower. Two World Wars hurt the language – After fighting two wars against Germany, the language fell out of favor. People stopped speaking it and stopped teaching it to their children. It just wasn’t in fashion to be speaking German, any German, in the US anymore.
Before proceeding to the next section, I would like to go on record as saying that I am not responsible for the added cost or calories you may incur at the grocery or drive-thru after listening. You’ve been warned, people! Now we get to talk about the thing that to this reporter’s mind is the PaD’s real claim to fame – food. As you might expect from agrarian people in an area where winters can be a bit of a bother, Pennsylvania Dutch food is hearty and filling. The cuisine often mixes sweet and savory or sweet and sour foods all in the same dish under the rubric that “seven sweets and seven sours” should be represented. The traditional “sweets” are primarily based on locally-grown fruits—apple, quince, berries, candied watermelon rind—the “sours” are pickled onion, beets, cauliflower, tomato relish, spiced cucumbers and one side dish I’ll highlight in a minute. Corn, a New World native food, comes up in much of the cuisine: in cereals, as filler for meat products, fish cakes, omelets and waffles, even in desserts and baked goods, like corn pudding, a rich egg-based custard made from dried corn kernels. Potatoes are used similarly, particularly in the filling Schwingfelder (potato cakes), potato biscuits, even potato bread. Potatoes in everything? Suits me down to the ground. The PaD also gave us a criminally underrated spread, apple butter. For those who must sadly live in places where that’s not a thing, imagine taking apple sauce, like good apple sauce, and cooking it down slowly until the sugars are caramelized and the color is a deep brown. Friggin love apple butter. You can do the same with lots of fruit; give it a go next time you over-buy produce in a fit of good intentions. And try it in the PaD style, on top of cottage cheese.
Meats in PaD cuisine reflect traditions of frugality and economy. Next time you’re at the grocery store, and it really doesn’t matter what part of the US you’re in, look near the sausages for a brick or cube of gray….well, just gray. That’s scrapple, a blend of pork and spices stretched with grains like corn or oats. It’s similar to goetta or livermush, if you’ve ever had either of those. Pigs play a starring role in the culinary pageant that is PaD food, from glazed hams down to the trotters. My German grandfather, I’m told, would eat pickled pigs feet right out of the jar. I never met the man, so I’ll forestall having an opinion there; different strokes for different folks. If you’ve ever wanted to try authentic Scottish haggish but are nowhere near authentic Scotland, hit the turnpike and get you some hog maw. Traditionally served in the winter, aka hog-butchering time, hog maw is traditionally stuffed with diced potatoes, onions, sausage or scrapple and herbs, maybe a few carrots or some cabbage. The mixture is then stuffed into a cleaned stomach and the ends are sewn shut before baking until it is brown and crisp on the outside. Served sliced for those who enjoy the taste and texture of the crisp skin or scoop the stuffing out and serve it on its own. And for those feeling queasy over the use of the stomach here, what do you think “natural casing” on sausages are? Takes a lot of guts, is all I’m saying.
What will we have on the side? How about some egg noodles, the clearly superior representative of slightly curly flat pastas. Egg noodles have a particular association with the Pennsylvania Dutch, such as in the dish as “Halusky“; a dish consisting of cooked egg noodles tossed with cabbage and onion which have been fried/carmelized in butter. Some recipes add bacon, some kielbasa, some toss the noodles with butter and cottage cheese, and they all sound like fabulous options if you ask me.
This is a vital cuisine, the ancestral food that many people in the region treasure as a link to both the American and European aspects of their history. Most of these old-time foods were associated with the agricultural calendar. People of the region, whether they adhere to the conservative culture of the Amish or Mennonites or are simply Americans of Pennsylvania German descent, follow these traditions in their home kitchens on a daily basis. At the same time, the colorful region is a popular tourist destination; the name “Pennsylvania Dutch” may be often affixed to imitations and mass-produced goods that do not accurately reflect the true glory of the cuisine.
Pennsylvania Dutch culture is rich in folk traditions, and the food goes right along with it. Like the Waldmop, a dwarf who lives in the woods and is considered “lord of the beasts” because he is a protector of the woods and the environment. It was customary to leave him Antler Cookies in the woods on Old Fastnacht, the day before Fastnacht (Fat Tuesday). The idea was to show him appreciation and the hope that in return he would help guarantee a good harvest. Another traditional bread was made for Bean Day, which was observed on June 4 or 5 (traditions varied from place to place). Made from black beans and resembling rye bread in appearance, this bread served as a reminder that Bean Day was a critical planting time for pole beans and limas. If gardeners were to realize a crop of seed for next year’s planting, they would have to get their beans in the ground by this date because early fall frosts might destroy them before they were fully ripe.
While I can’t cover all of PA Dutch cooking and baking here, and don’t think I wasn’t tempted, here are some of the some dishes you should definitely know about. Let’s start with baked goods. To paraphrase Wayne on Letterkenny, even at the risk of painting with a broad brush, Damn can they bake, every single one of them, boy. The crowning glory of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking is certainly its wide range of cakes, pies and other baked goods; these often mix fruits, raisins, nuts and other crunchy ingredients to make particularly hardy foods. Like much of the cooking, these baked goods tend to be well spiced. A wide range of grains in addition to traditional wheat flour may be used.
There are things that are almost familiar, but different enough to cause some confusion. Take chicken pot pie for example. In the PaD tradition, it’s more like a bowl of southern chicken and dumplings, but fat noodles instead of crust. Now me, I do my pot pies with a pastry crust on top and biscuit/fluffy dumpling dough on the bottom, which could be why I’m perennially plump. The way I see it, I’m not behind on my beach body, I’m well ahead of the game for my Christmas holiday body. If you order a scoop of pink ice cream in Lancaster, expecting it to be strawberry, you’ll be surprised when it tastes like wintergreen mint because it’s actually teaberry. Their chicken and waffles are served exclusively with chicken gravy, no maple syrup or hot sauce here.
One dish I have a personal connection with, because I made it for a middle-school project, is funeral pie. I ended up taking both whole pies home with me that afternoon, minus the piece I ate, because everyone was so put off by the name, I assume, that nobody touched it. Little did I know at age 11, it’s also called raisin pie or rosina. Oh well, their loss! Of course it also could have been the fact that funeral pies have a raisin filling and there are many poor souls in our world who don’t like raisins. Funeral pies have both bottom and top crusts and the filling is made from raisins, OJ, walnuts, and lots of spices. It sounds a lot like the mincemeat pie without which a British Christmas is a disappointing affair, at least based on the mass-market, pre-packaged, factory-formed ones a friend brought me from Old Blighty. Funeral pie, as the name suggests, *is traditionally served at funerals and I’ve always suspected maybe there was a connection with the color of raisins and the traditional color for mourning in Western cultures, but there’s no sure evidence of that. My other theory hinges on the fact that the areas the PaD live in also tend to be coal mining areas and where there are mines, the people will inevitably lose loved ones in accidents and cave-ins, and maybe the raisins are meant to symbolize lumps of coal. Again, absolutely spitballing here. You know what we should do? About 3k people listen to the new YBOF when it drops. We should try to get funeral pie trending the way funeral potatoes, basically hashbrown casserole, was trending the other year. Who likes to bake? HMU on the soc med.
If you’ve never heard of funeral pie, you’re probably heard of shoofly pie, even if you have no idea what it actually is. According to historian William Woys Weaver, shoofly pie started life as a crust-less molasses cake or Centennial Cake originally created in 1876 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence 90 miles east of Lancaster in Philadelphia, PA. It is believed shoofly pie was a variation of the British treacle tart, as American cooks often used molasses, a cheap byproduct of sugar refining, in place of treacle. Later, refined sugar became more affordable and overtook treacle as a sweetener. Cheap to make, it was traditionally served up only for breakfast or as a field break snack with coffee. Due to the absence of eggs, historians concluded shoofly pie was a winter dish, since hens stop laying in the cold dark winter (or at least they did before electric lights and heaters). A pie without eggs also has a longer shelf life, cutting down on waste. But why is it called shoofly?
The dominant theory is that the sweet pie attracted flies, requiring vigilance from the baker to keep them off it, “Shoo, fly!” However, Weaver has an interesting alternative theory, that the name “Shoofly” comes from Shoofly the Boxing Mule, a popular traveling circus act in the region at the time. Shoofly was trained to stand on his hind legs and wear boxing gloves on his front hooves to “box” a horse. Shoofly was so beloved they named products in his honor, including a brand of molasses. It’s all coming together; let me show you my wall of red string. The pugilistic pack animal may have gotten his name from a popular song at the time, “Shoo, Fly, Don’t Bother Me!”
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Let’s go back to savories and sours before I make us all fat. Chow chow is quintessential Pennsylvania Dutch, a sweet and sour mix of pickled vegetables often served as a side dish, and it takes very little imagination to know how beautiful that would pair with a fatty slice of ham or some other rich pork dish. Chow chow exalts the frugality of the PaD. Being a chopped or diced veggie preparation, it can be made from odds & ends, bits and bods left over from preparing other foods for eating or storage, earning it the nickname, “end of season relish.” While the true origin of the name isn’t officially known, there are a few theories, one being that it comes from the French word for cabbage, “chou,” or choufleur, French for cauliflower, which is also a term of endearment, usually for kids. Others surmise it may be related to Indian squash, “chayote“, which is also known as “chow-chow”. If you’re familiar with British piccalilli, the Anglicized form of Indian pickles, you have a good foundation of knowledge already when it comes to chow chow. Bonus recipe time. If you find yourself with some chow chow, say from a local farmers market, or some piccalilli or some such, put two good dollops of that into one big can of crushed tomatoes with four chicken thighs in your crock pot, season to taste and let it do. Shred the chicken and serve over rice with some of the sauce. You’re welcome. We call it pickle curry, for lack of a better name.
From chow chow we move to pow wow, but not the pow wow you’re picturing. A Native American pow wow is a gathering of great traditional and cultural meaning, which gets its name from the Narragansett word for “spiritual leader” or “he dreams.” How that term came to apply to tribes all across the continent I’m just going to put down to the usual cause, you know, white people. PaD pow wow is a whole different thing. Well, not 100% different, since both are traditional and [mystical]. PaD pow wow, also called Brauche or Braucherei, is a magical practice used for healing. An early form of the word,”powwaw,” was “borrowed” from the Algonquian language by 17th century missionaries in New England, where it originally described a healer, derived from a verb implying trance, or dreaming for divination or healing purposes. People who practiced Powwowing were often women who used prayer as well as locally accepted folk remedies. Because these were individualized prayers and not rote incantations the practice was seen as acceptable among the most devout Christians and was very popular well into the 1940s. There are still rules that need to be followed — no powwower ever reveals the name of the person who asked for their help and it’s verboten to accept payment for work.
Powwow can also be used to cure warts, heal burns, cure diseases in livestock, and protect people and homes from harm. If that’s not enough for you, pow wow can do things like prevent theft or even compel a thief to return stolen goods. The practice of pow wow actually incorporates with the PaD practice of Christianity, rather than either being anathema to the other. Love that word, anathema. In fact, successful healing with pow wow, which is used as a verb as in ‘to pow wow someone,’ is actually viewed as confirmation of God’s power or mercy. For example, To treat a fever, turn your shirt inside out for three mornings in a row. As you do, say, “Turn thou, shirt, and fever likewise turn. I tell thee this in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” After the third day, your fever will have been smited. Smote? It’s not smitted, I know that. Or to stop bleeding, breathe upon the injured person three times, and recite the Lord’s Prayer three times, but only the first few lines, stopping when you get to “upon the earth.” Guess it’s the cliff notes version.
Pow wow uses a lot of herbalism in its practices, which only makes sense in an agrarian community. To protect cattle, mix up a blend of wormwood, asafetida, and other herbs with soil from your stable and some salt. Combine these in a fabric pouch and bury it under the threshold to your barn where the cattle enter and exit. But wait, there’s more! This will keep them safe from both theft and disease. And then there are some spells that are … well, they do catch the imagination. If you are going to court, write these words on a piece of paper and carry it in your pocket for a positive outcome, “I appear before the house of the Judge. Three dead men look out of the window; one having no tongue, the other having no lungs, and the third sick, blind and dumb.” K.
Though pow wow isn’t as common as it once was, you can see reminders of it when driving through that part of the country or even shopping at an “Amish furniture” store. Amish is in quotes there because a lot of folks will slap the name Amish onto any folksy, like sturdy furniture, quilts, bread and jam, as a marketing tool even when no Amish people were anywhere near the products being made. Ever see a barn or house with a round decorative plaque above the door? The motifs are often animals, predominantly birds, in the distinct style of the region, but may also be geometric patterns, not unlike a quilt. These are called hex signs, but not “hex” in the way that came to your mind first. These designs aren’t black magic against someone else, but white magic for the family that lives there. Barn paintings, usually in the form of “stars in circles”, began to appear on the landscape in the early 19th century, and became widespread decades later when commercial ready-mixed paint became readily available. By the 1950s commercialized hex signs, aimed at the tourist market, became popular and these often include stars, compass roses, stylized birds known as distelfinks, hearts, tulips, or a tree of life. Two schools of thought exist on the meaning of hex signs — one that they are talismans of magic, the other that they’re just for pretty — but both schools recognize that there are sometimes superstitions associated with certain hex sign themes.
If you want to get your Martha Stewart on (even though she’s Polish) and make your own hex sign, here are some symbols you might want to include: a star generally means good luck, though a triple star is specifically meant to bring prosperity; waves or a wavy border bring smooth sailing in life; an oak leaf for strength or a maple leaf for contentment; an eagle for courage or a dove for peace; a trio of tulips stands for faith, hope and charity, very similar to the naming theme my mother wanted to use for us (she did manage to get in a Hope and a Mercy).
Where there is good or white magic, there will inevitably be black or hurtful magic. We’re not going to debate whether magic is real. If a person believes the magic is real, that gives it power. Think of it as a placebo effect, which demonstrates the powerful effect the mind can have over the body. If you think you’ve never experienced that, think about the last time you took some aspirin for a headache. How fast did you feel better? I’d bet a day’s wage that you felt better in less than the 30 minutes it actually takes for the medicine to proliferate and perfuse through your person.
Around Thanksgiving in 1928, not Halloween as is often assumed, a man and two teenage boys fatally attacked a farmer late one night in a remote southeastern York County valley, Rehmeyer’s Hollow. The area was named for the man whose home stood there, Nelson Rehmeyer, who, if his assailants were to be believed, had cast spells on them and their families.
Rehmeyer, a farmer by trade, natch, was married but estranged from his wife and lived alone. He was reclusive, eccentric, and was believed to be a powwower.
Things were not going even that well for John Blymer. His wife had left him, two of his three children had died, he couldn’t hold onto a job, and found himself committed to a mental institution, which was not a super-great place to be 100 years ago. He believed evil spirits were pursuing him and that all of his suffering came from being cursed. Blymyer consulted a woman identified in sources as witch, who pointed to Nelson Rehmeyer as the culprit behind Blymer’s bad luck. She instructed him to get into Rehmeyer’s house and retrieve a personal item, the more personal the better, like a lock of hair, and Rehmeyer’s spell book, Long Lost Friend. This collection of charms, folk remedies, spells, and talismans was a key text of powwow, that’s still in print today.
Blymer wasn’t about to go after Rehmeyer alone. I can’t say how Blymer was acquaintd with his accomplises or how he talked them into it, but he went in flanked by Wilbert Hess, 18, and John Curry, who was only 14 at the time of the murder. We do know that Hess’s family was going through a bad streak and Rehmeyer was as good a cause as any. They had to get the lock of hair and book and buyer then six feet deep to break the spell. Easy enough, get in, get out, grab a shovel. So what happened that evening in the hollow? There was a struggle and the trio tied up the farmer, beat him to death and set fire to his body. After all that, they fled the crime scene. Rehmeyer’s body was discovered about a day later – on Thanksgiving Day 1928 – when his neighbors noticed his animals on his farm were unfed.
Small towns mean a small suspect pool, so it wasn’t long before Blymyer, Hess and Curry were arrested and ordered to trial two months hence. All three were convicted and given life sentences. If the judge wanted to keep witchcraft talk out of his courtroom, he must have been sorely disappointed. In testimony, the role of witchcraft, spells and the like came out. Journalists from all over covered the trial, and this trial, with those elements of witchcraft, made international news. “Life” in prison doesn’t mean “natural life” in most cases and all three were released after serving their sentences. John Curry, the youngest defendant, was able to turn his life around and his artist skill actually earned him a spot as a cartographer on Eisenhower’s staff in World War II, and his paintings still hang in some York county houses today. If this story sounds familiar, maybe you saw the The 1988 film, Apprentice to Murder, stars Donald Sutherland as “powwow” doctor John Reese, and Chad Lowe as his young apprentice Billy Kelly.