Let’s talk turkey & church spread! PA Dutch Thanksgiving

ML1103WELA15Every year we gather with friends and family on Thanksgiving for a feast that leaves most on a couch somewhere taking a power nap within sixty minutes of dinner’s end. Mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries and of course turkey. Chestnut stuffing has become one of my favorites over the years. I started wondering with the diversity of cultures in the state of Pennsylvania and large amount of German settlers if everyone ate this type of dinner.

The answer is “no.”

Among the variety of cultures found in Pennsylvania, one stands out as having a very strong heritage for the types of food served on Thanksgiving, the Pennsylvania Dutch.

The Pennsylvania Dutch is a cultural group formed by early German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania and their descendants. This early wave of settlers began in the late 17th century and concluded in the late 18th century. The Pennsylvania Dutch maintained numerous religious affiliations, with the greatest number being Lutheran or Reformed, but with many Anabaptists as well. The Anabaptist religions promoted a simple lifestyle, and their adherents were known as “Plain people” or “Plain Dutch.” This was in contrast to the Fancy Dutch, who tended to assimilate more easily into the American mainstream.

Over time, the various dialects spoken by these immigrants fused into a unique dialect known as Pennsylvania German or Pennsylvania “Dutch” (Deutsch). At one time, more than one-third of Pennsylvania’s population spoke this language, which also had an effect on the local dialect of English.

After the Second World War, use of Pennsylvania German died out in favor of English, except among the more insular and tradition-bound Anabaptists, such as the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites. A number of German cultural practices continue to this day, and German Americans remain the largest ancestry group claimed in Pennsylvania by people in the census.

They live an agrarian society (agricultural) and their economy is based mainly on producing and maintaining crops and farmland. They acknowledge other means of income, but agriculture is their main bread and butter. With all of this in mind, I wondered what a typical Pennsylvania Dutch Thanksgiving is comprised of and how it differs from the traditional American.

The main course of turkey may or may not be at the center of the table. If the turkey has been grain fed, free ranged and raised by the farmer, there’s a good chance it will be. Goose is also another option. The rest of the dinner will be a combination of what is termed ‘sweets and sours.’ Oyster cocktails with vinegar, cranberry sauce, bread and butter pickles, cottage cheese, apple butter and pumpkin nut bread are common. There’s also potato and bread stuffing, sauerkraut braised with apples and onions, buttered lima beans, stewed dried corn (a specialty) and of course, pumpkin pie. One item that appeared on almost all menus was something called ‘chow-chow.’ Chow-Chow is a pickled vegetable mix of beans, peppers, celery and onions. As I mentioned, dried corn is a specialty and can show up in several different varieties of dishes.

Personally, the thing I found as a potential addition to my Thanksgiving is ‘Church Spread.’ It’s made from molasses, marshmallow cream and peanut butter. Yum!

Hopefully you will try a few of these out and integrate some of our historic Pennsylvania cooking into your Thanksgiving feast!

Editor’s Note: Want to try the delectable “Church Spread” mentioned by Assistant Editor, Fred Terling? Take 1/2 cup of creamy peanut butter, 1/4 cup of marshmallow creme and one cup of light corn syrup. Combine all ingredients in mixing bowl and stir well. Store in refrigerator in a covered container. Serve at room temperature with bread or ice cream. Recipe yields about 1 1/2 cups. Source – Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook (online).

Story by Fred Terling for Pennsylvania Bridges