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What You Eat When Your Mother Is From Lancaster County, PA

Because our family, and most modern American families, make so many different foods from all over the world on a regular basis, I forget how specialized cuisine can still be from one location or culture to the next. Nowadays its so easy to pull inspiration from the internet to make Chinese food, Somalian food, Indian food, Thai food or whatever, that we forget that these broad categories don’t reveal the wide variety of dishes across an entire country and its subcultures.

It’s the same in America. There is “American food” like turkey on Thanksgiving with pumpkin pie, or burgers and hot dogs on the fourth of July, but there are so many local dishes that, while more widely known today than 50+ years ago, are still definitely a local, or acquired taste. Raising my children in New Jersey means they are not surrounded by the same foods I grew up with in Lancaster County, PA. And while I knew some foods I’m familiar with are not common outside southeast PA (like shoo fly pie and red beet eggs) I can still be surprised when something I assumed was standard “American” fare, was local to Lancaster. Like when I learned that most people had never heard of eating chicken and waffles together, and when the food pairing did pick up in popularity it was always served as fried chicken with waffles and syrup. In my home town, chicken and waffles is shredded chicken in a rich chicken gravy served over waffles. It was common for the firehouse next to us have huge fundraiser dinners selling all you could eat meals of it.

Within the last couple years I learned no one else ever made cheesy carrot casserole at the holidays. When Fulton mentioned in his class he was having cheesy carrot casserole at Thanksgiving the teacher texted me for an explanation. I think Fulton’s teacher, aides, and classmates thought he was making it up. And only recently did I realize that not everyone in my family prefers the clearly superior chicken corn soup (made with egg noodles, corn, chicken, and hard boiled egg pieces in broth) to regular chicken noodle soup.

“I just don’t understand why there’s corn in it,” said Tony.

“I don’t get why you’d put hard boiled egg in soup,” added Edie.

“So you’d never had chicken corn soup before my family introduced it to you?” I asked Tony.

“Never.”

Of course my upbringing does not dictate how we eat 100 percent of the time. For example, most years at Christmas we make homemade ravioli, from my husband’s Italian side of the family, and creamed corn casserole, from my PA Dutch side. We enjoy taco Tuesday, Chinese take out, and ramen is a mainstay in our house. I eat a much more diverse diet with my kids than I did growing up. But some of my favorite foods are staples from the Lancaster side. I will say the only downside is that PA Dutch food tends to be bland. My guess is that that’s because it was meant to be made from fresh ingredients; freshly gathered eggs, perfectly ripe sweet corn off the cob, and the chicken you butchered and simmered in the pot since this morning. The quality of the ingredients is what made the dish. There’s not a lot of seasonings in my recipes except “salt and pepper to taste”. And maybe there was something about the Anabaptist way of life that precluded herbs and spices. But making these recipes now, I often add my own seasonings or mirepoix to compensate. I also remember lots of casseroles, which I don’t think are exclusive to SE PA, but I’m going to list my favorites here anyway. Enjoy this first installment of my online cookbook. All recipes I can’t link to will be at the bottom of the post.

Main Dish

  • Chicken and Waffles
  • Chicken Corn Soup
  • Creamed Dry Beef -I think this meal gets a bad wrap. My FIL was served this in the military and they called it “sh!t on a shingle”. I loved this meal as a child, and my kids often request it for their birthday when they know we’ll be seeing my parents. We always serve it over mashed potatoes. I know you can find it outside Lancaster, but its very popular there.
  • Ham Loaf
  • Chicken Tetrazitti* – recipe below
  • Pork and Sauerkraut – Needs to be eaten on January 1 for good luck the whole year. Serve your favorite cut of pork with prepared sauerkraut. No recipe required. My grandmother used to make the sauerkraut from scratch, but none of us liked it all that much so at some point she switched to serving a smaller batch of pre-made kraut and no one complained. No one is a huge fan of sauerkraut in our house today, so I buy a small amount (I did like the Boar’s Head brand I bought this year.) and put a tablespoon-tops! on everyone’s plate for traditions sake.

Side Dish

  • Pineapple Stuffing – I grew up eating this every time we had ham. As pineapples aren’t local to PA, I’m sure this isn’t a “traditional” food, but I’ve never heard of anyone else eating it.
  • Cheesy Carrot Casserole* – recipe below
  • Creamed Corn Casserole*- recipe below

Desserts

  • Whoopie Pies
  • Shoo Fly Pie
  • Apple Dumplings
  • Aunt Anna’s Sugar Cookies* – My great-grandfather was Mennonite, the son of a Mennonite bishop. His daughter, my grandmother, was raised Mennonite, but not strictly. After her mother died, she started attending a Methodist church where she would later meet my grandfather. Aunt Anna was her father’s “spinster” sister, and I remember as a child Aunt Anna in her traditional Mennonite clothes and head covering at our Sunday dinners. She made these sugar cookies, which I now know are unique to the area. They were always a favorite of my cousins and I. The recipe is below.

Other Mainstays

  • Fastnachts – Served on Fat Tuesday, fastnacht is literally German for ‘the night before the fast’. Even though I didn’t really observe Lent growing up, Fastnacht Day was a big deal; they were advertised everywhere! Traditional fastnachts are like plain, deep fried dough, but some places sell what look like regular doughnuts and call them fastnachts. I try to make traditional fastnachts now since we have a deep fryer, as I can relate to this Mardi Gras tradition more than others. Some recipes will call for potatoes, others don’t; both are good and local to the area.
  • Red Beet Eggs – I am the only one in the house that eats these.
  • Potato Rolls – I prefer the Martin’s brand. Packed with chicken or ham salad I would devour potato roll sandwiches at church luncheons.

There are some other food associated with the Amish or Lancaster county like cup cheese or chow chow, but I didn’t eat them growing up so I’m not listing them. I’m only sharing things I ate on a regular basis and still make today. Some of them are known outside Lancaster now, but when I moved to Syracuse, NY in 2000, I realized many of these items were unheard of, as was Yuengling beer at the time. Thankfully now you can buy Yuengling in Upstate NY (a huge improvement over Labatts or Molsen).

Cookbooks

  • Mennonite Community Cookbook
  • The Central Market Cookbook
  • Any Lancaster County church cookbook from the 90s or earlier. A lot of my favorite recipes can be found in one of two cookbooks the Methodist church I grew up in sold as fundraisers. You can usually find these types of cookbooks at estate sales, thrift shops, or used bookstores in the area.

Any questions about PA Dutch cuisine? If you’ve visited Lancaster, PA what was your favorite food? I’m hankering some red beet eggs now…

Chicken Tetraziti

Prep Time40 minutes
Cook Time45 minutes
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: American
Keyword: casserole, chicken, Velveeta
Servings: 8

Ingredients

  • 10 oz cooked pasta
  • 1/4 lb butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 lb Velveeta cheese
  • 3 1/2 cups chopped, cooked chicken
  • 8 oz mushrooms, canned or cooked

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350?
  • Grease a 13×9 pan.
  • Melt butter in large sauce pot and mix in the flour.
  • Add milk and cook until thickened.
  • Add cheese and broth and cook until cheese is melted.
  • Add chicken, mushrooms, and pasta. Mix to incorporate.
  • Pour into 13×9 pan.
  • Bake for 45 min.

Cheesy Carrot Casserole

Savory and cheesy; carrots everyone will eat!
Prep Time30 minutes
Cook Time45 minutes
Course: Side Dish
Cuisine: American
Keyword: carrots, casserole, Velveeta
Servings: 6

Ingredients

  • 3 cups canned sliced carrots Can also use fresh carrots that have been boiled until just tender.
  • 1 can cream of mushroom soup
  • 1/2 lb Velveeta cheese
  • 1 can french fried onions

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350?
  • Grease a 2 Qt. casserole dish.
  • Heat soup and cheese together until smooth.
  • Mix with carrots and pour in casserole dish.
  • Bake for 30 min.
  • Top with crunchy onions and bake for an additional 15 min.

Baked Corn Pudding

Prep Time20 minutes
Cook Time1 hour
Course: Side Dish
Cuisine: American
Keyword: casserole, corn
Servings: 4

Ingredients

  • 2 cans creamed corn
  • 3 Tbsp corn starch
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 can evaporated milk
  • 4 Tbsp butter, melted

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350?
  • Pour corn into greased 2 Qt casserole dish.
  • Combine sugar and corn starch and stir into corn.
  • Add beaten eggs, milk, and melted butter.
  • Sir until well combined.
  • Bake for 1 hour. Should not be jiggly in middle when finished.

Aunt Anna’s Sugar Cookies

Prep Time30 minutes
Cook Time8 minutes
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Keyword: cookie, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Dutch
Servings: 6

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup butter or margarine
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 3 cups flour Original recipe calls for 2 cups Daisy Flour and 1 cup Gold Medal
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/3 tsp cream of tarter
  • 1 pinch salt

Instructions

  • Combine all ingredients and refrigerate overnight.
  • Preheat oven to 375?
  • Drop batter on baking sheet.
  • Sprinkle with additional granulated sugar. Optional: press 2-3 raisins into the center.
  • Bake for 8 to 10 min. until just barely golden.

9 Comments

  1. My mom grew up Mennonite and so many of these dishes just sound like home! Our family was Anabaptist the whole way back to the Reformation, we came to Pennsylvania in the early 1700’s and I even had family captured by Native Americans before the French & Indian War, and afterwards they migrated west to Somerset Co, PA; so not ALL of these dishes are familiar to me but most are! Chicken corn soup is CLEARLY superior, and we also dice hard boiled eggs and add them to our potato soup. (Which is very plain yet delicious, none of this loaded cheesy potato soup with bacon that you have now, lol.)

    1. My grandmother’s Anabaptist family has been in PA probably as long as your family has! Glad to know someone else sees the superiority of chicken corn soup. I might try to freak my family out by putting some hard boiled eggs in our potato soup next time.

  2. I love reading about regional foods-thanks for sharing about this topic! (though I have to admit, the idea of hardboiled eggs in chicken soup is very, very strange to me) I have to say, that version of chicken and waffles looks way yummier to me than the fried chicken and syrup waffle variety.

    I’ve lived in a couple different parts of the USA, and it has been neat to see the differences in food culture. When I lived in Upstate-ish NY for part of my child, there was a lot of kielbasa dishes and baked ziti, courtesy of wonderful Polish and Italian parishioners. When we moved to Kansas after living there, I discovered bierocks for the first time. I live in Oklahoma now, and even though I never think of us as being in the South, cooking here is definitely Southern-inspired, with lots of okra, collard greens, catfish, etc. Some of our neighbors taught me that down here, there’s a tradition of eating black eyed peas for New Years Eve. It’s been so interesting for me to learn about!

    1. Moving to Upstate NY, and marrying into an Italian family, after a lifetime in SE PA definitely opened me up to a new world of foods. I love learning about local food traditions, and finding favorite local foods when we travel.

  3. My son went to Millersville which is very close to Lancaster. We have eaten at a few buffets with Yoders being a favorite. Brown butter noodles is my favorite and ham balls are my husbands.

    1. The high school I graduated from is in Millersville. And yes, brown butter noodles! I loved when my grandmother made those. I might have to make some myself soon!

  4. I grew up in the mid-west (Ohio) and I think that definitely influenced what we ate and what I still make today.

    Velveeta is my favorite “cheese” – nothing else has the smooth creamy texture, so the Carrot casserole sounds really good to me.

    Chicken corn soup sounds delicious and I have chicken to use up so I am going to give it a try!

    We used to occasionally have creamed chipped beef on toast. I think it is the Stoffer’s brand that my mom would buy and then just heat up in the microwave and pour over toast. It was a quick and easy lunch.

    I don’t like beet eggs although my mom and her sisters love them. I like picked beets tho. Acutally, pickled is the only way I’ve ever had beets.

    Sauerkraut is where I draw the line, too stinky for my kitchen! I don’t like pork loin either, so my traditional New Years meal has become lasagna.

    1. My mom loves pickled beets too, so my dad and I would eat the eggs and she would eat the beets. My sister would just be horrified at all of us.

  5. So I made the Chicken Corn Soup and it was great! The corn added a surprising sweetness. I will be making it again.

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