A cautionary tale of ethnic food tourism

Fishers Main Buffet

Fisher’s buffet in Intercourse, PA. Made by Amish, but not necessarily Amish in origin.

My recent search for gelled tripe drew a rebuke from William Woyes Weaver, founder and director of the Keystone Center and the recognized authority on Pennsylvania foodways. While giving me some sourcing tips which I’m pursuing, he pointed out that pickled tripe is not Amish but Pennsylvania Dutch in origin. He referred me to one of his books, As American as Shoofly Pie, to learn more.

As I should have realized, Amish are but one subset of Pennsylvania Dutch, a population whose ancestors immigrated from Germany. They have become the face of the group because of their customs and distinctive attire, but that doesn’t mean they define it. The Amish persona has been enhanced by popular literature and deliberate promotion chronicled by W3 (as he likes to call himself) which goes back to the mid-1800s. The most notorious Amish myth-maker was Ann Hark, a novelist who employed a chauffeur (with whom she was having an affair) to visit Amish country homes and copied the cover of one of her “Amish” books from a Pennsylvania Dutch (not Amish) kitchen in a museum.

Such are the perils of ethnic food tourism. Any time we eat “ethnic food” whether it is a Mexican taco or Texas barbecue or Amish baked goods, we need to keep in mind that this is not the way our hosts eat on a normal basis. An ethnic cuisine derives from people who live close to the earth, respect the customs of their community, and make the most of the resources available to them. Meat is often a once-a-week food and the presentation of several items on a plate is reserved for funerals, weddings and other special occasions.

In the case of the Pennsylvania Dutch, food traditions were imported from central Europe and adapted to what was available in a new environment. There was a great deal of preserving through fermentation and stretching one-dish soupy meals by crumbling yesterday’s bread into them. Shoofly pie, a partially invented (it was presented at the American centennial in 1776) dish, was a poverty food: a coffee cake made with molasses and flour inside a pie shell, not particularly sweet, useful as a hand food throughout the day and certainly not a dessert. (The specimen shown at the lower left of my seven sweets and seven sours picture*, which I rejected as not tasty enough, was in retrospect closer to this origin than other versions I tried.)

The “Amish” foods I encountered in Lancaster County were influenced by another vector: commercialism. The train and later the automobile brought tourists to the hinterland to enjoy the pastoral scenes and the buggies. They had to eat, and would not be satisfied by soup with bread crumbled into it. So plain foods were dressed up to make them more savory, or generic mass-produced foods were given a Pennsylvania Dutch twist. There were popular roadhouses and resorts which drew thousands with this cuisine as far back as the mid-1870s.

Of the eateries I have visited and written about, Fisher’s is clearly Amish-run: it is staffed by a large family of Amish women ranging from about 10 years of age into the 80s. Dienner’s draws some approval from W3 as a place that Amish do indeed visit when they’re traveling. (Being thrifty folk, they would never thinking of eating out when they’re able to cook at home.) Town Hall is Pennsylvania Dutch, not Amish, and makes no pretense of being so. Shady Maple is an authentic success story that grew from a farm stand operated by a pious family also named Weaver—but Pennsylvania Dutch, not Amish, in spite of their Amish dioramas and the Amish workers they employ.

One might wonder what it is that draws tourists to the region when they could get quicker gratification at the beach or an amusement park. W3 points to a long tradition of yearning for a simpler life driven by basic Christian values. When there was anti-German sentiment during World War I, the Pennsylvania Dutch could be pointed to as “good” Germans. As Hitler was on the rise, the Amish (as well as the Mennonites) were notably pacifist.

On my restaurant visits I noticed a significant cohort of “strict father” tourist families in which an extended family shared a table and deferred to a male authority figure. Going to a place where you find such values permeating daily life must be a satisfying vacation, and you have to eat. Just as Disneyland is not for everyone, deciding whether to eat at Shady Maple or a simpler buffet or restaurant is a matter of personal preference.

I stand by the authenticity of my experience with the Amish I encountered. There’s nothing commercial about the image I posted previously of the woman kick-bicycling her way to her family farm stand, or the produce I bought from sheds backed up by the fields where it had been picked that day. I happened on an estate auction where a young Amish couple had just acquired a used circular saw and were about to ride off with it on their bicycles equipped with cardboard boxes as luggage carriers. They had maybe saved $20 over the price of a new tool and were as happy as could be. I’ll savor such memories, knowing I need to take a fresh look at the food.

*While the Pennsylvania Dutch definitely enjoy sweets, and pickles are a popular item at Amish gatherings because they are easy to transport in a buggy, the specific construct called “seven sweets and seven sours” was created in the 1920s at the Valley House Hotel in Skippack, PA according to W3.

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