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Pennsylvania Dutch Food Favorites

Chow chow, shoofly pie, schnitz and knepp, chicken pot pie, dried corn, whoopie pies… Most visitors to Amish Country enjoy at least one or two of these special foods. Many cookbooks offer recipes for Amish dishes, yet many of these recipes are really part of the larger world of Pennsylvania Dutch (German) cooking. For example, my grandmother handed down her "schnitz and knepp" recipe to my mother, yet most Amish don’t eat this unique dish.

In the Pot, Not the Pie

If you enjoy a traditional meal while visiting the area, you may have a chance to try a local favorite, chicken pot pie. Some people think this is chicken in a pastry shell baked in the oven, but what they discover is squares of dough cooked in broth with pieces of chicken. Locals sometimes argue as to what is and is not acceptable for traditional chicken pot pie, from potatoes to peas to carrots to saffron. Some cooks make a thick and hearty pasta, while others make one that is light and thin. Making the dough for this stew is really quite simple, being nothing more than eggs, flour, and milk.

How Now, Chow Chow?

Chow chow is surely the area’s most famous relish, one that goes well with the other starchy foods often served. It is said that when ladies neared the end of the canning (cooking and sealing vegetables in jars), they often had odd amounts left over from their gardens. So, everything would get combined as chow chow --- carrots, onions, cauliflower, cucumbers, cabbage, celery, corn, peppers, and assorted beans. Chow chow is sometimes referred to as "End of the Season" relish. Although there is sugar in the liquid, it’s that sour taste that everyone remembers.

Traditional Space Age Food

Corn in various forms is a popular food here, from corn relish and corn fritters, to corn meal mush and our wonderful chicken corn soup, a staple at local fire company dinners. Long before astronauts were taking dehydrated foods into space to eat, the local Pennsylvania Dutch were applying the same idea to corn and apples, drying them for use later in the year. The kernels from the corn cobs were removed, dried, and then stored. After soaking them in water overnight, they could be boiled and served as that nutty-tasting favorite, dried corn.

Dried apples are referred to as "schnitz" and are used in pies and the unique dish known as "Schnitz and Knepp," which is sometimes difficult to find at area restaurants. The dried apple slices are cooked with pieces of ham. The "knepp" is a kind of round bread dumpling that is cooked with everything else. A thick sauce emerges, and it is a truly unusual entrée, actually a meal in itself.

Shoo, Flies!

Perhaps no other single dessert is so identified with Amish Country as is the shoofly pie. First-time visitors always want to know what it is. We might say it is more like a coffeecake, with a gooey molasses bottom. This bottom can be thick or barely visible, hence we refer to pies as wet-bottom or dry-bottom. Some cooks put chocolate icing on top for a chocolate shoofly pie. Some use spices; some don't. There does seem to be agreement that they are best slightly warmed with a major dab of whipped cream on top. There are even recipes for shoofly cake.

Shoofly pies can be tasted in most of the area restaurants, where you can usually buy one to take home as well. Most people find them very sweet, what with all that molasses and brown sugar. If you like sweet desserts, you'll probably love shoofly pie.

But how did these pies get their name? The most logical explanation seems to be that the sweet ingredients attracted flies when the pies were cooling. The cooks had to "shoo" the flies away, hence the name shoofly pie.

Another story claims that this is really a French recipe, and that the crumb topping of the pie resembled the surface of the cauliflower, which is "cheux-fleur" in French. This was eventually pronounced as shoofly. Locals have a little problem with that explanation, and most of us have never seen this pie served up in the fine restaurants of Paris.

No less an authority on things Pennsylvania Dutch than John Joseph Stoudt states clearly that shoofly pies "are soundly Pennsylvanian, made in the earlier days with sorghum, later with molasses, and with brown rather than granulated sugar." Phyllis Pellman Good, in her book AMISH COOKING, feels that these pies may have been common because "this hybrid cake within a pie shell" faired better in the old style bake ovens after the bread had been baked. With modern kitchen stoves, temperatures could be controlled and the more standard, lighter pies developed. 

Here is a "classic" recipe, which uses New Orleans molasses (French after all?). Just be sure to use a good, thick molasses. Mix crumbs made from 1½ cup of flour, 1 cup of brown sugar, ¼ cup of butter or lard. Take ½ cup of New Orleans molasses, ½ cup of hot water (scalding), ½ teaspoon of soda in molasses and water. Fill two pre-rolled piecrusts with the molasses mixture and put crumbs on top. Bake until firm.


Another kind of "pie" is the whoopie pie. I have never been able to discover anyone with a story on how it was named. It’s not really a pie. It is basically a glorified Oreo cookie—two pieces of moist chocolate cake with white icing in the middle. Variations include peanut butter icing, vanilla cake, pumpkin cake, oatmeal cookies and icing, and even red cake and green icing at Christmas. The true gourmet travels Lancaster County in search of the many variations and the "ultimate" whoopie pie. They go well with a glass of fresh, cold milk. And I love to freeze them and eat them like an ice cream sandwich.

Spread It On!

Finally, if you want to try a popular Amish food item at home, make some "church spread." Common after most Amish church services to spread on the bread, it is made with a combination of corn syrup or molasses, marshmallow cream, and peanut butter. You’ll probably be hooked on it for life.

Eat Here or Take Out

While you are in the Lancaster area, be sure to try some of these unique foods. Family-style and smorgasbord restaurants offer the chance to sample a wide variety, while "a la carte" restaurants allow you to be selective, often taking the more traditional recipes and adapting them in creative ways. Many people enjoy trying their hand at these local specialties by buying one of the many excellent cookbooks available. And of course, you can purchase most of these foods to take home, have them shipped to you or a friend, and even order them online! No matter where you live, the wonderful world of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking is never far away. So, go ahead and "eat yourself full!"


Amish Country News Cover Article by Brad Igou (June 2001)


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