Ask for potato filling in certain corners of Pennsylvania — ours included — and you’ll get a blank stare. Settle down for a Thanksgiving meal in Berks County, though, and you won’t even have to ask for it.

Potato filling’s always been there.

“I’m responsible for the potato filling on Thanksgiving, but both of my daughters know how to make it,” said Susan Dice, 71, of Womelsdorf, Berks County. “My mother made it and my grandmother made it.”

Potato filling is a good way to get rid of stale bread, something warm to pile onto the plate beside the turkey and cranberry sauce. As far as recipes go, it’s about as complicated as grilled cheese. If you’ve ever mashed all your Thanksgiving sides into one spoonful, you sort of get the idea.

“It’s basically a combination of mashed potatoes and stuffing,” said Zach Brown, a lifelong Berks County resident who runs the Berks County Eats website.

In Pennsylvania, the warm, creamy, carb-laden side dish is so cherished, it beat out pineapple stuffing and baked corn as the state’s most Googled Thanksgiving recipe, according to a 2014 New York Times story. (Stuffed artichokes topped New Jersey’s searches, closely followed by ricotta cheesecake.)

Pennsylvania-based food historian William Woys Weaver has said that it dates back to the 1700s but that a detailed origin story is lost to time. Most people in Berks and some surrounding counties assume the dish, like many others there, has Pennsylvania Dutch roots that may trace back to Germany.

Whatever its genesis, the side comes together in many ways — some recipes start with ready-made mashed potatoes, some call for boiling them at the start — but it’s always anchored by potatoes, white bread, and butter. Lots of butter: A Pottstown-sourced recipe in the Washington Post calls for 20 tablespoons (that’s 2½ sticks) to make a batch large enough for 10 servings.

A potato filling dish is prepared in the kitchen at the Deitsch Eck Restaurant in Lenhartsville, Pa. Thursday, November 7, 2019.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
A potato filling dish is prepared in the kitchen at the Deitsch Eck Restaurant in Lenhartsville, Pa. Thursday, November 7, 2019.

The butter is divvied up between the potatoes and the bread, which often gets toasted in a skillet with onion and celery. Eventually, the starches are folded together in a casserole dish, topped with dots or a drizzle of butter, then browned in the oven until a crust forms. As it cooks, the hunks of butter-saturated bread melt into mashed potatoes. A finishing sprinkle of herbs (parsley, sage) or spices (paprika, nutmeg, poultry seasoning) varies from region to region and cook to cook.

“There are as many great recipes for potato filling as there are grandmothers in Berks County,” Brown said.

Susan Dice grew up in Lebanon County, to the west, and her potato filling was always covered in saffron.

“I think they used saffron to make it look yellow,” she said. “I love the saffron flavor, though. That’s the way I make it. That’s not a Berks County thing. They flavor it with pepper or parsley. I think that’s the Berks County way.”

At Deitsch Eck (Dutch Corner), a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch eatery in Lenhartsville, the owner’s aunt, Nancy Stump, was busy preparing potato filling on the kitchen stove one rainy morning earlier this month. Along with the boiling potatoes and day-old rolls, Stump was sautéing celery, onions, and parsley. Soon, she’d add some milk and stir it all together.

Nancy Stump prepares a potato filling dish, in the kitchen at the Deitsch Eck Restaurant in Lenhartsville, Pa. Thursday, November 7, 2019.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Nancy Stump prepares a potato filling dish, in the kitchen at the Deitsch Eck Restaurant in Lenhartsville, Pa. Thursday, November 7, 2019.

Though simple, there are potato-filling taboos.

“A lot of places don’t serve it, and when they do serve it, they would use instant potatoes,” Stump said. “We never use instant.”

Deitsch Eck was opened in the 1930s by Johnny Ott, whose traditional Pennsylvania Dutch “hex” art still adorns the walls. Owner Steve Stetzler often has Amish customers, which he said is rare for a private restaurant. Potato filling has likely always been on the menu, he said, and always will be.

“We knew coming in here, of course, that we had to have it,” said Stetzler, who bought the restaurant in 1997. “We hardly ever do mashed potatoes. It’s always potato filling.”

Steve Stetzler shows a potato filling dish at the Deitsch Eck Restaurant in Lenhartsville, Pa. Thursday, November 7, 2019.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Steve Stetzler shows a potato filling dish at the Deitsch Eck Restaurant in Lenhartsville, Pa. Thursday, November 7, 2019.

Stetzler said some customers add a little hot bacon dressing to the filling, a Deitsch Eck special. Last Thanksgiving, they sold 300 pounds of potato filling takeout.

Brown, 34, said his family always buys a tray of the traditional dish from Zion Lutheran Church in Womelsdorf, which churns it out for a yearly holiday fund-raiser. Dice is one of the cooks, and often, they take orders for Christmas as well.

"This year, we made 207 two-pound trays,” Dice said. “Sales were a little down.”

A potato filling dish is shown at the Deitsch Eck Restaurant in Lenhartsville, Pa. Thursday, November 7, 2019.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
A potato filling dish is shown at the Deitsch Eck Restaurant in Lenhartsville, Pa. Thursday, November 7, 2019.

POTATO FILLING


Most people make potato filling from family recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. Because of this, the quantity or measurements of ingredients can vary greatly from recipe to recipe.


3 pounds of russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed, peeled, and cut into evenly sized pieces

1 stick of butter, plus more for pan prep and as needed

2 to 3 slices of day-old white or wheat bread (do not use soft or fresh bread), cut into cubes

1 medium onion, diced

2 celery stalks, thinly sliced

3 to 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

½ cup milk, room temperature

Beaten egg, optional


Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Place the potatoes in a large pot and cover with lightly salted water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium; cook for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and can be easily pierced with a fork. Remove from heat. Reserve 1 cup of cooking liquid, then drain.


While the potatoes boil, prepare the bread. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Stir in the onion, celery and parsley and sauté until soft, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the bread cubes; cook for about 10 minutes, stirring gently, until they absorb the butter in the pan. Let cool. (If the bread looks too dry, add more butter in small increments.)


Preheat the oven to 350°F, with a rack in the middle position. Using a wooden spoon or potato masher, gently mash the potatoes; if the potatoes seem dry, slowly add some cooking liquid. Add the milk, then fold in the bread mixture. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Fold in the beaten egg, if using.


Add the potato filling to the buttered dish. Dot the top of the filling with butter, keeping in mind that you do not want the mashed potatoes to be overly saturated with butter. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top starts to brown.


— Lisa Haggerty, marketing director for Pennsylvania’s Americana Region