The term Pennsylvania Dutch has improperly come to be defined as Amish, says author William Woys Weaver in the introduction to his exceptional new book, As American as Shoofly Pie (Penn Press). "The Old Order Amish," he writes, "are only one of several images used to represent this complex and ever-evolving culture."
And that culture, which encompasses people of German, Dutch, and Swiss ancestry who came to Pennsylvania in the mid-nineteenth century, was never a "Little Germany captured like a butterfly in amber, a relic of eighteenth-century Europe frozen in time." Critically, insists Weaver, it is diverse itself and wholly American. "There is no interest among the Pennsylvania Dutch in German literature or art or the faux Oktoberfests that bring German Americans together in other parts of the United States… the Pennsylvania Dutch are Americans with a singular focus on their own landscape."
The product of that landscape—soups, wine, noodles, dumplings, casseroles, pretzels, pies, sausage, and most integral of all, sauerkraut—is the focus of Weaver's book, which includes 100 pages of recipes. While he is in search of authenticity of flavor and cooking methods—Pennsylvania Dutch traditionally use raised hearths—Weaver is alive to a strikingly large set of cultural inputs without trying to pin down a singular narrative. Indeed, like the most honest and skilled writers, he allows for complexity and contradiction by tracing myriad influences on the cuisine: the tastes of the elite—and relatively more urban—Hasenpfeffer Dutch, the rural poor, various religious sects, tourism, language, and more recently an interest in organic produce.
The forging of dual immigrant identity itself is a kind of authentic American undertaking (though surely it is authentic to other places too). In a real sense it's the subject of a second new book on food: the just published Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese Guide to Wedges, Recipes, and Pairings (Running Press) by Philadelphia cheese blogger Tenaya Darligton ("Madame Fromage"), whose voice is happily as strong and engaging as Weaver's.
The DiBruno story, as told in the book's foreword by company president Billy Mignucci, is a familiar enough successful immigrant tale. But when Mignucci's uncles Danny and Joe decided to focus their deli business on high quality, authentic cheese specific to place and landscape in the 1970s, they were propelled by a desire, held also by Weaver and chefs here in Philadelphia and across eastern PA who seek inspiration in Pennsylvania Dutch flavors, to erect a cultural counterweight to the suburban supermarket.
Darlington explores cheese by flavor: "quiet types," vixens," "free spirits," and "stinkers," etc. This means cheeses from various European and American regions are listed together, a chance for the reader to observe the ways that culture comes around, sometimes full circle, especially in this golden age of American regional cheesemaking. Among her collection of "mountain men," on facing pages she pairs Fontina Val D'Aosta, made in the Alpine hills of Italy near the French and Swiss borders, with Old Man Highlander, made in the hills above Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Aosta is a lovely, multi-lingual provincial capital, perhaps as German a feeling town as you can find in Italy. Honesdale breathes a not dissimilar air; the valleys and meadows of one place could be exchanged for the other. The cheeses, like the places, are interestingly related. Yet most certainly—and wonderfully—they're not at all the same.