The cover art on the brochure for Shady Maple Smorgasbord - Lancaster County's largest - features a stainless-steel buffet trough reminiscent of an Army mess hall's and an aerial photograph that gives a taste of the dimensions of its Walmart-sized parking lot.
An inside page depicts customers at the ready, poised to dig in. They are promised, right here in East Earl Township (between Morgantown, roughly, and New Holland), "200 feet of deliciously authentic Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking."
The dining room can seat 1,200, the banquet room almost as many more. On a weekend it is not uncommon for Shady Maple to pack in up to 10,000 customers, many delivered by tour bus.
It's a deal at $12 a (senior) head for lunch. But the offerings tend to mirror those of every country buffet - breaded shrimp, Cajun catfish, "tender" roast beef, pasta and pie stations.
Sightings of regional specialties are scant (though sweet and sour ham balls occur, along with stewed dried corn, pickled eggs). Yet even their authenticity is dubious.
More sensitive souls can be put off by the whole scene; put off by the "Amish Mafia" T-shirts in Shady Maple's 30,000-square-foot gift shop, and the come-ons that celebrate food sold by the linear foot. It's the juxtaposition, in part - industrial food trailer-trucked into this modestly scaled valley of small family-farm land.
So it was little surprise one sunny day last week that William Woys Weaver counted himself among those who were not amused.
He would require, after this confrontation with his vision of the Antichrist and a lunch (fried chicken and ham balls), a detoxing purgative.
A glass of grapefruit juice, he declared, and a nosh of arugula.
He settled, later, for a soothing cup of peppermint tea.
Weaver knows that such a smorgasbord is not a unique (Chinese buffets carpet malls like kudzu) or even a recent phenomenon. Fake windmills, genuine water slides, and bad pie are hardly fresh interlopers in these parts. But that doesn't lessen Weaver's gloominess.
At 66, he is a food historian (he prefers "ethnographer" these days) of long standing, based in Devon where he presides over rustic, somewhat disheveled gardens of the rarest of rare heirloom seed.
More particularly, he has for years plumbed the culinary traditions of Philadelphia and beyond, most deeply the folk cookery of the Pennsylvania Dutch.
His latest offering on that front, and the catalyst for the recent excursion to Shady Maple, was the publication this month of his scholarly, and often disconsolate, As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine.
Its thesis isn't entirely without precedent, some of that precedent laid down by Weaver himself, whose earlier volumes include Sauerkraut Yankees, Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking and, yes, Country Scrapple.
He has taken as his mission the redemption of a diverse culture and a cookery that has come to be defined, to his profound regret, by soggy-noodle chicken pot pies, the funnel cake, and whoopee-pie.
That shriveled, craven menu is a defamation, he fumes, especially in a "Dutch" heartland in Pennsylvania (the size of Switzerland), home to more than 1,600 distinctive dishes, and to old-school sauerkraut and stuffed pig stomach, wilted dandelion salads, and summery peach and yellow tomato pie that can still be sniffed out at the right church supper or fire-hall feed.
One might argue such culinary declension is hardly novel, given the rise of Chef Boyardee, the cake mix, frozen enchiladas, the interstate highway system, handheld soup, fast food, and the rest.
But Weaver - whose book includes dozens of vintage recipes (from apple schnitz and dumplings to hasenpfeffer, sour-marinated rabbit) - has more specific conspirators in mind:
Local-color novelists (circa 1904) who alternately belittled and romanticized the Amish, launching a trend that now offers the Amish - to the exclusion of Lutherans, more-modern Mennonites and such - as the one true icon of Pennsylvania Dutch-ness.
Those who equate Pennsylvania's "Dutch" with Pennsylvania German. That construction ignores the "Dutch" as a distinctively American mutation. Take shoofly pie, he says. It's not German. It descends from a cake at the U.S. Centennial in 1876.
Tourist-hungry hoteliers who invented "sweet and sour" tables at odds with rural reality, expunging the poverty dishes of the so-called Buckwheat Dutch, and the unrefined likes of pork stomach and "hairy" dumplings, roast groundhog and gumbis, a shredded cabbage dish.
Weaver, of course, had been down the road (Route 23) to Shady Maple before. In fact, the lush farmlands of adjoining Weaverland in the Conestoga Valley were settled by his Swiss ancestors.
Near Churchtown, the farm stands were still waking up from winter - yielding asparagus and spinach, the first strawberries not yet quite ripe.
An hour away in Philadelphia, the weekly farm markets were already harvesting, offering foraged local ramps and wild mushrooms.
In Weaver's own gardens, part of his historic Roughwood estate, strange critters were sprouting - oxheart cabbage, Golden Juniata yellow tomatoes (said to complement peaches in the summer pie), "egg yolk potatoes" native to Bolivia, and strawberry rhubarb.
It was predictable, of course, that for a borderline curmudgeon and guardian of the heirloom and the authentic, Shady Maple would fall short.
Weaver found the sausages too full of filler. The pickled eggs insufficiently informed by red beet juice. The sliced pork unaccountably dry.
The ham balls were ruled passable, but their sweetness should have been countered by cabbage dumplings.
The signature shoofly pie?
One word, uttered as an epitaph.
Makes one 9-inch pie, or 8 servings
1 prepared 9-inch pastry crust
4 cups pared, sliced ripe peaches
2 cups sliced small yellow tomatoes
3 tablespoons blanche slivered almonds
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3/4 cup sugar, or more, depending on sweetness of peaches
4 tablespoons potato starch
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Combine the peaches, tomatoes, almonds, and lemon juice in a deep work bowl.
2. In a separate work bowl, sift together the sugar, potato starch, nutmeg, salt, and cinnamon. Then fold this into the peach mixture so all pieces of fruit are thoroughly coated. Pour the mixture into the prepared pie shell and pat smooth.
3. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 375 degrees and continue baking 25 minutes more or until the pie is bubbling in the center. Remove and cool on a rack. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
Per serving: 292 calories, 3 grams protein, 53 grams carbohydrates, 39 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, no cholesterol, 321 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.EndText