Following a frenzied trip to Washington, DC on June 4, I headed to a quieter realm—Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to the home of my friend Paul Anater. Paul was, in fact, the original social media guy for Bounty from the Box—he started its Twitter feed about two years ago and has taught me invaluable lessons about media of all kinds and self-promotion. We are also kindred spirits in being hard-core foodies and gardeners, and so our conversation frequently deteriorates into rollicking debates about gastronomic minutiae, much to the dismay of polite but thoroughly bored company in our midst.
Throughout my life, I had read much about Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine and the ways of the Amish (in fact, many Amish people farm around La Crosse, Wisconsin, where I lived for nearly 13 years). Usually Pennsylvania Dutch food is mentioned in the same breath as scrapple, apple butter, shoofly pie, and chow chow. And I had included in Bounty from the Box an unusual recipe for potato candy, a Pennsylvania Dutch treat that consists of mashed potatoes, peanut butter, and a whopping amount of sugar—the kind of an old-fashioned confection that keeps dentists in business.
And so that was my perception of Lancaster—a land of idyllic farms out in the country tended to by industrious Amish, a place of food abundance but of very conservative flavors, with cultural disdain for the fancy and embellished.
Well, it was that, but also so much more that was completely—and delightfully—unexpected. As it turns out, this city of nearly 60,000 people in south central Pennsylvania is an enormous foodie town, and actually a vibrant one … nothing like the typical sob stories of Main Street USA where the downtown core is run-down, has seen better days, and quietly awaits further decline. No, Lancaster stands tall and proud, fully embracing its storied history (it is, after all, one of the oldest American cities, having been part of the 1681 Penn’s Woods Charter of William Penn), but happily, it’s not stuck in its past, either. The pulse of arts and culture are palpable here, as is the spirit of entrepreneurship and local businesses, and the kind of progressive prosperity that goes with it.
The beauty of Lancaster’s historic architecture and streets was evident everywhere we went—exquisite details, old brick that has seen many generations come and go, and a prison that actually looks like it means business. No jailbreaks here.
And oh, the restaurant scene! During my whirlwind 2.5-day stay, Paul and I had wonderful meals at Citronnelle, Aussie and the Fox, and Commonwealth on Queen, which showed that Lancaster is serious about great food that is locally sourced and truly delicious, not just because it’s trendy.
With my tastebuds reeling from such great dining out, Paul spoiled me and his partner even further by preparing dinner at home. Paul is a fabulous cook and used to work at several restaurants, and he is passionate about great food and baking. He also has several recipes that appear in my book and on this website.
So, remember the kale and sour cherries I mentioned in my last Postcards post from Common Good City Farm in DC? After some debate about their fate, I suggested Paul prepare the kale southern-style, simmering it with a ham hock like collard greens (after all, kale is simply a variant form of collard). He then made a gorgeous pork tenderloin stuffed with blue cheese and crimini mushrooms, along with an unctuous sauce dripping with cream and more mushrooms. The huge ham hock (which weighed well over a pound) sported an exceptional amount of meat on it, so bits of it ended up adorning this creation—pork upon pork.
And the cherries? They got cooked down with a little sugar while Paul’s Kitchen-Aid whipped up a mixture of cream cheese and sweetened condensed milk, with part of an egg white to help keep it feathery light. He then piped the result into tiny phyllo shells and topped it with the cooked cherries. Utter perfection.
The whole meal rivaled at least 90 percent of all restaurant meals I’ve ever eaten. I’m threatening that someday I’m going to fly him out to Seattle to cook for me as a personal chef. His talent is phenomenal.
I had scheduled my travels so that Paul could take me to two famous markets in Lancaster, each very different from the other. One was Root’s Country Market and Auction, home of the oldest single-family–run country market in Lancaster County. It began as a poultry auction in 1925 but has since evolved to include produce, fresh meats, deli, bakery items, flowers, nursery plants and seedlings, handmade crafts, antiques, collectibles, and household items from over 200 vendors. This is a serious market, one where farmers themselves go to shop, and it also serves as a de facto social hub for area locals every Tuesday.
It was here that evidence of Pennsylvania Dutch food habits and regional specialties simply overflowed stands and stalls large and small. We started with souse and scrapple, below, both ways of using up all the bits of an animal:
The Amish are famous for preserving foods for their long winters, and so sausage and bologna are staples, as well as sorts of pickled items. Don’t know what to do with an egg or vegetable? Throw it in brine!
Pennsylvania has a storied history of making potato chips, pretzels, and other snack foods (in fact Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery, founded in 1861, was the first pretzel company in the United States). But there are so many of these local companies that grocery stores and markets are constantly faced with a conundrum: If you carry one brand, you have to carry all the others so no one feels left out. The result can truly overwhelm the uninitiated muncher.
And golly, the Pennsylvania Dutch love their sweets, especially their shoo-fly pies (both wet- and dry-bottomed versions), which are basically pie shells filled with a molasses mixture and topped with flour, butter, and sugar. And then there are the Long Johns and whoopee pies.
Unfortunately, one manifestation of all this sugar suddenly struck me when I came upon two large stands selling socks. As a Seattleite who constantly contends with cold, wet weather, I immediately seized this opportunity to buy nice thick woolen socks at bargain prices. However, I also noticed that by far the most prevalent product were diabetic socks. Then I looked up and realized the demographic hobbling around me. A lifetime of eating copious sugars and starches, coming ‘round full circle.
The funny thing is that both of these stands are run by New Yorkers. The favor is returned by New Yorkers flocking to quaint Amish stores in Manhattan. People everywhere know an opportunity to make a buck when they see one.
Of course, Roots started as a poultry auction, and that tradition continues today. Early in the morning, trucks start hauling in trailers packed with crates of live birds, including chickens, pigeons, doves, quails, and even guinea hens. Someone also ingeniously figured out that instead of bringing just-hatched chicks to sell, which can be a hassle because of their need for incubators and constant warmth, to just bring the eggs themselves within a day or so of hatching, packed in regular egg cartons. Much easier!
And then there are the idiosyncrasies of the Amish—their reliance on natural supplements and tonics to cure whatever ails you rather than conventional medicine:
Some creative food marketing:
And then there are the curious dilemmas the Amish constantly encounter of living off the grid with no electricity and telephones, and yet having to coexist with the modern world with all its technologies and intrusion. Humility, modesty, obedience, equality, and simplicity are paramount in Amish culture, as is living close to God. Worldliness or any display of it is considered a distraction and potentially destructive to their religion and community. And yet the Amish are quite practical and realize their dependence on the outside world for raw materials and financial well-being.
To that end, air- or hydraulic-powered motors are used to power tools for their cottage industries, and 12-volt self-contained batteries are permitted since they are not connected to outside electric and utility lines. They use pressurized gas lanterns to light their homes and shops.
Horses and buggies are used daily, and ownership of personal automobiles is strictly banned as vehicles are seen to breed pride and inequity. But being a passenger is perfectly acceptable (and practical), so everywhere you see vanpools full of Amish people being driven to social and business functions. Many Amish have arrangements with non-Amish people to haul materials, or they even hire a non-Amish employee who owns a vehicle.
As a rule the Amish are completely against any displays of material wealth, which might breed resentment or jealousy within their tight-knit communities. However, with not much to actually spend their money on and the fact that many have become successful farmers or business owners over many generations, it is no surprise that many are quite wealthy. There is one indulgence the Amish do occasionally allow themselves, and that is their choice of horse to pull their buggies. I immediately noticed that the animals in front of these buggies were in stark contrast to the sorry nags I’d seen in Wisconsin; these were strikingly beautiful thoroughbreds and Morgans. A socially acceptable sign of success is a high-stepping trotter, which many Amish aspire to owning.
After the authentic experience of Roots, Paul whisked me to Lancaster Central Market, a historic public market in Penn Square. He jokingly called it the market “sanitized for yuppies,” but seriously, it holds the distinction of being the oldest farmers market in the country, summed up by the banner in the picture below: “Est. 1730 and still fresh.”
This too was an amazing gastronomic tour, with many of the same vendors as Roots, but in a more tourist-friendly venue, with none of the raw animal smells and sounds. And I daresay the facilities were a good deal cleaner, but altogether a completely different shopping experience in the most beautiful old building inside and outside (the huge interior rafters are an impressive bit of engineering work).
While I was there, a story surfaced about an Amish farmer who raises dairy and beef cows, goats, sheep, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese. He also has camels. Camels? In Lancaster? Really??
Immediately thoughts of a viral HBO series popped into my imagination—The Camels of Lancaster. A reality show, perhaps, of the untold drama of Amish life. Those fields and barns are not what they seem, concealing a roiling soap opera beneath the serene pastorality of it all. The ghosts of cobblestone streets long since paved over in downtown Lancaster, the brick and limestone walls that still speak of humanity they witnessed within, brawling and overflowing with secret hedonism, railing against their Puritan exteriors…
But camels really do exist in Lancaster. It turns out that Miller’s Organic Farm is shipping their milk all over the United States, as well as making camel yogurt, kefir, and soap. They are one of only about a half dozen camel dairies in America.
It really does seem strange to drive around a corner and see camels in the middle of a pasture. But after a few minutes of peering at them and wondering at the novelty of it all, it suddenly becomes pretty normal.
While I was in Lancaster, the local newspaper, LNP, interviewed me for a lovely story about Bounty from the Box that came out June 15. Read it here (and thank you Jen Kopf!). And a big shout out to Lemon Street Market and Zest! for carrying the book locally!
Pictures by Mi Ae Lipe and Paul Anater.