The early settlers to Pennsylvania were mostly from Germany. Colonial Philadelphia, one of the biggest cities in the British empire, is nowadays remembered as a hub of the American Revolution. It was thriving; Benjamin Franklin was printing leaflets while the city went up around him. But before all this there was a Quaker governor of the state who decided to let in persecuted Anabaptists from Germany. This sect of ultra orthodox conservative Protestants were called the Mennonites. The Mennonites had earlier split off into the Amish, forming their own communities; it was these communities that moved into Pennsylvania. Amish believed in isolation from the rest of the sinful world, cutting themselves off from modern conveniences. That may have been easier in 1800, but it’s an ethos that has persevered to this day.
The result is that a few hours drive from the glistening hub of sin, technology and progress that is New York City, sits a community of farmers who have changed little in the past 150 years.
Change, however, is inevitable. Culture and language will always develop. The German spoken by the original settlers has become a hybrid language called Pennsylvania Dutch, no relation to New Amsterdam to the west, but from the word Deutsche meaning German. The Amish have slowly been using washing machines, powering their farm tools with propane generators and slowly moving towards modern technology. Sharing the inherent ability of language to adapt, is food. As the Amish tend to decry visual arts as a waste of time, the best way to observe and experience the culture and understand its history, is by looking at its food.
The land in Pennsylvania is hard, it requires work to get vegetables out of the soil, and the staple crop is corn. This is in harsh contrast to the Rhineland vineyards and the fertile soil of the Palatinate. The Amish food system had to adapt. German recipes were pared down to their simplest form, and the ingredients were substituted with what was at hand. The result is a fairly typical rural cuisine but with the twist of a German culinary tradition that never made its way into the age of refrigeration.
The hams and salted beef are combined with sauerkraut and oatmeal, the scrapple of pig’s head is mixed with cornmeal and made into fritters. In a community where refrigeration was a relatively recent turn of events, curing and preserving food remains incredibly important to the cuisine. As the rest of Pennsylvania took their cue from the smoked meats of the south as a method of preservation, the Pennsylvania Dutch gleefully piled salt and sage on their beef or pork, mixing it with innards to create sausages that, while not entirely German, were entirely American.
Typical Amish cooking completely inhabits natural approaches to health. No artificial chemicals are used, only what they can make themselves. This incorporates pickling, salting and preserving. The most common pickle is, of course, sauerkraut. The difference in pickling various vegetables all comes down to the ratio of vinegar, salt, and water. Vegetables that have a fairly thick structure need to be broken down, things like cucumbers are mostly water, so the ratio of vinegar to salt would be much more vinegar to much less water. Things like cabbage, as for sauerkraut, can use heating to break down fully, or time and salt but this was not common in Europe. As an example:
The Amish Version of Sauerkraut from Cooking with the Horse and Buggy People is as follows:
Shred cabbage like for slaw. Press tight in quart jars. Fill jars with boiling water. For 1 qt. add 2 t. vinegar, 1 t. salt and 1 t. white sugar. Cover and let set for 6 weeks.
The German method is slightly more involved. The typical recipe would go something like this:
Shred cabbage. Toss with salt and allow to sit for 45 minutes or until a large amount of water has been drawn from the cabbage. Massage the cabbage, squeeze it and get as much liquid from it as possible. Then place the cabbage and brine into an airtight jar and allow it to ferment for a week or two.
What is the difference in these recipes? Well, the Amish method adds vinegar and sugar instead of allowing the liquid from the cabbage to do the pickling. In essence the Amish are creating a brine of salt, sugar, vinegar and hot water then adding it to the cabbage and allowing the bacteria to grow and ferment over time. The heat is the main catalyst for both bacterial growth and breaking down the tough cabbage. In the German version the cabbage is broken down with the addition of salt, which draws the moisture out. Note the huge difference in preservation time. The Amish let their cabbage sit for 6 weeks before eating it, whereas the more typical German recipe simply waits for, typically, a week. Based on these recipes we can assume, correctly, that the Amish sauerkraut has a milder flavor than its German cousin.
Why did the Amish start boiling the water to add to the cabbage? The Amish sauerkraut method is quicker to do, the time from cabbage to jar is much less, and the shelf life is extended considerably. The German method has a more time consuming prep process, and is better suited to the world of refrigeration and shorter patience. The Amish recipe is an adaption of a classic to better suit the needs of a place without refrigeration and a real need to preserve the crop in a more efficient way. They may refuse modern technology, but the Amish are evolving and adapting, creating better ways to do things, finding new solutions to almost obsolete questions.
I hope you enjoyed this story! I am developing a delicious reuben with the sauerkraut I told you about in this blog, so stop by your local Atlanta Bread and check it out as soon as it’s available. In the meantime, we would love to hear your feedback so please visit our Facebook and Twitter and let us know what you would like to hear about in future blog posts.
John Hutt has been a chef all of his professional life and has traveled around the world to experience new cuisines and cultures. Based in New York and Atlanta, he is the head chef of Atlanta Bread where he is currently developing exciting new menu items while also refining many current offerings. He is also a writer, focusing mostly on contemporary art.
Main photo taken by Konstantin Sergeyev.