The Pennsylvania Dutch (also known as Pennsylvania Germans) have an old saying: “We grow too soon old and too late smart.” I’ve found there’s a lot of truth to that axiom, especially now that I’m getting smarter as my hair turns gray.
Things that I once took for granted or didn’t care about at all are starting to become important to me, and one such thing is my Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. Back in high school, I’m ashamed to say, kids who spoke with a so-called “Dutch accent” were made fun of, so my friends and I worked hard at not having that sound to our spoken words. Our parents and older relatives sometimes spoke to each other in Pennsylvania Dutch, but the only time we kids paid attention to this strange language was around Christmas or our birthdays, when they might be discussing our gifts behind our backs.
Although I attended Annville-Cleona schools, where our nickname was the “Little Dutchmen,” and I later graduated as a “Flying Dutchman” from nearby Lebanon Valley College, I was far from a Pennsylvania Dutchman in any meaningful way. I liked chicken potpie and shoofly pie, and didn’t realize for a long time that there was anything wrong with saying “make the lights out,” but that’s where my “dutchiness” ended.
Dennis, originally from Reinholds in Lancaster County, is the true Pennsylvania Dutchman in our household. His family spoke Dutch in their home when he was growing up, so he has a working knowledge of the dialect. His mother was also more oriented toward Pennsylvania Dutch cooking than was mine. While we only ever had chicken potpie at our house, Dennis’ mom also made potpie flavored with beef or ham or pork tenderloins. We accompanied our potpie with lettuce topped by hot bacon dressing; Dennis and his son prefer to eat dill pickles with theirs. Dennis also makes his own potpie dough. My mother did, too, but if she had a recipe, it never got passed along to me.
Recently, I’ve found that my bucket list is starting to include an increasing number of Pennsylvania Dutch-related items. While I studied German in both high school and college, it’s not the same as speaking Pennsylvania Dutch. Therefore, I was delighted to learn that the Lebanon County Historical Society is sponsoring a Pennsylvania German language class taught by Alice Spayd, a well-known local expert on the dialect. You’ll find me paying close attention to her lessons on Saturdays from now until the end of May — and I already know what Kannscht du Micke fange? means. ... Ya, wann sie hocke bleiwe (see below for translations).
I’ve also developed a yen to know more about Pennsylvania Dutch traditions and foods. Here again, it’s been a case of perfect timing. Debbie Hartman, the former Cooking Institute instructor for Penn State Extension in Lebanon County, earlier this year launched her “Thyme with Debbie” culinary classes held at Millcreek Lutheran Church in eastern Lebanon County. While I, unfortunately, wasn’t able to attend the first few sessions, I made sure my schedule was cleared so I could be there for her recent April session, “Heritage of the Pennsylvania Dutch.” As usual, the class was a treasure trove of cooking know-how with well-researched background information, in this case, cultural highlights about the foods of the Pennsylvania Dutch. I went home with a bunch of new recipes for old-fashioned foods, as well as valuable insights about my heritage and plenty of helpful cooking tips.
Debbie made — and we eagerly got to sample — a variety of Pennsylvania Dutch classics. While my family always had a cooked bacon dressing on our springtime greens like dandelion, Debbie not only provided a recipe for that, but also whipped up a cream dressing that was both tasty and easy to make. I made the cream dressing for our dinner salad the next evening, and Dennis loved it.
Although I have a number of Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks, reading how to make something new and watching someone show and tell you how to make it are two totally different things. I’ve now expanded my Pennsylvania Dutch culinary horizons to include Zwiwwelbrot (onion bread); sweet and sour seedless grapes — which were my favorite new flavor of the day; gingerkraut; spring herb soup; and Safferich Eepieskuche (a saffron-flavored breakfast cake or muffin meant for dunking).
Along the way I learned about the Geeldeitsch meaning “yellow Dutch” — the saffron lovers living and growing this savory spice in Lancaster, Lebanon and York counties. I found out that the Pennsylvania Dutch call carrots Geelriewe, meaning “yellow turnip.” Hartman explained that the early Pennsylvanians fed carrots to cows to give their milk a richer-looking yellowish color. Somehow, I don’t think the milk inspector today would approve.
And here’s another helpful hint. Wild asparagus is known as Mickegraut or “fly plant.” Pennsylvania Dutch folklore says that if you hang a spear of Mickegraut at your door, it will keep the flies from entering.
As you can probably tell, I’m enjoying becoming better acquainted with my Pennsylvania Dutch roots and look forward to “much Dutch” as I grow older, but hopefully also smarter.
(Translation of the question and answer above: “Can you catch flies?” “Yes, if they stay sitting.”)