By Sarah Heffner.
Potatoes have been a staple in Pa Dutch cooking since the early 19th century.
Potatoes originated in Peru, went to Europe via Spanish conquistadors, and were slowly adopted by Europeans. Potatoes then traveled to America with Irish immigrants and gradually made their way into Pennsylvania agriculture in the late 18th century. An 1838 survey listed four thousand acres of potatoes planted in Berks County alone. (Rupp, I. D. The History of Berks and Lebanon County, Lancaster, PA, 1844, pg. 263). Just a few years later, the potato blight that caused mass starvation in Ireland also affected the Pennsylvania crop.
Potato filling is a requirement for many Pennsylvania Dutch holiday meals.
Once they were more readily available, boiled, mashed and fried potatoes were routinely on the Pennsylvania German family’s table. Potato filling, however, was generally reserved for holidays because it took longer to make. There are some other distinctive Pa Dutch potato recipes that we could feature here but we really need to have potato filling first! It is a great accompaniment to Easter ham.
Potato filling seems to be a predominantly Berks and Lehigh County holiday side dish. I have found it interesting that in my collection of early to mid-twentieth Pa Dutch cookbooks, the only ones that had recipes for potato filling were very local cookbooks. The Dutch Cookbook by Edna Eby Heller, 1958 has a recipe for Lancaster County Filling that is bread based and that is followed on the next page by Berks County Filling recipe which is made with potatoes.
For those unfamiliar with potato filling, it is basically potatoes that have been peeled, diced and cooked; then mashed Other ingredients added and baked until a beautiful golden color. Like holiday bread stuffing recipes, families have various variations and can debate on what MUST be included but key to all potato filling is butter. A bowl of potato filling is one of the best “comfort foods”!
An old Boyertown recipe
The following was contributed by Irene Briedenbach to Boyertown Cookery, published by the Boyertown Historical Society in 1978, p. 29:
10 lb. potatoes
5 cups bread cubes (1/2 inch square)
6 cups fine chopped onion
5 cups fine chopped celery
Large bunch parsley, chopped fine
8-12 tablespoons butter
Sauté onions and celery in butter until tender but not brown. Mash potatoes and add beaten eggs. Mix vegetables, bread cubes and potatoes together. Salt and pepper to taste. This is about enough filling for a 20 to 25 pound turkey with enough left over which can be baked in a good sized casserole for about 1 hour in a 350 degree oven.
Author’s note: One can halve this recipe and still bake a good sized dish of filling. I lightly grease my baking dish and bake at 325 degrees. I think the lower temperature produces a more golden, crusted filling. Oyster potato filling is a holiday favorite. Simply add oysters to the filling before baking it.
This recipe is very forgiving. The potato filling recipe in my Hereford Mennonite Cookbook, 1991, starts with “potatoes, as many as you need”. Others sauté the bread cubes in butter before adding to the potatoes. I don’t use parsley while another adds minced garlic and paprika. One family member omits bread altogether. Another cook in my family prepares it in the morning, then let it sets on the stove on low…add a little milk so it doesn’t stick to the bottom…and let its cook there. She says that slowly the scent wafts up the stairs and if anyone was slow to get up…the problem is solved.
Skip the turkey or ham. Pass me a plate of filling. I think of it as Pennsylvania German soul food.
Sarah (Wolfgang) Heffner is on staff at the Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville.