By Diane Hollister.
Photos from Goschenhoppen Historians Pennsylvania Dutch Foodways Project, 2008.
I’m married to Pie Boy. He loves his pie. He jokes that he’d eat it breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And that’s just what many of our Pennsylvania German ancestors did. In 1683, German immigrants began to arrive in the Penn’s colony seeking freedom and plenty. They cleared the land and developed farms. They worked hard, and food was key to survival. As some PA Dutch say, “Them that works hard, eats hearty.” They blended recipes from their homelands and ingredients from their new homes and produced delicious recipes that have been handed down for generations.
We all know about shoofly pies and fruit pies. But there are far more pies that we can explore in Grandma’s handwritten recipes. Baking was necessary, but it was also an art. The families needed good food–and a lot of it–to survive. The women worked hard to fill the stomachs around the table. It required some intuitive skill as you read some of these hand-written recipes that include “lard the size of an egg” or “flour to stiffen” or “season to taste; you might need more if the meat is gamy”.
Regardless of the time of year or time of day, the Pennsylvania Dutch ate pies. Pies were made with a variety of ingredients. Nothing was wasted; even little scraps of dough were made into “slop pies” with milk, butter, and sugar. That kept the little helpers busy. Creativity was also born of necessity, as perhaps one of the harder times was in the winter months when pantries were no longer filled with the fruits and vegetables in canned and dried stuff, or apples and potatoes in the root cellar.
A good housewife baked multiple pies at a time and knew just when her woodstove was at the “perfect” temperature. She also knew how to make good pie crust, the essential component of any pie. In fact, rolling a good pie crust was joked sometimes to be a key indicator of a woman’s marriageability. The perfect pie crust is not found in the grocery store aisle. It was comprised of flour, lard, ice water…and the right touch. Too much flour or too little lard, and it would be crumbly and dry. Too little flour, and it would stick to the rolling pin.
If you’re hoping to make a nice pie, you must first master the art of making wonderful pie crust. Only then can we think about the ingredients. Are you considering a main dish pie? One of my personal favorites is a corn pie, preferably made in my largest pie plate. A Pennsylvania Dutch corn pie is one our grandmothers made many times. They would fill the pie shell with corn, perhaps diced potatoes, milk, pepper, salt, and a dab of butter. It would be topped with more flaky crust and baked until lightly golden brown. Hefty pieces of that for lunch would fuel hungry harvesters for their afternoon work.
Meat pie with raised crust
2½ Cup Milk
3 Tbs Butter
1 Tbs Sugar
1 Tbs Salt
2 Yeast Cakes
½ Cup Warm Water
7 Cups All Purpose Flour
Dissolve the yeast in the warm water.
Warm the milk to 110 degrees, add butter, sugar, salt. Stir to dissolve sugar. Add proofed yeast. Mix well.
Gradually add the flour to make a stiff but still soft (non-sticky) dough.
Knead for 10 minutes.
Place dough in a greased bowl, cover with a clean cloth and let rise till doubled in volume.
The dough can be punched down and left to rise a second time if you are not ready to bake.
4 Chicken Leg/Thigh portions
1 Lb. Pork
1 Onion, chopped
3 Stalks Celery, chopped
Salt & Pepper to taste
¼ Cup Parsley, finely minced
In a large pot put the pork, chicken, onion, celery. Add lightly salted water to just cover the meats.
Simmer till cooked through.
Remove meat, reserve broth.
Let meat cool until it can be handled.
Remove the skin and bones from the chicken.
Cut chicken and pork into bite size pieces.
Divide the dough into 4 portions.
Generously grease 2 large deep baking dishes.
Roll 1 portion of dough ¼” thick, fit into baking dish, bringing the edges up the sides of the dish.
Put ½ of the meat mixture on top of the dough.
Sprinkle with 3 Tbs. of broth, salt & pepper and half the parsley.
Roll out a second portion of dough ¼” thick. Moisten the edge of the crust in the dish.
Place the second portion of dough on top. Press to seal. Trim any excess dough.
Repeat for second pie.
Let pies rise for 15 minutes.
Slash top crust before baking.
Bake 10 minutes at 400. Lower temperature to 350. Bake 30 minutes more.
Cut into wedges.
Serve with warmed, reserved broth.
Onion pie, potato pie and more
Perhaps instead of corn pie you’d have some onion pie or a potato pie to fill you up on a cold winter day. Lima bean pie was another option. Sometimes there would be some meat in pies as well. My grandmother made wonderful mince pies that my father anticipated every Christmas season. Real mince was a treat but it involved some preparation if it was made “the right way.” Oyster pie was another one that many PA Dutch folk enjoyed – and still do.
We might grimace at the thought of these, but there are other recipes out there for things like squirrel pie or pies with groundhog, venison, rabbit, pheasant, or other wild game. Chicken, ham, and other pieces of pork or beef could be used as well. Some meat recipes were made with pie crusts and others were more of the “pot pie” approach without crust. Pot pies involved noodles instead of crust but were designed to be equally filling and warming on a cold damp day.
Imagine a cold and snowy day…and the woodstove heated to just the right temperature for those pies. Goschenhoppen Historian Nancy Roan’s notes on pies include the fact that sausage was sometimes added to corn pie. Before commercially available sausage (from the butcher shop), this sausage would have been canned. Chicken pies would have a pie crust bottom and top (not biscuits) and possibly left-over chicken (if available) or freshly cooked for that purpose. Of course, it also included potatoes and maybe a bit of onion or celery too if desired, with some chicken brother or gravy. The oyster pie was raw oysters with crushed crackers of some flour. The thrifty housewife would add some salt and pepper, then butter and milk in a pie crust.
Oyster Pie (Mennonite Community Cookbook, p. 105. Herald Press, 1979)
1 pint oysters
1 teaspoon salt
4 medium sized potatoes or 2 cups crushed crackers
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon minced parsley
1½ cups milk
Pastry for two crusts
Line flat baking dish with pastry.
Arrange alternate layers of oysters and sliced potatoes or crushed crackers.
Season with salt, pepper and parsley.
Add milk and oyster liquor.
Place a crust on tops and bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes.
Add hot milk.
To fill out the meal…
Some people added hard-boiled eggs to main dish pies. Parsley would have been the only herb used. Hot milk was generally available to “eat with” these pies. And then when those pies were finished baking? The entire meal was pie, except for some bread and butter and maybe some pickled vegetables like red beet eggs (or maybe some chow-chow).
Regardless of which main dish pie you’d choose, you might also have some fruit pie or dumplings to round out a filling meal. Wait, you mentioned filling…potato filling? Yum…. Maybe you’re thinking of chicken and waffles or “hog maw” or pig’s stomach. But we’re full from pie now; that will be for another day.
Diane (Burkhardt) Hollister, of Topsham Maine, is a Berks County native.