Potatoes: The Dutchman’s Caviar

By Bob Wood.

Title photo: Long rows of potatoes on the Wallace Moyer farm, Blooming Glen, Bucks County, 1931. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection.

It seems that in the old days the Dutchmen lived on pork, cornmeal, and potatoes, with sometimes all three in the same recipe.

In the folk-culture, the omnipresent potato was, and still is, used in potato filling, pot pies, potato donuts (fastnachts), various potato soups, mashed potatoes, potato cakes, and potatoes boiled, fried and baked in every conceivable way, even “potato peel pie.”

Potatoes native to South America

Potatoes were native to a very small part of South America, the high sierra of the Andes above 11,000 feet, where maize, the stable food of the South American Indians, would not grow. Botanists conclude that the potato had been domesticated in the highlands of Peru by at least 3,000 B.C. It remained restricted to that area until brought to the rest of Latin America by the Europeans.

It’s surprising then that potatoes, like fruit pies, were not brought by the early Germanic immigrants who came without potato recipes or a potato tradition. However, potatoes were commonly cultivated in Southeastern Pennsylvania from the beginning of settlement.

18th century European immigrants adopt potatoes

In a letter recalling his arrival here in 1734 Christopher Schultz, a Schwenkfelder, mentions, “The common people often had to survive on potatoes and corn, which they mixed together and from which they baked a kind of bread.” At another point he went on to say, “We found enough potatoes planted here when we came into this country. People know how to prepare them in many ways for man and beast.”

We find mention of potatoes in the 1740s include Katarina Wansiedler’s 1747 Roxboro tavern/store account book wherein she sold “sterck und grund bieren”- starch and potatoes. Also in 1748, the Moravian missionaries in planning an outpost near Shamokin were careful not to clear and plant more land than absolutely necessary so as not to offend the Native Americans whom they wished to proselytize, “…only corn, potatoes, turnips and beans to be raised.”

Israel Acrelius in 1758 published A History of New Sweden which is a history of the Swedish settlements along the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. About potatoes he wrote: “Potatoes are planted thus: upon a smooth and hard ground a bed of dung is formed. Portions of this are thrown upon the potatoes, which are then covered with ground of even the poorest kind. When the stalks are come up about four ells high they are again hilled up with the same kind of earth in order to strengthen the roots, which are thus considerably increased in number.”

Harvesting potatoes. Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center Collection.

Important enough to be listed in wills

By the 1760s and ’70s mention of potatoes begins to appear in wills. In a York County will the widow was granted “six bushels of Patatoes and six bushels of turnips” in 1766. In a Northampton County will of 1771 the widow was given “a half quarter of a acre for Potetes.” In 1774 a Berks County widow was left the right to “a half quarter acre of land fitted for planting of Patetoes Yearly.” In another Northampton County will written in 1779, a widow was given “three Bushels Potatoes.”

In 1777, during the American Revolution in Philadelphia Margaretha Kuntze wrote to her father, Pastor Muhlenberg, “We are now living on Potatoes and bread. I cannot buy meat…butter I have not seen for a long time.”

Storing potatoes

By the end of the 18th century, it’s safe to say, each farm had a potato patch producing a number of bushels to be stored in the cellar. A stone or clay shelf, known as the “Grumbeere hart,” was created in some cellars for the storage of potatoes. This kept them in contact with the cool even floor surface temperature and helped to preserve them longer. Even so, they grew fairly long sprouts by spring, which were removed. The removal process even had a name in Dutch–“die Grumbeere abkeime.”

Harvesting a large potato crop. Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center Collection.

19th century farm crop

By the end of that nineteenth century, varieties of potatoes had become major field crops and were grown on most every farm. Kept cool and dark, they lasted many months into the winter.

Bucks county farmer and school master John Landis wrote in his diary, May 2, 1885, “Planted Momouth [Monmouth?] Pearl Potatoes out in the field.” August 27, 1885. “Put slug shot on the potatoes out in the field.” August 28, 1885, “Went to look at the potatoes, slug shot no good.” August 29, 1885, went to the potato field with water and Paris green.” (Paris green was a copper based insecticide). September 26, “Dug up the Momouth Pearl potatoes and got a two horse body [wagon] full. The children helped.” (The Landis diary is in the Mennonite Heritage Center Collection.)

Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes too were widely cultivated in 19th century New Hanover as a field crop. Their winter storage was rather the opposite of white potatoes that had to be kept in the cellar: cool, moist, and dark. Sweet potatoes were kept dry and warm, often up-stairs in a barrel near the stove pipe.

Potatoes were usually not included in the fenced kitchen garden, but rather with the other field crops that needed more room like sweet corn, cabbage and pole beans in the vegetable “patch” located in a field close to the barn. Unlike the kitchen garden, the patch could be tilled with a horse drawn plow and cultivator.

Thanks to researcher Alan Keyser for much of the above information.

Recipes

Fried Potatoes with Yellow Stockings
Boyertown Area Cookery, Boyertown Historical Society, 1978, p. 23

Cook potatoes in their jackets. Peel while still warm, slice and fry until golden brown. Beat one or two eggs slightly with a fork and pour over potatoes, stirring to distribute and continue to fry until egg is cooked. Season with salt and pepper.

Potato Cakes
The Art of Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking by Edna Eby Heller (Doubleday, 1968), p. 62

1 cup mashed potatoes
1 egg
6 Tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup milk
2 Tablespoons lard or other shortening

Mix all ingredients, except lard, in the order given. Drop from tablespoon into hot lard that has been melted in a skillet. When cakes are well set and brown around the edges, turn and brown on the other side. It may be necessary to add more lard if the skillet becomes dry. (Serves 4 to 6)

Oyster Patties
Willing Workers Society of Frieden’s Union Church Sumneytown, p. 15

Boil and mash four good sized potatoes, add
butter and salt, 25 oysters, 1 cup of cracker dust. Mix thoroughly.
Fry in butter and lard.

Doughnuts
Willing Workers Society of Frieden’s Union Church Sumneytown, p. 31

Four large potatoes or two cups mashed fine, two
cups of soft white sugar, three eggs, two tablespoonfuls of butter or
lard, one cup of milk, pinch of salt, four teaspoonfuls of baking
powder, flour enough to knead (about six and one-half cupfuls).
Mix, roll, cut and fry in deep fat.—Mrs. Niel Detweiler

Potato doughnuts frying in lard, 2017 Apple Butter Frolic at the Mennonite Heritage Center.

Goschenhoppen Historian Bob Wood has researched, written and spoken extensively about PA Dutch folk culture topics and can be found at the Antes House during the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival.

One thought on “Potatoes: The Dutchman’s Caviar

  1. Nice post! I really like the history in the beginning.

    Regarding peeling potatoes, they were peeled in the “old days” due to possible high levels of solanine, a toxin that can be in the skin and more importantly green potato skin. However potatoes type today have been specifically selected for low levels of this and batches are tested as well. It’s very rare for this to be an issue anymore. OK, some like their mashed really smooth, some like the texture bits of the skin provide : )

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solanine#In_potatoes

    Like

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