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The Not-So-Fancy Culinary Delights of Pennsylvania

The Not-So-Fancy Culinary Delights of Pennsylvania

Laurie Ulster

Pennsylvania has been in the news a lot lately, but there’s one very important thing no one is talking about… the cuisine.

Gourmet meals? Delicate pastries? Daring flavor combinations? Umami? Nope!

When you take your family on a nostalgic road trip to Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, you can’t expect any of those things, but you can still expect a delicious exploration of unique culinary wonders, if you adjust your expectations and remain open-minded.

My family and I took a much-needed road trip to our favorite inn in New Providence, PA a few weeks ago. When the kids were little, we’d go every year because of its proximity to Strasburg. Back then, it was all about trains. Train museums, toy train museums, train shops, the Red Caboose where the kids could press a button and shake the whole restaurant (to all the parents’ dismay and their children’s delight) and an actual railroad, sometimes visited by the revered Thomas the Tank Engine. 

Now the kids are teenagers, and without even having to discuss Thomas’ appearance schedule, they were surprisingly eager to go back. You don’t need to be old to feel nostalgic. We were all looking forward to the trip for weeks, fervently hoping our favorite food places would still be open. This was not going to be some fancy tasting trip, but a journey to sample some very specific cuisine, and each of us looked forward to something different. If you find yourself in this neck of the woods, here are our recommendations:

Shoo-fly Pie

What is shoo-fly pie? Only one of the greatest pies ever created, a beloved favorite of ours even though we all have very different ideas about what makes a good pie. Basically, it’s a molasses crumb cake in a pie crust, made up of the simplest of ingredients:  brown sugar, molasses, flour, eggs, and water. The reason it goes into a pie crust is to make it easier to eat. (So thoughtful!)

I’m not entirely sure where the name came from, but I think it has to do with the pie’s sweetness and thus the need to shoo away flies. All I know is, we like to get this for dessert at least once on the trip, and year after year, we stop at Dutch Haven on our way back out of town to pick up shoo-fly pie for our house.

There are recipes out there, but for us, there’s nothing like the shoo-fly pie you get in Pennsylvania Dutch country. They’ve got it down to an art.

Whoopie Pies

These, I’ve made at home. Decadent, creamy, and delicious, they were almost everywhere we went in PA, always fresh-baked. Whoopie pies are basically mini-cake sandwiches with frosting as the filling, and while they aren’t exclusive to the PA area, they’re definitely—and deservedly–famous in Amish country. I love the traditional chocolate ones with vanilla filling, but peanut butter filling is just as tantalizing, and the pumpkin ones make for a nice treat. (But let’s not kid ourselves, they’re not as nice as chocolate.)

Sausage Gravy

Sausage gravy terrifies me. My husband and son, however, can’t get enough of it.

To me, it looks like something my cat might cough up (and then eat again, and cough up again). To them, it’s an irresistible breakfast they can’t wait to dig into.

Sausage gravy is pork sausage with butter, flour, and milk. My husband and son like it over biscuits or eggs or just about anything breakfast-y. They rub their hands in gleeful anticipation when it arrives at our table, while my daughter and I avert our eyes. It soon becomes safe to look again as the guys devour every last bit of it until the plates are clean. I don’t get it, but the mere mention of it turns them into Pavlov’s dogs.

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Even though I like all the individual ingredients, I just can’t get past the presentation. They promise me it’s worth it, so I will extend their promise to you, should you find yourself in an authentic place that makes it.

Insanity Buffets

This is the part of our trip where I roll my eyes, let the others enjoy it, pay the bill, and start planning our next meal somewhere better, but all three of my other family members think about these buffets all year. The area we stay in is famous for its smorgasbord restaurants, where people pile up their plates with your meat-and-potatoes basics: meat loaf, roasts, green beans, and many other foods that will never make my to-eat list.

This year, things had changed, but the smorgasbords were adapting. In addition to plexiglass between booths and empty tables creating large distances between us and other diners, the buffet offerings were all under lids and there were bins of fresh plastic gloves required for all diners (along with masks anytime we left the table). The gloves went on, the food was procured, the gloves went in the garbage, with new ones required for each return visit. Smart! Sadly, it didn’t change the quality of the food.

My daughter, a fussy eater who rivals even my own very picky childhood eating habits, loves the freedom of having not ONE item on her plate she doesn’t like. This year, her dessert was a waffle with crushed Oreos, pretzels, and croutons. I still have a picture of her dinner from 2015: french fries, croutons, cheese, crackers, Jell-O, and watermelon.  (Her crouton love remains consistent.)

Homemade Root Beer

I cannot recommend this enough. I don’t drink soda as a general rule, but you have to make an exception when you’re in Amish country. Traditionally we’ve bought it from Amish people near Kitchen Kettle Village, but I’ve long been fascinated by the sign at Dutch Haven warning us to fully refrigerate their root beer before opening, because “Failure to do so will result in root beer forcefully boiling out of the bottle, creating a substantial cleaning event.” If that doesn’t excite you, I don’t know what will.

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