When we left New York City, we were in a cab headed to LaGuardia. Our driver asked us why we were renting a car out there, so we told him about this trip. His face lit up, as we drove through Central Park, and he started talking about cooking. Originally from the Bengal region of India, he lived much of his child in Saudi Arabia, then Bangladesh, and finally in Flushing in Queens, New York. Each place, he picked up something about food. This man loved to cook. “It’s such a good way to unwind after a day of driving this cab.” He told us about his favorite fish, his favorite Afghan restaurant, the place to go if we wanted true Bengal food in Queens. I asked him if it was unusual that he did most of the cooking in his family. (It’s not odd in our house that the husband and father loves to cook, of course.) “My friends tease me, but I don’t care. I love to cook more than I care about their insults.” By the time we pulled up to the car rental company, we were all friends. He gave me his business card and said the next time we are in New York, we should come to his house for dinner.
On the drive out to Pennsylvania, after a rather stressful drive through midtown Manhattan in a minivan, we stopped for lunch at a tiny town off the turnpike. Lu was pretty ravenous. We needed to eat now. We found a white building that said bistro, but it looked more like a diner. Sure. What did we find inside? A pretty darned good Italian restaurant, run by Albanian brothers. And they understood how to feed me, gluten-free.
When we thought about this trip, we imagined the food. But mostly, Danny and I wanted to show America to our daughter. I don’t mean the America in the media, which seems to be very shouty and divided. I mean the America that drives cabs but really loves to cook, the America that comes from thousands of miles away to open a restaurant in a green-leafed town. The America that gathers around the table, rather than the one that gathers around political issues.
We’re already seeing the country we hoped to see, the nation of immigrants intent on making good lives for themselves.
You might not think that’s the story of a tiny town in Lancaster, PA. But we learned pretty quickly, after we sat down in the church to talk with people, that the story of Bowmansville is immigration as well. The Pennsylvania Dutch came from Germany (Deutschland) to settle in these green rolling hills and fertile farmland. The food we were lucky enough to share in rural Pennsylvania was a product of recipes handed down from mother to daughter to the next generation. This is a place of ritual.
My mother came from Pennsylvania Dutch stock, so many of the details of that wonderful evening felt deeply familiar to me. I’m pretty sure we had the tablecloth you see pictured in that photo. She was a great baker — she’s still with us! she just doesn’t bake much anymore — and made tender flaky crusts for apple pie. And in that church room in Bowmansville, PA, I was finally among people who knew what I meant when I said my mother always told us to “read” off the table. (Pronounce it red.) They explained it meant to make the table ready for the next meal.
Once again, the gluten-free table was crowded and the gluten table sort of sparse. I’m astonished. I thought I wouldn’t have much of anything to eat at these events. Instead, there was butternut squash with a kale-almond pesto, banana-walnut muffins, whoopie pies, homemade pickles, pepper cabbage, and creamy risotto. Lovely people of Bowmansville, you outdid yourself.
This potato quiche was utterly delicious. Elizabeth Weaver’s grandmother gave her the recipe years ago. It was also strangely similar to the twice-baked potato pie that Lucy encouraged us to make last year. (Maybe Lu sensed her Pennsylvania Dutch heritage.)
I loved sitting down at each table, joining a group, and asking them about food. Every table told me about the idea of the seven sours and seven sweets. According to the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, every table should have seven sour things and seven sweet things on it. Thus, there’s a huge tradition of pickles, fermented foods, homemade sauerkraut, and pickled vegetables in this culture. I loved the pepper cabbage, which is a simple condiment of chopped-up cabbage, bell peppers, and a sugar-vinegar brine. The dish in the front is a more modern version of it, with shredded brussels sprouts and roasted potatoes. I could eat that one every day.
My mom used to love these when I was a kid. I definitely inherited my love of the sour, briny, pickled foods from her. Now I know why.
Jolene brought us jars of her pickled foods. I was pretty hooked on the spicy garlic pickles and the pickled vegetables.
Of course, there was great gluten food at the potluck too. As people joked at every table, there may be a tradition of seven sours and seven sweets, but really it’s seven starches. Oh, the starches!
I couldn’t eat these organic cinnamon rolls, made by Hannah from The New Lunch Lady. But Danny loved them so much he couldn’t talk for a moment.
People from the Pennsylvania Dutch country all seem to know how to bake.
And this! Oh my goodness, this. This is potato filling, which I had never heard of before. “You haven’t?” everyone remarked. “Oh, this is a real Dutchy dish.”
Imagine mashed potatoes combined with Thanksgiving stuffing, bound together with a lot of butter. Danny loved this one. We’re going to figure out how to make it gluten-free for our Thanksgiving this year.
And this is opera fudge. I couldn’t have any, because we weren’t sure where it was made and the conditions of the place. That just meant more pieces for Danny!
It was such a warm, wonderful night in Bowmansville. I don’t think I will ever forget the chance I had to sit down with folks and hear their stories.
At one table, I said, “You know, it’s fascinating. Now things like canning, pickling, sewing your own clothes, and keeping chickens? They’re all sort of trendy. There’s a resurgence of interest in these things.”
Someone laughed and said, “Yeah, around here, we just never stopped doing those things.”
I can tell. I love a place that brings us hand-written recipe cards and says, “Please, take it home!” These were some of the most genuine people I have ever met, filled with good cheer and plenty of great recipes. Danny and Lucy and I loved Lancaster county.
It’s fascinating to see how new immigrants become established residents and pass down their traditions to their children and grandchildren, making a place singular for their presence. We experienced this at the Pennsylvania potluck.
I’m so grateful I’m having the chance to see this country.
p.s. When I published this post, I was so tired I forgot to thank the amazing people who helped make this happen. I am so sorry! Phoebe Canakis, of Phoebe’s Pure Food, is a force of nature, kind and amazing. Thank you, thank you for setting up the room like a quilt, for making everyone feel so welcome. Anne Ricks, you made this connection and pulled us toward Amish country, for which we are eternally grateful. And thanks to Goldilocks Goodies for bringing your delicious gluten-free baked goods to the party!
We want to send out a huge thank you and acknowledgment of the good companies that have come forward to sponsor this American Road Trip Potluck Tour for us all.
Thank you to these three companies, as well as the companies that might be joining us, for their sponsorship of this tour.