Pennsylvania potluck

PA- promotional table

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.

We will.

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.

PA- tablecloth

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.

PA- the gluten-free spread

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.

PA- potato quiche

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.)

PA- spread

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.

PA- mary's stuffed peppers

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.

PA- Jolene's Jar

Jolene brought us jars of her pickled foods. I was pretty hooked on the spicy garlic pickles and the pickled vegetables.

PA- cinnamon buns

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.

PA- potato filling

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.

PA- opera fudge

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!

PA- promotional table II

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.”

PA- cabbage saute

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’re on the road for the next 10 days. New England, we can’t wait to meet you.

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. 

Jovial Foods makes incredible gluten-free pastas, organic tomatoes, and some of the best olive oil we have ever tasted. They make simply great food. 

Attune Foods makes some of our favorite foods in the world, including their new quinoa-chia cereal, which we will be debuting on this tour. They do things right. 

Bakery on Main makes great gluten-free foods, including good granolas and bars. We’ll definitely take some of their instant oatmeal packets with us, for a good breakfast on the road.  

KitchenAid makes some of our most essential kitchen appliances. They are giving away one Diamond blender at every potluck we are holding!

Thank you to these three companies, as well as the companies that might be joining us, for their sponsorship of this tour. 

15 comments on “Pennsylvania potluck

  1. leela

    what a blast you are having! love hearing the stories from the road and especially about the cool cabbies in nyc, i always get the best dudes from all over the world who want to dish about food — the great commonality. xo

  2. Kelly Schmidt

    In western PA (Pittsburgh area) the saying is “redd up” with the same meaning. Time to redd up the house for company! 🙂

  3. Beth Hayden

    I’m from Lancaster County originally (I’ve lived in Boulder for 15 years) and my all-time FAVORITE Pennsylvania Dutch dish is chicken pot pie. It’s not the casserole in a pie crust that the rest of the world makes, but a rich, delicious, hearty chicken stew with potatoes and large, flat noodles. We didn’t usually make it with corn or milk, but this recipe (and its photo) are very close to what I remember: I would love to see a GF version of this dish. It’s unbelievably tasty. 🙂

  4. VanC

    Shauna and Danny please, please figure out the GF Potato Filling! Buttery mashed potatoes and stuffing are the best parts of Thanksgiving! Unless I bring them myself I never get them at family dinners. My lovely MIL mixes a couple of ladles of her gravy into the potatoes for extra flavour. Which was great back in the day but not now that it can put me down for 3-4 days.

  5. Ginny

    Oh yes, we Lancaster Countians can bake!! Far too well.

    I’m a transplanted Lancaster Countian now, living in the UK, and missing “home,” though I haven’t lived there for nearly 20 years. Yep, we love our carbs. I think some of the best bakers in the world might call Lancaster County home. So glad you got to visit and share your experience with us–and bring some of us homesick ones a little reminder of home.

  6. Lonna Goshert

    Special thanks to Phoebe of phoebespurefood for organizing this tasty event. She even set up the room to look like a quilt. Loved Brandon’s squash boats with quinoa. Phoebe’s events are always so much fun.

  7. Kathy

    I was on the verge of asking you about opera fudge last night — and now I see someone brilliantly brought a box of Van Winkles!! I’d definitely be interested in knowing if that passes as gf. This candy (and Van Winkles when we discovered it) is intertwined with my family history. Thanks for the picture! If you want the recipe, let me know! 🙂
    (Reading this post made me realize how much more embedded I am in Pennsylvanian food culture than I am in Vermont’s. Speaks to the power of childhood memories!)

  8. phoebe

    It was wonderful to have the chance to get folks connected here in Bowmansville. I wanted to give a special thank you shout out to Anne R. who connected us with Shauna and helped me get the ball rolling. She’s an amazing gal that Anne.

    I’m sorry we didn’t have sticky buns or slippery pot pie represented but we had amazing whoopie pies, potato pancakes, opera fudge (a dying candy art), pepper cabbage & 2 versions of potato filling! We also had in the house! The food & company was amazing. Eat til ya ouch, as the Pa Dutch say, and safe travels as you nosh your way through potlucks!

    much food love, phoebe (phoebespurefood)

  9. Pat

    I am loving hearing about these wonderful potlucks. So wish I lived nearer to where you’ll be. We live in Alaska now, but got here from a New England childhood, with stops in Michigan and Seattle.

  10. heidih

    I am tearily in whole-hearted agreement that the beauty of the country is in the people and not the politicians. Food and food traditions are truly the universal language. Thank you for taking this trip and sharing it with us. Lucy is a lucky girl.

  11. emily robins

    It was a wonderful evening and shared meal with Phoebe, Shauna and her family, and many new friends! I’m a very proud Lancastrian – ofour county’s farming & food traditions – and glad to see others recognize it, too. And honored to share my great-grandmother’s pumpkin pie with y’all (updated with a gluten-free crust!)

  12. Rebekah

    Potato filling is a must at our family celebrations! Just substitute slightly stale cubes of your sandwich bread- perfect!

  13. Archer

    Oh, Shauna!!! What a beautiful write-up of Pennsylvania Dutch food! I grew up in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch land, with Pennsylvania Dutch grandparents who took me to all their German heritage festivals. My one grandpa would bring what I knew as chow-chow to practically every family dinner. I thought it was gross as a kid. I didn’t realize how Pennsylvania Dutch drenched the culture was where I grew up until I moved to Seattle. The grocery store is filled with all kinds of PA Dutch stuff you’d never find here. I grew up on homemade Whoopie Pies!!

  14. Ellysa

    I’d be willing to bet the opera fudge came from the Wilbur Chocolate Company. ( It’s a chocolate factory in Lititz, PA, and they are INCREDIBLE. Wilbur buds are basically a better hershey’s kiss (this coming from someone who grew up going to Hershey’s chocolate world and doing laps to get the free candy at the end… But I also grew up going to Wilbur’s with my grandma and stealing as many buds as she’d let me out of the crock of free ones on the counter). They make their own chocolates in the back, and have a big glass pane where you can watch them mold lollipops and other confections. Next time you’re in town, add it to your list…

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