Keystone Center to research, promote Pennsylvania foods
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Did you know Pennsylvania has five culinary regions?
"Nobody knows that Pennsylvania has five culinary regions and no other state has that many," said William Woys Weaver, who's poised to launch the Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods and Food Tourism.
Planning is still in the works, but the goal is to research and promote foods "grown in Pennsylvania, cooked in Pennsylvania, sold in Pennsylvania," said Mr. Weaver, a culinary historian known for his books on heirloom vegetables and Pennsylvania German cooking -- and for the Roughwood Seed Collection, more than 4,000 varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers that began with his grandfather's saved seeds and is dedicated to preserving Pennsylvania heirlooms.
"The Keystone Center will work on recording what's out there that makes our region special," said Mr. Weaver, who has collected 1,600 Pennsylvania German dishes that are made in the home but not recorded in cookbooks.
"Definitely, the Pennsylvania Dutch region has some of the most distinct foods, but that does not mean other regions do not."
Mr. Weaver had been collaborating on the Keystone Center with Drexel University, but when that partnership fell apart, he turned to Kutztown University and its Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center.
"We're looking at the feasibility of a partnership and what resources it would take," said Rob Reynolds, the heritage center's director. "It's in a preliminary state but we're very interested. We're looking at unique opportunities for students, and we think it could bring a lot of interest and support to what we're trying to do."
The idea, Mr. Weaver said, is "to promote what is uniquely ours and do this in a sustainable manner," in a way that creates jobs marketing the state's specialties. Pennsylvania wines that stand out for their local character, for example, and breads produced from locally grown grains.
"And cheeses that emphasize local terroir and do not copy something European in name or style.
"There is a raspberry farm near State College that makes fine raspberry products, and there is the Paul Bunyan sugar camp in Rockwood [Somerset County] that deals in fine-quality maple sugar products. I am hoping the Keystone Center will be able to act as an advocate for these small, artisanal producers."
The five regions, defined by geography and soil as well as agricultural and settlement patterns, are (1) Philadelphia, (2) Pennsylvania Dutch, (3) Northern Tier, (4) Allegheny Mountain and Southwest Appalachians and (5) Northwest Lakeshore.
Research for two of Mr. Weaver's previous books -- "The Larder Invaded: Reflections on Three Centuries of Philadelphia Food & Drink," published in 1987, and "Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking," published in 1993 -- defined those regions.
"The rest fell into place based on articles and research published in 'Pennsylvania Folklife,'" the journal published from 1957 to 1997 by the now-defunct Pennsylvania Folklife Society and edited by the group's co-founder, University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus Don Yoder.
"But [folklorist] Henry Glassie discerned regions back in the 1960s, except that he never attempted to make maps because he was interested in barns rather than food. So I became a funnel, so to speak, for the ideas of several people."
For each region, Mr. Weaver said, "There's an historical research aspect which I like to refer to as the 'foundations' of the regional cuisine: what made it the way it was, how has it changed, what elements are still with us, what elements are worth reviving?"
The regional borders, drawn by county line, are fuzzy, somewhat artificial and subject to change "once we hear from the people out there," Mr. Weaver said. "We may actually have six regions if it turns out that the southwest corner is distinct enough."
Pittsburgh is distinctive because it was connected to the South through riverboats, Mr. Weaver said. "I've been looking for menus from these riverboats. I'm interested in how much Southern food came up to Pittsburgh. Did okra come up?"
The diverse culinary tradition Pittsburgh enjoys today, of course, mainly was shaped by the many ethnic groups that settled here. The Keystone Center also plans to study the Pennsylvania culinary diaspora that occurred as settlers moved south and west.
Some of the state's food regions may extend beyond state borders as Pennsylvania foods and foodways overflow into neighboring states.
"Philadelphia includes South Jersey because Philadelphia was its market. You find all the Philadelphia dishes in South Jersey. It's swamp cooking. We have a recipe for muskrat scrapple."
Yum. Or not.
But that's sort of the point -- what's indigenous and appealing to the people of one region may not be to those of another.
Philadelphia's culinary heritage also draws on its historical trade connections with the Caribbean, so you'll find dishes like pepperpot soup.
"Even the word came to us via the Caribbean and most of the street vendors who sold the soup were of Caribbean origin; many were black and female," Mr. Weaver said. In the 1820s, "The Pepperpot Hotel claimed to sell 21 kinds of pepperpot. The tripe-based pepperpot spiced with pepper sherry is essentially the same as Mondongo from the Spanish Caribbean.
"The oldest dated Philadelphia recipe for pepperpot, from the 1760s, does not contain tripe. Small unopened sunflowers are cooked in it like baby artichokes; it is perfectly charming."
The Pennsylvania Dutch region is a large area in the state's heartland, stretching from Monroe to Lancaster counties in the east and Centre to Somerset counties in the west -- 25 in all. But the tourist-oriented foods many of us think as Pennsylvania Dutch, such as chicken pot pie, chow-chow and whoopee pies, aren't true Pennsylvania German cookery, said Mr. Weaver, whose unpublished dissertation is on food tourism and cultural identity among the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Pork Tripe Sausage, often called stuffed pig's stomach, is the real deal, featured at Central Pennsylvania church suppers, fire hall dinners and several regional hotels and restaurants. Originating with the Celto-Roman culture of the Rhine Valley, it was associated with mid-winter butchering in Southwest Germany and Alsace, where it's still eaten today. Mr. Weaver has recorded at least 50 ways of making it.
The Northwest Lakeshore region bordering Lake Erie -- Erie, Crawford, Mercer and Venango counties -- is distinguished by its grape viticulture, while the 13 Northern Tier counties, from Tioga and Clinton to Pike, were influenced by New England and New York and the transformations of the lumber and mining industries.
The Allegheny Mountain and Southwest Appalachian region centers on Pittsburgh and its interaction with the Ohio River Basin and the Upper South. Allegheny Hominy, a hearty 18th-century poverty dish of grits and beans, is a one-pot meal or a side dish. Some of the region's Native American beans that would be appropriate in it, Mr. Weaver said, are Scotia, Cornplanter Purple, Wild Pigeon, Pea Bean, Iroquois Corn Bread Bean and Little Black Snake Corn Hill Bean.
But each region has Native American beans that survive to this day.
"I would guess we have perhaps at least 10 indigenous beans from each area, although a lot more from yours, given the Cornplanter Senecas up on the Allegheny River. No one yet has made a complete list of what exists for each region.
"The Munsi Wampum bean [of the Northern Tier region] came to my grandfather from a family living in the Delaware Water Gap area; the Blue Shackamaxon bean [Philadelphia region] came to me from cousin Mary Larkin Thomas," Mr. Weaver said. "I collected a number of extremely rare tomatoes from a Church of the Brethren gardener: Governor Pennypacker, which dates to about 1907, Golden Juniata from the 1870s, and others."
Mr. Weaver said the Keystone Center would be unique in the country in its mission. In addition to researching and promoting Pennsylvania foods, it would publish monographs and offer cooking classes to the public and to students, perhaps eventually as part of a culinary arts program at Kutztown University. The Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, housed in a group of historic farm buildings on land where there is plenty of room to grow Pennsylvania heirlooms in demonstration gardens, also could be the future home of the Roughwood Seed Collection, Mr. Reynolds said.
Mr. Weaver also anticipates partnerships with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, which collaborated with him on a cheese workshop.
The center's website should be up within a few weeks at williamwoysweaver.com; when the center's non-profit status is approved, its site will migrate to TheKeystoneKitchen.org.
While the center eventually could have several paid staff members, Mr. Weaver hopes to rely on volunteers and students through partnerships with colleges and universities around the state.
"We need people to get out there and do field work and interview folks," Mr. Weaver said. "When you start to inventory Pennsylvania's culinary riches, it's like opening Noah's Ark."
First Published October 21, 2010 12:00 am