Archive for October 6th, 2011

According to the website Today in History, on this date in 1683, the very first German immigrants to what would be the United States arrived in Philadelphia. I don’t have any way to verify that this is true right now, nor confirm the assertion that it was 13 families and they were specifically invited by William Penn, but it gives me an opening to talk about a part of me that is important.

You see, I am the product of those families – I don’t know if I am a literal descendant of anyone who stepped off of the boat on that precise day to blink in the bright sunlight at life in a strange land, but at some point some of my ancestors in Germany made that same choice. They left behind a land they knew for the possibilities that lay across the sea in a place known as Penn’s Woods, or Pennsylvania, and established new communities. Some estimates say that half the residents of Pennsylvania were of German origin or ancestry at the time of the American Revolution, and as of the last census, it was still the mostly commonly noted ethnic origin in the commonwealth.

My paternal grandmother’s family proudly declared their Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, although I can’t say we knew much about it other than the food. No one that I’m aware of speaks the dialect, other than a few phrases that made their way into our consciousness, and even though I don’t know how to convey it here, what I’m reading about how the accent sounds is how my grandmother and her generation spoke. It’s less distinct other than some words and phrases that my parents and I use. I remember very clearly my grandmother saying she would “red up the room” rather than clean it, and I think one of my great aunts informed us at least once that she was going to “outen the lights.” While I’ve been researching this, Mike has informed me that he’s pretty sure “slippy” is not a word in the dictionary that can be used interchangeably with slippery, but in this case I can chalk it up to dialect.

In checking lists of supposedly Pennsylvania Dutch foods, I find there was even more than I was aware of. We sipped not just root beer, but birch beer, while we enjoyed chicken pot pie, chicken corn soup (I have not had a bowl of this since my grandmother died and would love so much to taste it again), pork and sauerkraut, potato cakes, and Lebanon bologna (at least I can get that at the grocery story here). They may not have been my taste, but my grandmother served scrapple, pickled beet eggs with their distinctive purple tint, German potato salad, and apple butter at her table. And for dessert – so many high-fat and often deep-fried options – funnel cakes, fasnachts, apple fritters, shoofly pie, or whoopie pies. No, fastnachts are not just doughnuts.

I just passed a lovely hour writing this blog post, confirming things from my childhood are in many cases part of a wider Pennsylvania Dutch culture and not ONLY my family’s eccentricities.  I have these things in common with a community – 19th century tombstones near my childhood home carry German surnames and are sometimes inscribed in German rather than English.

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