Amy McKeever offers a taste of Pennsylvania’s Kutztown Folk Festival, which runs this Saturday, July 3, through Sunday, July 11, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
I stood mesmerized by the beast hanging upside down on a spit. It roasted slowly over a white brick oven. To my left a food stand advertised ox meat sandwiches, carved straight from the animal’s carcass. This was going to be a good day.
The ox roast was proudly displayed near the entrance to the Kutztown Folk Festival grounds – a signal that more mouth-watering Pennsylvania German cuisine awaited.
The combination of homemade food, handcrafted gifts and cultural preservation has made the Kutztown Folk Festival one of the most popular of its kind. It is the oldest folk-life festival in the United States and one of the largest as well, bringing in more than 100,000 visitors each year.
Food is a major draw of the Kutztown festival. Across the fairgrounds, vendors sell sausages slathered in sauerkraut, corn fritters, ham and chicken dinners and root beer. The Pennsylvania Germans are famous for their hearty recipes, many of which have a clear German influence.
They’re also famous for their baked goods, a plethora of pies (whoopie and otherwise), funnel cakes and apple concoctions. People come to this sleepy borough from throughout the mid-Atlantic to snap up handmade quilts and crafts, but also, like me, to indulge.
The ox roast had dazzled my carnivorous attention, but I wanted to check out what else the fair had to offer.
I passed men in wide-brimmed hats building thatched-roof houses, and gazed at colorful hex signs on display. I grabbed a cup of sarsaparilla to quench my thirst and steered clear of the booth filled with creepy porcelain dolls. In the back of the fairgrounds, near the tent of early electric cars, I found the food. Rows upon rows of food.
“All the stuff here is made the old-fashioned way. That’s what makes it good,” area local Tony Gomez said of the festival.
I met Gomez tasting samples of beef jerky at the Dietrich’s Meats and Country Store stand. Colorful jars of jams, jellies and fruit butters piled high on Dietrich’s display table, wedged beside an array of baked goods and fresh pork, bologna and cheese ready for slicing. I couldn’t choose until Gomez told me about his favorite dessert: wet-bottom shoofly pie.
Shoofly pie is about as Pennsylvania German as it gets. It has been a staple in Amish Country cuisine since the area was first settled, made from the non-perishable ingredients that the earliest settlers had brought with them – molasses and brown sugar. Shoofly pie’s crumby brown sugar crust covers a gooey molasses bottom which, when thick, makes for a “wet-bottom” pie. I made a mental note to come back to Dietrich’s at the end of the day to take home some of the traditional dessert.
Tradition is a key word to understanding Kutztown and the rest of Pennsylvania Dutch country. The early settlers blended their German customs and heritage with that of other immigrants to America, according to festival director Dave Fooks. But for centuries – up until the 1930s – these locals were able to resist further assimilation thanks to the lack of roads through the rolling Pennsylvania countryside. The Kutztown Folk Festival, which first debuted in 1950, aims to preserve that traditional culture.
Among the menu items the Pennsylvania Germans incorporated into their pantries were the apples that grow plentifully throughout the region.
After finishing up my research (and buying that shoofly pie), I decided to treat myself to one more Amish country dessert: apple dumplings.
Imagine an apple, peeled, cored and filled with cinnamon sugar, then covered in dough and baked until the crust is golden. It’s then topped with ice cream that melts over the hot apple. My mother makes the best apple pie in the world, but I have to admit that this single-serving sweet gives Mom a run for her money.
Although many fairgoers lamented to me the marginalization of the Pennsylvania German language with each generation that passes, one thing that’s for certain is that the Pennsylvania German cuisine isn’t going anywhere soon. Kutztown will make sure of it.
Photos: Amy McKeever