Throughout 2018, the Berks History Center is getting a taste of local history with the Berks County Foodways project. As we explored the eating habits and culinary practices of Berks Countians, we have had a chance to sample the diverse flavors of Berks County from pig stomach to spanikopita. This month, as we approach the Berks History Center’s 6th annual fundraiser – the Magical History Tour concert on August 18, 2018 – we began to wonder about the culinary delights of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. So BHC Archivist, Stephanie Mihalik, turned the archives and dug up some groovy treats from the Berks History Center Research Library collection.
Do you remember any of these party favorites? The members of St. John’s Church in Reading, PA compiled this recipe book in 1979. We found that gelatin was a common ingredient in dishes from the 1970s, such as this recipe for crab mousse:
Also, canned goods were wildly popular and were common ingredients in both party fare and daily lunch menus. Other fun finds included recipies for ham-liverwurst rolls and liver cheese spread.
When it comes to potlucks, M. Catherine Shearer has a go-to family recipe that wins every time – her great-grandmother’s shoo-fly pie! The Shearer family is no stranger to Berks County’s rich heritage; Catherine can trace her family’s lively and accomplished lineage back to Pennsylvania’s founding era.
Mary Sellers Shearer lived on Fritztown Road in Vinemont, PA with her husband, Solomon Shearer. The recipe was passed down to Mary’s daughter and eventually made its way into the hands of her great-granddaughter, M. Catherine Shearer, who was happy to share the recipe for this classic Berks County Foodway with us!
Mix dry ingredients together and combine with Crisco until crumbly. Set aside 2 handfuls for the top of the pies. Using the remaining flour mixture add:
Fill 2 (8″ or 9″) pie shells with the molasses mixture and top each pie with the crumb topping.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes.
The Berks History Center thanks M. Catherine Shearer for sharing her family recipe for shoo-fly pie with us! A native of Berks County, now living in Exeter Township, Shearer has been a Trustee of the Berks History Center for close to two years, and a is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Berks County Genealogical Society. Before her retirement, she was a well-known community leader. As part of her employment at the Berks County Chamber of Commerce, and the Berks County Career Link, she was involved in heightening the community’s Economic and Workforce Development efforts.
One of our favorite things about living in Berks County is the abundance of local farmers’ markets that sell local, fresh produce and meat. The history of fresh markets in our area is long-standing and dates back to the original deed from Thomas and Richard Penn, which proclaimed that two fairs be held each year on June 4 and October 22. The Clerk of the Market was directed to erect as many stalls as necessary at the two markets on Penn Street, which operated weekly. The open air markets, erected in the 1840’s on Penn Square, were torn down in 1871. In the following years there were as many as 10 neighborhood market houses, each an elaborate structure.
The Crystal Palace Market on Penn Street took its name from the famous building at the World’s Fair of 1871. The South Reading Market House, considered one of the finest buildings in Reading, was built by Francis B. Shalters, the owner-editor of the Reading Times. The window on the north side resembled a rose, similar to those found in a cathedral. The iron columns supporting the first floor porch were the original posts from the second market pavilion on Penn Square, built in the 1840s. An arson fire in 2005 collapsed the structure, which had stood for 135 years. Another fine market was the Northeast Market House at 9th and Buttonwood Streets. It was built in 1874 by the Reading German Building and Savings Association. The building was known in the 1920’s as the Eagle Market, then owned by Jesse Hawley, publisher of the Reading Eagle.
In addition to seasonal open air markets like the Penn Street Market and the West Reading Farmers’ Market, Berks County has three large operating indoor farmers markets. Built in 1934 by Harold B. Ludwig (and later run by his son Ted), the Shillington Farmers Market was once an old cement block factory with a cement mixer in the middle of the building. The restaurant was added in 1948 as a lunch stand for market customers, serving hot dogs, hamburgers, and soda, and later hot roast beef sandwiches. The Farmers Market moved to a new location on Summit Avenue in Shillington in 2001. Hamid Chaudhry purchased the market from Jim Daley in 2017 (Daley is part of the family that had operated the Market since its opening). Today a Wawa occupies the original site at Museum Road and Route 724.
In 1946, LeRoy J. Weist and his wife Mary purchased 30 acres of farmland in Leesport. At first they thought about building homes, but they needed a place to sell their livestock. In 1947, they opened the Leesport Market Auction. In 1985, third generation owners Woody and Bill Weist took control and changed the name to the Leesport Farmers Market. The market has been opened year-round since 1947 and features cooked items and fresh produce. The flea market stands have been around since the beginning, but by the 1970’s, they became a large part of the business. There was a midway-like quality to the place, with entertaining pitchmen like Bernie Cohen who auctioned off just about anything out of his truck.
The Fairgrounds Farmers Market has an interesting history. It was once part of the Reading Fairgrounds Complex, established in the late 1940’s after the War Department relinquished control of the property. The first market building, mostly wooden, was located behind the back stretch of the racetrack and was built in the early 1920’s for fair and merchant displays. Back then some businesses sold goods out in the open. In 1969, a huge fire destroyed 3/4 of the market building, although the market was back operating the following Saturday. By then stock car races were promoted at the adjacent track. In 1970 the Fairgrounds Market, Inc. opened the new Reading Fairgrounds Market just north of the original structure. By 1980 the racetrack was replaced by the mall and owned by Albert Boscov. The size of the market increased to 50,000 ft and, in 2000, the former banquet facility reopened as an annex. In addition to fresh goods there are non-food vendors, a barbershop, wine retailer and several stands of antiques and collectibles. The market is open three days a week with 64 proprietors and up to 5,000 shoppers.
Joseph N. Farrell, “Regal Relics,” Reading Eagle, September 5, 1979.
Jeff McGaw, “New Life for Shillington Farmers Market,” Reading Eagle, May 18, 2017.
Irvin Rathman, “Reading’s Market Life – a Brief Scrapbook,” 1980 (F10 MA Rathman 1980).
“A Scrapbook on Berks and Lebanon Counties, PA,” Vol. 1.1 (F10 AG).
BHC Library Vertical File on the Leesport Farmers Market, VF F10 MA-29.
BHC Library Vertical File on the Fairgrounds Farmers Market, VF F11 MA-5.
Nearly 200 years ago, this would have been Mountain Mary’s favorite time of year as she worked around her farm in the Oley Valley. The Oley area reminded her of the Rhine Valley, where she and her family emigrated from. They came here at about the time of the Revolution. Her farm was a hill farm of about 42 acres. Her farm consisted of a log home, an outdoor bake oven, a milk house, a lean-to for her cows, several large meadows and a small cemetery plot where her mother and two sisters were buried. She was very proud of her milk house, which was cooled by a stream of mountain water channeled into the building through hand-hewn logs. The stream began as a spring high on the hill and flowed through the building continuing downstream to irrigate a meadow.
Mountain Mary supported herself by making butter from her cow’s milk and by keeping bees for honey. She would then give the butter and honey to a neighbor, who would take it to market to sell in Philadelphia. She would often send along some food for the poor.
Mary was very religious and would read her German Bible; Piety, faith and charity were central to her life. In addition, Mountain Mary used many of the native herbs and plants which grew on the hillside for healing and poultices. She would collect and dry the herbs over the years. Then she used them to make lotions and salves. Her neighbors came regularly to her cabin for help or medical advice. She often prayed with them and shared her knowledge and teas, etc. She used peppermint and spearmint to make tea. Bergamot would come a little later in the spring. Dandelions even were used to make a spring tonic to pick up spirits. Berries made excellent sauces and juice.
Mountain Mary died on November 16, 1819 at age 73. More than 1,000 people attended her funeral, which was quite an honor. Some people call her Pennsylvania’s first “visiting nurse.” There are a lot of legends about Mountain Mary, including some that developed after her death. The strangest story is that she was engaged to a man named Theodore Benz, who fought and died with George Washington’s army in the Revolution. This has never been proven, but as they say, in every legend is a grain of
Hallie Vaughan is a Women’s History enthusiast, instructor and reinactor and longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. As a guest blogger Hallie will focus on Women’s History in Berks County.
Growing up I was vaguely aware that some of my family’s cultural traditions were different from those of my friends and schoolmates. In general, it came down to church, food and language. As far as I knew, no one else in my grade school class attended three-hour church services every Sunday. And many of them, to my surprise, didn’t eat avgolemeno soup when they were sick, nor did they even know what it was. They also didn’t have a Yia Yia or a Popou, just Grandmas and Grandpas. (It wasn’t until later in life that I began to notice some of the other oddities of being raised in a Greek household, such as superstitious behaviors like spitting on brides at weddings or never going directly home after a funeral.) Despite my childish ignorance, there was one notably different, and glaringly alienating, cultural tradition that separated me from my childhood mates: Easter. This is largely because Greek Orthodox Easter rarely falls on the same date as what we call “American Easter.”
So why is it that while my friends were spending their spring breaks celebrating Easter, I was still fasting (painfully from chocolate, which meant NO EASTER CANDY!), and I often didn’t observe the holiday until weeks, or sometimes a month, later? Well, according to a quick Google search (don’t tell my mother), “many Orthodox churches base their Easter date on the Julian calendar, which often differs from the Gregorian calendar that is used by many western countries. Therefore, the Orthodox Easter period often occurs later than the Easter period that falls around the time of the March equinox.”
This year, the timing wasn’t too far off. I celebrated Easter with my family this past weekend, only one week after my coworkers. Although I have always had to endure the discomfort of feeling like an outsider while my friends were celebrating American Easter, it was always worth the wait. Most Greeks will tell you that Easter is the most important holiday in the Orthodox faith. For me, it’s obvious that this is true, not only because Holy Week is a marathon of church services that ends with an all-night celebration (sort of like Mardi gras for reserved church goers) but because Easter food is always the best!
Easter dinner is when we pull out all of the stops and truly indulge in our best Greek dishes. The menu often includes: dolmades, spanakopita, pastitsio or moussaka, fasolakia (green beans), lots of feta and olives, and of course, LAMB, followed by an abundance of pastries and desserts including galaktoboureko, finikia, koulourakia, and the like. To all of my fellow Greek Berks Countians you may have noticed that there is one traditional Easter dish absent from this list. Margiritsa is a traditional Easter soup that we feel is reserved for the most “old-school” Greeks, mostly because its contains lamb offal – yes, the heart, liver, lungs and other organs of the lamb.
Like all holiday meals, my family and I got together with our extended family for Easter this year, with each family contributing something to the meal. This year, I made spanakopita, a Greek but inherently Berks County foodway, because my family has been cooking and enjoying this dish here in Berks County since my great-grandfather emigrated to Reading from Greece in the early 1900s. As I prepared this dish with my mother this weekend, I imagined my ancestors in Agia Paraskevi (on the island of Lesvos), chopping fresh spinach and somehow rolling out paper-thin sheets of homemade filo dough, but thankfully, this recipe has been adapted over the years to consider some modern conveniences.
1 large onion, chopped
1 pound butter
4 boxes of chopped spinach (drained)
8 eggs (scrambled)
16 oz. cottage cheese (large curds) – or ricotta cheese
1 lb. feta cheese (crumbled)
1/8 cup parsley
1 lb. filo dough
Spanakopita is a surprising simple dish that involves mixing together a filling of spinach and cheese that is then baked into buttery layers of filo dough. The recipe begins by sauteing onions in 4 tablespoons of butter until they are tender, but not brown. Meanwhile, the spinach must be thawed and drained. This is a particularly important step because too much water will make for a runny spanakopita. Be sure to press out as much of the water as possible.
Then, after prepping the other ingredients for the filling (chop the parsley, crumble the feta, and whisk the eggs), mix all of the ingredients together in a large bowl.
Next, prepare to assemble the dish with the filo dough. After buttering a 9×13 casserole dish, melt the rest of the butter in a saucepan. Begin to layer the filo dough in the bottom of the pan, brushing each layer with butter before adding another layer. Let the edges of the dough fall over the edges of pan. After about 8 layers, pour the filling into the dough and spread gently. Then repeat the layering process on top, covering the filling and buttering each layer before adding another. Cover the mixture with 6-8 layers until you can no longer see the spinach beneath. Fold and tuck the excess filo onto the top layer.
Ideally, we should wait 5 minutes and then cut the spanakopita into pieces. Once the dish is cooked, the dough becomes very flaky. Cutting the dough before cooking helps to keep each piece in tact. Unfortunately, my mother and I both forgot this step! However, the dish was still tasty – just a bit messy. Before baking, use your fingers to sprinkle the top of the spanakopita with water. Bake at 350 degrees for about one hour, or until golden brown. Then, καλή όρεξη (enjoy your meal)!
Growing up in Berks County I may not always have appreciated the uniqueness of my Greek heritage, especially when it came to the Easter holiday and feeling different from my friends and classmates. However, now as an adult, I truly welcome and celebrate my experience because I can see how it contributes to the beautiful, diverse and ever-changing cultural fabric here in Berks County. I may not have grown up eating pig stomach and clam pot pie but I do have cultural traditions and foodways that have persisted and flourished here in Berks County.
Written by BHC Communications Director, Alexis Campbell
This article was written as part of the Berks History Center’s 2018 Berks County Foodways Project. Click here to learn more about Berks County Foodways.
As I recall growing up, there was always one traditional PA Dutch food that was always part of the holiday meal at my Grampop and Gramom’s home. Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter, Endive with Hot Bacon Dressing was always on the table!
Unfortunately, I never learned how to make hot bacon dressing from my grandparents, but rather, from my father, who learned to make it from a close friend of the family, Richard “Dick” Bortz. My Father told me that Mr. Bortz said; if you remembered the rule of thumb, 1, 2, 3, 4, you could make hot bacon dressing.
1, 2, 3, 4, refers to: 1 tablespoon flour, 2 large eggs, 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar and 4 tablespoons white granulated sugar, and of course, slab bacon. With that as our baseline, let’s begin!
Ingredients for approximately 6-8 servings
¼ lb. slab bacon
1 table spoon white flour
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
4 tablespoons white granulated sugar
1 bunch curly endive (sometimes call chicory or escarole)
Cut bacon into ½” – ¾” cubes and fry until crispy brown. Remove the bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon, reserving 2 tablespoons of bacon grease in the pan. Drain the bacon pieces on a paper towel.
Let pan and bacon grease cool to room temperature, otherwise you’ll have scrambled eggs further along in the recipe.
While the pan and the bacon grease cool, mix 1 tablespoon white flour with a tablespoon or so of tepid water and blend into a slurry.
Next, beat the 2 large eggs in a small bowl
Pour the flour and water mixture into the cooled pan with the bacon grease and begin to warm the mixture over a very low heat.
Add the 3 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar along with the 4 tablespoons of sugar to the pan and whisk until well blended.
Remember, keep the heat low, or this is where you’ll get the scrambled eggs.
As the mixture warms, it will begin to thicken. Keep a small measuring cup of tepid water handy to thin the mixture as the flour cooks. I prefer hot bacon dressing to be a consistency that just coats a spoon. If you like it thicker, go for it, it’s your choice, just don’t add as much water.
Once the flour has cooked, add salt and pepper to taste and return the cooked bacon to the pan.
That’s all there is to it! All you need to do now is spoon the hot bacon dressing over the curly endive and toss, or, serve the hot bacon dressing separately and let your guests dress their endive as they like.
Ess dich satt un hot en frehlicher Oschder! (Eat yourself satisfied and have a merry Easter!)
Written by BHC Executive Director, Sime Bertolet
This article was written as part of the Berks History Center’s 2018 Berks County Foodways Project. Click here to learn more about Berks County Foodways.