Berks County Foodways: It’s All Greek to Me

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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.

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Ingredients:

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)

pepper

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)!

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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. 

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Sime’s Hot Bacon Dressing: Easy as 1, 2, 3, 4!

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!

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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)

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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.

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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.

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Whisking ingredients together

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.

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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. 

Clam Pot Pie: A Local Twist on a Uniquely Berks County Dish

 

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So, we’re talking pot pie, and not just any pot pie, but, Berks County Pot Pie! When most people think or talk about pot pie they’re generally referring to the deep dish, crust on bottom, crust on top pot pie made famous by Mrs. Smith, Swanson, et al. While the homemade variant of that type of pot pie can be good, they haven’t nearly the complexity of sensory taste and texture that the unique cultural dish that those of us from southeastern Pennsylvania and especially Berks County call pot pie.

Berks County Pot Pie is a symphony of onion, potato, parsley, sometimes butter and those handmade, hand kneaded, hand rolled, squares or rectangles of dough that differentiate our pot pie from those of the rest of the country. There are many variations of pot pie and most people are familiar with chicken, turkey, beef and if there is a hunter in the home, squirrel, rabbit or groundhog. All of those recipes are excellent, but, the recipe that I will put forth in this blog is one that has been and remains a staple in my Bertolet Family repertoire. Clam Pot Pie!

I can’t even really tell you how I learned to make it. I “watched” my Gremmom and Grempop make it a hundred times and talked about making it with my Father and Uncle Herbie about the same number of times, but I can’t remember ever making it with them. I guess I just learned to make it by osmosis.

Let’s begin.

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Ingredients for 8-10 servings

Pot pie dough:

2 ¼ cups all purpose unbleached flour

3 large eggs

2 tsp salt

2 tsp baking powder

Remaining ingredients:

25 shucked top neck clams (cut clams in half and reserve the clam liquor/juice)

2 bottles clam juice

3 russet potatoes (cut into ½”-1” cubes)

3 yellow onions (chopped medium size pieces)

½ – ¾ cups (finely chopped parsley)

1-½ sticks (12 tbsp) butter

Dough Preparation:

Making you own dough is relatively easy, but it takes some practice, so make a couple of practice runs before you proceed to the main event.  It’s well worth the effort. (If you would like to begin by practicing with a smaller amount, I have found that a ratio of 1 large egg to ¾ cup of flour along with ½ – ¾  tsp salt and ½ – ¾  tsp baking powder works very well.)

Traditional dough preparation:

To prepare the dough, combine the flour, eggs, salt and baking powder in a bowl. Keep a small glass of tepid water handy if extra moisture is needed.

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Begin folding the above ingredients together until a dough ball forms (this may require adding 1 tbsp of tepid water at a time until the dough ball forms). About 3-5 minutes.

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After dough ball forms, knead the dough ball until it acquires a smooth texture/finish. About 8-10 minutes.

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At this point, cover or wrap the dough ball in a towel or plastic wrap and let it “rest” for 2-3 hours, or place the wrapped dough ball in the refrigerator if you are making it ahead.

Alternative dough preparation:

Now, mixing and kneading dough by hand is the reason our otherwise petite grandmothers were so strong. It’s work! So, I’ll offer an alternative method for mixing and kneading dough with the photos and directions below. (The ingredients and quantities remain the same.)

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This method of dough preparation is called modernity and if you have a Kitchen Aid mixer it really makes the job a whole lot easier. Begin by mixing all the ingredients using the unit’s mixing paddle (as shown in Alternate dough making photos 1 & 2) until the dough ball forms (again, adding 1 tbsp. of tepid water at a time if more moisture is needed) When the dough ball is pretty well-formed, switch out the mixing paddle with the dough hook (as shown in Alternate dough making photo 3). Begin kneading with the dough hook. The dough ball will form once and then break apart, this is normal, keep kneading with the dough hook until the doug ball reforms a 2nd time and continue kneading it until the dough takes on that smooth texture/finish.

Now that the dough ball has “rested,” begin rolling out the dough until you achieve the desired thickness.

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I gauge the desired dough thickness with the help of Stella, my Black Lab. When the dough thickness approximates that of Stella’s ear, it right!

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Now that the dough has been rolled out to the desired thickness it’s time to cut the dough. See photos below:

Now, a word about the clams. It used to be that you could purchase shucked clams in their liquor/juice from any seafood market, but not anymore. What I do now is purchase top neck clams in their shells and prepare the clams for use in the pot pie.

I start by scrubbing the clams under cold water to get the sand off of them and then cover them in cold water in the sink to let them purge. I change the water about 3 times until the last change of water remains clean, indicating the clams have purged all the sand they were holding.

Following the purging, I put the clams in the freezer for 24 hours until they are frozen. After the 24 hours, I remove the clams and let them sit a room temperature 4-5 hours until they begin to thaw slightly and I can open them easily with a clam knife. By shucking the clams this way the clams and all their liquor/juice remain in a nice frozen ball which can be placed in a bowl until thawed completely. When thawed, I cut each clam in half and drain them reserving the liquor/juice.

Next, cut/chop your potatoes, onions and parsley as described in the ingredients list. If preparing ahead of time, cover the potatoes with cold water to keep them from turning brown and cover the onions with plastic wrap.

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Assembly:

Now that we’re at the assembly line stage of the preparation, bring all the components within reasonable proximity to the pot you will cook the pot pie in.

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Put the clam liquor/juice in a large pot along with the two bottles of clam juice and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a fast simmer and when the clam juice begins to “froth,” skim off all the froth and discard. With the clam juice at a very fast simmer/near boil begin layering the potatoes first, onions second and a layer of cut pot pie dough last, repeating the layering until all the potatoes, onions and pot pie dough are used up.

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Cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are tender.

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While the pot pie is simmering, begin melting the butter over medium heat until it browns. Don’t let it burn! The butter should be a “nutty” brown, not black.

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After the 15-20 minutes check the pot pie to make sure the potatoes are done and when they are, add the clams and mix well. Cover the pat again and cook until the clams are done.

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When the clams are done, add the brown butter and the chopped parsley and mix well.

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Well, that’s all there is to it. If you like pot pie and you like clams, you’ll love my Gremmom’ s Berks County Clam Pot Pie. Serve with pepper cabbage, cole slaw or chow-chow and you’ve got a Berks County Dutch dinner on the highest order.

Ess dich satt!

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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. 

Faschnachts: A Fat Tuesday Family Tradition

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This year at the Berks History Center, we are celebrating foodways, which culminates with our annual Berks History Conference on April 21, 2018 featuring four food and drink historians. I describe my culinary expertise as good PA Dutch cooking, from potato filling to pig stomach, chicken pot pie with homemade noodles and “millich flitche” (milk pie). If you think about family I am sure it includes a good home cooked meal.

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I have the greatest memories of making faschnachts every year since I can remember with my grandmother Carrie Kercher, fondly known to all as Gummy (because she always had a pack of Juicy Fruit gum on her). Making faschnachts using my great-grandmother’s recipe required two days so I always spent the weekend at my grandparent’s house. One year I decided I wanted to make the perfect faschnachts and we used a cup to make circular doughnuts; That is the year my grandfather ate the fewest because he said they didn’t taste as good without corners. Another year we played canasta into the early hours of Sunday, and my grandmother decided it was “time to make the doughnuts!” So at 2 in the morning we started making the doughnuts finishing around sun rise. I think that was the year we drank homemade dandelion wine, too! Every year we counted how many faschnachts we got from our one batch, usually somewhere between 10 and 12 dozen, all divided so that everyone got to take some home to eat. And for those of you who have not eaten a true faschnacht (which is one not bought in the grocery store) there is nothing like a warm faschnacht right out of the fryer rolled in granulated sugar.

This is the 15th year of not having my grandmother telling me what to do and I sure do miss her because I usually screw something up! Every year it is a different mistake such as the yeast was bad, or I used the wrong flour, the potato water was too warm, the wood stove too hot or not hot enough over night, etc. Still I have new memories of making them with my three children. Justin only eats the dough raw, Becca has never really liked eating them and Devon, well, LOVES faschnachts but he likes his with confectionary sugar.

This year I have the great pleasure of being the premiere baker for the first ever Berks History Center faschnacht tasting party being held Tuesday, February 13, from noon until 3 pm. I’ll be making them this weekend so unfortunately they won’t be warm out of the fryer. Hope to see you then!

Written by Vicky Heffner, Education Curator at the Berks History Center

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. 

Punxsutawney Phil’s Worst Nightmare: Groundhog with a Side of Carrots and Potatoes

 

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While some might consider him a sign of the season, some Berks County residents consider him dinner! That’s right, groundhog is a little-known culinary secret in Berks County.

As an avid hunter, Executive Director, Sime Bertolet is no stranger to this local food tradition. Groundhog, like other small game (rabbit and squirrel), can be hunted and prepared in a variety of ways. Sime prefers young groundhogs, which can be determined by size. After tracking and shooting a small groundhog, Sime prepares the meat by skinning and gutting the animal. He then places the meat in salted, cold water, refrigerating it overnight, which helps to draw the blood out of the meat. After 24-48 hours in a salt bath, the meat is butchered by separating the hind quarters and removing the ribcage. The tenderloin is cut into about 3 different pieces. Seasoning with salt and pepper, Sime dusts the meat with flour before pan frying the groundhog in hot oil and butter until golden brown. Fried groundhog is best served with dandelion and hot bacon dressing (recipe coming later this spring) and mashed potatoes.

Another favorite groundhog recipe involves a Berks County classic: pot pie! For a groundhog pot pie, Sime leaves the meat on the bone and simmers it in water with chopped onion, celery, carrots, and a few peppercorns. The mixture is simmered gently until the meat starts falling off the bone. He removes the meat from the broth and separates the meat from the bone. The broth is strained and both the meat and the broth are used to make a traditional Berks County pot pie – no pie crust needed! (We will also share more stories on Berks County pot pie this year).

Elaine Vardjan, a docent at the Berks History Center, is also familiar with preparing this local dish. Although, for her, the novelty has worn off. “I don’t care to cook or eat one (groundhog) ever again,” she says. “I don’t like the taste. I thought it would taste better because groundhogs mostly eat vegetation.” Elaine cooks groundhog on the stove with carrots, potatoes and onions. She agrees that the young ones are best because “the old ones are tough.” Her son Mark, however, truly enjoys groundhog, which he always cooks in a crock pot with vegetables on a very low heat.

The origins of trapping and eating groundhog are somewhat unclear. However, one could logically conclude that eating groundhog is a tradition rooted in necessity. And with the amount of destruction that a single groundhog can impose on a garden or farm, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched that rural residents would want to economically rid themselves of these pesky marmots. Also, farmers often trap groundhogs because their dwelling habits can cause serious injury to farm animals.

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. 

Berks History Center Celebrates Berks County Foodways This Year

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The Berks History Center invites you to celebrate the Foodways of Berks County with a year-long series of events and a digital community storytelling project. The Berks History Center is located at 940 Centre Ave. Reading, PA 19601.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, foodways are the “eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period.” Throughout 2018, the Berks History Center (BHC) will explore this compelling human experience by focusing on the foodways that are important to the people of Berks County. BHC will do so through themed programming, including Second Saturday programs and the Berks History Conference, as well online communications.

Second Saturday programs will include topics such as brewing history in Berks County, the history of culinary and medicinal herbs, butchering and traditional meat preparations and more. The BHC’s 3rd annual Berks History Conference on April 21, 2018 will feature 4 informative lectures by historians and food scholars on Berks County’s food history. Visit www.berkshistory.org for more information on BHC’s foodway-themed programs and events.

In addition to events and programs, the BHC launched a digital storytelling project that aims to highlight the diverse culinary experiences and food traditions alive in Berks County. BHC will share local foodway stories, including stories from the BHC staff and the community, on their blog, e-newsletter, and social media channels (follow @berkshistory). The BHC invites the people of Berks County to participate in the storytelling project by submitting stories about their family food traditions. For example, BHC’s first Berks County Foodway storytelling project story explored the personal history behind Education Curator Vicky Heffner’s favorite birthday dish: PA German Pig Stomach. To participate, send photos, recipes, information and video through the #MyBerksHistory project on BCTV’s SoLo app or email publicity@berkshistory.org.

Pig Stomach & Other Berks County Foodways

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Vicky Heffner, Education Curator at the Berks History Center, has fond memories associated with pig stomach. In her family, it’s a tradition to make pig stomach every year on her father’s birthday. So today, like every January 16th, Vicky prepared this family favorite.

Vicky first learned to prepare this Pennsylvania German treat with her grandmother. The pig stomach is cleaned and soaked in salt water overnight. Then, she cubes potatoes and removes the casing from the sausage (always from Peters Brothers Meat Market in Lenhartsville), mixing both with salt, pepper, and parsley. She stuffs the pig stomach with the mixture and sews it shut with a special sewing needle, which belonged to her great-grandmother. The stuffed stomach is baked for about 3 hours at 350 degrees in a special roasting pan. As you can see from the photo, the roasting pan is well-worn because it is the same roasting pan her grandmother used to make pig stomach. A perfect pig stomach is one that does not break open while cooking. Once cooked, the pig stomach is sliced and served. Vicky says the dish tastes best with corn and coleslaw.

You can almost imagine as she prepares this traditional Pennsylvania German meal, with all the knowledge and materials passed down to her from the previous generation, Vicky’s grandmothers, standing right there beside her in the kitchen as she carefully stitches up the pig stomach with her special sewing needle and roasting pan. You can imagine them smiling as she serves this meal to her children and they taste the same comforting flavors that their great-great-grandparents once enjoyed. This is the power of foodways. Our stories, our family history, our heritage can all be told through the food we eat. Just one bite can connect us to our past.

This year, the Berks History Center will explore this compelling human experience. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, foodways are the “eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period.” As we delve into this topic, we will focus on the foodways that are important to the people of Berks County. We will do so through themed programming, including Second Saturday programs and the Berks History Conference, as well online communications. We will share our local foodway stories, including stories from BHC staff, here on our blog, NewsBits (the BHC newsletter) and social media ( Follow @berkshistory).  We hope that you will share your stories too. Send us photos, recipes, and information about your traditional family foodways by participating in the #MyBerksHistory project or email us at publicity@berkshistory.org. We want to share as many stories about Berks County’s history as we can! Stay tuned!

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.