A Fasnacht Tradition

By Vicky Heffner, Berks History Center Education Curator

The festivity of eating Fasnachts on Shrove Tuesday (known to the PA Dutch as Fat Tuesday) is more than 100 years old. These fried doughnuts were made to empty the pantry of lard, sugar, fat and butter, which were traditionally not eaten during Lent. The last person in the family to get out of bed that day was known as the Fasnacht which I was more than once when making this treat with my Grandmother (affectionately known as Gummy to all) every year of my life until she passed. The recipe I continue to use belonged to my great-grandmother Grace Youse Rothermel. This year was the first year ever that I made them when they are supposed to be made; we always did it the weekend before because of busy schedules during the week.

Last night I boiled a potato, mashed it with one cup of the boiled water, and combined it with eight tablespoons of flour, one package of yeast, a little sugar and a pinch of salt, and poured it into a large jar, and then set it by the fireplace to rise. After an hour or so, I took the mixture and combined it with three cups milk, 1 cup sugar, two eggs and, again, a pinch of salt, and then added about five pounds of flour. Getting this all together takes some time, but once done, I covered it again, and placed it by the fire to rise again overnight.

This morning, I divided it into four loafs, rolled the dough out, and with the same doughnut cutter I have used all my life, cut them into squares. One year, when I was a teenager, I wanted to make the perfect Fasnacht, so we used a round cutter; it was the only year because my grandfather said they taste as good without the corners! Once cut, I laid them on the counter again to rise. After a few hours, I fried them (when I was growing up we still used lard). The best tasting Fasnachts are the ones warm just out of the fryer. I still have the ice pick my grandmother used to flip and lift them out, as well as the yellow bowl we made them in and the fryer. I am the only one in my family who continues to make Fasnachts, and only one of my children truly loves eating them, so my afternoon was spent delivering them to friends, family and neighbors. I will also share a few with my co-workers at the Berks History Center.

Berks History Changed My Life

Curator, Bradley K. Smith (left) with Volunteer Amber Vroman (right) on the 4 Centuries in Berks Historic Property Tour

If someone were to ask me of a specific place that has positively influenced my life, I would not hesitate with my response; that place is the Berks History Center.

Only a few short years ago I had absolutely no idea as to the direction for my life. I had tried different majors in college, and while I watched my friends graduate and start their careers, I still searched for my calling. I had only a few classes left to take when my world was turned upside down; my fiancé was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. At twenty-three years old, I never imagined I would live through something like that with my best friend. Suddenly, my “lost” feeling was buried under sadness, anger, and fear for what we had to face. It was not an easy road, but, after receiving treatments and encountering countless blessings, he has been in remission ever since.

Perhaps the most influential lesson I took away from these two years of illness is that our time is never guaranteed. I found a new appreciation for the simplest things, and wanted to make a difference for myself and the people surrounding me. Knowing how fragile time is, I wanted to be sure I was serving a greater purpose…but how?

My answer came when I made a spontaneous visit to a local museum. While walking through one of the exhibits, I experienced an overwhelming certainty that I was meant to work in a museum; it was a true “calling.” This ultimately led me to the Berks History Center because, unlike other organizations, the BHC provided opportunities for me to experience hands-on collections work.

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I remember vividly my excitement when I first saw the collections storage area. The elevator door opened and I saw row after row of floor-to-ceiling shelves that housed the many wonderful treasures of Berks County! Suddenly, I wanted to know what everything was, who these objects once belonged to, and what that person’s life had been like.

Since that day, the experiences I have gained at the Berks History Center have only assured me that I am where I should be. BHC Curator Brad Smith mentored me on the many facets of what a museum career is all about. He patiently explained various processes, trained me in proper collections care and handling, and included me in research opportunities uncovering the fascinating stories of Berks County.

One such story involved two large and somewhat awkward statues of Mozart and Shakespeare. Brad and I wondered why the BHC had accepted such objects decades earlier, since neither Mozart nor Shakespeare have anything to do with Berks County! Through some detective work and archival research we were able to document that these statues once adorned the exterior balcony of the Grand Opera House on Penn Street. I was delighted to be involved in research that proved these statues were, in fact, wonderful treasures from the county’s history and belonged in the BHC’s collection!

Grand Opera House Statues. BHC Museum Collection

The Berks History Center has been a place of growth and discovery for me. I have learned my calling and passion in life, and I could not feel more blessed for the opportunities I have been given. Over the course of the past year I have seen how valuable this institution is to others as well. I see the interest and awe on visitors’ faces as they walk through the exhibits, or join us for our many educational programs. The BHC is a place where community members feel welcomed by the helpful staff; where 5,000 local school children can learn many fascinating stories of our county’s past that shaped us into the diverse and enriching community we are today. Truly, it is a place where many different people learn and flourish.

Unfortunately, the Berks History Center receives very little government funding and depends primarily on public support. We operate through donations from members like you. This year, I am donating $50, but gifts of all sizes are needed and greatly appreciated. Please join me today in support of this institution that, throughout its 150-year history, has preserved the rich heritage of Berks County, and means so much to me and our community. Click here to support the Berks History Center today!

With Sincerest Gratitude,

Amber Lynn Vroman