True Old Country flavor
Market Report: Pennsylvania Dutch tastes thrive at the Amish Country Store in Largo.
By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published January 10, 2007
Pam and Stuart Opp fill an order at the Amish Country Store in Largo recently. Looking for Lebanon bologna or Groff’s ham? Whoopie pies? You’ll find it all here.
[Times photo: Ted McLaren]
[Times photo: Ted McLaren]
Shelves stocked full of various jams, pickles and preserves, all from Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch communities, greet customers at the Amish Country Store in Largo.
A place that sells a product that's good on bologna and pretzels is a risky spot to stop early in a new year of earnest resolutions.
But the day after Penn State's 10-point victory in the Outback Bowl, as Florida shook off a little January chill, the warmth of the Amish Country Store is enough to make you say Whoopie! Whoopie Pie that is, a portable Pennsylvania pigout of two small chocolate cakes with cream filling sandwiched in between.
The answer to the one-garnish-fits-all from pretzel to bologna is, of course, mustard. Dark brown, whole grain Fischer's mit horseradish. Grey Poupon need not apply.
The bologna, deprived outlanders should be aware, is Lebanon bologna. It's not the bland, pinky pork stuff with the first name we have come to rely on in so many kids' lunches. Lebanon bologna is a lunch meat of sturdier character, dark red beef closer to a coarse salami. It is smoked, fermented, tart with salt and vinegar.
That tangy taste of home was something Pennsylvanian Pam Opp couldn't find easily around the Tampa Bay area when she followed her parents here.
Now at the little corner of Pennsylvania Dutch country she and husband Stuart have built complete with red barn and weather vane, the bologna-starved can find what they need. It's choosing that's hard. Groff's from Elizabethtown or Kunzler's from Lancaster? Regular, sweet or Groff's "farmer's bologna" that falls between the two?
Sweet (Lebanon) bologna is a treat on the shopping list of customers who arrive daily from around the state - and stacked up on many of the sandwiches the Opps make for a stream of blue-scrubbed nurses and techs from the nearby Eye Institute of West Florida.
So it goes through three small rooms packed with old-fashioned products. There are hex signs, dolls and handmade brooms, rugs, penny candy and cookbooks sought by tourists. Most of the stock, spices, grains, preserves and odd items like Unkers salve are for those already familiar with them, the recipes and the vocabulary.
Other cooks and food fans should explore Amish products as comfort foods and as a hearty reminder that some Americans lived and ate close to the farm in recent times without calling it organic, artisanal or slow food. It was wunderbore gute.
Tastes from home
Opp is neither Amish nor Mennonite - she was born a Johnson and grew up in Harrisburg - but the flavors of those German immigrants and their farmhouse cooking filled tables of all faiths across central and southeast Pennsylvania, as well as Ohio and other areas.
"It's what everyone ate, it's what your mother and your grandmother cooked," she said.
Pot pie, for instance, has no flour or crust. It is a hearty stew of chicken or beef thick with layers of large square noodles. In local dialect, they are called bott boi, which the English corrupted as "pot pie."
Then there are egg noodles for soup in traditional sizes, fine, medium, large and kluski.
Please? "Kluski" is a traditional size between fine and medium, Pam Opp explains.
And there's John Cope's dried corn. That is, corn kernels cut, roasted and dehydrated, a preservation method to store corn for months to produce a groaning table of side dishes when the weather turns colder.
There are oats, syrups, molasses and a boundless array of baking spices and toppings, dried apple "snitz" and cherry chips (yes, kiss-shaped, cherry flavored and lipstick red). Cookies, cakes and shoo-fly pie, oh my.
Half of another room is a showcase of Pennsylvania's contribution to modern snacks: potato chips and pretzels. They come in a half-dozen brands from Utz to small-batch factories like Middleswarth and Kay and Ray's.
Wash them down with the pioneer sodas of root beer and mintier birch beer. Make your own from extract or buy the commercial stuff in eight brands, A-Treat to Kutztown.
For a full lunch, pile the bologna or Groff's ham (which makes great ham salad) and cheese onto hefty sandwiches. The Opps' cheeses include cheddar, Colby and bier kase, which aims to be a mild Limburger. And you can order fresh cheddar curds in winter when it's cold enough to ship them from Wisconsin.
That can add up to a high-fat, carbo-loading diet, but that may fuel the Nittany Lions' success as much as a Joe Paterno pep talk.
Over the years, nationwide nagging and taste trends have infiltrated, creating such novelties as cranberry horseradish and such oddities as diet birch beer and nonyolk noodles.
A bounty of flavors
Yet the Amish cooking was not all meat-and-potatoes or home-baked sugar and spice goodies. As 19th century farmers (and still today), they had gardens and orchards that put fruits and vegetables on the table in season and filled the pantries and cellars with jellies and pickles the rest of the year.
Indeed at the biggest meals, Amish tradition called for setting the table with seven sweets and seven sours, a balance worth heeding.
So the Opps fill two tall cabinets with a fruit basket of preserves and butters of apples, figs, quince and Damson plums from Mrs. Miller's, Jake and Amos.
Not too far down the shelves is an equal array of what might be called Amish "health foods," an entire truck farm of pickles. But not just cucumbers; you can find snap beans, carrots, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage (kraut), peppers and beets, punched up with dill, mustard and celery seeds, and hotter peppers.
Put your choice of those vegetables into a mustard vinegar relish and you have chow chow, the masterpiece of Pennsylvania Dutch pickling. That's a chutney hotter than some curries, and sharp enough to cut an overdose of starch and fat.
Some old farmyard foods will satisfy the pickiest nutritionist: Shenks Cup Cheese is as thick as brie but does not have a gram of fat, and the peach butter has less than 20 calories.
For the Opps, running a Pennsylvania food store has given them a chance to visit Amish country as business partners, not gawkers. They know the old man who makes their brooms. They've been to the Groff's smokehouse and met the preserve-making Stoltzfus sisters. "They retired last year," Stuart Opp said with regret. "They'd just gotten too old. But when we were there they were putting up preserves on their back porch."
There's one rare ingredient that the Opps don't stock but that made those husky farmhouse meals healthful: hard work.Chris Sherman can be reached at (727)893-8585 or email@example.com.
Amish Country Store
206 13th St. SW, Largo, (727) 587-9657; www. theamishcountrystore. safeshopper.com.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.
[Last modified January 10, 2007, 06:38:21]
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