Periodically, this column explores some facet of heritage cooking, looking to uncover the back-stories of our American gastronomy. Living in the formerly Colonial portion of our nation affords many opportunities to indulge in culinary time travel, and the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum stands as one of the best.
Located north of Lancaster, Pa., Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum exhibits and interprets Pennsylvania German material culture and heritage between 1750 and 1940. Covering more than 100 acres, Landis Valley presents a singular collection of artifacts, animals, and buildings staffed by costumed interpreters and craftspeople. Founded by brothers Henry Kinzer Landis and George Diller Landis, the museum opened in 1925 at their Landis Valley residence.
The area had been a small Pennsylvania German settlement since the mid-1800s, and the museum enables visitors to experience 18th- and 19th-century village and farm life in Lancaster County.
The museum’s Shayla Carey met me at the visitor center and took me to the Log Farm, an 18th-century log home with a separate bake house and smokehouse, a pig sty, spring house, sheep pasture, and a 19th-century Swiss bank barn occupied by two gargantuan cattle. Built in traditional German style, the cabin has a long, open hearth and plenty of workspace in the kitchen. Local fire codes had dictated the building’s layout.
Baking the old-fashioned way
Outside, Bob Siever, a long-time volunteer, was firing the bake oven in one-half of the small, detached building. Adjoining the oven, a smokehouse made up the rest of the structure. Ovens were frequently placed in separate structures to keep the heat and potential fire hazard away from the residence.
“I fire the oven until the interior walls look clean,” he explained, “then I rake out the ashes and swab the baking surface with water to clean it. I’ll let it rest for a half-hour, then bake right on the shelf.”
The heat contained within the oven’s masonry does the actual baking, and a good baker can stage several items to take advantage of every bit of heat. First, the breads go in, followed by pastries as the heat diminishes. After the pastries, drying fruits and vegetables and slowly cooking beans or other casseroles uses every calorie of heat.
Going back into the kitchen, Siever prepared two kuchen, flattened, rectangular cakes with sweet or savory toppings. He coated one kuchen with apple butter, dried cherries, and kirsch; the second had fried onions, bacon, sour cream, and eggs. He used a flat wooden shovel, called a peel, to slide the kuchen into the hot oven. After baking for a half hour, the finished cakes are removed with the peel and set aside to cool. Siever also used the oven to bake two rounded loaves of sourdough and to dry a tray of peach slices.
Landis Valley Museum is home of the Heirloom Seed Project, which focuses on preserving seeds from heirloom varieties of vegetables, herbs, and ornamentals that have historical significance for Pennsylvania Germans from 1750 to 1940. Unlike hybrid plants, gardeners can save seeds from heirloom varieties with the assurance that the fruit from each new generation of plants will bear fruit that is similar to the fruit from the past seasons.
On Oct.8 and 9, Landis Valley will celebrate its Harvest Days, the museums’ oldest and biggest festival. Visitors can enjoy demonstrations, crafts, wagon rides, a pumpkin patch, and foods that will immerse them in the Pennsylvania German traditions. (landisvalleymuseum.org)
This month’s recipe is taken, with permission, from The Landis Valley Cookbook.
Zwiebelbrot (Onion Bread)
3 or 4 medium onions
2 cups pastry flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup lard
1 teaspoon baking soda
Assorted fresh or dried herbs for topping, such as parsley, savory, and dill
Peel and finely chop the onions. Fry in the butter until soft but not browned. Set aside; don’t drain the onions. Mix the salt and flour; then cut in the lard to make it crumbly. Mix in the baking soda and buttermilk, just until the buttermilk is incorporated. Spread the dough out into two lightly greased 8-inch cake pans. Divide the onions between the two loaves and sprinkle the herbs on top. Bake at 375 degrees until lightly browned, about 20 minutes. (Don’t substitute regular flour for pastry flour, which is available at gourmet food stores.)