Sausages, Souse, and Shandybookers

A visit with a woman whose life is butchering 

Dietrich's Meats & Country Store is in Krumsville, just off a main highway that runs through Pennsylvania Dutch country. I drove there from Philadelphia early this past spring with Don Yoder, a retired University of Pennsylvania professor who helped to establish the study of "folklife" in the United States (he is an authority on all things Pennsylvania Dutch). As we passed through lovely, fertile farmland, Yoder pointed out real and ersatz hex symbols painted on the sides of beautiful stone barns. The signs, he said, were favored only by certain sects using a narrow range of motifs, and only for decoration; the concept of warding off evil spirits and the name "hex" were imposed only in this century, by wrongheaded journalists and folklorists, and nowadays any barn owner picks any old symbol regardless of tradition. The extensive Yoder clan figures prominently in local history, and we admired several handsome Yoder homesteads on our way.

Dietrich's is large and modern, with many kinds of locally made hard pretzels in racks near the door, and a glass case full of fresh meats and sausages running the length of the back wall. Jars of apple butter, home-fermented sauerkraut, and various pickled meats cover the counter, and beside the cash register are homemade crumb-topped shoofly pies, marbled "funny cakes," domed yeast breads, and lemon-meringue pies. I immediately wanted to open a bag of pretzels or cut a slice of pie, but I had come for meat.

My visit was prompted by the recent surge of bad news in Europe: the mad-cow disease resulting from feeding ground-up animal parts to ruminants, and the foot-and-mouth outbreaks that caused the terrible precautionary destruction of hundreds of thousands of seemingly healthy animals. I wanted to see farming and butchering practices in this country while they remain unthreatened, in a community where they have managed to survive little changed.

For years William Woys Weaver, a food historian and writer and a researcher of heirloom herbs and vegetables in his native Pennsylvania Dutch territory, had urged me to visit a woman whose "life is butchering" and who lives near Kutztown, the home of a famous annual summer festival. Verna Dietrich, Weaver said, was the real thing—descended from a long line of Pennsylvania Dutch farmers, and the mistress of a wealth of traditional cuts and preparations. Weaver arranged for his longtime mentor, Yoder, who had helped to establish the Kutztown festival long before it turned to "kountry kitsch" (as Weaver put it), to be my guide. Little did I know quite how real Dietrich would be—or quite how hard I would fall for her Lebanon bologna.

Hquge in size and opinions," Weaver had called Dietrich, and anyone entering the store could verify his description. Her wide ringleted head bobs behind the counter, and her large aproned form comes into view when she emerges to find an item for a customer. During the several hours we spoke (she feeding me a steady stream of samples and instructing me on how to increase sales of The Atlantic by running a free full-page ad promoting her smoked birds), she never stopped surveying the store and making sure the customers either found what they wanted or wanted something.

Dietrich told me that she had grown up on a dairy farm in Virginville, a town nine miles south of Krumsville. All the recipes for the ninety or so meat products she now stocks, she claimed, came from her own family, chiefly from a grandmother with whom she lived for ten years of her childhood. Her husband, Willard, helped by one of their three sons, Glenn, raises enough pigs, lambs, and cattle to supply the store—quite a lot of animals, given that Dietrich's is open seven days a week; operates a booth every Friday and Saturday at Renninger's farmers' market, in Kutztown; and does an extensive mail-order business. Every Tuesday, Dietrich said, the family slaughters about twenty pigs, three or four lambs, and four or five cattle. Marlin, another son, was in the store (his wife, Dawn, helps keep the books); he occasionally joined the conversation on his way into or out of the meat-cutting and sausage-making room, which, I could see through the window of a swinging door, was as big as the sales area. I was not invited in. I did enter the kitchen, however, and was nearly overwhelmed by the smell of a deep kettle of hot lard, in which Debbie Dietrich, another daughter-in-law, was frying fastnachts—square Lenten doughnuts made from a yeast dough containing mashed potatoes, butter, and lard.

"You won't find many places that slaughter their own pork, beef, and lambs and do their own processing," Verna Dietrich said. "We make everything here." She didn't stop for breath as she recited her products like a country auctioneer, keeping an eye on the customers and occasionally addressing them midstream: "Corn beef fresh and smoked, fresh and smoked sausage, Lebanon and sweet bologna, German mince bologna, ducks, geese, pheasant, quail, chukar (that's partridge), guinea hens, goat, lamb, smoked ducks, turkeys, capons, rabbits—we raise our own rabbits. Can I help you? We have everything head to tail—brains and sweetbreads, oxtail, hearts, tongues, kidneys. We can our own tripe, pig's feet, and souse. We cure our own Westphalian hams, old-fashioned farmers' and mild-cured ham, double-smoked bacon and regular hickory-smoked, beef bacon, Canadian bacon, beef jerky, slim jims hot, mild, or sweet, hot dogs, and German wieners. Yoder, what do you want there? Bratwurst and veal bratwurst, knackwurst, ring bolognas—they're all beef, you eat them for a snack like kielbasa—and cheese ring bologna with pieces of cheese that melt when you cook it, and a full line of German products like mettwurst and jagdwurst. Are you looking for anything special?"

While serving customers Dietrich would slip Yoder and me little tastes of products other than the copious array of salamis and sausages already set out in tiny cubes: liverwurst, for instance, something I hadn't thought of since it meant grade-school sandwiches no one could trade, and so good that I wanted to spread it on German rye bread; and a kind of salami I'd never had that is emblematic of the Pennsylvania Dutch larder—Lebanon bologna, named for the county where it was first commercially produced. What makes it typical is the use of beef rather than pork, a distinct sweetness, and a gentle spicing with hints of ginger, paprika, mustard, and mace. (I got this list from Hot Links and Country Flavors, by the master sausage maker Bruce Aidells with Denis Kelly; Dietrich would reveal few of her "seasonings.") The Lebanon bologna, unlike other things I tasted at the store, was subtly smoked and not particularly salty.

Dietrich diverted me from my steady progress through several slices of it by handing across the counter a thin slice of what looked like head cheese, spread with mayonnaise—"dressing," she called it—above and ballpark mustard below. Yoder asked what it was. "Just eat it," she said with a sly smile I had already learned to recognize. (The smile is visible in a photograph Weaver took and included in his Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking, in which Dietrich is nearly cuddling two hanging hog carcasses just a bit larger than she is.) It grew broader as we kept chewing the mild-flavored and very gelatinous slice ("No Knox gelatin in it!"). When she had taken sufficient pleasure in our puzzlement, she said, "Pig snout."

Knowing that I wanted to see how animals were raised locally, Yoder took me to visit a nearby pig and beef farm owned by Old Order Mennonites to whom Weaver, a sixteenth-generation Quaker with many Mennonite forebears, is distantly related. "They don't look it," Weaver had remarked in an e-mail, "but they are horse-and-buggy millionaires."

He was right about their modesty. The large family—a couple with twelve children and numerous grandchildren, most of them living on the farm—had equipped their houses with both electricity and a telephone but otherwise lived very simply (and very much in the manner of the farm families of my Connecticut childhood). The greenhouses where they raised flowers and tomato plants to sell at their large roadside stand had high-technology heaters, but the barns were very low-technology and not, in fact, notably clean. The pigs and cattle were raised solely for meat, the family matriarch—a white-haired woman with a radiant complexion who was wearing traditional dress—explained as she led Yoder and me along muddy paths, with several grandchildren, just home from school, trailing behind.

Heirloom breeds are of little interest to the family. The cattle, her husband told us when he joined us, are Holsteins, which the family buys at six months and feeds with corn from their farm to "finish" for twelve to eighteen months before selling them to a slaughterhouse. Pigs are the farm's main business: one barn is set aside as a nursery. Like the cattle and the family's chickens, the pigs are fed principally on corn and are given antibiotics only when an outbreak of disease occurs—which, the farmer said, hasn't happened in years. The family owns numerous farms; it has never bought "flour" feed of the kind that can include animal by-products, he told us. The idea seemed as unnatural to him (and to Dietrich, who bridled when I brought up the subject) as it does to consumers who wonder at the origin and spread of mad-cow disease.

Dietrich doesn't sell her fresh cuts by mail, but she does ship every kind of sausage she makes, including the irresistible Lebanon bologna. Her plain fresh sausage—a mixture of beef and pork and very few spices (the only one she would name was coriander)—is another typical Pennsylvania Dutch product. I asked for ways to prepare it. "Well, you can make shandybookers," she said, another sly smile beginning to appear. Yoder took out his notebook.

"Years ago," Dietrich began, "tramps would come to our door and ask if they could dig the garden." Yoder explained that the men were colliers, mostly Welshmen, out of work from the nearby coal mines; he gave Dietrich the Pennsylvania Dutch word for "collier," and she nodded in agreement. The men would dig the family's garden in March, around Saint Patrick's Day, and when they put in radishes, "we got radishes like crazy."

Families would pay the men with bags of food, she said. "Maybe you gave them potatoes, or sausage if you'd just butchered." Walking home from church, "you could smell they were making supper in the woods," she told us. "They had worked somewhere and gotten some kind of meat and potatoes, and they fried onions and parsley someone gave them from their garden. It smelled so good." She swallowed as she remembered the dish, a one-pot supper that also included eggs. "If you're brought up with it," she said, "you like it and you get hungry for it."

Weaver later told me that Dietrich's rustic shandybookers was a variant of a traditional Pennsylvania "chopped" omelet called dummes, in which potatoes or diced bread and perhaps a bit of meat are sautéed with just enough beaten egg to hold them together. "Shandy" is probably a variant of "shanty," Yoder said, and "booker" is an example of the Pennsylvania Dutch penchant for spott, or joke, names.

I've adapted a recipe for shandybookers—using cooking instructions that Dietrich gave Yoder and me, and ingredient quantities from a chopped-omelet recipe in Weaver's book.

To serve six people, peel and chop two cups of onion, and scrub and cut into small dice one and a half pounds (about four cups) of unpeeled red or white boiling potatoes, preferably new. Remove from their casings enough sausages to yield about one and a half cups (about twelve ounces) of meat. Cook the meat over medium heat until it browns lightly and releases its fat. Transfer the meat to a bowl and remove all but a tablespoon of fat from the pan; reserve the extra fat. Sauté the onions over medium heat until they turn translucent and just begin to color. Add the potatoes with salt and pepper to taste, and sauté them, covered, until they soften, about twenty minutes; add more fat if necessary to prevent them from sticking. Stir in the meat and a cup of minced fresh flat-leaf parsley and sauté, uncovered, until the parsley wilts, about five minutes. Lightly beat six eggs and pour them over the mixture. Stirring gently, cook over low heat until the eggs set, being careful not to overcook them. The pieces of meat should "show through, almost like nuts," Dietrich said.

The dish is equally good with Lebanon bologna, which is already cooked: cut twelve ounces into thin disks and add them with the parsley. In this case the cooking fat, Dietrich insists, should be "lard—none of that commercial stuff." She of course renders and sells her own, and sends it by mail order (the number is 610-756-6344; lard costs $1.00 a pound and Lebanon bologna $4.49 a pound plus shipping). You can use olive oil or even someone else's sausage, as long as you don't tell her. ( sells an exemplary mild fresh pork sausage along with innovative poultry sausages such as chicken-and-apple and Thai turkey; the minimum order for the fresh "Italian" sausage is two three-pound packs, at $60.95 including shipping.)

Another secret to be kept from Dietrich is a vegetarian way to sample Pennsylvania Dutch flavors and even to make shandybookers. Weaver gives in his book a Lenten recipe for "faux sausage" made with watercress or, preferably, purslane (a fleshy herb that grows wild throughout the country and has recently come into fashion with all things Mediterranean) and bound with bread crumbs and eggs. To make fifteen patties, enough for six or seven servings, combine one cup of minced purslane or watercress, one cup plus two tablespoons of bread crumbs, two tablespoons of currants, one tablespoon of ground ginger, and half a teaspoon each of salt and freshly ground pepper. Beat three eggs until light-colored, and stir them into the mixture. Mold into patties between two tablespoons dipped into cold water and sauté the patties in hot vegetable or olive oil until they are golden brown on both sides. To use these in shandybookers, add the patties at the point you would add Lebanon bologna, lightly breaking them into the cooked potatoes and onions.

With or without Dietrich's homemade sausage, shandybookers can give family and friends an authentic taste of Pennsylvania Dutch country—and a call to Dietrich's store to order fresh sausage will doubtless provide stories to serve with the dish.