Discovering (New) Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine

The winding road to Hanover, Pennsylvania passes the kind of pastoral beauty reserved for bad hotel paintings: bulbous barns, red chipped paint clinging to the exterior, sit rustically unloved in the middle of pasture, as a sunburst of fall foliage illuminates the background. Billboards announce an upcoming convention dedicated to scrapbooking. In town, old ladies hold up signs at intersections that read “Pray to end abortion!” The town of 15,000 is the home of Utz potato chips and Snyder’s of Hanover pretzels. Apparently, the whoopie pie was invented here. Hanover, I’m told, is the Snack Capital of the World. Or at least Pennsylvania.

Thomas Jefferson spent the night here once. And Abraham Lincoln stopped long enough to talk to the townsfolk from his train (no word if any potato chips or pretzels were eaten or trafficked).

There are other reasons to come to Hanover besides engrossing oneself in the exciting art of scrapbooking and getting fat on snack food. I turned up in town recently to meet chef Andrew Little. When I heard he was cooking up something called New Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine at restaurant (and B&B) Sheppard Mansion I just had to see (and taste) what that was.

“Terroir is not just for wine,” Little told me when I met him at the restaurant. “We’re trying to take this regional cuisine–which is really a cuisine of the home–and give people a taste of the area.” He said locals will come in and at first not recognize the elevated versions of local dishes–that is, until their taste buds get the recognition of the flavor profile.

At a time when restaurants from coast to coast are tripping over themselves to emphasize the phrase “farm to table” and words like “local” and “seasonal,” Little and the Sheppard Mansion are the real deal. Much like the restaurants Blue Hill at Stone Barns (in the Hudson Valley) and the Inn at Little Washington (in Virginia), the Sheppard Mansion has been supplying its ingredients from its own farm. The produce and the beef (from the hairy Scotch Highland cow) come from the restaurant’s farm a few miles down the road. The 10,000-square-foot garden supplies 90 percent of the restaurant’s produce for a better part of the year. Closer to the restaurant—in fact, right on the Sheppard Mansion property—is an herb garden where Little can run out of the kitchen, uproot some basil or sage and add it right into a dish.

That night a procession of plates hit my table and there were some very tell tale signs of the time and space with which I found myself. The meal began with—fittingly enough—a nod to the city’s snack proclivities: a bag of homemade potato chips followed by a cornmeal-encrusted whoopee pie topped with bologna mouse. Next came sauerkraut-stuffed arancini, a reference to the region’s traditional Germanic residents.

After that came scrapple, a seriously local dish: a loaf made with the leftover bits of the pig. Chef Little serves it in rectangular cubes and the pork taste is infused throughout. Scrapple is Pennsylvania Dutch to the core, as the region has a long tradition of frugality when it comes to food; few bits of an animal are wasted here and scrapple is one of the most delicious “scraps” you’ll find. I also tried schnitz und knepp, a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch apple-and-ham-dumpling dish. Little elevates it by turning into something that’s more like rabbit-laden gnocchi.

Little later added: “I want people to be able to look at the menu and know where they’re at and what time of year it is.”

In case, I hadn’t already figured out where I was in the world, the last dish was hit-you-over-the-head obvious: a chocolate covered pretzel.

If only scrapbooking seemed this fun.