Comfort & Joy: How PA Dutch Holiday Foods Root My Family to Tradition
November 29, 2021
6 min. read
A PA Eats Editorial By Lisa Yoder
For families across the globe, holiday traditions are a powerful anchor to hold on to as the years pass. Things may change, both for families, with new members joining and babies growing up, and in the world at large. Each culture has its unique customs and foods to mark the holidays that serve as a profound way to connect with one another and celebrate the season. All across Pennsylvania, PA Dutch families like mine preserve and carry on our own special traditions, generation after generation.
At the center of it all is food: a holiday table laden with homemade dishes, a place for us to gather and feel the warmth and stability of breaking bread and being together. Traditional PA Dutch holiday foods reflect the melting pot-nature of our regional culture, melding German, Amish and American flavors into our own cuisine. Different PA Dutch families may have their own versions, but there is always the common thread of hearty comfort foods, which prize deeply satisfying flavors and eschew wastefulness.
Here are the foods that my PA Dutch family celebrates the holidays with each year:
The Main Dish
We are a meat-and-potatoes bunch! As you may know, the Pennsylvania Dutch were German-speaking immigrants who settled across Pennsylvania throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. For those families, growing their own food and raising their own animals was crucial for survival. Meat was a precious resource, and it was used cleverly and sparingly in everyday dishes. Thus, serving a whole bird or roasted meat for holidays was a festive — and significant — treat!
In my family at Thanksgiving, there’s always turkey as the centerpiece of the meal, and at Christmas, there’s ham. When Easter rolls around, there’s either a ham or hamloaf (like a meatloaf, but made with scraps of ham), depending on the group size. My favorite lifehack for a quick Pennsylvania Dutch-feeling holiday meal, especially when cooking just for my small household, is to pick up a frozen Gene Wenger hamloaf and pop that sweet meat in the oven a couple hours before it’s time for dinner. It’s an instant holiday in a foil loaf pan.
At most Pennsylvania Dutch meals, the main dish is complemented with “7-sweets-7-sours,” which are side dishes and condiments that help create balance. Yes, that means up to 14 dishes to build the perfect plate! This can include jams, pickles, mustards, dressings and relishes, as well as prepared dishes. On our holiday table, you’ll find a variety of vegetables, starches and condiments that add texture, color and excitement to the spread.
We have a smattering of, shall we say, particular eaters in my family, so we always make two separate versions of stuffing: one with onions and celery, and one without. We call these stuffings simply, “with” and “without.”
Yes, the “without,” is basically just crusty, buttery bread cubes, perhaps lightly seasoned, ready to be mixed into a pile of potatoes and doused with turkey or ham gravy. Both versions of the stuffing dish are so moist and flavorful when made with Martin’s Potatobred Soft-Cubed Stuffing. My family always has a few bags of this PA-proud product around during the holidays! We love that its ingredients include unbleached flour and real potatoes and butter, and that it’s made locally in Chambersburg, PA.
One of the most iconic side dishes at holiday meals in our region is Pennsylvania Dutch Potato Filling, which is a combination of white potatoes, celery, herbs, milk, eggs and cubed bread, among other ingredients. It’s so homey, basically a tender, savory stuffing casserole! One fun way to lean on tradition while taking a slightly modern twist is to make Sweet Potato and Potatobred Dutch Filling. This technique packs in even more flavor and nutrition than the standard recipe, with beautiful orange yams and Martin’s Potatobred Soft-Cubed Stuffing for a luscious texture and layers of autumnal flavor.
Try the recipe!
Sweet Potato and Potatobred Dutch Filling
Corn is a staple crop in PA, and it’s incorporated into a lot of PA Dutch dishes, like corn pie and chicken corn soup. At holiday gatherings in my home, baked corn, ideally using locally sourced produce, is often on the table.
Baked corn is simply creamed corn mixed with milk, eggs, butter, flour, sugar, salt and pepper, baked together in a casserole dish. The edges caramelize to golden perfection, and the dish lends sweetness to the rest of the savory plate. John Cope’s Dried Sweet Corn is sometimes used instead of sweet corn, and it adds an extra-rich, corn-y flavor.
The PA Dutch love our veggies, and at many meals — especially holidays — you’ll find an array of side dishes featuring vegetables. There’s tangy, crunchy chow chow, a pickled relish made with bell peppers, celery, cauliflower and lima or kidney beans. Green beans topped with bacon bits and water chestnuts in a mustard-y sauce, often make an appearance. Pickled beets, candied sweet potatoes, beet-pickled eggs and mac-and-cheese (not technically a vegetable, but who’s counting?) are some other holiday favorites.
If there’s any room left on one’s plate, a soft and fluffy potato dinner roll with a pad of butter is the missing puzzle piece. Extra potato rolls are great to have around for sandwiches with the leftover ham or turkey, or just by themselves as a snack.
The PA Dutch may be known as unfussy culture that’s not big on decadence, but we do love a good sweet treat!
After the big plates are cleared from the table and everyone has some tea, my family’s dessert plates, acquired decades ago at an auction down the road, come out. On most holidays, pie is the star. My family’s pie dough recipe, blessedly, makes enough crusts for three pies. We believe that three pies is the minimum number of pies one should have, no matter how small the gathering! If it’s pumpkin, the filling is light and custardy; if it’s apple, the creamy texture and mellow sweetness are spiced up with kicks of cinnamon and raisins; and if it’s Shoo-Fly pie, well, the denser and sugarier, the better.
Other tasty PA Dutch holiday treats include sand tart cookies (crumbly sugar cookies with nuts), nut cups (mini nut pies), soft molasses cookies and bread pudding.
Many PA Dutch families celebrate something called Second Christmas, which keeps the convivial festivities going on December 26! It extends the holiday so that friends and family members who didn’t get to see each other on Christmas Day still have a chance to gather.
When I’m hosting a holiday, I like to kick off Second Christmas with a big breakfast. Fried cornmeal mush with dippy eggs (fried or soft boiled eggs with runny yolks) is my family’s tradition. Sometimes, we make an eggy brunch casserole, with torn up pieces of potato bread or leftover bag of Potatobred Stuffing as a toasty, golden topping.
Whether you’re attending a large gathering or keeping it small this year, focusing on the rhythms and traditions of the holiday menu help us all mark the passing of time no matter the circumstances. This year, I’m hoping to eat all of these things together with my family, and I’m grateful to be able to pass on PA Dutch food traditions to my kids as they create their own holiday memories.
About Lisa Yoder:
Lisa Yoder grew up on a dairy farm in Central Pennsylvania. She enjoys milkshakes, travel, reading, and eating the baked goods of her PA Dutch heritage. After spending some time in Philadelphia, Lisa now lives in Lancaster city with her partner, children, and cats.
Our latest content, delivered straight to your inbox.
Be the first to hear about our newest recipes, tips, and company updates!