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As was one of the earliest European settlements in the New World, Pennsylvania’s long history has allowed for the formation of many local traditions. Pennsylvania was founded on a vision of religious freedom, which has attracted immigrants from all over Europe. Today, religion continues to have great influence on the state, which has large communities of Mennonites, Amish, and other religious groups.
The state was named for its founder, William Penn, who was a member of the Christian sect known as Quakers, or Society of Friends. Penn received the land in a grant from King Charles II, and decided to create a haven for the Quakers, who faced religious persecution in England. The colony saw a large influx of English settlers during the late 1600s, followed by Germans and Irish immigrants who also sought religious freedom. These immigrants brought foods and traditions from their homelands, and have innovated and invented many specialties that reflect the modern, or in some cases old-fashioned, lifestyles of the people of Pennsylvania.
While settlers from England, Ireland, and Germany made up the majority of early immigrants, a wave of Italians later arrived in the region. The Italians had a strong influence on the food of Pennsylvania, with new creations like the Philly cheesesteak and water ice — a frozen treat invented by Italian Americans in the region. The following are just a few highlights selected from Pennsylvania’s assortment of specialties.
German immigrants have had a long-term effect on the state of Pennsylvania, and are the state’s largest ancestry group. The group known today as the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated from Germany and Switzerland and settled in southern Pennsylvania. Many of these settlers were Amish and Mennonite, and today Old Order Amish and Mennonites still exist in enclaves in Pennsylvania and the surrounding regions. As enclaves, the Pennsylvania Dutch have preserved their culture and traditions with little outside influence. Their culture has, however, influenced that of the surrounding state who enjoy many specialties from the Pennsylvania Dutch menu.
As a utilitarian society, Pennsylvania Dutch make food that reflects their lifestyle. Without modern technologies, the Pennsylvania Dutch use old-fashioned methods of food preparation. Without the use of refrigeration, the Pennsylvania Dutch often pickle their vegetables to preserve them. Chow-chow is a medley of vegetables like tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, beans, and peas, which are canned and served cold. A similar dish is eaten outside of Pennsylvania by communities in the South, but the Pennsylvania Dutch version is sweeter.
The Pennsylvania Dutch also make every effort to reduce waste by finding creative ways to use all part of the animals they eat, many of which are normally discarded by other communities. An example of this characteristic is called scrapple, which is made from combining ground scraps of pork, including meat from various organs and the head, with cornmeal, flour, and spices. The meat is formed in a similar way to meatloaf, then cut into slices and fried. This dish is singular to this region, and is not found nationwide. Scrapple is often eaten for breakfast, sometimes as a sandwich or with eggs. Another specialty of the Pennsylvania Dutch is the bot boi, or pot pie. Unlike the standard version of chicken pot pie, which is covered with pie crust, the bot boi is a mixture of noodles and meat stew without the crust.
Shoofly pie is a typical dessert of the Pennsylvania Dutch, though it is probably based on the treacle tart. The smell of this sweet molasses pie attracted flies, earning it the name shoofly pie. The Pennsylvania Amish also lay claim to the whoopie pie, though Maine disputes the claim and has made whoopie pie the official state treat.
The cheesesteak is Philadelphia icon: thinly sliced steak served on a roll and topped with melted cheese. This sandwich is an all-American dish, but created by Italian immigrants to the United States. Brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri created the sandwich for their hot dog cart, while trying to incorporate some variety into their shop. The sandwiches, which they simply called steak sandwiches, were a hit and the brothers opened up their restaurant, now called Pat’s King of Steaks.
The steak is cooked with onions and sometimes peppers to enhance the flavor. Cheesesteak purists only consider the sandwiches served on Amoroso (a Philadelphia-based baking company) rolls to be authentic Philly cheesesteaks. The type of cheese used on a Philly cheesesteak varies, though it is usually provolone, American, or even Cheez Whiz. Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steak are two of the most famous Philadelphia establishments that serve Philly cheesesteaks.
Pennsylvania Pepper Pot
From its fabled roots in the American Revolution, the Pennsylvania pepper pot is a long-standing tradition in the region. Originally made by farmers, this beef tripe and vegetable stew is flavored with a lot of pepper. They sold the pepper pots to the Revolutionary War soldiers from street carts as a way to make some extra money.
Pennsylvania is headquarters to some of the country’s biggest snack food companies, like pretzel and potato chip manufacturers, including Sturgis Pretzel House and Utz Quality Foods, as well as Heinz, and Tastykake. Tastykake started in Pittsburgh in 1914, and produces packaged snack foods like cupcakes and pies, which are distributed around the eastern part of the United States. Pennsylvania is also home to several of the major chocolate producers in the United States, including Hershey’s, Godiva, and Mars.
The pretzel is a snack brought by German immigrants during the nineteenth century, and has become an important part of Pennsylvania food culture. Both soft and crunchy pretzels are commonly made in the state, which produces about 80 percent of the nation’s pretzels. Soft pretzels remain a favorite, and continue to be sold by street vendors in Philadelphia and other major cities, including New York City and Chicago.
Beer & Root Beer
Philadelphia is known around the world for its signature beer: Philadelphia style porter. The Pottsville, Pennsylvania-based company, Yuengling boasts the title of America’s oldest brewery, and is now one of the largest beer brewing companies in the United States.
Root beer may have been first created by early Native Americans in the region, who taught the Europeans how to make it. The drink, which is made from sassafras root or bark, was introduced as a substitute for beer at the early stages of the Prohibition movement in Pennsylvania. Pharmacist Charles Hires of Philadelphia began marketing his version of the drink as a medicinal beverage. He introduced the commercial product, Hires’ Root Beer at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibition. It has been one of the most popular soft drinks in the country ever since.