Food as Community Identifier

I’ve been working quite a bit on that food autobiography essay I mentioned a few weeks ago. It’s no longer called “You Are What You Eat,” but instead has become “Free-Range Salvation Smothered in Mayonnaise: An Autobiography through Food.” Since I’ve been a little slack in posting recently, I thought you all might appreciate another excerpt. Enjoy!

The highlight of the evening was not the multi-stanza, rhyming ode to NASCAR driver Dale Earnhart, Sr., the recited Shania Twain song lyrics, or the saccharine lines of unrequited love.

Nor was it the fruit-flavored, cheap, and fizzy wines.

Would anyone other than English graduate students find the celebration of bad poetry and bad wine a reason to crowd into a shady apartment and breathe the dust of yard-sale furnishings? Bring a terrible bottle of wine or some bad poetry to share, I had been told. Or both. Extra kudos if you wrote the lines yourself.

It was Texas.

It was hot.

Windows open, the fans whirred.

Needing a break from the excitement, I headed to the dining room to see what snacks had arrived. There, pushed to the edge of the table, next to the standard cheese cubes, bowls of pretzels and chips, and refrigerator chocolate chip cookies, was a large white plate. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing—on that plate were blobs of chocolate cake, three or four inches wide, the flat side of each smothered with a whipped white icing that acted as the glue holding together pieces of bread on a PBJ.

“Are those—” I looked around, and then continued to a woman standing beside me, someone whom I’d never met, “—whoopie pies?”

Her eyes met mine. She asked me, “Are you from Pennsylvania?”

Central Pennsylvania, the place to which I return when I need a dose of “home,” is Dutch country. “Dutch” in this case is a transliteration of “Deutch,” the region settled by a distinctly German population. In rural areas, it can still be heard in the cadence of the voice, a lilt as identifiable as that of the Irish. But it’s a vocabulary, too, a sentence construction, a word choice. I didn’t know the hold it had on my vocal cords until I stepped onto a college campus in another state.

And even now, ten years later, I might say “The milk is all” to mean the jug is empty. (When a friend responds with “All what?” I don’t immediately know she’s talking to me.) Or, before I head to the grocery store to pick up another gallon, I might say to my husband, “Do you want to come with?”

In the decade since leaving home, I’ve learned that two of the quickest identifiers of central PA-dwellers, apart from the fact that we refer verbally to our state by its initials, is the way we use—or don’t—the verb “to be” and the adverb “awhile.” The sentence “My pencil needs sharpened” makes perfect sense to me.  And when I hear myself saying “I’ll run out and start the car awhile,” I don’t think twice about it.

It’s become easier to write the Dutchiness out of my words on the page and, most of the time, out of my mouth. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t seeped into my bones.

________________________________________

Think about some of your community’s “identifiers.” Have you ever been outside the community and called out because of one? What you said or the way you said it? The way you made food? I’m sure you have. Do share.

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4 comments on “Food as Community Identifier

  1. cynthia41768 says:

    This post, Elizabeth, leaves me wondering if you also interchange ‘leave’ and ‘let’? It also reminds me of this little story: Soon after my family moved from KY (where my mom had lived her whole life up until that point) to Connecticut, my mother decided she wanted to make homemade ice cream. She drove to the closest community A&P grocery and began searching the aisles for rock salt to add to the ice cream freezer. Keep in mind this was July in Connecticut. Finally, mom decided to ask the grocer (imagine the West KY accent…foreign to this Yankee) “Where do Y’all keep the rock salt?” “Why on earth do you need that this time of year? There’s not a bit of ice on the sidewalk,” replied the grocer. “I’m making homemade ice cream,” my mother replied. “Lady,” said the grocer in a condescending tone, “Follow me over here to the freezer section. You can buy icecream already made! See, we have chocolate, vanilla, strawberry..any flavor you want and you don’t have to make it yourself!” Mom came home without any rock salt and she may have even cried on the way…wondering why on earth she had transplanted her family in this foreign land of Yankees. From then on we received packages in the mail from my grandmother in KY. They contained things like hominy and corn meal mix, country ham, and maybe even rock salt in the summer…the delicacies of ‘home’.

    • elizabeth says:

      Love the story, Cynthia!

      And I didn’t even understand the let/leave question–that’s how much I think the words are interchangeable. 🙂 I have since had someone explain the difference between the two words to me, and I don’t buy it. Not one bit.

      hehe.

  2. stephen says:

    Speaking of Whoopie Pies.. did you know that Maine has been trying to make Whoopie Pies their state dessert or something like that? It has been in the news. Too bad the Pennsylvania Dutch, mainly Amish and Mennonite, are primarily pacifists so they won’t “fight” for their whoopie pies. 🙂 he he he.

    • elizabeth says:

      Hey, that is funny. Maybe we’ll have to pick up our plowshares and turn them into swords on behalf of the whoopie pie wars.

      Did Dad tell you that we tried to make whoopie pies yesterday? It was a complete flop, actually. But I got a recipe from Grandma last night that should work a little better.

      You might find it interesting to know that, according to the information Dad found, the main difference between New England whoopie pies and Amish whoopie pies is the filling–those New Englanders basically use marshmallow fluff, rather than the icing we grew up with. (I hadn’t even realized there was such a thing as a “New England whoopie pie.”)

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