- Pennsylvania: The Foundation of American Cuisine
The third-largest agricultural state in the country, Pennsylvania includes at least five distinct culinary regions: Philadelphia and its surrounding counties; the Northeast coal region; the Pennsylvania Dutch heartland, comprising some twenty-five counties; the Allegheny Highlands centering on Pittsburgh; and the Lakeshore region bordering Lake Erie. Within this unique cultural heritage lie pockets of foods and foodways that await more intensive scholarly exploration. Fieldwork based on recorded interviews is one valid approach that should be given top priority because "food memories" do not last forever. But Pennsylvania's situation is more complex than that.
The commonwealth's historical timelines are different and more challenging than those of many other states, mainly because a diversity of European cultures settled side by side in the Delaware Valley. This cultural diversity characterized the development of Pennsylvania's food history; in essence, Pennsylvania is where cultural fusionism first began. It is also where, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, culinary leaders including pastry cook Elizabeth Goodfellow (1768–1851) and confectioner James Wood Parkinson (1818–95) consciously advocated a new American cuisine. Parkinson even published a manifesto outlining where he thought American cuisine should be headed. But there are many other individuals whose careers are equally as important, such as Italianborn Nunzio Finelli (1834–86), who in the late 1870s created the iconic Philadelphia blue-plate salad composed of fried oysters and chicken.
The historian's task is to document and increase understanding of this vast heritage and then to build upon its creative vitality to keep this regional identity alive. Food studies as a science is still very new and embraces many different points of approach: culinary history (until recently, largely a study of old cookbooks); anthropology (the connections between food and behavior, the social history of food, customs and foodways); culinary arts (the hands-on practice of cookery); food ethnography (the cultural [End Page 237] dimension of food and its role within certain social groups); and food as material culture, an object that, if more ephemeral than art—when consumed, it is destroyed—is every bit as complex and meaningful. Yet is it really destroyed?
Philosophically, emotionally, and psychologically, food is art that becomes part of us. This is one of several underlying challenges in studying food and what constitutes its "authenticity"—a much-discussed and somewhat slippery concept endemic to the postindustrial age. In short, food derives its dimension of authenticity from associations with family, with locality or region, or even from religious ritual. Authenticity is personal and subjective, differing from person to person, like the restaurant critic who is looking for that crystallizing moment when things come together at the table.
A similar ongoing search for culinary truths is driving much of food scholarship today, and happily there are many paths to achieve this. The essays in this collection point to those places beyond individual epiphanies, where scholars may start to decode empirical narratives and make more orderly sense of this new science called food studies. The list of starting points for research is huge and growing: archival collections (even old wills and inventories); hidden gems of data buried in out-of-the-way libraries; cookbook collections, including the one Philadelphia chef Fritz Blank bequeathed to the University of Pennsylvania after his 2014 death; rare agricultural journals in the state library; or my own collection of culinary ephemera, now at New York University.
Ideally, a volume like this would spread the food stories evenly across the state's five culinary regions; in reality, some regions have a more developed sense of local identity than others. All the same, the surprising finds of this issue's authors should encourage anyone who wants to explore the culinary history of the Keystone State. With luck, this pioneering publication will lead to a much larger and more sustained effort to understand Pennsylvania's extraordinary and unique culinary riches. [End Page 238]
William Woys Weaver is a retired professor of food studies living in Devon, Pennsylvania. He is the author of seventeen books and received his PhD in food ethnography from...