Saturday, February 12, 2011

No Amish Country for Old Men

Here it is, February, and the first audition road trip of the year. Some where glamorous? Not exactly, but unique in it's own way. I'm here in the (relative) heart of Amish Country, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. To be truly specific, I'm in Lititz, a smaller town about 8 miles away from Lancaster. Why would I be here, you may ask. Simple, about 10 miles or so from here is the home of the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, one of the largest Faires in the U.S. I decided to audition this year.

There truly isn't that much to do here, I fully admit it. But what makes this area unique is the people. They are some of the nicest people you will ever meet, right there on the street. As much as I hate to say it, it's almost stereotypically small town. There is rarely a stranger, and you're an old friend within five minutes. Being raised in a city where the outsiders are never trusted, this is a new approach to life.

Not having much to do, and being hungry, as I usually am, I decided to try to investigate the local foods, and try for some regional specialties. In this situation, Lancaster County does not disappoint. The wide variety of food is fairly astounding, and generally pretty good. Some things truly stood out though.

First stop of the day turned out to be for desert, with a visit to the Wilbur Chocolate Factory. For those of you who don't know Wilbur, it's a smaller chocolate company in Downtown Lititz. What makes it notable is that it's been in operation for over 127 years. Due to the size, I think they offer a superior product than a larger company, such as Hershey's. Of special note are the Buds (Think something similar to a Hershey's Kiss, but not quite) which are delicious in the semisweet chocolate. (Granted it's chocolate, so of course it's delicious, but make sure to go for the semisweet, as it has a much more complex flavor profile than the cloying sweetness of the milk chocolate.)

Next up, craving something salty, as one is bound to do after something sweet, I headed to the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery, the first commercial pretzel bakery in the U.S., according to their marketing materials. Also in downtown Lititz, the building is hard to miss with the large pretzel in front of it. I must say, they do make a good pretzel. But it's just that, a good pretzel, not a great one. Still, if you find yourself in the area, stop by, it's always fun to see how they are made.

Finally, after an exhausting audition, on the way back to the hotel, I happened to find a deli, S. Clyde Weaver, Smoked Meats and Cheeses, in the middle of Manheim. Curious to find out about what would be considered "traditional" Pennsylvania Dutch fare, I inquired about it to a rather knowledgeable fellow behind the counter, and he led me to three very disparate items that are unique to the Lancaster region.

The first of these items was Lebanon Bologna. As first glance, it's like no bologna I've ever seen before. Made of all beef, and with sugar, it is almost akin to salami, but even sweeter. I tried a sample, and it is delicious. Also in the case were rolls of the bologna, rolled with a vegetable cream cheese. The two together complement each other perfectly, and fortunately there are still a half dozen waiting for me in the refrigerator.

Next up, an item that 1) took me by surprise on a few counts, and 2) took some mental preparation to try. That item would be the tongue souse. Souse is a type of head cheese, which it turns out is not a cheese at all. It's actually a type of pressed meat (think homemade Spam) and the tongue part, well, you can figure it out for yourself. It's another all beef product. After a minute or five of looking at it, I decided, "What the hell, why not?" and gave it a try. Honestly, once you get past what it is that you're eating, and that mental block, it's actually really good. Full of spice, it has a full body, and the tongue is one of the most tender cuts of meat I've had. It's not something I'm going to dine on regularly, but for something different, it does not disappoint.

Finally, at the end of the day, desert once again, and the final item, shoofly pie. This is the culinary item most people think of when they hear Pennsylvania Dutch. The best way to think of this is as a marriage of a custard and a fruit pie. The notable exception is that in this case, it is a molasses based custard, with a thinner raisin based fruit layer. It is very good, but also extremely sweet, almost too much so. I could only handle a small piece personally. The crust to pie ratio however, is absolutely perfect. Now that is an item I will be dining on again, just in small doses, if only for my health.

I started this talking about travel, but then I ended up discussing the food. But doesn't this make a lot of sense? The best way to get to know a people is by experiencing the way they live. Food is something that unites all of us. The people of Lancaster are a welcoming, kind, down-to-earth group, and it's reflected in the food; simple, but filling, humble, but delicious and prepared with care. So, all in all, what I thought would be an inauspicious start has turned out to be a learning experience worth more than I ever thought it would be.
Until next time,

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