William Woys Weaver is a cookbook author whose work I have greatly admired for some time. I first discovered Mr. Weaver’s fine work when I found THE CHRISTMAS COOK on the shelves of the Burbank Public Library some years ago. The following year, a coworker presented me with a copy of AMERICA EATS, also by William Woys Weaver.
William Woys Weaver received his Ph.D. from University College, Dublin and is the author of 15 books and hundreds of articles on foods and foodways. He served as Associate Editor of Scribner’s Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, and until recently served as Contributing Editor to Gourmet. He is presently a Contributing Editor to Mother Earth News and a regular contributor to The Heirloom Gardener. Dr. Weaver has received many publishing awards, including three IACP cookbook awards, and maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection of over 4,000 heirloom food plants.
Over the years since my first discovery of The Christmas Cook, I have found—and added to my collection the following by William Woys Weaver:
A QUAKER WOMAN’S COOKBOOK/The Domestic cookery of Elizabeth Ellicott Lea, Edited with an introduction by William Woys Weaver, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982
SAUERKRAUT YANKEES/Pennsylvania German Foods and Foodways, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983
35 RECEIPTS FROM “THE LARDER INVADED” the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1986
AMERICA EATS, Museum of American Folk Art, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1989
100 VEGETABLES AND WHERE THEY CAME FROM, Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill, published in 2000
And a foreword written by William Woys Weaver for PENNSLVANIA TRAIL OF HISTORY COOKBOOK BY THE Editors of Stackpole Books and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum commission, 2004
CHRISTMAS IN PENNSYLVANIA: A FOLK CLTURAL STUDY (50TH ED) BY ALFRED SHOEMAKER, DON YODER AND WILLIAM WOYS WEAVER, 2009
CULINARY EPHEMERA/An Illustrated History, University of California Press, 2010
One reason that Mr. Weaver’s books are so outstanding is that they combine recipes with culinary history and the people about whom he is writing.
The publishers of PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY COOKING state “Mr. Weaver is recognized in Pennsylvania as one of the most talented and experimental cooks of the region. He was born to one of the oldest and most influential Mennonite families in Pennsylvania and directly descended from seventeenth century Swiss Anabaptist martyr, Georg Weber.
Mr. Weaver has been exploring the foods and foodways of the Pennsylvania Dutch for over 25 years. His unique sense of history gives him a special insight into traditional culinary ingredients like sunflower oil, chickweed and lazy wife beans”.
So, it was with keen interest that I opened the pages of PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY COOKING. I carried the book around with me for weeks, reading bits and pieces here and there as time permitted. Mr. Weaver’s books could never be described as just cookbooks and you only need to read one of them to understand what I mean; they are culinary history lessons as well, and the lavish photography (by Jerry Orabona in this book) are as fine as any I have ever seen in a cookbook.
There was yet another, personal, reason that I found PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY COOKING so fascinating. To the best of my knowledge, there are no Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors in my family tree—and yet, my grandmother, who cooked and baked an array of foodstuffs ranging from German to Hungarian, did include some Pennsylvania Dutch recipes in her culinary repertoire. For instance, I have often wondered why it was that grandma—who made hundreds, if not thousands—of butter cutout cookies for Christmas – only made diamond-shaped cookies with a diamond shaped cookie cutter that I now own. There, on page 167 of PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY COOKING is a recipe for Mahantongo diamond doughtnuts – with the information the diamond shape for All Saints cakes can be traced to the ninth century. I can’t help but wonder if that’s not the answer.
My grandmother frequently made rivel soup—which we pronounced something like “rivellies”. I see in Mr. Weaver’s book that the Pennsylvania Dutch name for Rivels is “Riwweles” which is probably a close approximation of my grandmother’s Rivellies. We also grew up on Spatzle and homemade noodles, dumplings, sauerkraut and hasenpfeffer. (Ok, I never liked hasenpfeffer—a sweet and sour rabbit that you could smell from the bottom of the steps coming home from school).
Mr. Weaver explains, in the foreword to PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY COOKING THAT “the Pennsylvania Dutch are a people of many beliefs, of many lifestyles, but we share one thing in common, our cookery is the product of our land. We are America’s ‘farmers next door’, kitchen gardeners to New York and Philadelphia and to a great many places farther away”. He says that their soil is so rich that even the weeds taste good!
He also explains that “ours is largely a cuisine of one pot meals, fare that is designed around ancient dish concepts, to provide convenience and to strengthen the act of eating together, at table. Our best cookery is also our most private cooke3ry, for it is family-centered, a style of cooking that has evolved out of sharing food from a common pot. It is a formula that has stood the test of time, not just three centuries of New World Evolution but, in the case of dishes like gumbis and SCHALES, RITSCHER and DUMMES, more than a thousand years of continuing adaptation…”
Mr. Weaver also states that, if there is one cookery that reflects the crossroads of American culture, it is surely that of the Pennsylvania Dutch, and he goes on to explain why. Part of this stems from the Dutch preoccupation with health. When it comes to cures, he says, they are particularly tight-fisted, better to invest the money in decent food than squander it later in life on doctors.
PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY COOKING is very well written. Recipes—which often include beautiful photographs –are also accompanied by the Pennsylvania Dutch name for the dish, and bits of history, so that each page is a lesson in American history.
PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY COOKING, published in 1997, is available starting at $9.64. Other editions are very high priced – baffling; I think I paid $5.97 for my copy. Possibly Mr. Weaver’s books are commanding higher prices as he becomes well known. That being said, I have found some of his other titles very reasonably prices on Amazon.com.
Review by Sandra Lee Smith