jump to navigation

Amish funeral… potatoes?! September 27, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Silence Dogood here. I’ve heard often about Amish funeral pie, a raisin pie (not unlike mincemeat) that is popular at post-funeral gatherings because it can be left out unrefrigerated (a good thing, since many Amish don’t have access to propane refrigerators, much less electricity) after cooking, and keeps very well. But I was bemused when a reader came onto our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, seeking a recipe for Amish funeral potatoes.

I didn’t think the reader was confusing potatoes for pie (though they may have been confusing the Amish and Mormons, as we’ll see). I was determined to get to the bottom of this.

My first cast came up empty. The Amish Cook at Home, a beautiful, personable cookbook by Lovina Eicher with Kevin Williams (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2008), didn’t even have a potato recipe, much less a recipe for funeral potatoes. What, no potato recipes?! I was disconcerted but undaunted. Ten more cookbooks quickly joined The Amish Cook on my table.

Two well-known authors of Amish-themed romances, Beverly Lewis and Wanda E. Brunstetter, have each written cookbooks. Alas, The Beverly Lewis Amish Heritage Cookbook (Bethany House, 2004) had no funeral potatoes, though it did have a pretty appealing recipe for Scalloped Potatoes with Cheese Sauce.  I was no luckier with Wanda Brunstetter’s Amish Friends Cookbook (Barbour Publishing, 2007), which has recipes for Scalloped Potatoes and for Pork Chops and Potato Sausage Pie, but nary a sign of funeral potatoes.

Hmmm. Perhaps there’d be a recipe for funeral potatoes in a Mennonite cookbook, Mennonites being another Plain sect and the elder spiritual brothers of the Amish. Hefting the massive Mennonite Country-Style Recipes & Kitchen Secrets by Esther H. Shank (Herald Press, 1987), I saw something that might be promising: a recipe for Quick Company Potatoes. That sounded appropriate for a funeral! But if someone served me this conglomeration of frozen hash browns with cans of cream of potato and cream of celery soup, I’d be tempted to join the deceased. Surely no reader could be looking for that!

Next, I pulled down the 1983 edition of the Koch Buch: A Collection of Pennsylvania German Recipes from the Kutztown Pa. Senior Neighborhood Center. Little Kutztown is just 10 minutes from my house, and the Amish are part of the group known as the Pennsylvania Dutch (actually Deitsch, their dialect for Deutsch, German). Maybe folks who were senior citizens in the ’80s would remember funeral potatoes.

Wrong again. There were recipes for Potato Filling and for Boiled Cabbage and Potato Filling (the creator of this version suggested also mixing in some applesauce!). But filling, a mashed potato/dressing hybrid comprised of variations on mashed potatoes with bread and seasonings, is so ubiquitous throughout Pennsylvania Dutch Country that it would hardly have gained the additional name of funeral potatoes, I reasoned.

All righty then, I still had The Kutztown Area Historical Society 1892-1992 Commemorative Cookbook, as plump as the Koch Buch was slim. This one had some delicious-looking potato recipes, including Potato Pie and Swiss Fried Potatoes, as well as another version of the hash-browns-and-canned-soup glop, I mean, casserole. Could a potato pie feature at a funeral, a savory version of Amish funeral pie?

Next up: Boyertown Area Cookery (Boyertown Historical Society, 2nd ed. 1985), from another nearby community. This one had Grandmother’s Creamed Potatoes, Potato Drops, Sour Potatoes, Potato Filling (3 versions), and Leftover Mashed Potato Cakes.

This book also contained two intriguing insights into Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine: “When frying cooked potatoes break up pie crust and stir it into the sliced potatoes and fry right along with the potatoes.” (Waste not, want not for this thrifty, pie-loving people.) And “Many Dutch housewives pour milk on vegetables before turning them into a serving dish and sending them to the table, often to the point that the vegetables float. No thickening is added but generally a glob of butter is put to it.”

Moving on to a cookbook from another local sect with the wonderful name of Schwenkfelders, I peeked into The Palm Schwenkfelder Church Cookbook. (Palm is the name of the town, and yes, we’re still in Pennsylvania, not Florida. Go figure.) This one also had a selection of potato dishes, including Potatoes au Gratin, Baked Sliced Potatoes, Potato Pie, Herb Potatoes, Gourmet Potatoes, Creamy Potato-Carrot Casserole, and two variations on potato cakes, Cornflaked Potatoes and Sauerkraut Potato Cakes or Patties.

And it had five—count them, five—variations on the dreaded hash brown/canned soup casserole, including one the contributor claimed was from Texas and three that were topped with cornflakes. Oh, surely not! One contributor noted that this dish was “Standard fare at Easter dinner.” No doubt if the Easter bunny catches sight of it, he’ll dive back down his rabbit hole and we’ll have six more weeks of winter.

It was time to delve into a little regional culinary history, so next up was The Landis Valley Cookbook: Pennsylvania German Foods and Traditions (Landis Valley Museum, Stackpole Books, 2nd. ed., 2009). This beautifully photographed and fascinating book devotes an entire chapter to funerals! Surely I could finally find the answer.

They had this to say about funeral dinners: “Food items were needed that would keep well and could be easily served. Certain foods came to be associated with funerals because they were served so often on these occasions. For example, raisin pie became known as funeral pie. Dried foods and pickles were common fare before modern methods of preserving, so they frequently appeared at funeral meals… The meals included cold meats, bread and butter, dried peaches, stewed prunes, pickles, and schmieres such as apple butter. Also, pies, rusks (rolls), cheese, and sometimes mashed potatoes and stewed chicken were served.”

The book gives an actual menu from a 1914 Pennsylvania German funeral which includes no potatoes, but does feature 100 cigars and 2 sticks of chalk. (I’m still trying to figure out what the chalk was for.) It also gives recipes for the classic raisin funeral pie and Potato White Bread, as well as homemade butter to eat on it.

Last but by no means least, I reached for two books by the great food historian of the Pennsylvania Dutch, William Woys Weaver, Sauerkraut Yankees: Pennsylvania Dutch Food & Folkways (Stackpole Books, 2nd. ed., 2002) and the extraordinarily beautiful, atmospheric Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking (Abbeville Press, 1993). Would the mystery be resolved now?

Sauerkraut Yankees mentions that cakes and vast quantities of, ahem, liquid refreshment were served at Pennsylvania Dutch funerals (though no alcohol was served at Amish funerals, I hasten to add!), but gives no hint as to the dishes served at the meal itself. However, Will Weaver has this to say about the Pa. Dutch funeral tradition: “By the mid-nineteenth century, it was not unusual for some funeral dinners to exceed 1,000 guests, particularly if the deceased had been a well-to-do farmer or a respected figure in the community… The great funeral banquet was something that the Pennsylvania Dutch looked forward to all their lives.” Yowie zowie. 

Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking sadly provides no references to funerals whatever, and includes no funeral-themed recipes, not even for one for funeral (raisin) pie. I was at the end of my in-house resources. It was time for a chat with my good friend Google. And that’s where the Mormons come in.

Googling “Amish funeral potatoes,” I was instead taken to a number of links for Mormon funeral potatoes, including a blog called Simply Simmer (http://simplysimmer.blogspot.com/) with a recipe for Creamy Funeral Potatoes in an April 23, 2011 post. The post says this: “Named ‘Funeral Potatoes’ for commonly being served as a side dish at traditional Mormon post-funeral family dinners… Many of my Amish relatives make a variation of this…” And sure enough, there’s the casserole recipe, with frozen hash browns, Velveeta, and canned cream of mushroom soup. 

Chowhound’s (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/) Home Cooking board also has a thread on Mormon Funeral Potatoes, with tons of recollections of Utah-raised Mormons enjoying them at funerals, plus a number of reader-contributed variations and a suggestion to find the basic recipe on the Ore-Ida website. And yes, it’s the same hash-brown/canned soup/cornflake, ah, creation.

Oh, dear. I’m sure by now you’re expecting a recipe, but if you want to make that, you’ll have to go to the Ore-Ida website, Chowhound, or Simply Simmer. I will give you a recipe, though, for something that I think would go well at a funeral dinner. It’s the Potato Pie recipe from The Kutztown Area Historical Society 1892-1992 Commemorative Cookbook, contributed by Arlene Wendell. As you’ll see, it’s actually a crustless quiche, and since quiche is good served either hot or at room temperature, it should hold up well on the funeral table. And hey, it does include (actual) potatoes!

                Potato Pie 

6 large eggs

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

3 cups diced, cooked potatoes

6 ounces grated Swiss cheese

4 ounces diced ham

1/2 cup diced green peppers

1/2 cup milk

Generously butter a 9-inch pie plate. In a large bowl whisk eggs, onion, salt and pepper. Add potatoes, cheese, ham, peppers, and milk. Stir to blend. Pour into prepared dish. Bake at 350 degrees F. for about 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until set. Cut into wedges. Yield: 1 (9-inch) pie.

All righty then. If I were making it, I think I’d use a quiche-friendly piecrust, up the onion, omit the ham, and use a yellow rather than green bell pepper. Maybe add a smidge of nutmeg or powdered fennel or basil to enhance the Swiss cheese and potatoes. But that’s just me. At least try it without the crust first! And I hope it’s a very, very long time before any of us have to eat any of these funeral foods in the setting for which they’re intended!

                ‘Til next time,