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February is the month in which PA Dutch pioneers are wise enough to heat their winter abodes and clever enough to use these heated kitchens to take advantage of this extra heat to raise potato dough in which the family can enjoy making fastnachts, pronounced “Fawsnacht,” which were then fried in leftover lard from their new year’s butcherings.
While almost everyone is dismayed by the annual winter season, every householder matches his wits with old man winter to heat the family’s home, besides using cast iron kitchen ranges to prepare family foods and bake bread. Long before we had grocery stores and supermarkets, self-sufficient farm wives counted on their husbands to pick up bulk bags of flour from their local mill to provide the ingredients to bake their weekly supply of bread on Thursday or Friday, which was stored in the pantry, a traditional age old custom.
But when Shrove Tuesday came around, the day before Ash Wednesday, area farmers wished to use up their extra lard, before the fasting of the Lent season began. Prudent housewives began to realize that they had warm kitchens in which they could have yeasty dough or fastnachts to raise in such a kitchen warmth, because of the unusually cold winter weather that had encircled their home.
Indeed, when I was a child, I remembered that my mother had an antique iron kitchen stove in our rear urban kitchen. One heated by wood or coal that she was not only able to use preparing food for the family meals in winter time, but that had the added potential of heating a large portion of our two story frame house. Since my mother was PA Dutch, she naturally seized upon the seasonal routine of making fastnachts with the extra heat in which the potato-dough mixture pieces could be raised nearby. However, our family always used a yeast Fastnacht recipe that called for mashed potatoes, not one that required the use of expensive cream in these fastnachts!
I recalled an editor of the Allentown Morning Call who bragged that his family used only a cream recipe for fastnacht, instead of local farmwives using potatoes for the flavoring. But since the Shaners loved homemade raised potato cake with sugar crumbs on top, I always thought of this editor as a snob, one who was not capable of understanding True Grit Americans. But, he was an interesting, cultured editor.
My grandmother, Mary Bieber, who lived high in the Oley Hills of Rockland Township, was accustomed to baking her own bread, not living near to buy it at modern stores, so my mother had learned to become a skilled baker. Not to mention the fact that her father William Hilbert (a backwoods carpenter) loved making a lot of fastnachts to eat in the winter season. Therefore, the ideal extra heat created by their large cast iron kitchen stove made Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of fasting for Lent, a memorable day to make fastnachts, which was a way to consume their lard which was not ordinarily to be used in the Lenten fasting period by the church.
But anyone who lived in the cold Oley Hills did not object when their housewives would bake raised potato cakes, smothered with sugar crumbs to eat in the morning before they started their farming chores or carpenter jobs. Thus, William Hilbert and others made sure their wives had enough flour and yeast to fortify the family, should the Groundhog predict six more bad weeks of winter. However, each family always had a large supply of molasses on hand to eat there fastnachts or bake wet bottom shoo-fly pie, a widespread tradition that was practiced throughout the PA Dutch Country, as far West as Ohio, and Paxatawny Groundhog Phil’s backyard.
Living secluded in a place known as Ruppert’s School House in a stone farmhouse on the dense forested Oley Hills, Mary Bieber’s family counted on their frontier logic to survive, as well as other PA Dutch talented self-sufficient folks did. When speaking about the pleasures associated with Fawsnacht Day (Shrove Tuesday), my grandmother recalled that they did indeed experience a severe fire that day while frying fawsnachts, which I am sure turned this joyous task into a dangerous threat of survival when the lard that these yeasty cakes were frying in caught fire on the wood stove.Perhaps it was a problem which others were not as fortunate to solve as did Frank Bieber’s family in the Oley Valley wilderness of the 19th century.
In modern America with so many independent households, few people realize today the frontier self-sufficiency of our early American individuals who were so very proud of surviving the North American winters by stocking up their family pantries and wood sheds.
Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.