Get fresh oven-baked bread at an­nual Kutz­town Folk Fes­ti­val

The Southern Berks News - - LOCAL NEWS - Richard L.T. Orth

The quaint bake oven as it is found in the Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch re­gion was an out­stand­ing in­ven­tion for its time, far su­pe­rior to any found else­where in Amer­ica. As Euro­pean fam­i­lies trans­ferred their white man’s cul­ture to the vir­gin forests of Penn­syl­va­nia in­tro­duc­ing their fron­tier farm­steads to the area, there was no other in­ven­tion, ex­pect per­haps the large fron­tier fire­places, that in­trigued the na­tive In­di­ans more than these out­door bake-ovens. There are still quite a few old-timers in the area who re­mem­ber how to op­er­ate a bake oven, al­though Gary Hertzog of nearby Rich­mond Town­ship who tends the early 1800s bake oven on the Fes­ti­val grounds does a fine job. Some lo­cals in the back­woods have been known to fire up their bake ovens for meats and even to bar­beque chick­ens.

One might be sur­prised to know that fir­ing a bake oven is easy the part. The chal­lenge is one must be care­ful not over-fire the oven and let it get too hot! The ex­pe­ri­enced house­wife of the past knows by sense of touch how hot her oven is and can reg­u­late the heat by open­ing the flue to the hearth. The door can be opened from time to time if the oven gets too hot, and oc­ca­sion­ally, the op­er­a­tor will throw flour on the hearth to see how hot it is. If the flour burns in­stantly, the bakeoven is way too hot. Tra­di­tion­ally, bread was al­ways baked first since many ovens had shelves built on ei­ther side of the en­trance so the dough can raise there from the heat that es­capes the oven door. The raised dough was placed on the bake oven hearth with a long han­dled wooden pad­dle called a “peel,” and con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lieve or prac­tice, loaves of bread baked in the early days were round whether baked on a hearth di­rectly or in a tin pan.

When a large batch of bread had been baked, it was trans­ported to the kitchen in a large bas­ket shaped like a tray, once made of wil­low in yes­ter­year, with han­dles at each end to avoid the trans­porter from be­ing burnt. Pies, cakes, and cook­ies were next to be baked and then stored for eat­ing that week un­til it was time to bake again the fol­low­ing Fri­day. There are still some lo­cal se­nior cit­i­zens that will tell you on these Fri­days at the farm, Mom and or Grandma would bake so many pies that they were set all over the deep-seated win­dowsills of their stone ma­soned farm­houses. The mere fact that our farm housewives dur­ing Colo­nial times had baked such an enor­mous amount of hearth bread that it could also be ex­ported when their PA Dutch hus­bands sent grain and other com­modi­ties to the port of Philadel­phia. This may have contributed to­ward the folk prac­tice of later PA Dutch farm­women bak­ing such a large num­ber of pies within our ru­ral folk cul­ture.

To our delight and de­scen­dants, bak­ing su­pe­rior shoo-fly-pies, ap­ple pies and dumplings, and many oth­ers be­came a nat­u­ral pas­time that re­sulted in her culi­nary ex­per­tise, be­sides earn­ing ex­tra cash for the fam­ily’s ben­e­fit. And as these lo­cal farm­ers’ mar­kets on the Eastern At­lantic se­aboard be­came suc­cess­ful, PA Dutch farm­women con­tin­ued to de­velop their skills by even bak­ing a large va­ri­ety of pies for their Chris­tian neigh­bors. But the his­toric shoo-fly-pie born out of their na­tive trade with Caribbean na­tions (for rum and mo­lasses) per­haps be­came their most out­stand­ing Amer­i­cana con­tri­bu­tion of their bak­ing ex­per­tise.

Older na­tives and cit­i­zens alike in Berks County have al­ways latched on to this col­or­ful name that is more prop­erly as­so­ci­ated to the thick sugar and mo­lasses filling said shoo-fly-pie crusts which drew more flies than any other pie, cool­ing on the win­dow sills be­fore they could be stored in a pierced tin pie safe that hung in the cel­lar way. It’s rea­son­able to as­sume that pies placed in these var­i­ous pie-safes, some of which were cre­ated with beau­ti­ful pierced tin de­signs sur­vive to­day through­out the Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch Coun­try as our out­door bake ovens, both quiet sen­tinels of an ear­lier time.

The very early 1800s func­tional, op­er­at­ing bake oven lo­cated at the Kutz­town Fair­grounds is a fine cen­ter­piece at the 69th An­nual Kutz­town Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch Folk Fes­ti­val, as it has been for many years, and to those fes­ti­val go­ers who delight in freshly baked bread! Dates are June 30-July 8 this year.

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