Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Delicacy Fit For A German~UlsterScot

A neighbor and I were talking the other day about some of the things we enjoyed when we were young (in the 1950s-60s), and inevitably the discussion led around to foods.

Now, it is important that you know that I was born in the south-central region of Pennsylvania, where, in the 1760s, the earliest settlers (which included most of my ancestors) consisted of intermarried Germans and Ulster Scots. (The old people called them, the Scotch Irish.) In the eastern part of the state of Pennsylvania, the German and Swiss families congregated in their own communities, separated from the "English" (which meant everyone other than German). The Ulster Scots tended to settle among the English, Scottish and Irish communities, but did not separate themselves as completely as the Germans and Swiss. Since Great Britain had taken possession of the lands east of the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, the county seats and their local governments were largely settled, and controlled, by the English, Scottish and Irish. And as all the groups of settlers moved westward into and across the Appalachian Mountain range, and into the plateau region of present-day Pittsburgh, the Ulster Scot settlers tended to make their settlements on the slopes or tops of the major mountains in the Appalachian range, while the Germans chose the valleys for their rich farming soil. As a result, the hill and valley region that makes up the south-central region of Pennsylvania became fairly evenly populated by both German/Swiss and Ulster Scot families. They were bound to intermarry.

So, you ask, what is the point of all this demographic history? The point is that while the English, Scottish and Irish communities spoke "English", and the German and Swiss communities spoke "Pennsylvania Dutch", the people of the south-central region of Pennsylvania spoke a combination of Pennsylvania Dutch and Scotch-Irish (a form of speech which is recognized by some linguists as a sub-dialect of Pennsylvania Dutch). And not only is the region unique linguistically, it is noted for certain things that have come out of it, or flourished in it.

And that leads me to the discussion my neighbor and I were having the other day. We both remembered enjoying butterbread with sugar on it ~ a delicacy that we called sugarbread. Now both English and German people, even in other parts of the state of Pennsylvania, will say that they also remember eating buttered bread and buttered bread with sugar. But we never ate 'buttered' bread; we ate butterbread. And we never ate 'buttered' bread 'with sugar'; we ate sugarbread. There was nothing about it that made either butterbread or sugarbread indicative of being poor and needy (as some people like to surmise). We ate it because it was delicious!  In the Smith household, eating sugarbread was not something we did because we had no other food ~ sugarbread was a treat. My grandfather, Eldon Smith, and in turn, his son, my father, Bernard Smith would help us to butter our slice of bread thick enough that no original bread could be seen below the yellowy goodness of the butter. And then we would spoon sugar over the whole surface to hide the yellow of the butter. Pap (my grandfather, Eldon) would say that we were to put on enough sugar to be able to track a rabbit in. That meant that we would then hold our second and middle fingers together and poke the tips into the field of sugar, jumping them like a rabbit, across the width of the piece of bread to leave the 'tracks' - our little double fingerprint holes.

And then there was coffee-soup. As a child, coffee-soup was the only way that mom would let us ingest that dreadful hot beverage that we were told would stunt your growth if you drank a cupful of. A plate that would hold a slice of bread would be filled with coffee. Then the ceremony would begin. You had to be ready to do all of the steps or else the process would be doomed to failure. You first got a piece of bread and you would dip it flat down into the coffee so that the underside would get saturated with the coffee. But you dare not leave it there for very long; you had to quickly turn it over so that the 'dry' side would become saturated too. If there were any dry spots after the coffee had all soaked into the bread, you couldn't fix it. It was 'illegal' to pour any more coffee onto the bread - dry spots or not. And as soon as the bread had been turned over, with every inch of it becoming saturated with the coffee, you had to spoon sugar all over the surface ~ again about enough to be able to track a rabbit in. And even before all of the sugar would turn brown from the coffee, you would take your spoon and start eating. In a way, I thought it was a treat even better than ice cream ~ perhaps because it was made of that most forbidden nectar - coffee.

The funny thing is that even today I love coffee-soup, but I really never acquired a taste for coffee; I prefer hot chocolate and/or tea. One time, in the recent past, I decided to try "hot chocolate-soup". I figured that since coffee produced such a wonderful delicacy, hot chocolate would produce an equally wonderful dish. I was very wrong; it didn't taste good at all. I think maybe I tasted the bitter flavor of sacrilege, and so I vowed to stick with coffee in my coffee-soup.

I should add one final note to this post ~ Never, ever, ever mix butterbread and coffee-soup. I'm sure of two things:  Such a concoction will not be tasty. And by screwing with something that our intermarried German/Swiss and Ulster-Scot families came up with, your soul will be condemned to everlasting torment in the bowels of a place other than Heaven.

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