Further perils of authenticity

Completely by accident awhile back I ran across this ad from Life magazine:

Heinz ad, 1958

Heinz ran that ad in August 1958, at the height of the popular interest in Pennsylvania Dutch food, when that cuisine was being made over in the popular imagination into a mishmash of generically comforting old-timey domesticity. And, of course, co-opted by the Culinary-Industrial Complex, because what hasn’t been? Today you may just (and justly) reel in horror from the thought of vinegared baked beans or of canned tomato soup with canned corn and a pretzel floated on top. Purists of 1958 might weep over the cheapening of a long tradition of sweet and sour accompaniments to a Sunday dinner or holiday feast, an array of homemade pickles, salads, and preserves. Store-bought wouldn’t do. By the time I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, though, aside from an occasional batch of home-pickled beets, the nearest I got to that tradition was commercial pickles on a salad bar. So to me, authentic Pennsylvania Dutch pickles meant a jar of locally processed chow chow.

a jar of chow chow

Today, even that much tradition is fast fading away, and some benighted soul clinging to the last tattered shreds of uncertain heritage might search in vain for chow chow on a salad bar, even if he hadn’t up and moved to the South.

One man’s authenticity, in other words, is another’s bastardization. And that paradox isn’t the product of industrial food.

It’s funny I found that ad when I did, because I had been re-reading Cornelius Weygandt’s The Red Hills, a nostalgic portrait of the Pennsylvania Dutch country published in 1929, before the place had been overrun by tourists or even much marketed to them. Weygandt had the same weakness I do: he let himself get nostalgic for the world of old-timers’ tales, a world he had never seen and which quite possibly never existed. (At least, also like me on my better days, he knew it was a weakness.) Weygandt was considerably more interested in antique pottery than I am, but his stories make interesting reading if you know enough of the history and culture of southeastern Pennsylvania to get the jokes. My favorite character is a carpenter and builder named Levi, a man of seventy who accompanies Weygandt to dinner at a small-town hotel.

Until day before yesterday even the hotel dinner was accompanied by “seven sweets” and “seven sours.” Down to twenty years ago such bounty was expected, and if not forthcoming cause for extreme dissatisfaction on the part of the guests.

The tradition has been disappearing for nigh on a century, in other words. When they get to the hotel in question, “Levi looked down the long table at which we two were as yet the only diners.

“Seventy-five cents we pay for dinner,” he said, “and only three sours. Pickled beets and coleslaw and chowchow. Where are the rest? Where is the dill pickle, where the pickled cabbage, where the green tomato relish? I see no pickled meats. I see no meat jelly. I see not even second sours such as catsup and horseradish…. You do not call catsup and horseradish and mustard real sours. There should be seven sours without them. There should be pickled onions, pickled gherkins, pickled cauliflower, not mixed together in one jar but each in a jar by itself…. Old Rhodes, he would hang his head could he come back and see the table his son gets. Chowchow, ugh, chowchow!”

No apple butter, either, and a snits pie — a dried-apple pie — in August, when fresh fruit ought to have been plentiful. But it was the chowchow, that got the old man’s goat. “Snits and mustard pickle in August! Chowchow! Tschowtwschow! I almost wish I was a swearing man and not a Sunday school superintendent.”

Chow chow as mixed mustard pickle was, as best I’ve been able to determine, a nineteenth-century term with Chinese origins for a respectable spin on an old gardener’s practice of quickly preserving the last of the season’s produce. Whether Levi objected to its mediocre origins, its connotations of winter at the height of the gardening season, its Chinese name, the pretense the new name suggested, or the fact that one mixed pickle was a lazy substitute for the appropriately distinct seven, I don’t know. Maybe it was a combination of all of them. In any case, its presence on a “Pennsylvania Dutch” table in August represented, for him, the downfall of a cuisine.

A hundred years later, its disappearance represents, for me, the downfall of a cuisine. Authenticity is whatever your grandmother served you, and to define it too rigorously is a fool’s errand… but one in which, I suspect, enjoyably grumpy men of a certain age will always indulge.