Threads of the past: A Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest

This winter I built a Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest. You can see pretty clearly what it is from the photos: it’s a chest, and you put your blankets in it. But that term “Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest” is tricky: it refers almost exclusively to antiques, and so it might seem proper to call this a Pennsylvania Dutch style blanket chest — but it is, in fact, Pennsylvania Dutch, because I’m Pennsylvania Dutch, and I built it. It is also, in both construction and decoration, in keeping with both the form and the spirit of traditional (pre-1850) Pennsylvania blanket chests, and not only because I stuck a heart and some goldfinches on it. It isn’t a flat-sided New England six-board chest; it’s got decorative molding and a scroll-cut plinth (base). But the molding is simple, and it isn’t built of figured maple or imported mahogany, as some rich merchant or southern planter might want; it’s made of inexpensive wood (poplar) and painted. The painting is “just for pretty” but it relies on simple forms and on the skill and individual creativity of the maker rather than on expensive materials for its aesthetic value. It’s both practical and decorative, and there’s no competition between those qualities.

I tried to carry that spirit through the whole design, elevating the practical without compromising it. (Oh lord, this is starting to sound like an artist’s statement now. Reader, forgive me.) There were two challenges in designing this chest, the construction and the decoration, and I’ll address them separately. Continue reading “Threads of the past: A Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest”

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. Continue reading “Further perils of authenticity”

Frugal celebrations

Funny how some things we traditionally do to mark the new year are long-term resolutions, while others are one-off celebrations. Eating right and working out? Oh, we’re going to do that every day. (What’s that? We said the same thing last year? Hush, child.)

Massive hangover? One-off celebration, I hope, and not a new leaf. On the up side, with a headache like that, the year can only get better. Think of it as a cause for optimism.

Frugality? Eating, say, a simple meal of beans and cornbread? Hum. Now that sounds like a resolution, and yet it seems to be a celebration. Half the South will be eating black-eyed peas today. Ninety-five percent of that half will be back to eating slab-o-meatwiches tomorrow.

I have never been able to get into the idea of eating black-eyed peas for New Year’s dinner. Continue reading “Frugal celebrations”

Enter the Belsnickel

The story of the Krampus has been making the rounds lately. For those who haven’t heard, he’s an old-world Germanic mythical creature who terrorizes naughty children at Christmas. Apparently pepper-spray-wielding shoppers at Target aren’t scary enough for Americans these days, because various cities are holding a Krampuslauf, or Krampus parade, this month. One of those cities is Philadelphia, and that’s a tragic heresy — not because it’s unchristian, but because Philadelphia is surrounded by the Pennsylvania German heartland, and the Pennsylvania German tradition has its own Christmas bogeyman, the Belsnickel. Before we go running back to Europe for bizarre new traditions, let’s take a closer look at one of our own. Continue reading “Enter the Belsnickel”

Prayers for rain

On a trip to Pennsylvania in late June I bought the finishing touch for our duck pen: a hex sign. It bears an eight-point star and rosette, for fertility, surrounded by raindrops. The fertility wishes, needless to say, are for the ducks. The rain is for all of us, and dear lord do we need it.

Almost as I crossed the state line into North Carolina with my new totem, a light drizzle began to fall. Bythe time I reached home it was raining, the first real rain in more than a month. Rain fell on six of the next seven days.

Coincidence? Well, yes, probably. But I have taken no less delight in trumpeting my Pennsylvania Dutch heritage and the value of a few good superstitions. Continue reading “Prayers for rain”

Bustling

Central Market on a busy day bustles, a word we don’t use much anymore but which seems to describe an ideal city scene, crowds smoothly mingling in purposeful activity, not frenetic or restless but businesslike in a friendly way. That feeling is what I love about the market, and what I always notice first: the city of my childhood imagination, busy and purposeful and bustling. I have that feeling even when it is not particularly crowded, late on Tuesday mornings and mid-afternoons, times when no conventionally employed person should be out shopping. Even then it feels to me as if, perhaps, it is only waiting to bustle. Continue reading “Bustling”