Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The "Dutch" Art of Pow Wow Medicine

When I was a child I had a growth that my Great Aunt Margaret tried to remove for me using the methods of Pennsylvania Dutch pow wow medicine. Aunt Margaret was a practitioner in a very small way, one of probably thousands of Pennsylvania Dutch men and women who used the techniques of pow wow to treat minor ailments of their friends and family. She was not one of the pow wow healers like the Early American "Mountain Mary" or--much closer to our time--"Aunt" Sophia Bailer, whose fame resounded throughout the whole of Pennsylvania Dutch country.
So how did her treatment of me work out? Unsuccessfully. She thought I had a wart, which is what she was treating me for. It turned out to be a vascular tumor, which was later removed by surgery.
This does not mean pow wow medicine is a joke, or should be dismissed as one. Often it was the only treatment poor people had access to--all the more because it was generally known that healers in the tradition were not supposed to accept money.
Sometimes, whether because of inherent magic or because of the placebo effect, there were outstanding cures. Which is about all that can be said about modern medicine, when you come to think of it.
Well, what IS pow wow medicine, anyway? Pow wow medicine is flashes of lightning in a dark forest. This is just a metaphor. What it means is that almost nothing you can say about it will not be contradicted by someone. I am trying here to follow the views and theories of two distinguished Pennsylvania Dutch scholars, anthropologist David W. Kriebel and folklorist Don Yoder. They spent years studying the subject, and know more than I do.
So, here goes.
Pow wow is a kind of folk medicine using spells, herbs, laying on of hands and the like, which is believed to have been brought to Pennsylvania around 1710 by immigrants from what is now Germany. It has nothing to do in its origins with American Indians--and not even in its name. To its original practitioners it was known as Brauche, which means "practice" as in professional practice, or "use" as in custom. Unless you speak German or have studied it, you will more or less have to take my word that "Brauche" could be taken for "pow wow"-- it IS pronounced something like "BROW-kheh". So, draw your own conclusions.
This does not mean that pow wow NEVER took on American Indian features. It may well have done things like adapt American herbs and borrow from American Indian rites. But in its origins it was purely European.
Is pow wow medicine good or evil? Yes!!! Which means, "It depends on who you ask." For some people it is indistinguishable from witchcraft, (or hex) and thus evil. For other people--including my late Great Aunt Margaret and, I suspect, the majority of practitioners, pow wow is on the side of God and provides an opportunity to do good. A few famous practitioners were reputed to try to play both sides.
David Kriebel notes that the strict Dutch sects, like the Amish and Mennonites, were very much against both pow wow and hex. The practitioners tended to belong to more relaxed churches, like the Lutheran or the German Reformed.
Why was this? Don Yoder finds evidence in some of the chants and spells that have become known that pow wow may have had Catholic origins, or at least have been sanctioned by the Catholic Church. There are signs of the cross, saints' names, and so on. So the Amish and Mennonites, the purest of Protestants, were bound to take offense.
Are there still pow wow practitioners around?
There may or may not be. It's a question on which there are differences of opinion.
Want to know more? Then I refer you to David W. Kriebel's "Powwowing among the Pennsylvania Dutch", subtitled "A Traditional Medical Practice in the Modern World". 2007. University Park, PA.

Linda's Kitchen Corner

A couple of days ago I published a cookie recipe from Linda and Rocco Maniscalco's wonderful Italian Christmas Eve cookbook, "The Feast of the Seven Fishes". Now I am going to recommend--again--the Maniscalcos' web site, www.statabuon.com. And particularly the blog linked to it, "Linda's Kitchen Corner". She has subtitled it "The Italian American Food Tradition of Pennsylvania"; and she is so right in her approach.
To a large extent, food is heritage. More, food is life. The various cuisines of Italy represent one of the world's great food traditions. But what will happen to it, or to any cuisine, when it first moves far from the home base, and then settles down next to new peoples? Will it change? Yes, of course. What happens to Italian-cum-Italian-American when the neighbors are Pennsylvania Dutch or Japanese and everybody starts sharing recipes around the neighborhood? Everybody's tastes are going to change somewhat.
This is all part of heritage, too--tomorrow's heritage. It looks as if Linda plans to explore it, and more power to her. Right now there are tasty-sounding recipes and intelligent commentary. I recommend reading it.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Kiffles from a Slovenian American Kitchen

In my previous post I talked a little about one of Pennsylvania's lesser-known ethnic groups, the Slovenians. Here is a holiday recipe from that tradition. It is taken from the uncopyrighted "Ethnic Recipes, Traditions and Customs" by the people of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Bethlehem. Founded in 1913, this Slovenian-American parish was closed a few years ago, to the anguish of many of its parishioners.
Kiffles are a well-known kind of stuffed cookie, seen most often around Christmas time although I've seen them at Easter, too. They are almost endemic in Central Europe and the places where Central Europeans have moved. Sometimes it seems that every household has its own version.
The following recipe is, in essence, that of Mary T. Martin, sponsored in the book by the Grasic family.


1 pound flour
3/4 pound soft butter, softened
1 shot whiskey
2 to 3 tablespoons sour cream
6 egg yolks, beaten

Mix all ingredients well and shape into walnut-sized balls. Refrigerate overnight. Roll out on floured or sugared board. Fill with nut, lekvar or your favorite filling. Fold in half and crimp closed Place on greased and floured cookie sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, or until done.

A note on fillings: Mrs. Martin may mean some sort of nut paste. Lekvar is prune butter, and if you live in an East European ethnic-type neighborhood you may find it for sale in jars. Otherwise, there are some simple recipes for it online. I have not offered one here, because I don't know their copyright status. Other popular fillings may include preserves such as apricot or raspberry. Poppy seeds may sometimes be used as well.

Introducing The Slovenes

Slovenians, or (probably) more properly Slovenes, are a national group small in numbers--not many more than 2 million in their homeland as this is written. They were never a giant part of the immigrant influx to the United States around the beginning of the 20th century; but they came and made an outsized contribution to American society with their hard work and their giftedness. They deserve to be better known, and I am going to do my bit here.
When they did immigrate, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was one of their destinations of choice.
This group is recognized as having been a people for at least eight centuries; but almost never as a nation. The location of their home territory shows why. It is located on the Balkan peninsula, that famous anvil of history, and surrounded by powerhouse nations and groups--Hungary, Italy, Croatia...
The Slovenes, small but proud, also had to deal with a nickname that many could have lived without. Whoever started it, they were called Windish. To a lot of them it sounded like a pejorative term. Likely it was meant to be. Yet they carved it on the two churches they founded in Bethlehem--St. John's Windish Lutheran and St. Joseph's Windish Roman Catholic.
They may have thought they had to bear the nickname because, while their peoplehood was not in question, they were not recognized as a nation.
That changed in 1991, when the Republic of Slovenia was established with its capital at Ljubljana. Bethlehem has a habit of honoring the national holidays of at least some of its constituent groups; so the handsome Slovenian flag soon took its turn on the special flagpole at City Hall. To the delight and edification of many--you didn't have to be Slovenian-- an ambassador from the new country arrived to take part in the ceremonies.
And, while I don't know how Slovenia is faring in the general economic malaise, it seems to have done pretty well up to this point. By all acounts, it is a lovely country. If you visit it you can swim in the Mediterranean, climb Alps, go whitewater rafting or hiking, and explore old castles and churches. The Disney studio has even used it as a setting for one of its "Narnia" films--not a GOOD film, in my view; but at least the scenery was lush.
All this, plus prices that have been low compared to those in more familiar European destinations, have made Slovenia a holiday favorite with many.
I wish the country continuing success. It could be my imagination, but it seems to me that you don't hear the term "Windish" much any more. At least here in Bethlehem.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Cookies From Lancaster County

Here is a cookie recipe from Lancaster County, often considered the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. This one is not specifically Dutch, though--at least not as far as I can figure out. Instead, it comes from Jan and Bruce Garrabrandt's The Artist's Inn and Gallery at Terre Hill. As is well known, good food knows no ethnic or geographical boundaries, and this recipe sounds delicious.

Chocolate Meltaway Cookies

(The Garrabrandts state: the thinner you can roll the dough, the better these cookies will taste.)

3/4 cup soft butter
2 1/3 cups unbleached flour
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1-16 oz. pkg semisweet chocolate pieces (1 cup)
Powdered sugar

In a large mixer bowl, beat butter. Add half of the flour, all of the sugar, eggs, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and almond extract. Beat thoroughly. Beat in remaining flour. Divide dough in half. Cover; chill one hour or until firm, On a lightly floured surface roll half of the dough 1/8 inch thick. Keep remaining dough in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Cut rolled-out dough into star, round, and heart shapes with 1-1/2"-2'' cookie cutters. Place on ungreased cookie sheets, or use parchment or silpats.
With small cookie cutter, cut out round centers from half of the unbaked cookies. Use spare dough to roll out and make more cookies. Bake cookies--whole and those without centers--in 375 degree oven for about 7 minutes. Edges should be firm and bottoms very lightly browned.
Cool cookies.
Melt chocolate pieces in a microwave at half power for about two minutes. Spread chocolate on the whole cookies. Top with the cookies with missing centers. The chocolate will show through.
When cool, sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar. Makes about 40 cookies.

To learn more about The Artists' Inn, visit http://blog.artistinn.com.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Centralia: Past Tragedy or Future Forecast?

I wanted to post another nice holiday-oriented recipe for everybody--that may happen in the near future.
But not today. In doing some routine surfing I stumbled across the tragic history of Centralia, a coal town that began dying in 1962. It seems not to be quite finished even now.
Here is how it began: a dump fire was started near the town. It was a routine thing at that time of year; but not in that year. The burning trash set a nearby coal vein alight, the fire spread beneath the town of 1100 people, and it has not been anything like close to contained since. Cellars under homes began to fill with carbon monoxide, the ground began to buckle, and cracks--often many feet long and many feet deep--appeared in the streets and roads. Eventually the state Department of Environmental Resources posted a sign that said:
"WARNING-DANGER. Walking Or Driving In This Area Could Result In Serious Injury Or Death. Dangerous Gases Are Present. Ground Is Prone To Sudden Collapse."
Most people left, over the years. Some did not, including the stubborn octogenarian mayor and a 39-year-old man who had known no other home. Hopefully they and the remaining diehards are out and safe by now. Like other Centralians, they may find it hard to heal. Their dreams are likely to be haunted by smoke, flames, and poison gas. A hell in their minds.
How was this mini-apocalypse allowed to develop? It seems there was no money to fight it. (By the way, a tragedy like this is the best possible explanation of why we need adequately funded and efficient government. Otherwise, the catastrophes that ensue may affect us, not only our neighbors.)
We are told that the Centralia fire, even once it has finished destroying the town, can threaten nearby communities such as Mount Carmel, miles away. We are told it can continue to burn for another 250 YEARS.
Apparently underground coal mine fires are not that infrequent. There have been hundreds of them--not, of course, counting the ones we don't even hear about because they may be set off by a lightning flash striking a coal vein in a forest somewhere. For some years there was a fire burning in a vein near the old Switchback Railway in Mauch Chunk, now Jim Thorpe. There is one in Laurel Run which started in 1912 and could go for hundreds of years.
For an idea of what these fires can do when they get nasty, background yourself on Centralia. There's a lot of stuff on the web, including an article called "Last Centralia, PA residents finally fleeing coal fire" at www.squidoo.forums.com/real-life-horror-story, as well as a horrific photo forum about the town, put up by Fine Scale Modeling Magazine. I can't give you the full url on that because, frankly, I don't understand it; but it begins as something like http://cs.finescale.com/FSMCS. If that doesn't work, try googling it. That is, if you want to see a lot of photos that will terrify you.
Why have I spent this time and space on Centralia? It's a sad story, but surely it's now almost in the past?
But is it? Pennsylvania is now in the throes of a new kind of energy development--the natural gas development. We need the energy and jobs, but... Could natural gas produce the same sort of calamity that coal has produced in Columbia County and elsewhere? Or one like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?
We can't rule it out. And, if we don't want it to come to pass, it behooves us to shepherd the work of our legislators and other public officials involved with natural gas and other energy sources. Disasters cannot always be prevented, but sometimes forethought and advance planning can help avoid, delay, or minimize the blow. And that foresight and planning must begin with us, the citizenry, demanding that it happen.
Start now. Let your legislators know that you want careful and responsible development Because sometimes the BIG political disasters (not to mention social, economic, and environmental ones) happen between elections.

Friday, November 19, 2010

An Italian-American Holiday Offering

Italians are among those ethnic groups who set almost greater store by Advent, the hushed period of hope and penitence that leads up to Christmas, than to Christmas itself. They know that, without the breathless waiting, the Gift--the Christ Child--will not be valued as He should be when He arrives.
A cherished Italian Advent tradition--almost the last tradition of the season--is a "penitential" meal of seven types of fish and seafood to be consumed just before the family sets out to welcome the Christ Child at Midnight Mass. Now a young Italian-American couple, Linda and Rocco Maniscalco of Allentown, have produced an attractive little cook book called "Italian Christmas Eve: The Feast of Seven Fishes". It has the revealing subtitle "A Reminiscence with Recipes", because it is a little trove of ethnic and family heritage, as well as of well-loved recipes.
Speaking of the recipes, they are about more than fish and seafood. What would a holiday cook book be without cookie recipes? Linda has kindly given me permission to share one of them with you, and here it is:
3 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-1/4 sticks butter
2 cups flour

Mix eggs, sugar, butter, and vanilla. Mix baking powder with flour. Add flour mixture to wet mixture. Dough must be soft!
Drop with teaspoon onto greased pans, and bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes.
Top with icing made with equal parts of powdered sugar and milk, blended together.

That's it. Shouldn't be too hard. Linda says the white icing represents the purity of the newborn baby Jesus.

For information about this book, or about anything else the Maniscalcos may be doing, visit their website at www.statabuon.com
(So what does "Stata buon" mean? It means "Be well." A great greeting for a holiday, or for any other time.)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Other Blogs You Might Like

I've been trolling the internet, looking for other state-oriented blogs and bloggers you might find of interest. Try Alan Kassirer's The Pennsylvania Wanderer, http://pennsylvaniawanderer.wordpress.com. Kassirer, of Harrisburg, likes to travel and write about the people he encounters, in Pennsylvania and out. He also has a couple of special interests, cigars and wines. A very interesting production.
So is Lancaster from the Innside, http://blog.artistinn.com, a production of Jan and Bruce Garrabrandt. These artists and innkeepers have a beautiful site which also promotes their businesses. When I found it, it had a wonderful picture essay on pumpkins. You will be surprised at how many kinds of pumpkins there are, and how colorful and exotic they can be. But at the base of it all is the bright orange field pumpkin which brightens our autumn fields, provides the basis for the ubiquit0us jack-o-lantern, and often winds up on our tables as soup or pie. The photo essay has a wonderful Pennsylvania feel to it.
I myself will be following both these blogs. I hope you enjoy them too.