At the Sheppard Mansion, a full-service inn and restaurant in Hanover, Pa., a quiet culinary revolution is underway.
Chef Andrew Little, who grew up just a few blocks away from the inn, is reinventing the hearty cooking of his youth into “New Pennsylvania Dutch” cuisine – a lighter, more flavorful approach. But the best element of Pennsylvania Dutch food – fresh ingredients with a trip from farm to table that’s often as short as the back yard to the back door – is central to his approach.
A just-picked tomato, still warm from the sun, adds a much different flavor than one that’s traveled and been refrigerated for several days. The mansion boasts a seasonal, ever-changing menu based on locally supplied meats and produce.
“My parents had a sizeable vegetable garden,” Little says. “My parents grew a lot of their own vegetables and we froze or canned them. That really played a big part in how I liked to cook. My grandfather had chickens and pigs.” He adds that the farm-to-table trend is growing. “For me, this is what we did – this is how I grew up.”
Unfortunately, he says, people have an image of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking gleaned from buffets of heavy, gluey, “stick to your ribs” food. In fact, the true cuisine is vegetable based, and when it comes to meat, “they use and have respect for the entire animal – because they had to. Because of that, it’s not much different than French or Italian cuisine. It’s home-based. He laughs as he adds, “almost any cuisine’s born out of poverty.”
Little finds old Pennsylvania Dutch recipes, and first attempts the original version.
“The idea of measuring with a teaspoon and a half wasn’t there – I’ll read recipes that say ‘half an egg shell of oil.’ What does that mean?”
After making recipes in their original form, he then adapts them for both modern palates and modern ingredients. For example, 100 years ago, hybrid varieties of corn didn’t exist, and corn was not as sweet as it is today, so recipes back then called for sugar. When Little added sugar to today’s corn, the results were too sweet. But his experiments weren’t wasted – he created a recipe for sweet corn ice cream.
One of his signature desserts was born from a regional classic – shoo-fly pie, made with molasses. He uses the pie’s original spices to create a spiced ice cream, makes soda from the molasses and strains crumble through cream to create the topping for what is now a shoo-fly pie ice cream float.
“It’s all the recognizable flavors,” he says, “just in a different derivation.”
His tasting menu includes gems such as Schnitz Und Knepp – made with rabbit, gnocchi, country ham and apple cider – and sauerbraten featuring beef cheek, horseradish, agnolotti and gingersnap jus. Monkfish gets a clam chowder garnish, while shad roe is served with dandelion, onion pierogi, radish, and warm bacon vinaigrette. Quail is complemented by tagliatelle of celery root, Brussels sprouts, granola and quail jus.
In landlocked Pennsylvania, traditional cooking was short on seafood, so Little looked to Maryland and Virginia for inspiration, seamlessly blending standouts from the Chesapeake Bay culture, such as country hams, rock fish, crabs, and oysters.
He’s received many positive reviews, but he cites the comment he hears from his customers – “I haven’t had that since I went to my grandmother’s” – as an accolade for this rediscovered cuisine.