An A-Z Guide to Iconic Regional Foods in Chester County

An A-Z Guide to Iconic Regional Foods in Chester CountyImage by LuAnn Hunt/Pixabay

If you’re from Chester County, you would likely agree that Philly favorites and Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine are among the iconic foods of the region. Below is a list, A-Z (along with some fun facts), of various foods that have become staples for many in our area of the state.

As you review, consider other foods under each letter that could be added. Do you dispute something listed and/or have something to add? Post your recommendations and/or commentary in the comments section below.

An A-Z Guide to Chester County Eats

A – Apple Butter

Apple butter is not butter at all. It is homemade applesauce that has been cooked a lot longer, which intensifies the taste and gives it a caramelized color. It’s a super-concentrated and extraordinarily thick yet smooth version of applesauce. Skip the butter and slather this on your next piece of toast.

It can be found made fresh by the Pennsylvania Dutch. It was originally invented during the Middle Ages in Limburg, which is present-day Belgium and the Netherlands, and Rhineland, present-day Germany.

B – Baked Apples

The first record of a recipe for baked apples is from the 1685 edition of a London cookbook, “The Accomplished Cook.” The recipe called for peeled, cored and quartered apples that were baked in claret wine, citron, candied oranges, and sugar.

Today, baked apples of the region can refer to sliced, chopped, or whole apples that are baked until slightly softened. Baked apples are very juicy and usually include sugar, butter, and/or cinnamon. While they are certainly a fall favorite, they can be enjoyed year-round as an easy-to-make dessert.

C – Cheesesteaks

While it needs no introduction, a cheesesteak is a sandwich made from combining thinly sliced pieces of beefsteak and melted cheese and placing them in a long hoagie roll. A popular regional fast food, it has its roots in Philadelphia (Pat’s and Geno’s obviously come to mind). Typically one has the choice of type of cheese, though American, Provolone and/or Cheez Whiz are among the most popular. Many foodies opt to add fried onions, mushrooms, sweet peppers and more for some extra flavor.

D – Dippy Eggs

Fried for varying lengths of time as either “over-easy,” or “sunny side up,” these types of eggs are often called “dippy.” Why? Well, because that’s what they are! They have a semi to completely runny yolk for dipping toast, hash browns, sausage links or anything else that is on your breakfast plate. They are most commonly referred to as “dippy eggs” by the Pennsylvania Dutch.

E – Egg Salad Sandwiches

The egg salad sandwich is a simple and inexpensive American food that is popular in our area and dates back to the 1800s. In many recipes, it consists of peeled and diced hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise, salt, and pepper mashed together between two slices of bread. Some recipes call for the addition of mustard, sweet pickle relish and/or dried or fresh dill.

Before egg salad was placed between bread, it used to be served on a bed of lettuce. Nowadays, it’s an American staple because it’s so simple and nearly everyone has the basic ingredients to make the egg salad sandwich in their kitchen.

F – Funnel Cakes

Funnel cake is one of the first North American fried foods, which is associated with the Pennsylvania German immigrants who came to Pennsylvania before the 19th century.

The name “funnel cake” was derived from the method of squeezing batter through a funnel in a circular motion into hot oil to achieve a random pattern of fried dough. Originally served for holidays and harvest festivals, funnel cakes are usually found at local street fairs and carnivals.

Surprisingly enough, funnel cakes are considered a lower-calorie treat. However, extra calories can certainly be added through the addition of sweet toppings, such as powdered sugar and jams. (Mmmm… and Nutella!)

G – Goat Cheese

You see goat cheese layered with fruit in parfaits in mason jars in Dutch Country. It’s also wonderfully delicious melted upon Philadelphia-style specialty pizzas. Or, it can be sliced into squares, coated with breadcrumbs, cooked in the oven, and served over a bed of arugula.

Otherwise known as the French word chèvre (pronounced shev-r), goat cheese was essentially unknown in the United States before the 1970s. However, it has a history dating back over a thousand years. Hundreds of millions of pounds are produced annually.

H – Hoagies

In 1953, The Philadelphia Bulletin reported that Italians working at the World War I–era shipyard in Philadelphia (known as Hog Island) introduced the Hoagie by putting various meats, cheeses, and lettuce between two slices of bread. Originally known as the “Hog Island” sandwich, it was nicknamed a “Hoggie;” later, the “hoagie.”

Former Philadelphia mayor (and later Pennsylvania governor) Ed Rendell declared the hoagie the “Official Sandwich of Philadelphia.”

I is for… Ice Cream!

It is no secret that the ice cream made and scooped by hand in neighboring Lancaster County is among the best around! But did you know that ice cream made its way to the New World in the 18th century? The first advertisement for ice cream appeared in the New York Gazette on May 12, 1777. You may be surprised to know that the very first ice cream flavor was orange blossom!

J – Jam

Jam is a condiment that is usually made from pressed fruit, sugar, and sometimes pectin. Usually, a jam contains as much sugar as it contains fruit. The two parts are then cooked together to form a gel. The Pennsylvania Dutch are excellent at making homemade jam, which is normally sold in an airtight jar.

My favorite homemade jam has been strawberry, but lately, my taste buds have expanded to include apricot! These and more delectable jams can be found at retailers around the region.

K – Kielbasa

Along with sausage and bratwurst, the Pennsylvania Dutch are also famous for kielbasa.

It’s a sausage of Polish origin. In American English, the word typically refers to a coarse, U-shaped smoked sausage of any kind of meat, including pork, beef, turkey, lamb, chicken or veal.

What’s better than Kielbasa by itself? Kielbasa inserted into a recipe for pork and sauerkraut!

Pork and sauerkraut is a German custom that was brought over by the Pennsylvania Dutch. There’s a long-standing German (and now American) tradition of eating pork and sauerkraut (with or without kielbasa) on New Year’s Day to ensure good luck in the coming year.

L – Lebanon Bologna

Lebanon bologna is a famous sausage and lunchmeat that originated in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Using the slow-cured and smoked sausage traditions of Western Europe, it was developed by the Pennsylvania Dutch prior to the 1780s and was a readily available item by the early 1800s.

The process of making Lebanon Bologna is unique. Although many means of processing have been modernized by machines, some Old-World butchering, curing, and sausage-making skills from the Pennsylvania tradition are still used today.

M – Meatloaf

“Loaves” of minced meat, mixed with a variety of ingredients, are part of many culinary histories, including the Germans who actually hid boiled eggs inside their meatloaf! Interesting…

American meatloaf has its origins in scrapple, a mixture of ground pork and cornmeal served by German-Americans in Pennsylvania since colonial times. Most current-day meatloaf in the region includes ground beef, pork sausage, onion, celery, garlic, egg, parsley, and breadcrumbs.

Many area diners carry meatloaf on their menus. I personally prefer my mom’s meatloaf, and I’d usually consider it a food for warming a chilly night rather than something to be had on a hot summer’s day. I now understand why my stepfather used to tell my mother, “You can call me anything you want – just don’t call me late for dinner!” Ah, meatloaf – a dish that warms the soul.

N – Nachos

Who says you have to be from Texas to experience some of the best nachos in the country?

Nachos are a casual and widely enjoyed snack that is available on nearly every sports bar menu in town. In West Chester alone, you’ll find them in many eccentric forms. Originally a fairly humble Tex-Mex dish of chips, cheese and jalapenos, the nachos of today are typically “loaded” and made with unprecedented twists.

According to PA Eats, some of the best nachos the borough of West Chester has to offer can be found at Ram’s Head Bar & Grill, Doña Linda and the Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant. Where are the best nachos in your neck of Chester County?

O – Omelets

Stop in any Chester County diner and you are in for a treat with the plethora of omelets offered. From meets and cheese to vegetables to a hearty combination that includes “the kitchen sink,” there’s something about omelets made in our region that tastes like home – the only difference is that there are no pans and dishes to clean after your meal.

Pair an omelet with a side of bacon or sausage and some well-done hash browns, along with some buttered toast – Now, that’s a breakfast with my name on it!

P – Pretzels

Soft pretzels are to Philadelphia and the surrounding region as deep-dish pizza is to Chicago. What I’m referring to are the doughy, chewy, salted, hearty pretzels topped with mustard.

Legend has it that the pretzel was invented by an Italian monk in the year 610 A.D. Folded strips of bread dough that resembled the crossed arms of praying children were given to young kids as a reward for learning their prayers and doing chores. The creations were called pretiolas, or “little rewards.” Soon, the popularity of these treats spread to Austria and Germany. When the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated to the United States, they brought these “little rewards” with them.

The first American pretzel was supposedly baked in 1861 in Lititz, Pennsylvania.  Today, Pennsylvania remains the American pretzel-making capital, as a full 80 percent of U.S.-made pretzels come from the Keystone State.

Another fun fact: Philadelphia is said to consume 12x the national average number of pretzels per year.

Q – Quiche

The name “quiche” is from the German word “Kuchen,” which means cake. I was having trouble finding a solid source, but I would assume that given its roots, quiche has seen many a Pennsylvania Dutch kitchen.

Although quiche is a classic dish of French cuisine, quiche actually originated in Germany, in the medieval kingdom of Lothringen, under German rule, and which the French later renamed Lorraine. (Hence, the popular Quiche Lorraine, which includes bacon.)

Quiche is a French tart consisting of pastry crust filled with savory custard and pieces of cheese, meat, seafood or vegetables. Quiche can be served hot or cold. It is popular worldwide and has made its way onto several menus of restaurants in the region.

R – Red Beet Eggs (or Pickled Eggs)

Pickled eggs originated as a way to preserve eggs. Since then, they have remained a regional staple, like most things pickled, because they are simply delicious!

Whole beets, onions, vinegar, sugar, salt, cloves, and (optionally) a cinnamon stick are used as the solution to pickle eggs. The result is sweet and sour taste. A Pennsylvania Dutch specialty, pickled eggs turn captivating shades of purplish-red, perfect for serving alone or as a garnish for a cheese plate or salad.

S – Scrapple

Scrapple is, well, scraps. It is said to have been invented by 17th and 18th-century German colonists who settled in and near Chester County, Pennsylvania.

Scrapple’s ancestor is panhaas, a German meat pudding consisting of pork odds and ends mixed with buckwheat and spices. When the recipe came to America, the buckwheat was replaced by cornmeal.

One recipe from 1853 writes that the cook should boil together “pork that will not do for sausage,” such as hearts, livers, kidneys, and scraps of skin. It might not sound appetizing, but try a crispy, fried piece of scrapple and you likely will not be as judgmental of this breakfast staple moving forward. I’ll take mine well done, please!

S, again – Shoofly pie

“S” is such a popular letter that I wanted to expand on two regional iconic foods. From the salty and savory scrapple described above to yes, you guessed it… sweet and buttery shoofly pie!

During the early years of our country, all baking was done in big outdoor ovens. Bakers started making them because the main ingredients (brown sugar, molasses, flour and lard) were usually available. Out of the oven, shoofly pie has a gooey layer on the bottom and brown sugar-cinnamon crumbs on top. And shoofly pies don’t need to be refrigerated, which was a plus years ago.

But how did it get its name? Lots of sweet, sticky molasses tended to form on the pie while it was cooling outdoors. This attracted flies that the bakers would “shoo” away.  Thus, the story has it, “Shoo-Fly!” pie was named.

T – Tastykakes

Over one hundred years ago, a baker and an egg salesman opened a bakery in Philadelphia and started selling delicious small cakes. Offering a complete line of snack cakes, pies, cookies, and donuts available in supermarkets and other retail outlets, famous Tastykakes are the sweet treat of choice for Philadelphians and a multitude of sweet-toothed fans around the country.

My personal TastyKake favorites are jelly krimpets, chocolate frosted donuts and apple pies.

U – Upside-down Cake

An upside-down cake is a cake that is baked in a single pan with its toppings at the bottom of the pan, or “upside-down”. When the cake is removed from the oven, the upside-down preparation is flipped onto a serving plate, and it is served right-side up. There are many Amish recipes for their delicious varieties of upside-down cake, including pineapple and peach, found online.

V – Venison

Sure. What not? Many delicatessens and butcher shops across the region (and particularly in Dutch Country) offer various types of venison-inspired foods, including sausage, bologna, chili and jerky. Venison is leaner (and some would even say tastier) than its beef counterpart.

W – Whoopie Pies

The name “Whoopie Pie” originated from the Amish men and children who found treats in their lunch boxes and would exclaim, “Whoopie!” The first known commercially produced Whoopie Pies were sold by Labadie’s Bakery in Lewiston, Maine. Whoopie Pies are cake mounds bound together by a creamy icing-like filing.

Although those in Maine may consider themselves the inventors of the Whoopie Pie, many food historians say that Amish housewives in Pennsylvania Dutch Country made them first. This explains why the annual Whoopie Pie Festival takes place in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. The event features more than 400 different Whoopie Pie flavors! That’s more than one flavor to try per day of the year. Whoopie Pie lovers meet Whoopie Pie heaven!

X marks the spot for Xavier Soup

X was a tricky letter. When I was very young, similar to this article, I had to write a story starting every new sentence with the next letter of the alphabet. When it came to X, I was able to use Xavier, my doll’s name. Much to my surprise, Xavier isn’t just the name of my Cabbage Patch Kid in the 1980s, it’s also the name of a soup!

While not as well-known, certain Xavier soup recipes can be ideal for many in our region who observe a “no meat” rule on or during religious holidays or periods, such as Lent. Named after Saint Francis Xavier, the soup is a combination of broth and dumplings, with optional added ingredients such as onions, celery, carrots and garlic.

Y – Yams (Candied)

Okay, so I took a short-cut to talk about sweet potatoes. Yams and sweet potatoes are the same thing, right?

Contrary to popular belief, they are vastly different. Sweet potatoes are not a type of yam, and yams are not a type of sweet potato. They are both tuberous root vegetables that come from a flowering plant, but they are not related. Ironically though, you can use either root in an Amish candied yam (or sweet potato) recipe as found published by many sites online. A staple of many a Thanksgiving dinner table, candied yam or sweet potato recipes combine butter, sugar and spices with the vegetable(s), which are baked until tender, gooey and good.

Z – Zucchini Bread

Zucchinis are a green variety of smooth-skinned summer squash and have a striking resemblance to cucumbers in appearance. Zucchini are grown throughout the region during the warm, frost-free season. Of course, with all the farm area in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, zucchini grows in abundance. What is one thing you can do with all that extra squash? Make bread of course!

Why make bread with zucchinis? One blogger explains that this type of bread “was probably created to respond to zucchini’s torrential growth rates that require creative thinking to get rid of the huge volumes of the vegetable.” Sounds good to me. While we don’t know the origin for sure, we know the Pennsylvania Dutch make some of the most deliciously moist and flavorful zucchini breads around.

Do you have any other iconic regional foods in Chester County to add? Any local favorites that should have been on this list? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

For the latest news on everything happening in Chester County and the surrounding area, be sure to follow MyChesCo on Google News.

This article is intended for informational, entertainment or educational purposes only and should not be construed as advice, guidance or counsel. It is provided without warranty of any kind.


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