I’m writing from 180 years ago, by the light of a kerosene lamp that banishes the twilight darkness of a rainy late-Sunday afternoon. We’ve traveled to central Pennsylvania to an 1836 log cabin owned by my partner’s family for several generations. Originally set high on a ridge, about 45 years ago it was taken by eminent domain by the Corps of Army Engineers who were flooding the Juniata River Valley to form a 28-mile-long lake. The cabin’s owners and those of other farms and dwellings in the valley had a year to either move their structures to higher ground or see them slowly sink below the rising waters. While the dam which was built in 1973 created fishing and camping opportunities for thousands of people every year and brought tourist dollars to the region, to this day, those who moved or lost their property ominously refer to the flooded lands as “the take area.”

The cabin (and its original two-seater outhouse) was moved by truck to its present site and set beneath towering oak trees in a valley between two mountain ridges. Located at the end of a two-track dirt lane, it has no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. For the past 40 years it was used as a hunting camp, the exclusive domain of men and boys who headed out before dawn to hunt and returned at dusk exhausted and sweaty, ready for a drink around the fiery woodstove. There was minimal upkeep over the years, so when I first saw it six years ago, the upper floor was filled with metal-springed bunk beds topped with mouse-nibbled mattresses, while the kitchen and living areas contained a mishmash of cast-off furniture, kitchen pans and bed linens from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Jumbled together in the mix were the original antique brass and iron bedsteads, cast-iron cookware and rustic furniture spanning two centuries. Also part of the non-decor were tattered curtains covering the original multi-paned grimy windows and years of National Geographics piled alongside boxes of deer rifle shells. After several years of major trash removal, the place has begun to once again resemble the building that once housed a family of ten.

This part of Pennsylvania in some ways echoes the eclectic mix found in the cabin. There are the usual fast-food outlets and a Walmart on the fringes of town, but the core of the town, which is a county seat, has a huge stock of vintage brick almost-row houses, not attached to each other, but with only enough room between them for a bony cat to slink through. The 1882 courthouse, built in French Renaissance style of Philadelphia pressed brick, is the centerpiece of a lawyers’ row. The downtown’s businesses are largely closed, but a small college and hospital, the county correctional facility and new tourist and summer resident growth keep the town viable. If I were dropped here from another planet I’d stay forever, grateful to have landed in such a quintessential American city.

 


The city is surrounded by lush farms, many of them owned by Amish families. Perhaps it’s the less-mechanized influence of the Amish culture that makes life a bit more rooted in the pre-Internet culture; there aren’t as many people walking around clutching their phones. There are also hints of Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine to be found in some stores and restaurants. The breakfast menu of one popular diner-style restaurant offers not only scrapple and pudding meat but creamed chipped beef on toast. When we arrive in town we like to hit a local meat market, well known for doing their own butchering on a daily basis and for processing deer meat in hunting season, before we head to the cabin. We stock up on their fresh sausage, scrapple, Lebanon baloney and ham salad, local buckwheat pancake mix, Amish popcorn and condiments, and, if we feel especially peckish, a locally made pie or tart. This far south, in growing zone 6b, frost-free from May 1 through mid-October, the gardens are easily a month ahead of Maine’s, which means that, lucky us, we arrived in time to catch the end of strawberry season. One of the pies at the market was a strawberry pie as big as a cartwheel, enough to feed a large Amish family or the two of us for a week. If you’d like to make a simple pie of your own, in a normal nine-inch shell, here is the best approximation of the recipe I could come up with.

A M I S H   S T R A W B E R R Y   S P O N G E   P I E

1 unbaked 9" pie shell
1 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. flour
4 cups sliced strawberries
2 eggs, separated
12 cup milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rinse and slice berries, mix with sugar and flour in a large bowl. Beat egg yolks and milk together and pour over berries, mixing well. Beat egg whites in a medium bowl until stiff, then fold into the strawberry mixture and pour into the unbaked pie shell. Bake for 45 minutes. The upper part of the pie will resemble sponge cake; the remainder, a strawberry pie.