Pennsylvania Dutch Filling for the Holidays

Philly has its cheesesteaks. Buffalo's got its wings. You'll never guess what my hometown has...

By Andrea Craig, Editorial Assistant

As appeared in

At Christmas dinner there is nothing better than plunging my fork into the warm, fluffy goodness that is my mom’s potato filling, based on an old Pennsylvania Dutch favorite.

The combination of mashed potatoes, bread, onions, celery and seasoning is a carb lover’s dream, especially served hot from the oven. It’s a family recipe, passed down from my great-grandmother. Some filling recipes date back to the 1700s. My mom learned ours from her mom and now she’s teaching me.

It’s not a quick dish to make, and when we’re through there’s enough to feed an army. That’s why, in the Craig household, filling is synonymous with “big family gathering.”

Call me naive or maybe just filling-centric, but I figured this irresistible dish was a big part of everyone’s holiday dinner. Every Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas we have Mom’s filling heaped on our plates beside the sweet-potato casserole and green beans.

Last December, while I was home in Reading, Pennsylvania, for Christmas, my mom told me to check out a story she’d clipped from the newspaper. “It’s the one about filling,” she said.

I was shocked to find out that people in the counties immediately north and south of us hadn’t heard of my favorite holiday side dish! Quilts, hex signs, folk festivals and filling are symbols of the Pennsylvania Dutch heritage that Reading is known for. People outside of my town have heard of those first three things, right? Why not filling?

I remained unconvinced. So when I returned to the Guideposts office, I brought the article. Surely Celeste, who grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, had had filling. An inquisitive look from her after I mentioned it suggested otherwise.

“You mean stuffing?” one of the other editors asked.

“No, filling. It’s kind of like mashed potatoes with a little pizzazz.”

“Do you put it inside the turkey?” someone else asked.

“No, no. You bake it separately.”

Silence. They were totally clueless.

I went on to tell them more about this Craig family tradition. For instance, it wasn’t always my favorite item on the holiday menu. I would insist that a portion of regular mashed potatoes be set aside for me. I couldn’t imagine eating mashed potatoes with all the other stuff in it. Yuck!

Shortly before I left for college, I tasted my mom’s filling and discovered the error of my ways. (Yes, sadly, it took that long.)

Now that I live in New York City I’ve taken a greater interest in learning to cook the way my mom does. It gives me a taste of home. We’ll do most of the work for filling on Christmas Eve long before we head to church.

Three generations of us take over the kitchen. My grandfather Pop-Pop takes his seat at the head of the wooden table. He’s in charge of preparing the potatoes. With his long silver knife he makes quick work of shaving off the skin and digging out any bad spots.

“Who bought these? They’re old,” he’ll protest. My mom will explain that she has to use the old ones first. Pop-Pop just shakes his head.

I sit to his left. My job is to tear the bread into pieces—white or wheat, it doesn’t matter. It’s best to use bread that’s a little stale.

My mom sits closest to the stove. She dices the onions (it makes my eyes water too much). I do the celery and soon it’s all getting boiled or browned and then mixed together. We each dip a spoon in for a taste test.

“It’ll be even better when it’s baked,” Mom will say. And it is, not only because the flavors have had a chance to blend, but because 24 hours later it’s not just the three of us at the table anymore. Our house is filled with people. People who know all about filling.

And now you know about it too.

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Your Comments (9)

I really enjoy reading Guideposts every month and I try a lot of the recipes. This one doesn't seem complete. It says what is in it but not how to put it together. Could you please fill me in. Thank you

Hi Alice and Joyce. The link to the recipe, including ingredients and instructions, is at the end of the story. But to save you a step, here's the direct URL:

I would love to try this dish, but really need a recipe to follow. Can you help? Sure hope so. Thanks! Alice

My hubby is from Reading, PA. The first Christmas we visited my in-laws OF COURSE there was filling on the table! I thought it was mashed potatoes. What a delicious surprise! But no wonder my MIL looked at me funny when I didn't know what it was. She thought everyone, everywhere made it.

This year I'm going to make it for my family's Thanksgiving in New Jersey. My Grandmother-in-law lives with us now and I know she'll be happy to see it on the plate. But it sure was funny trying to explain it to my mom. "It's like stuffing but made with potatoes... It's more like mashed potatoes with stuff in it... You know, celery, onion, like stuffing, Mom."

This is so very much like my experience. Filling is a huge part of my family's holiday tradition. We inherited the recipe from an old Pennsylvania Dutch family we'd been friends with since the 1950s. I make it now that I'm out here in California.

Funny thing is, a lot of people back home in PA don't know what it is! A partner of mine there was baffled. "Filler?" "No, it's filling." "Do you mean that as a verb or a noun?" "Both." He couldn't understand the concept or remember the name, but loved it when I made it.

Good food! And have a happy Thanksgiving!

I was born in and still live in Lebanon County and I grew up with filling (both potato and bread). I wonder how many of your readers know about Opera Fudge, which is classified as a Lebanon County confection. I know that it cannot be found in Berks County, as my sister, who lives in Northern Berks county, always requests that we bring a few boxes along at Thanksgiving. Thanks for the interesting article.

I too am from Reading, PA, and potato filling is still one of my favorite Penna. Dutch dishes, even though I have lived in California since the 50's. I have made it for every Thanksgiving ever since I was married. just love it, and have tweaked the recipe a little over the years. I make the mashed potatoes a little soupy, so that they won't be too stiff after the bread has been added and the dish refrigerated overnight. I also saute the onions, celery, and bread cubes in olive oil, but I add at least 1/2 cube of butter, too. After they are done, I add the bread cubes to the pan with lots of butter and olive oil, and toss them while they turn golden brown, and then fold the sauteed vegetables and bread cubes into the mashed potatoes. It certainly IS a special type of mashed potatoes! Oh, and my mother often stuffed the turkey with part of it, and that filling was the very best, with the turkey juices flavoring it!

I am a native of Bucks County and do have extensive PA Dutch ancestry. This was not served on a regular basis at my house, so I haven't had it in years, but reading this article really made my mouth water. I never knew it was called filling - always thought it was just better tasting mashed potatoes.

Happy Thanksgiving Andrea! How happy I was today to have my brother give me the article on Filling when we arrived at his place in Naples for dinner. Since we are both originally from Reading it is also a staple for our holidays. In fact at Labor Day my husband, Tom, and I took potato filling to the dinner party we were invited to here in Naples, FL. To this day some of the guests still tease me about my enthusiasm for the dish, but everyone enjoyed it! Thank you for making our day complete! Gerry Egan