Philly has its cheesesteaks. Buffalo's got its wings. You'll never guess what my hometown has...
- Posted on Nov 23, 2014
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!
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.
Try making your own Pennsylvania Dutch Potato Filling!