Recently, I learned a part of Pennsylvania I grew up near is now called the “Snack Belt.” Seeing this in print was like seeing the results of a DNA test, affirming something I already knew about myself: I love snacks. I leave crumbs. I am snack people.
Look, if the “snack belt” fits, wear it. York and Lancaster Counties, just west of Philadelphia, ARE blessed with a disproportionate number of pretzel and potato chip makers. Dozens of ’em. Hanover, home to bestselling pretzel maker Snyder’s, just flexes: “Snack Food Capital of the World.”
So, on a trip back home to Bethlehem, I snacked my way around PA. I revisited tastes of childhood, discovering history in every bite. I crunched on tours, left a light salty coating on the rental car, melted chocolate into the seat of my only pants. I did the research and submit: my top five classic eastern PA snacks: Pretzels, chips, shoo-fly pie, Josh Early Candy, Yocco dog.
Let’s start with pretzels. Appropriate, because hard pretzels are the original Pennsylvania Dutch food. German-speaking settlers brought their recipes and twisting techniques to the area in the 1700s, putting the first notch in the “snack belt.” I loved the brand with the “little Amish boy” logo growing up, so a pilgrimage to the original Tom Sturgis Pretzels was in order. Julius Sturgis opened America’s first commercial pretzel bakery in Lititz in 1861. Later, grandson Tom took over; you’ll see both names on products.
Test out your own twisting abilities on a snappy, 30-minute tour. Fun fact from the guide: In the early days, “rotten straw water” was doused on the pretzels, a vomit-inducing baste that burned off in the baking process.
Potato chips are equally well represented in the Snack Belt. Again, the reason is rooted in history. The best types of “chipping” potatoes grow well in this part of PA, plus–and I can’t stress this enough–there was lard. Frying in lard produces an extra crispy chip, and the snack belt had plenty of it from its pork products. Lots of solid chip games in PA, but Utz does have that classic Pennsylvania Dutch name. Take a factory tours at the plant in–where else–Hanover. And besides those, we have Herr’s, in Nottingham, PA. So, you might ask any of the tour guides, what DOES make a good “chipping” potato? Starch. High starch content in a spud makes for fluffy, dry chips after cooking.
Lancaster Central Market could be considered PA’s first snack emporium. The country’s oldest, continuously running public farmers’ market started in 1730. The beautiful red brick Market House building in downtown Lancaster is open Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. There are more than 60 vendors, many of them Amish and Mennonite, selling meat, cheese, produce and…shoo-fly pie. Now we’re talking Amish. It’s an acquired taste, this cloyingly sweet, molasses-based dessert. You can get it with a “dry bottom,” which has a cake-like consistency throughout, or with a gooey “wet bottom.” I’m going to be honest here. Shoo-fly pie makes the list as a legacy entry.
Unlike shoo-fly pie, handmade chocolates require no break-in time. Especially Josh Early Candies. I know because I’ve introduced many people to the wonder of my hometown chocolatier. Josh Early was the only chocolate in my family’s Easter baskets, Christmas stockings, red cardboard Valentine’s Day boxes. Foil-covered milk chocolate balls, sugar-shedding nonpareils, mint melt-a-ways, cashew turtles, caramels, peanut butter cups, it’s all good. I know I can order online. But nothing beats that smell when I enter the mothership–it takes me right back to childhood. Plus the store decor looks same as it ever was, kinda like the time warp of grammy’s house. There’s one Josh Early in Allentown, one in Bethlehem. Technically, we’re north of the “snack belt” here, but there is a connection: the Earlys started their chocolate biz in Reading in the early 1900s. Their descendants taunt me with some of those same recipes today.
One last stop in the Lehigh Valley for a Yocco dog. Chicagoans will groan but hear me out: I have a case to make for this classic wiener. Yocco’s hot dogs are made with local Hatfield meats and a “secret recipe chili sauce.” They’ve been a Lehigh Valley staple since 1922. There is simply no better dog, nor King Weenie logo, in all of hot dogdom. Youse guys may disagree, but youse cannot argue with the memories of a nostalgic, displaced Pennsylvanian.