Adventure Chick: Culinary Exploration in Gettysburg

Photos Courtesy of Destination Gettysburg

Diane, can you sprinkle these herbs in the potatoes?”

Uh, chef. I get the part about the potatoes. But these “herbs” are just leaves on stalks. Where are the wrinkly, dried things in a plastic jar?
Besides, didn’t anyone tell you that I’m a menace in the kitchen? I once snared my fingers in the blades of a mixer. The last time I fried an egg, it exploded. Blame my heritage. You can get a great meal in Ireland these days, but generations of Irish-Americans lost touch with the kitchen. I grew up on fish sticks and Spaghetti-O’s. I still consider Rice-A-Roni a San Francisco treat.

However, Adventure Chick is all about venturing into the unknown. I was in Gettysburg, which is brandishing its flag as a first-class food destination, built on the bounty of the surrounding countryside.
Could a culinary exploration of Gettysburg, Central Pennsylvania’s own Land of Lincoln, turn my palate from pitiful to polished?

The chef asking me to chop herbs was Jeremy Schaffner, of the South Central Community Action Program. First, let me mention that Schaffner trains homeless and low-income people in culinary skills so they can find work and self-sufficiency. Time for me to stop whining about chopping a few basil leaves.

Schaffner is a booster for Adams County freshness. Fads like molecular gastronomy come and go, he said, but “fresh, locally sourced food is always going to win.”

On this Thursday afternoon, Schaffner led us through the Adams County Farmers Market in historic Lincoln Square, a venture organized by Savor Gettysburg Food Tours. We would shop, cook and eat. Mangia! The market was brimming with orchard-fresh apples. There were leeks the length of my forearm. Heirloom tomatoes in yellow, red and green zebra stripe. Potatoes in purple, gold and white. Fresh-picked basil so fragrant that it nearly drove us to distraction.

We joined the customers lining up for samples of mead – “The Ancestor of All Alcohol” – that got their tangy-sweet flavors from different varieties of honey grown by Dawg Gone Bees. There were even local shiitake mushrooms. I had no idea this was a Central Pennsylvania rarity, but Schaffner was jubilant. I also spotted kale and asked if it’s possible to make it palatable. Simmer it with a ham hock, Schaffner said. “If you cook it forever, it gets really tender.”

Well, so does shoe leather. I still won’t eat it.

Luckily, no kale in this class. But it opened my eyes to the culinary possibilities of market-to-kitchen – in this case, the fully equipped kitchen at the Adams County Arts Council. For me, this was big. I once faced a week without a cook at home (that would be my husband) and stood in the West Shore Farmers’ Market befuddled by all that chicken and pork, beef and fish. Just what was I supposed to do with it? I gave up and survived on Kraft Mac and Cheese for eight days.

Today, Chef Jeremy led us in whipping up a few tapas dishes. We savored vol-au-vent (a puff pastry, I learned) topped with rich, nutty mushroom sauce. We relished roasted herb potatoes. We indulged in airy fettuccine topped with heirloom tomatoes.

And I managed to chop the tomatoes with wickedly sharp knives without drawing blood. I separated an egg without slopping it all over the floor. My classmates and I kneaded dough and cranked the pasta maker without losing any fingers. I declare victory.

Of course, there are other ways to taste Gettysburg and environs without the prospect of setting a kitchen on fire. Our group sampled a refreshing salad of prosciutto-wrapped honeycrisp apple at the retro-contemporary Food 101. At One Lincoln, Hotel Gettysburg’s cozy pub, a tender roasted lamb converted me to, well, lamb. Fidler & Co.’s wild-mushroom, brick-oven pizza and its frittata with house breakfast sausage were out-of-this-world.

No one had to twist my arm to try Dobbin House’s world-famous baked king’s onion soup, their version of French onion topped with a gooey cheese mélange and dotted with – surprise! – bits of beef in the broth.

Then again, there was the roasted bone marrow at 1863 Steakhouse. I held my breath, dipped my bread and took a bite. The rest of the meal was delightful, but my palate just can’t slurp goo from a bone and consider it a delicacy.

Gettysburg‘s foodie renaissance also has a complementary booze-y movement. No palate-training needed here. One Lincoln’s seasonal cider sangria with fresh local apples and Fireball whiskey earned a well-deserved second round. Flavorful spirits at Mason Dixon Distillery, in a former furniture factory, include vodka made from wheat grown on Gettysburg battlefield farmlands.

“I’m a mad rocket scientist,” said Mason Dixon founder Yiannia Barakos, “and this is my rocket fuel.”

Of course, we were reminded by a living historian at the restful Battlefield Inn B&B that Gettysburg’s visitors in 1863 weren’t there on a culinary jaunt. They were scared kids, teenagers watching fathers and brothers and cousins fall around them. If they drank coffee, they were less likely to die from the dysentery and cholera that felled the non-coffee drinkers (boiled water, you know). Maybe they ate beef from the 10,000 cattle herded before the Union army, but most meals, they ate the tooth-splintering cracker known as hard tack.

“You had two of these for lunch, two for dinner and guess what you had for breakfast?” said the historian.

We entrust Gettysburg as steward of sacred memories, but these days, it’s nice to know that the town can also offer the same flavorful apples and tomatoes grown by our 19th-Century predecessors – with a side of shiitake mushrooms to satisfy our 21st-Century palates.

Deep in Adams County, those apples are driving the hard-cider renaissance. At Hauser Estate Winery, on the outskirts of Biglerville, I savored the breathtaking view while also savoring a sampling of their Jack’s Hard Ciders. I liked the crisp Conewago Orchard, a seasonal offering. We all loved the peach.

Later, Ellie Hollabaugh Vranich would tell us that in Adams County “the soil is amazing for tree-fruit production.” She should know. She’s third-generation at Hollabaugh Bros., the Biglerville fruit farm and market founded by her grandfather and his twin brother. She was teaching us to make apple dumplings.

Did someone say apple dumplings? When everyone at the Farm Show lines up for milkshakes, I’m at the apple-dumpling stand.

We started by piercing sweet-tart jonagold apples with what Vranich called the “sharp, blade-y tip” of a corer. It made a clean hole from top to bottom. Where has this thing been all my life?

We rolled dough – mine was more of a misshapen square than a circle – and dropped it in a little pie tin. In went the apple, followed by a sprinkling of cinnamon-sugar in the hollowed core, for “the part that is truly the magic of an apple dumpling,” said Vranich. “As your apple bakes and starts to soften and the juices are released, it mixes with that cinnamon-sugar and makes this really amazing, thick, syrupy, yummy goodness.”

I can attest to that. Three guesses what I had for breakfast the next day. Hint: It involved syrupy, yummy goodness.

A Hollabaugh Bros. wagon tour took us through the winding hills of the orchards. The peach trees had been picked. The apple trees were bursting with fruit, clustered so tightly that when we got to pick our own, it was hard to decide which to select.
At wagon tour’s end, we were greeted with cider and apple-cider donuts. A fresh cider donut dunked in fresh cider, all made from apples born and raised just outside these walls? Pure heaven.

Maybe Josh Fidler, chef and owner at Fidler & Co., said it best. “If you start with quality, it’s easy to make it good.”

Adams County, I’m coming back. Don’t set out the bone marrow for me. But the lamb and tomatoes, the apples and mushrooms, the bread and wine and cider – line them up. This Irish-American is ready to be a foodie.