Wandering in York County

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I limit myself to two fastnachts, to start. By the end of the day I'll consume at least five. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

A fastnacht isn’t a fastnacht without potatoes, lard and bossy Pa. Dutch grandmas

On Monday night, I head to Wanda Tyson’s house — my grandmother who I call Mama.

Wanda Dietz, a life-long family-friend, is there to help, too. 

They both hackle me for my tardiness. “But Mama! It’s raining ice. I took my time.”

“Ok,” she says. “Are you coming straight from work? You need some dinner?” 

A smile crosses my face as I tell her I’m hungry. “I made some vegetable beef soup if you want to warm that up,” Mama says.

After I’m full and ready to work, the two grandmas and I begin the fastnacht process. 

We start with five pounds of flour in a dish pan. We put four pounds in to start, leaving the rest for later. Next we add 1 ¼ cups sugar and a tablespoon of salt. Removing the four small potatoes from the burner that boiled in two cups of water, Wanda pours the water out, mashes the potatoes, and adds the potatoes back to the water.

Potatoes gives fastnachts that dense texture that separates it from cake. Find the recipe below. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

They test the temperature because “we don’t want to kill the yeast!” they warn. 

“You don’t want it to go over 115 [degrees] because that’s how you kill your yeast.” 

“It kills it,” Wanda echoes. 

Wanda Dietz, on the left, and Mama closely monitor the temperature to make sure they don’t kill the yeast. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

She adds two eggs and one pint of milk to the mixture, along with a two-ounce yeast cake that was dissolved in a quarter cup of water. 

“That’s the golden ticket,” Mama says.

“What?” I ask.

“Yeast cakes. That’s the golden ticket. I’ve gone hunting in Lancaster County for those things. Got to use yeast cakes.”

“How much lard?” I ask Mama.

“A cup of melted lard. Lard. Lard!” emphasizing the ingredient so I know she’s serious. 

Mama found yeast cakes at Weis, but they are usually hard to find. Jamie Kinsley Photo.
The Tysons butcher a pig each year primarily so Mama can use the lard for fastnachts. Jamie Kinsley Photo.
We mix everything together with a wooden spoon at first, then with our hands. It can be hard on our backs, so we use a shorter table to get more leverage. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

“The one thing I saw on the computer was to use the palm of your hand and press down. Yep. That’s kneading,” Mama says. 

Wanda jokes, “You mean all these years you had to take a lesson?”

“Well, I knew how to do it, but I needed to look it up to tell you!” Mama retorts. 

After about 15 minutes, adding flour to remove the “stickiness,” the fastnacht dough is mixed and ready to rise. We place the two buns in their pans, under a table cloth, and in Mama’s spare bedroom with the space heater warming the room. At 10 p.m., she will smash it down, and again at 2 A.M. and finally at 6 A.M. 

The dough will rise for about twelve hours, mashing them every four hours or so. Mama says “proofing” gives the fastnachts that light and fluffy consistency. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Why we eat fastnachts on Fat Tuesday

I don’t consider myself a foodie — someone whose life revolves around finding and cooking amazing meals. Generally, I’m not picky so I enjoy almost any food, regardless of ingredients. However, there is one food item that needs to be “pure” Pa. Dutch: fastnachts.

Recently, a friend purchased “fastnachts” from a local convenience store. Upon reading the label, I noticed, with horror, that potatoes were one of the last (and therefore least) ingredients. Worse yet, there was no lard. No, these “fastnachts” do not deserve that title. 

I am a traditionalist at heart, and that means eating fastnachts from my grandmother’s kitchen each year. I can only think of two years when I missed her special treats because I had grad class.

Likewise, York Countians from our past placed similar emphasis on the day. 

For instance, Pennsylvania German farmers believed their flax crop would suffer if they failed to observe the holiday, reported an 1881 article in The York Dispatch. I can relate to my ancestors whose excellent excuses condoned eating delicious baked goods. 

In 1912, The York Daily predicted that over 100,000 fastnachts were eaten in York County.   

By 1916, the same newspaper estimated that number increased to 216,000, and the average person consumed four fastnachts — I eat at least four with ease. 

We eat Fastnachts on Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent — 40 days in which some Christians give up sweets. You’ve probably heard of Mardi Gras, or the French term for Fat Tuesday. To get rid of all the fat and sugar in the house, York Countians made fastnachts to use up all the temptations. So, we eat fat cakes on “fast night,” or in German, “fastnacht.” After 40 days of fasting, we celebrate Easter with candy and other sweets. 

Today is also called “Shrove Tuesday,” meaning the absolving of sins upon penance.  Historically, it was customary for people to confess their sins on this day, too.

The fastnacht dough spent all night growing in size. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Making fastnachts

Tuesday morning we roll out the dough and cut out the pieces, nestling them under a blanket to continue raising.

We previously used the older, metal cutter. However, my cousin used a 3D printer to mold our Mama a newer, sharper cutter. Jamie Kinsley Photo.
Wanda Dietz shows off  our 117 whole fastnachts and 64 special family cuts. The odd shaped ones are my personal favorite. Jamie Kinsley Photo.
Mama shows off the frying pan given to her for a wedding present in 1958. We will use it to fry the fastnachts in lard. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Mama and Wanda always start frying with the top side down. That way the fastnachts continue to rise while frying in lard to create an even-looking dessert. Finally, we top them with sugar or glaze for the final, delectable product.

Hopefully, you can get your hands on some old-fashion, Pa. Dutch fastnachts today. My only regret is that we aren’t all lucky enough to have grandmas who make old-fashioned fastnachts with potatoes and lard.

Mama expertly flips the dough so we end with beautiful fastnachts. Jamie Kinsley Photo.
We have a strong Pa. Dutch heritage, but Mama got this particular recipe out of the newspaper during the 1960s. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Jim McClure writes more about it HERE.

You can also read more about fastnacht history HERE.

6 comments on “A fastnacht isn’t a fastnacht without potatoes, lard and bossy Pa. Dutch grandmas

  1. What a wonderful article! I las made fastnachts at my Old Kentucky Home 5 years ago but this instills me to try again— I loved the 10pm 2am and 6am part with a little Mardi Gras music from NOLA playing—it’s the best! Thanks!

  2. Thank you for the article! My Grandmother made these every year but I never got her recipe (I’m sure like all of them it was in her head) Many fond memories eating them. She always put powdered sugar on them. She made dozens for all of our big family but they were always gone before the end of fastnacht day! They look yummy!

  3. I also enjoyed reading your article. It was very informative and interesting, especially the emphasis on using lard.

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