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Dutch Country Kitchen

January 17, 2010

On the north end of Hagerstown, in the old Long Meadow Shopping Center, is the Dutch Country Kitchen. Hidden away in the Pennsylvania Dutch Market next to a small food court, the cafe features food in the Mennonite tradition.

On a recent snowy Thursday, the Professor and I headed over for lunch after a morning of shoveling. We had been cold and hungry and did not want to cook.

The Dutch Country Kitchen specializes in fried chicken and homemade meals. Too weary from shoveling snow to make any decisions, we decided to order the specials. The Professor quickly chose the fried chicken wing ($1.20), breast ($3.25) and thigh ($1.30). I debated between the two sides that came with the day's special of pork and sauerkraut with a roll ($6.95). My choices were mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, Harvard beets, stewed tomatoes and green beans.

I stalled, too hungry to make these decisions. "What kind of pork?" I asked. And the answer was "Pulled pork." That made no sense to me as I thought pulled pork was barbecue, so I asked about the potatoes. "Do you make them yourself?" "Yes." I looked in the heated case where the food sat, looked at the potatoes and macaroni, the beets, tomatoes, and beans. I chose green beans and mashed potatoes. The young woman nodded as if that were the best possible choice, then asked me, "Light or dark?" Then she explained: "Chicken gravy or beef gravy?"

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The Professor was already sitting at a little round table with a plastic red-checked tablecloth, happily munching on the fried chicken. "Delicious!" was his only word as he applied himself. I had to wait for my meal and he offered me the chicken wing. He was right. This fried chicken was very good -- tender, cooked to the bone, not a bit greasy, full of good chicken flavor and covered with a crispy crust. "This is suck-the-bone good," said the very happy Professor.

We both sighed with relief. The Dutch Country Kitchen was perfect. The setting was relaxed and easy. The food was generous and nutritious. The owners took pride in their work.

A big white enamel machine that I remembered from my childhood sat in the corner of the open kitchen. Asking what it was, the owner replied, "That's a slow cooker. I cook the pork in there for 16 hours. It is very soft. And here is your meal."

A very full disposable plate of pulled pork, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and green beans was placed before me, along with a side container of chicken gravy. The woman gave me a cup of Douwe Egberts coffee and a set of plastic utensils. "You might need this," she said and put black pepper and salt shakers before me. I remembered what my mother said about her mother's cooking. "Your grandmother was a very good cook. She used just the right amount of salt and pepper." I come from a tradition of plain cooking. This food was just plain good food, well cooked, judiciously seasoned with salt and pepper. My only complaint was that the food wasn't hot enough; I like my meals piping hot.

The food court where we ate was delineated from nearby shops by wooden beams and half-walls. This day we saw many children eating with their families and realized this was a family-friendly place which would be of great interest to children. There are also many seniors on Thursday, when seniors get 10 percent off. Inside the food court were the small round tables and two long picnic tables.

My eye was caught by two dining tables that looked like a place for families to eat. Around the table were six Philadelphia comb-back chairs that you could purchase at Penn Dutch Furniture, a furniture shop around the corner. Cooperation among the different vendors was apparent. There was a sense of everyone working together, although each vendor operated separately and each shop handled separate financial transactions. Accustomed as we are to mega-stores where only one purchase is necessary, here we found we used our credit card repeatedly.

Now that our hunger was sated, we wanted dessert. Reihl's bakery was just around the corner, and what a choice we had there. We wandered along tables that held apple, peach, pecan and sweet potato pies. We considered the cookies: snickerdoodles, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin and chocolate chip. There were also sweet breads: pumpkin, zucchini, banana, and blueberry breads.

A small boy pressed his nose up against the case that held cakes -- German chocolate, coconut, carrot, black walnut and angel food.

Then the boy and I watched a pumpkin roll being made. Kneeling on a bench, we looked through a glass wall as the baker prepared a large, thin sheet of pumpkin cake. She dumped six dollops of cream cheese icing on the cake, spread the icing to the edges and deftly rolled it up. She took an electric knife and cut it into four pieces and handed it down the assembly line for it to be wrapped in cellophane. This was a friendly assembly line, human driven, and she and her friend talked the whole time they worked. They were making a lot of pumpkin rolls.

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