Western Pennsylvania Foodways archive

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Babka and Beyond: Bread, Grains, and Baked Goods in Western Pennsylvania

This flagship project of the Western Pennsylvania Foodways Archive explores in-depth stories about how grains -- from agriculture to bread making and baking -- can contribute to larger themes of identity, community, and social capital. Through this project, we aim to better understand how people interact with the food system through the most basic of needs: bread. Bread defines community --  through the type of grain used, the method of preparing and cooking, and perhaps most importantly, with whom people break bread. Those similarities and differences cut across regions, cultures, and nations.  This project relies on a common approach to oral history as a research method that uncovers the experiences of people and place through food.

This project will encompass a series of oral history interviews that aim to document a previously undocumented segment of Western Pennsylvania culture and labor. We anticipate twenty interviews, an interactive regional map, audio and video clips, and workshops and events, all encompassing either grains cultivation (farms and mills) or grains production (bakeries and baked goods businesses). Because of this differentiation, "Babka and Beyond..." contains two sub-projects: 

From Field to Mill

The production of grain was an early marker of communities and their food practices. By examining the ways in which grains have been produced historically, we will be able to contextualize how they are being used today. Furthermore, preserving the history of this group of producers is crucial, as most of that first generation of immigrants who worked in the mills have passed away and the number in the second generation are quickly decreasing. Through this project, we will document the complex history of grains in Western Pennsylvania through the lens of local grains production and local grains processing. Both of these components are integral to the makeup of the food system in this region and provide insight into how the system has grown and evolved. The oral histories will come from farmers, millers, and producers who have a history with grains in Pennsylvania.

 
 

A History of bakeries

The types of bread produced and by whom is often shaped by the immigrants and others who settle or move through a region. In Pittsburgh, with multiple Eastern European migrants, there were many kinds of bread and many bakeries associated with the area.  Butler County was once known for local buckwheat pancakes and whole hog sausages, consumed at fire station breakfasts that helped tie community members together. The famous Monongahela rye was developed by European immigrants who fled to America for the cheap property. These immigrants developed the Monongahela rye as a substitute for the barley they were used to. This innovation led to the distillation and eventually to the strong reputation for quality whiskey in Pennsylvania .

The stories of food and bread in Western Pennsylvania contribute to the larger identity of the “Rustbelt” and what it means to eat in post-industrial cities. The struggle to name the foods of this region point to the need for a deeper understanding of the eating history. Pittsburgh, as defined by outsiders, is a city of pierogies, french fries on salads, and meat with a side of potatoes. Through this in-depth oral history project, we aim to explore the stories of regional food products and producers and use them as a the foundation for a narrative of Rustbelt cuisine.

 
Bakery, by Rochelle Blumenfeld. Painting from her recent Hill District series. 

Bakery, by Rochelle Blumenfeld. Painting from her recent Hill District series.