Forage Your Way Through Pennsylvania’s Amish Country Like An Expert
The light has barely crept in on an overcast fall morning, but when I arrive at the Leola Produce Auction, out on a country lane near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Jerry Hollinger has already been hanging around for an hour, watching the tractors and the pickup trucks and the horse-drawn carts roll through, depositing the potatoes, tomatoes, the last of the watermelons, squash, pumpkins, sweet corn, Indian corn, every kind of corn. To the untrained eye, there is a little bit of everything here, but Hollinger is mildly vexed—by the lack of purple cauliflower, which he really wanted, and an apparent cabbage shortage. The rains were exceptionally heavy over the summer, he says, and the yield seems to be about 75 percent of normal. He’ll have to take what he can get.
Produce auctions are as much a part of Lancaster as shoo-fly pies and smorgasbords, but they don’t draw your average visitor—Hollinger treks up here on a regular basis from the Washington, D.C. area, where he co-owns two restaurants and a catering business with business partner (and pastry chef) Zena Polin, because he knows it’s well worth the effort. At this particular auction, he tells me, everything is typically very good—not all certified organic, but everything must be grown to certain standards, and to ensure these standards are adhered to, there are rigorous checks.
Mostly, he comes because he trusts the farmers here—Hollinger grew up Mennonite in nearby Ephrata, where his family owned a popular market, well-known enough that when he goes back there, people say to him oh, you’re a Hollinger, like they know him, as people of a certain age like to do. Still, he also comes here for the prices; anyone who has shopped around Lancaster knows that once you figure out where to look, good food can be exceptionally affordable—it’s a cultural thing, Hollinger says. The growers and producers here live frugally themselves, you can see this when you shop along side them at some of the locally-owned markets. To overcharge, Hollinger tells me, would go against their belief system. Good quality, good prices—that’s the Lancaster way.
By now, the auction is underway, with an auctioneer and everything, a veritable pied piper of pumpkins, followed up and down the aisles by a modestly-sized group of buyers. There are lots of all sizes, from pallets down to small boxes, and anyone can bid, but you have to know what you’re doing, and you have to know what everything’s worth. Peaches, peppers, garlic, heirloom tomatoes, all kinds eggplant, wax beans, gorgeous bunches of kale, red okra—among the crowd are wholesale buyers, one the locals refer to as that guy from New York, who buys a healthy amount of product at prices higher than many of the buyers are willing to pay. Like most New Yorkers in the wild, he’s happy—by his standards, he’s getting a great deal.
“We’re starting out a little high today,” notes Hollinger, wondering if it isn’t because we’re at the end of the season for a lot of what we’re seeing.
“What I look for as a chef is different than what these resale guys are looking for. Presentation matters to them,” he says, waiting patiently for the bulk buys, which are cheaper. “They’re not as attractive, but I’m after quality, not looks.” He ends up going home with a van full of everything from herbs (purchased for pennies) to a flat of ripe paw paws, picked from somebody's tree down the road and delivered to the auction that morning.
The next time I catch Jerry, it's a rainy Tuesday morning at Root’s Country Market, across the county in Manheim. By now, we’re bearing down on Thanksgiving—it’s sourcing season, and we’re on the prowl for turkeys. Root’s is another integral part of Lancaster life that escapes many a visitor, mostly because it is held on Tuesdays only; this is not the only auction and market of its kind in the county, but if you are serious about sourcing good food to cook at home, you probably cannot do better.
Today, Root’s is the way we like Root’s the best—in the rain, which cuts back on the outdoor produce situation, but also means about half the crowd in the sheds, and lots more time to talk to the vendors. Jerry zeroes in on the Sensenig Poultry stall, where they’re selling Lancaster turkeys for $3.19 per pound, along with the biggest, healthiest-looking Christmas goose either of us can recall laying eyes on. Down the aisle, Hummer’s Meats has smoky Christmas hams, while Kiefer’s, around the corner, has locally-made souse, the gelatin bedazzled with colorful peppers, that would make a perfect Christmas table appetizer, for $5.49 a pound. Who buys this, we ask. Everyone, says the proud clerk, recalling the one teenager that comes in with her mother, and eats hunks of the stuff like it’s candy.
There is the greenest, most natural-looking celery you’ve ever seen from Hodecker’s Celery Farm, a local institution, starting at $1.25 a bundle. Ray’s Produce sells clusters of beautiful oyster mushrooms for $6.99 a pound. There are baskets of yams and white sweet potatoes, everywhere, or a couple of bucks apiece. Miriam’s, at the heart of the market, sells delicious pumpkin custard pies for $8.95, which is, quite frankly, at the posh end for pies in this part of the world, and worth it. Hollinger is a pro, and to him, a lot of these prices are a little higher than he’s used to, but still, he says, this is a great place to source your Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.
Sound like a plan? Here are just a few of the stops Hollinger makes on a regular basis. Bear in mind, lots of places keep limited hours, and most everything is closed on Sunday.
Leola Produce Auction Leola
You don’t have to be a pro to drop by and watch the action in progress at this Lancaster institution, open most weekdays during high season—right now, they’re about to wrap it up for the season; expect lots of Christmas trees and wreaths. New buyers are welcome, but there’s a whole system—if you’re interested, ask at the auction office. (It’s next to the refreshment stand.) 135 Brethren Church Rd.
Root’s Country Market & Auction Manheim
A terrific starter experience for those new to the Lancaster shopping scene clear your Tuesday and get to this collection of sheds out in the countryside for high quality produce, meats, poultry, baked goods and much more. For produce, look for Breneman’s and Creekside, Kiefer’s for smoked meats, Hummer’s for all of the meats, Sensenig’s for poultry, Miriam’s for baked goods, nicely-priced spices at Living Foods, and obscure finds—fresh turmeric root, oyster mushrooms—at the well-curated Ray’s. Come early, and you might catch the on-site auction. 705 Greystone Rd.
Double A Farm Leola
An unmarked shed on Alan and Alice Weaver’s farm—look for the inimitable Lucy, a beagle shih tzu mix, roaming the grounds—is where you’ll find Hollinger’s favorite local yogurt for sale. The farm is USDA inspected. 212 N. Hershey Ave.
Meadow View Dairy Store Leola
This one-room store packs in an incredible amount of good product, from raw milk and fresh cheese curds from the farm’s Jersey cows to local aged cheese and plenty of grass-fed and free range meat and poultry. Checks (remember them?) and cash go through a slot in the wall. 172 S. Farmersville Rd.
King’s Fresh Produce Leola
You’re never far from a produce stand or farm store around here, but Hollinger is exceptionally fond of this family-owned spot where it’s all strictly seasonal, and of very good quality. 224 S. State St.
Weaver’s Turkey Farm Leola
Come Thanksgiving, here’s where you’ll find Hollinger snapping up fresh, naturally-raised turkeys—he estimates the Weaver family, which has been at it since 1960, now raises about 3,000 birds each season; they also sell perfect smoked turkey legs. 154 Farmersville Rd.
Miller’s Natural Foods Bird-in-Hand
There are some great markets that reel in a lot of Amish and Mennonite shoppers, but this one, on a farm near Intercourse, is about as real deal as it gets. Besides all things natural and organic, they do a brisk trade in high-quality local grains. 2888 Miller Ln.
Mandros Imported Foods Lancaster
Hollinger has been coming into this tiny corner shop since his twenties, when he’d stop by for “a handful of feta cheese.” These days, he stops in to pick up, say, fifteen pounds of Prosciutto di Parma—for a party at the Italian Embassy—at a reasonable price, cases of olive oil and roast red peppers, and whatever else looks good. The selection of sea salts, imported European snacks, obscure condiments and oils is truly impressive. 351 N. Charlotte St.
Central Market Lancaster
One of the oldest inland cities in the United States also has one of the oldest public markets, in a handsome hall just off the city’s main square. There’s an emphasis on prepared foods, baked goods and the like here, but there’s a wealth of produce, meat, and poultry, too. While there’s plenty of coffee in the market, the one you want is across the alley—Passenger Coffee is not only the best roaster in town, but currently one of Pennsylvania’s all-around finest. 23 N. Market St.