Major American cities usually receive more attention than their suburban neighbors. There has always been a certain something that gravitates us to the “Bright Lights, Big City.” Philadelphia and food are no exception to the rule. However, it would be naive to think that there isn’t amazing work — be that art, music, food and more — being produced in the suburbs. When long lines of hungry food lovers aren’t as visible as they are in Center City, how can we learn where to get the best bites in the suburban areas of Philadelphia? Meet Amy Strauss, professional food and drink writer in the Greater Philadelphia area — yes, including the suburbs. Amy began writing about food as a college intern in 2006, and now she’s a mainstay food and drink scribe, often focusing her attention towards Philadelphia’s suburbs, writing for the likes of The Town Dish, Main Line Magazine and many more online and print publications. Ironically, we first met Amy Strauss in Philadelphia proper — not in the ‘burbs — at a holiday party in Fishtown, hosted by In Search of Beer‘s Ryan and LeeAnne. Amy was decked out in festive socks (a party theme), and conversation naturally led towards food writing. Recently, we caught up with Amy Strauss via the Internet, as writers often do, to share some (Chocolate Covered) Memories …
How did you find yourself in this food writing niche of the industry?
As a journalism undergrad, I did what any wise future writer would do — snagged myself a series of internships. The gig with the biggest impact was at Philadelphia’s City Paper, where I nabbed the last remaining intern slot of the season, in the food section. Up until this point, I had my eyes on the music scene beat, but truth be told, once you immerse yourself in the food world (what any food intern should do), you become obsessed. That was late 2006/early 2007, and I’m still solely writing about food and loving it.
Any child/teenage food industry jobs?
Being raised in rural Philadelphia suburbs (Boyertown, Pa.), the world was my oyster when it came to agricultural-esque part-time gigs. A large portion of my teenage years were spent working at Bauman’s Apple Butter factory and cidery, which is where I attribute my ridiculous knowledge for all things apples. I learned everything there was to know about pressing local apples for cider, cooking up varieties of fruit butters, the nuances of apple varieties, and I even hit historic folk festivals dressed in colonial garb educating attendees on the business’ recipe that dates back to 1892.
As I inched closer to the city for college, I started picking up waitressing shifts at a restaurant that may have made a few appearances in Friday Night Lights (I’m not proud!). I continued serving through other joints as I started my writing career, and I honestly believe it’s beneficial for everyone to work in a restaurant at least once in their lives (helped me with the whole reviewing-restaurants sort of thing being on the other side of the equation, plus it wisens up a tipper).
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
I come from one serious Pennsylvania Dutch family. Both my mom and dad’s families were full-blown Dutchies and, lucky for my brothers and I, they were also neighbors too. We’d pop to my grandmother Naomi’s to brush up on the stick-to-your-ribs, lard-heavy classics — hot bacon dressing, hogmaw (pig stomach), sticky buns and rhubarb pie. A few quick steps next door to our other grandma, Dorothy, granted us one serious session pickled products (mustard beans, chow-chow, beets), which is probably why my diet still consists of 80% pickles.
Where does your love of food stem from?
A large portion of my childhood was spent in the kitchen—it was a true gathering place for my family, where I developed my baking skill set, and most importantly, where I felt most comfortable. On my Strauss side, family life revolved around the communal table in my grandmother’s kitchen. One of my favorite memories was once a year, our extended family would gather around its perimeter, collectively rolling and cutting potato dough, popping out the centers with a thimble (yup, our hole-punching secret), and celebrating the best PA Dutch tradition ever devised — Fastnacht Day.
What foods remind you of childhood? What were your favorite foods growing up?
Both of my grandmothers excelled in red velvet cakes, and still to this day, it’s hard to select who did it best. Now, I tend to marry Dorothy’s fluffy, moist cake with Naomi’s granulated sugar-based buttercream. Seriously, you haven’t had red velvet cake this good. Trust me.
Any specific food memories/stories that you want to share?
When you’re a country gal, surrounded by farms, you farm, too! I have fond memories of being asked to gather the strawberries in our garden, which usually translated to me going to eat all the strawberries as I sat in the garden. My family was also big into growing copious amounts of tomatoes. We’d slice up the big, ripe reds, sprinkle them with salt and sugar, and drizzle them with vinegar. It was the simplest snack ever, and now, I identify it as a true taste of my upbringing. Each summer, we also whipped up generous batches of homemade sauce, and while we may not have an inch of Italian in our blood, I still crave our variety. It was the best thing to pop open a jar during a snowstorm and be blessed with the fresh, ripe tomato taste.
Were you a picky eater as a kid? Any foods you couldn’t stand growing up? Have you overcome those childhood fears or do they still remain to this day? Any stuff you loved eating as a child that you would never eat now?
Traditionally, PA Dutch folks are notorious for celebrating all things snout-to-tail. It’s in our blood to eat even the nasty bits. If you’re looking for a thorough education, attend the Kutztown Folk Festival. There, you’ll have all things readily available to taste-test at your fingertips (pickled pigs’ feet, anyone?). That being said, it was my brilliant idea come age 16 to scrap my life-long, meat-heavy diet to go vegetarian. I completely support anyone living the vegetarian lifestyle, but it wasn’t for me, and after 8 years of a carb-heavy diet (I know, I did it all wrong), I returned to my carnivorous roots. Now, I’m obsessed with the art of butchery — my, how things have changed.
Growing up, what was your favorite meal/food/snack to eat outside? Did you enjoy eating outside anywhere in particular? How about now as an adult in Philly? Any benches you love to eat on?
My closest childhood friend lived next door to Longacre’s Dairy—the best rural ice cream joint. We were so cool walking over to the parlor and hanging at the outdoor picnic benches, undoubtedly eating our weight in ice cream for many summers. Maybe this was why I was a porker — but, it was worth it. The house-made vanilla fudge and coconut cream ice creams are sinful, and the pumpkin spice and blueberry frozen yogurt will forever be my guilt-free treats.
I still make my main squeeze take me on many ice cream dates once the warm weather rolls around. It’s a no-brainer that we’re hitting Franklin Fountain or Little Baby’s Ice Cream while we’re in the city. In the ‘burbs, we’re taking a worthwhile trek to either Kolb’s Farm Store or Suloman’s Dairy to enjoy scoops on the farm.
What do you think of the modern food world (from Whole Foods to franchises like Olive Garden, from the Food Network to Groupon, from Yelp to foodie bloggers)?
The opportunities for new relationships to blossom out of the local food scene, from fellow food bloggers and writers, to food appreciators and those behind the scenes (in the kitchen, the bakeries, the bars), are incredible. I can’t count on two hands how many friendships have spawned from my years of working in and around the Philadelphia area as a writer. Philadelphia is a terrific market to meet others just with your love of food. Even just microblogging on Twitter has become an appealing place to start.
On another note, I do think that there are modern pressures associated with current-day food writing, especially with the world of “establishing an online presences,” have pushed some publishing outputs to become more ballsy, making the importance of striking an reaction ranking just as high as telling someone’s story. Those of the current-day food writing industry are not shy and if something needs to be said about your restaurant — no matter how vicious it may be — they’re going to say it. That’s just the hard facts.
What family recipes do you want to share with us?
During my childhood, summer was all about fresh berry pie, with the combination of strawberry and rhubarb being the most repeated recipe around my household. I share with you a family recipe for just that, which includes a few personal touches of my own. The Strausses always had buttermilk on hand, so I decided to splash some into this pie crust. Also, I’ve been fond of crumb topped pies for years, and for this particular one, I’ve added an extra layer of texture with a handful of shredded coconut. Enjoy my Strawberry Rhubarb Crumb Pie!
Additionally, I’m obsessed with taking age-old Dutch baking recipes and reinventing them with modern-day approaches. While beer is nothing new, I felt it was necessary to infuse the best sweet bread of them all — sticky buns!—with serious amounts of liquid gold. Enjoy my recipe for my grandmother’s Dutch Sticky Buns with Beer (which was originally published here at Ryan Hudak‘s In Search of Beer blog).
Amy Strauss is constantly in pursuits of her next best bite, residing in the Philadelphia suburbs and gigging at The Town Dish as Editor in Chief and Director of Social Media. As a food writer by trade, with contributions to Main Line Magazine, Philadelphia City Paper, BlackBook Magazine, Philly Beer Scene, OpenTable, Southwest (and more) under her belt, she continues to feature Philadelphia and its suburban dining turfs while travelling the country to report on national food scenes and chefs. Most importantly, she’s quite fond of her Pennsylvania Dutch heritage and loves chit-chatting about it. For more about Amy Strauss, follow her on Twitter: @Amy_Strauss