ON THE SECOND WEEKEND IN October in Germantown (Columbia County), descendants of the colonists from the Palatinate region of southwest Germany and their guests will consume about 125 pounds of German potato salad, 150 pounds of bratwurst and knockwurst, fourteen gallons of sauerkraut, and at least 1,000 apple strudels. And they’ll wash it all down with 18 kegs of beer, some of it brewed especially for that weekend. The occasion? Oktoberfest, of course. But this year’s Oktoberfest is special. This year, the residents of Germantown will celebrate the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the first Palatine settlers on the shores of the Hudson River.
The bounty of the festival will put into relief the conditions when the Palatines, the largest single group of colonial settlers, arrived in the Hudson River Valley, destitute and indentured to the British government for their passage. “They say they boiled grass and ate leaves the first year,” says Columbia County Historian Mary Howell, a Palatine descendent herself, “but I don’t believe that. It really didn’t take them too long to start growing things.” According to Howell, fingerling potatoes were one of their first crops. “Not like the potatoes we have today,” Howell says, “but it kept them alive.”
Robert Livingston, who owned the land they settled on and then later sold 6,000 acres of it to the English government for the Palatines, got the contract from England to “victual ‘em.” The “victuals,” according to records in the state archives, were bread and beer (and not a lot of either): “The Quantity of Bread Equall to one third of a Loaf of Bread … & one Quart of Beer such as is usually called Ships Beer.” Mary Howell elaborates: “He had bake ovens for the bread — hard bread, not like today”— and a brewhouse. They all drank beer at lunch and dinner,” she says. “It was their custom.”
Food may have been scarce at first, but even that was a vast improvement over their lives in the Palatinate. Crippling taxation, never-ending war, religious persecution and the “killing winter” of 1708 (during which, legend has it, “birds on the wing fell dead from the cold,” and entire families froze to death), had inspired them to look to America. They came via Rotterdam, Holland, and later England, when Queen Anne saw them as potential manufacturers of pine tar for the British navy stores and allies against the French in Canada.
Some 3,300 Palatines boarded 11 ships and sailed across the sea to America. Over a third died in passage and more upon landing. Survivors were brought to what is now Germantown. (The Palatine refugees hailed from all over the Holy Roman Empire, but they adopted German as their common language as a way to maintain their solidarity against the British Empire.) Still under the thumb of England, some colonists ventured further into the Schoharie Valley; those who stayed in Germantown eventually shook off their indentured status. Their families remain in the region today, with names like Schneider, Kuhn, Fingar, Kline, Henderson and Hover.
Helen Coons (originally Kuhn) Henderson, 98, is the oldest living descendant of the original Palatine settlers. The family first settled in the Cheviot area, but moved to Snyder’s Corners in North Germantown in 1712. Each son built a house on his share of the land. Palatine houses had only one and one-half stories; the “attic” was on the ground floor, where the family slept and had storage space. The kitchen was built below ground, and “that’s where everybody really lived,” Henderson says.
When a Hudson Valley farmer killed a pig, he used everything but the squeal.
Each year, she and the Snyder family (originally Schneider) still gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. The menu isn’t what we think of as the traditional Thanksgiving feast—cranberries and turkey—but it is traditional all the same. They go back to eating boiled yellow and white turnips, and onions. “I just assume that my grandparents and great grandparents carried that down,” Henderson notes. “Why else would you be serving those things only on Thanksgiving? It was typical 100 years ago for everyone to eat root vegetables. They wouldn’t be going to the store. We usually had pork; we never had turkey,” she recalls. “If it were a ham, it would be smoked ham—no—probably not smoked ham—there wouldn’t be time to go through that process.”
Pigs were one of the first animals the colonists raised, Howell remembers. Her uncles and grandparents made sausages together. “They’d use everything,” she recalls, “cooking down the fat for lard. After butchering, my father always made head cheese in big trays, and sausages preserved with a thin layer of lard on top. It had to be kept in the cellar—no refrigerators, even when I was little. They’d always have two or three pigs in various sizes and there were often hams and bacon in the smokehouse. When Christmas came my father sent bacon, ham, and headcheese to relatives in the city. An old saying went, ‘When a Hudson Valley farmer killed a pig, he used everything but the squeal.’”
Before there were pigs to raise, and after the potatoes, came grain. According to Howell, one of the first grains the settlers grew was buckwheat, which they traded for other food. And they had the river for its bounty of oysters, shad and herring. Among Howell’s archives is a copy of a letter her predecessor, Walter V. Miller, wrote to a student who asked about what the German settlers ate. He replied: “The River, Hudson, also furnished much of the food supply. There were the Shad, the Sturgeon, and the Herring and these were all taken in quantity and preserved, the Herring especially, by smoking and pickling, or a combination of the two. Fish thus preserved could be available from one season till the next. Clams and oysters were also eaten when obtainable.”
Miller’s letter also evokes how the settlers added to the bounty of the valley. “Apples and pears were brought from the old country and were soon grown here. These, the apples especially, were preserved by drying, as were the native prunes that grew here in abundance. Wild strawberries and raspberries were also gathered and used as well as some varieties of wild grape.”
Mary Howell pulls out her grandmother’s cookbook, a treasure of elegant script recipes copied in an old composition book that had been passed down to Howell’s mother. The book testifies to the tradition of smoking, canning and pickling so necessary for survival over the long winters: Annie Clum’s Tomato Pickles, Daisy’s Dill Pickles, Potted Herring, Red Herring for 100 herring, Scalloped Oysters, and a ham recipe for 100 pounds of meat. All recall a very different way of life, before refrigerators and supermarkets, before butchers.
Howell’s family made sauerkraut in big washtubs, once a year, in the fall when the cabbage was ripe. (“I hated it,” she says. “I never ate it.”) She describes how her mother stored it in crocks with a piece of cloth and a stone on top to seal it. Her mother also made “cabbage salad,” or coleslaw. “I still have her board and chopper and a big old bowl,” she says. “She’d salt it and work it with fingers and that would wilt it down so it was soft.” Her mother’s recipe? “A lid of vinegar and Miracle Whip.” Howell remembers her mother sometimes adding apples and, another modern touch, bananas. Howell has her own version: “I load it up with heavy cream.”