Situated on a grassy hill in East Earl, a small township about an hour and a half northwest of Philadelphia, the scale of the Shady Maple Smorgasbord takes a while to sink in. From the expansive parking lot that’s also home to a local police station, Pennsylvania Dutch department store, and sizable supermarket, the building looks like it could be a retirement home or a catering hall. Inside, institutional maroon carpeting covers the floor of the massive lobby where folks mill around debating whether or not to invest in a bouquet of rainbow-hued wooden roses or venture downstairs to the subterranean gift shop for jars of preserves, a buggy-emblazoned t-shirt, or a couple of Amish-themed bodice rippers.
But toward the far end of the room are several wooden podiums where, from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m., cashiers admit eager diners into an all-you-can-eat buffet experience that puts most Vegas offerings to shame. With over 200 feet of hot and cold buffet, the staggering dining area is upwards of 100,000 square feet and seats 1,200 people at a time — but never on Sundays because, after all, this is Lancaster, a largely rural and religious county that's home to a sizable Pennsylvania Dutch population.
Buffets pans overflow with local favorites: apple butter, hot bacon dressing, stewed tomatoes, chow-chow, and potato filling.
This family-run smorgasbord is one of a few unique-to-the-county large-scale dining operations that was born out of Pennsylvania Dutch culinary traditions, recipes, and produce. It's evident in the on-site horse-and-buggy parking (it might provide great photo ops for the out-of-towners that visit the buffet, but it's an amenity provided for the locals shopping at the neighboring market and department store). It's also evident in the food.
Once seated at Shady Maple, it's best to do a loop around the sprawling buffet to get the lay of the land. Interspersed with more run-of-the-mill fare like roast beef, fried chicken, and a 46-item salad bar, you'll begin to notice pans, plates, and pots filled with unfamiliar dishes. Apple butter, stewed tomatoes, creamed dried corn from local producer John Cope, potato filling, hot bacon dressing, chow-chow, and whoopie pies all come from the canon of the region's foodways, and have made their way from feeding the region's agrarian population to enticing busloads of tourists to embark on a Lancaster County eating adventure.
Shady Maple is one many Lancaster County buffets that gained popularity in the 1960s when salad bars and smorgasbords were all the rage. Food historian and author William Woys Weaver says the the trend picked up steam in Lancaster around the same time that the local culture became an object of fascination. "People coming to Lancaster with their binoculars looking for Amish have to eat [something]," he says. As the author of several volumes focusing on Pennsylvania Dutch foodways, Weaver has little love for these large-scale operations.
But the smorgasbords have an undeniable presence: a 25-minute drive southwest of Shady Maple, Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant, a smaller-scale but no less impressive smorgasbord, has been in John Smucker's family since its humble beginnings in 1970. Smucker's family emigrated from Germany to Lancaster County in the 1700s, setting up a farmstead that's now home to his restaurant, hotel, commercial bakery, and corporate offices. When Bird-in-Hand opened its doors, most eating options in this part of the state were truck stops and diners. As tourists flocked to region, Bird-in-Hand expanded its footprint, and its offerings expanded into the multi-station smorgasbord that's in operation today.
"My father saw an opportunity to get into the tourism business, and being the farm people that we are, the restaurant and food followed shortly thereafter," Smucker explains. "We just didn't know what else to do aside from bring our family recipes over and adapt them to a higher volume in the kitchen. We still do a lot of it today: the shoofly pie, the red velvet cake, the whole gamut of recipes. Walk through the smorgasbord and you'll see it."
Lancaster's particular fondness for this style of eating lies within the region's bounty. From cream-line milk and butter to Angus beef, free-range chickens to eggs, this part of the state is a top agricultural producer, not only in quantity but also in quality. While the majority of Lancaster's population might have come from Germany, the food served at these smorgasbords is purely American, based on the region's agricultural bounty along with nods to visitors' palates. (It's why you'll oftentimes see nachos and burgers next to soupy saffron noodle-topped chicken pot pie and unique-to-Lancaster desserts like the molasses-based shoofly pie.) "In Lancaster County, people like variety," Smucker says. "We have a variety of really good foods, and at a smorgasbord, you get all of that."
The hundreds of items that make up the smorgasbord at Bird-in-Hand are all identified with laminated markers denoting family recipes (like ham croquettes) and house specialties (like egg noodle-topped chicken pot pie, labeled "Grandma Smucker's Recipe"). There's a theme that follows throughout: an abundance of dishes that are carb-y, meaty, sweet, and sour — in other words, recipes that were built to feed generations who worked the land and needed the energy to do it.
"In Lancaster County we have this lingo where we talk about the seven sweets and seven sours. We love butter and we love sugar."
"In Lancaster County we have this lingo where we talk about the seven sweets and seven sours," Smucker says. "We love butter and we love sugar — white sugar, brown sugar, it doesn't matter." This penchant for butter and sugar comes from the region's rich dairy roots and its residents' love for baking and preserving. The menu here is fiercely sweet, sour when it needs to be, and meaty. Potato and macaroni salads are sweetened to the verge of dessert territory, while pickled red beets and chow-chow, a green tomato and cabbage relish, balance out plates of "broasted" (breaded and pressure-fried) chicken and dairy-rich creamed corn with a welcome hit of acidity.
Of all the family recipes that pop up again and again on these buffets, nothing is as emblematic of the region as hot bacon dressing, a condiment whose closest relative might be found in a hot German potato salad. Served in a somewhat sinister looking soup cauldron, this thick mix is something is something of an acquired taste made with rendered bacon, eggs, and equal parts sugar and cider vinegar made for spooning over salad greens. Or a little more sugar if you're at Bird-in-Hand. "It's sweet!" Smucker says. "It's loaded with the right stuff."
Over in Ronks, Pennsylvania, executive chef Steve Gainer of Miller's Smorgasbord is committed to a similar line up of country-bred, soul-satisfying fare. Decked out in chile pepper patterned chef pants, Gainer exudes an unmistakable sense of pride when talking about his smorgasbord, routinely asking guests if they've gotten enough to eat and smiling widely when they tell him that they've made the most out of their $23.95 investment.
Miller's began in 1929, as a roadside stop where truckers could fill up while waiting for repairs. The menu was simple: a Lancaster County take on chicken and waffles that swapped the fried variety in favor of shredded chicken in a creamy gravy, served over biscuit-like waffles. Today chicken and waffles is part of the smorgasbord spread alongside some of the county's more high-end buffet fare like peel-and-eat shrimp, Swedish meatballs, Boston bluefish, and beef Burgundy.
Upmarket plates and a marginally higher price tag isn't the only thing that sets Miller's apart. They're the only smorgasbord in the county that has a liquor license, a recent addition that was not an easy get in this god-fearing region. "That came into play about four years ago; it was a real struggle," Gainer explains. "My boss, Al Duncan the CEO, he was going door to door explaining that it wasn't going to be sit-down bar where you come to get drunk."
Citing exhausted parents in need of a cocktail after chaperoning their kids around Dutch Wonderland (and the fact that nearby chains like Olive Garden can offer wine to their clientele), Miller's managed to score a strict, service bar-only license. Along with beers from neighboring Lancaster Brewing Company, the cocktail menu features fruity concoctions like the locally inspired Blue Ball Cosmopolitan (a nod to the memorably named nearby town). The drink swaps out cranberry for blue Curaçao and inspires a disclaimer that reads "specialty cocktails consist mostly of alcohol and are strong. Please be confident with your order."
Gainer's operation serves 1,500 to 2,000 people on a given day, and each season he commissions a group of Amish farmers to grow produce like zucchini and Silver King corn. Being in the center of such a fertile part of the state, sourcing locally might seem like a given, but with smorgasbords operating at such a high volume, farm-to-table doesn't always fall in line with profit margins. Over the last 10 years, Smucker, too, has made it a mission to work with as many local farms as possible. "That's part of our vision as a family — to be good stewards to the land," he says.That means getting everything from turkeys to sausage, scrapple, and even the flowers for sale in his gift shop from the nearby towns of Leola, Paradise, and Lititz.
"That’s part of our vision as a family — to be good stewards to the land."
For Gainer, his baked cabbage is a particular point of pride, with white leaves blanched al dente and then tossed with a Pennsylvania Dutch take on mornay sauce (featuring Swiss and American cheeses) and gratineed with breadcrumbs. He serves Amish caviar, a rarely seen regional specialty of cream cheese topped with more-sweet-than-spicy red pepper preserves alongside house baked hard rolls and more recently, ciabatta. And for his favorite local ingredient, Gainer keeps the preparation simple: "My favorite are the tomatoes," Gainer says. "When local tomatoes are coming in I get 'em, we slice 'em thick, and put 'em out here in a bowl with some mayonnaise on the side. My god, so good."
Respect and preservation of Lancaster's traditional foodways is one thing, but at Miller's Gainer and his crew of smorgasbord attendants have taken it upon themselves to assume the role of smorgasbord sherpa. Gainer is in the process of putting together a training class for new hires, a game plan for spotting what he refers to as "lost sheep," the folks who get intimated in this particularly intense all-you-can-eat situation.
"I look at it like the customer is chef and we're the food consultant. We've got the fixins' now you do the mixin'!" Gainer says before rattling off a laundry list of buffet hacks, for everything from au jus sandwiches to chili cheese fries, and a de facto Thanksgiving dinner that involves turkey and green beans topped with house-made cream of mushroom soup and a cider sauce that works equally well on ham as it does on locally churned vanilla ice cream. "There are so many combinations."
Caroline Russock is the editor of Zagat Philadelphia. Past gigs include vetting thousands of recipes for Serious Eats, bartending in rural Sicily, and running a French bistro in San Diego.
Maria Young is a freelance photographer based in Philadelphia; all photos here taken at Shady Maple Smorgasbord.
Editor: Erin DeJesus