The keepers of Pennsylvania’s saffron secret
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDREA MONZO
One day last fall, not long after his saffron crocuses bloomed and their spindly stigmas had been hand-plucked—one by one—and dried, Justin Hulshizer showed up at the city’s Reading Terminal Market with his packets.
He had a hunch, maybe a hope is more like it, that there might still be a niche for the stuff. There was plenty of imported saffron around, increasingly from Afghanistan, but from Italy and Greece, too, and certainly Spain, where it famously yellows the paella.
But not a blessed thread was to be had anymore from the Pennsylvania Dutch lands west of Philadelphia where Hulshizer grew up and still lives, and where saffron was a kitchen-garden staple of his Swiss Mennonite forebears, and once—lucratively—widely farmed for export.
Pennsylvania saffron commanded top dollar. In the early 1700s, in fact, its price per ounce—still the highest of any spice—equaled the price of gold on the Philadelphia commodities exchange. And back then it was the Spanish in the West Indies who were hot to get American saffron, not the other way around. The last local saffron farmer of any commercial bent in recent years had been Martin Keen of Landisville, whose patch of local saffron got boffo reviews—in Cook’s Illustrated in 2001 for its richness; in The New York Times for a potency that was easily, as Philadelphia Magazine reported, “as intense as the Persian.”
Then seven years ago or more, Keen stopped returning phone calls from his biggest wholesale customer in the city. Soon after, his trademark tubes of M & J Greider Saffron dropped out of sight.
Some say it was hungry voles marauding from a field gone fallow next door that chewed up his saffron bulbs.
“Rather than being the locus of stability and tradition, my garden
is a biological record of past human wanderings and exchange.”
—Charles C. Mann in 1493
Justin Hulshizer did not know much about that. He was not even a farmer, actually. He was a drug and alcohol counselor for troubled kids. He once had to send a 13-year-old to rehab for heroin addiction. But he was also a home gardener who six years ago started tending an organic micro-crop of saffron in the raised beds—16 by 24 feet long—he’d wedged between the cement tracks of his Wernersville, Berks County, driveway.
He had grown up in northern Lancaster County, a few miles south, obliviously eating “yellow Dutch,” which meant that the soul foods of his once-Mennonite (now Lutheran) family typically shone with saffron’s buttery tint: “I didn’t know that potpie wasn’t [always] yellow,” he says, “until I was 22.”
Now he wanted to test the waters, to see if Michael Holahan at the Reading Market’s Pennsylvania General Store would be able to move the $8 packets he’d dropped off, each one with a pinch of his threads, enough for about two heaping bowls of saffron noodles.
But when he talked about his project, he talked more about it as a sentimental journey. His saffron bulbs—technically, corms—came from the flower bed he had tended as a boy for his late grandmother, a revered school nurse named Merla Shirk Hulshizer.
The saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) is a botanic nonconformist, its bulbs multiplying by dividing, its blooms coming exclusively in the fall, the opposite of the ornamental springblooming crocus.
So every October, Merla would linger by her back door, and when the flowers finally opened, she’d shuffle outside, down the steps and promptly pick the cup-shaped lavender blooms. Then she’d pinch out the three dainty stigmas—antenna-like crimson strands—and dry them on the sunny sill of her kitchen window.
That’s the way Hulshizer wrote up the story in the packets of Shirk’s Saffron that he had brought to the market. But in the weeks that passed, the narrative itself started multiplying and dividing, the unexpected postscript threatening to overtake the original tale.
As 2014 dawned, Justin Hulshizer found himself giddily contemplating, at age 38, whether there might be more to this saffron business than he’d banked on.
Before things started to heat up—before he got the eager call from Eli Kulp, the chef at Philadelphia’s cutting-edge Fork bistro, and a nibble from a baker at Judy’s on Cherry, a café in Reading, and inquiries from historic sites—Hulshizer had promised to cook me a lunch “yellow Dutch.”
So we convened in his modest kitchen in small-town Wernersville, a few yards from his repurposed driveway, down Gaul Street from the local fire hall, 20 minutes west of Reading.
His wife Louise was out of town for the day, and his kids’ parakeets—Rainbow Tail and Megalodon—were looping around. Redware pottery was stacked willy-nilly. On one wall was a framed vintage poster: “FOOD,” it said. “1. buy it with thought 2. cook it with care 3. use less wheat & meat 4. buy local foods 5. serve just enough 6. use what is left. don’t waste it.”
It dated from the U.S. Food Administration, circa 1917, which is to say World War I.
Hulshizer had already put a chicken in the oven to roast, and broccoli on the stove, and crimped the crust on a deep-dish apple pie. Now he folded a square of paper into an envelope, sprinkled in red threads, and on the counter top, rubbed them into powder with the edge of his thumb.
This is how you start to turn even store-bought noodles into saffron noodles. He added the powder to warm broth, and soon its sunny, marigold blush emerged.
It is the same blush that announced the chicken-corn soup every year at the fireman’s carnival in Schoeneck, a few miles south, where Hulshizer used to live, and near where his Shirk ancestors owned 2,000 acres of farmland long ago bought from William Penn’s sons, Richard and Thomas.
It is the blush that colored the filling (as stuffing was called) in the Thanksgiving turkeys, and the interior of the Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy known, rather indelicately, as stuffed pig stomach.
But most commonly it defined the potpies of the yellow Dutch, who are, simply, those who held on to a saffron cookery whose roots go back to their European homeland. “Yellow” doesn’t necessarily connote Amish, or any other sliver of the diverse German-Swissdescended community. Hulshizer is Lutheran. Some Catholic Dutch are yellow. Some Reformed Mennonites don’t touch the stuff.
And across the Lancaster-area country where it was once farmed, and in Kinzers and White Horse and Gap, and where auctioneers still offer, on occasion, 19th-century folk-art saffron boxes painted with strawberries, it is hardly universally celebrated. Or, in many cases, even remembered.
Still, the historian William Woys Weaver sees it as a revealing benchmark. You can conclude a great deal by dissecting a potato potpie. Look at one once served with chicken salad and fried oysters at Lutheran church suppers: “With its layers of pasta and potatoes and local-harvest saffron and spice,” he writes, it’s hard to imagine it surfacing “anywhere else but Pennsylvania.”
Hulshizer puts the bronzed chicken and broccoli and yellow noodles on the table.
But I’m at a loss to pin down the aroma (hay-like? metallic honey?) and the flavor.
Maybe it’s a mildy floral note with an undertone of earthiness. But saffron is a creature of its terroir, so elsewhere it is said to confer a nutty taste, or toasty, bitter, or pungent flavor.
I look to Hulshizer for a little help. He has the bulk of James Gandolfini, his hair thinning, his shirt untucked from a pair of relaxed-cut jeans.
How would he describe the taste of a bowl of saffron noodles? “It tastes,” he says, “like it’s supposed to taste.”
Merla Shirk Hulshizer’s saffron apparently liked the move to Wernersville. Rabbits were a threat. They could gnaw its grassy blades down to the nub. And root rot was a constant worry.
But the first time Hulshizer dug up the bulbs to clean and dry their roots—normal maintenance every three years—they’d gone gangbusters underground, multiplying and dividing. “Like crazy,” he says.
It was as if an unseen hand had been watching over them, urging them on. He started to cry.
He figured there are 3,000 or so bulbs now, a pittance in the larger saffron world. But still he was starting to consider—in a few years— adding new raised beds back in Schoeneck, on the street where he once lived, where his brother still resides.
Then the saffron started to sell, albeit modestly, at the Reading Terminal Market. A handful of inquiries trickled in from gift shops at historic sites. Hulshizer knew someone who knew a purchasing manager at Winterthur, which houses a world-class Pennsylvania Dutch collection. Wouldn’t his heirloom saffron packets be a good fit?
And then there was the nibble from Judy’s on Cherry, the ambitious café in Reading’s former farm market. And, in early January, the call from Eli Kulp who wanted a sizable supply of his saffron for a locally themed tasting menu he was putting together.
Kulp had already lined up a handful of other small-time, local suppliers—Highbourne Deer Farms in Dallastown, which raises red deer for venison; an older lady who had a stash of hard-to-find hickory nuts (“similar to, if not better, than a pecan”); Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown, which sources grains from Bucks County and grinds them with cool, old stones; and Hodecker’s celery farm on Esbenshade Road in Manheim, one of the last family operations still trench-growing sweet, tender, golden celery hearts.
The very notion of it all, and Kulp’s enthusiasm, got Hulshizer thinking about moving up his timetable. Maybe he’d shoot for this spring to expand his crop, put five more raised beds on the old homestead in Schoeneck, push for a total of 10,000 bulbs.
There was south-facing space with full sunlight all day there, more than the six hours a day he routinely got in the Wernersville driveway. Kulp was keen on creating a special dish. Hulshizer mentioned the pesky affinity that rabbits had for his saffron.
And that’s how it came to pass that at Fork, for much of last winter, there appeared on the menu a dish of stewed and roasted rabbit with smoked buckwheat dumplings, a golden pond of saffron broth lapping triumphantly at its edge.
It was called, pointedly, Saffron’s Revenge.