The quaint bake oven as it is found in the Pennsylvania Dutch region was an outstanding invention for its time, far superior to any found elsewhere in America. As European families transferred their white man’s culture to the virgin forests of Pennsylvania introducing their frontier farmsteads to the area, there was no other invention, expect perhaps the large frontier fireplaces, that intrigued the native Indians more than these outdoor bake-ovens. There are still quite a few old-timers in the area who remember how to operate a bake oven, although Gary Hertzog of nearby Richmond township who tends the early 1800s bake oven on the Kutztown Folk Festival grounds does a fine job. Some locals in the backwoods have been known to fire up their bake ovens for meats and even to barbecue chickens.
One might be surprised to know that firing a bake oven is easy the part. The challenge is one must be careful not over-fire the oven and let it get too hot! The experienced housewife of the past knows by sense of touch how hot her oven is and can regulate the heat by opening the flue to the hearth. The door can be opened from time to time if the oven gets too hot, and occasionally, the operator will throw flour on the hearth to see how hot it is. If the flour burns instantly, the bake oven is way too hot. Traditionally, bread was always baked first since many ovens had shelves built on either side of the entrance so the dough can raise there from the heat that escapes the oven door. The raised dough was placed on the bake oven hearth with a long handled wooden paddle called a “peel,” and contrary to popular belief or practice, loaves of bread baked in the early days were round whether baked on a hearth directly or in a tin pan.
When a large batch of bread had been baked, it was transported to the kitchen in a large basket shaped like a tray, once made of willow in yesteryear, with handles at each end to avoid the transporter from being burnt. Pies, cakes, and cookies were next to be baked and then stored for eating that week until it was time to bake again the following Friday. There are still some local senior citizens that will tell you on these Fridays at the farm, Mom and or Grandma would bake so many pies that they were set all over the deep-seated windowsills of their stone masoned farmhouses. The mere fact that our farm housewives during Colonial times had baked such an enormous amount of hearth bread that it could also be exported when their PA Dutch husbands sent grain and other commodities to the port of Philadelphia. This may have contributed toward the folk practice of later PA Dutch farm women baking such a large number of pies within our rural folk culture.
To our delight and descendants, baking superior shoo-fly-pies, apple pies and dumplings, and many others became a natural pastime that resulted in her culinary expertise, besides earning extra cash for the family’s benefit. And as these local farmers’ markets on the Eastern Atlantic seaboard became successful, PA Dutch farm women continued to develop their skills by even baking a large variety of pies for their Christian neighbors. But the historic shoo-fly-pie born out of their native trade with Caribbean nations (for rum and molasses) perhaps became their most outstanding Americana contribution of their baking expertise.
Older natives and citizens alike in Berks County have always latched on to this colorful name that is more properly associated to the thick sugar and molasses filling said shoo-fly-pie crusts which drew more flies than any other pie, cooling on the window sills before they could be stored in a pierced tin pie safe that hung in the cellar way. It’s reasonable to assume that pies placed in these various pie-safes, some of which were created with beautiful pierced tin designs survive today throughout the Pennsylvania Dutch Country as our outdoor bake ovens, both quiet sentinels of an earlier time.