Lori Fogg shares her collection of century-old recipes and stories from growing up in the coal region.
JOHNSTOWN — It started about a decade ago in New Hampshire.
Lori Fogg and her husband had moved to the Granite State in 2001, and Fogg was really starting to miss home.
Home had hog maw, bleenies, and boilo. Home was where her friends were. Home was Schuylkill County, where she had spent the first 40 years of her life.
Fogg’s homesickness grew when an old friend of hers died in 2013, before she had a chance to visit.
“I just had this ache to connect to home,” Fogg said.
So she started reading about home and writing about it on a Facebook page she created called Tribute to Anthracite Miners. She shared a few recipes from her mother’s and grandmother’s hand-written cookbooks, and her followers loved it.
“They remembered the food, they loved the food, it was very comforting to them,” she said. “But their grandmother or their mother had it in their mind and they never wrote it down, and they couldn’t recreate the recipes.”
Her followers piled on praise and requested more recipes, so Fogg created her A Coalcracker in the Kitchen food blog and Facebook page in 2016. The website is a collection of over 200 recipes, including halupki, bundookies, bleenies, and three versions of shoo-fly pie. People have viewed her recipe for liver and onions more than 134,000 times.
Fogg, 61, left New Hampshire in 2018, but she didn’t return home.
The retired web designer and her husband moved to Johnstown. Fogg, who has rheumatoid arthritis and uses a wheelchair full time, can’t cook anymore, but she has kept up her blog.
Fogg Remembers Growing Up In ‘The Skook’
The anthracite coal region of Northeastern Pennsylvania includes Carbon, Columbia, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Northumberland, and Schuylkill counties. Immigrants from England, Ireland, Wales, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, and Italy moved to the region to work in the coal mines, and strongly influenced the region’s culture.
Fogg’s grandparents were both of German descent, and her grandfather was a coal miner.
“My grandmother did canning, and, oh my gosh, I remember her, when I was a kid, making chow chow,” she said.
Chow chow is a mix of pickled vegetables, often made at the end of the season, with leftovers from the garden. Fogg said her grandfather loved to eat it on a sandwich with her grandmother’s homemade bread.
“I remember my mother buying a piece of tripe and cutting it into cubes, putting it in a jar and pouring vinegar over it, and putting some sliced onion in, and my dad loved it,” she said.
The Pennsylvania Dutch try to eat every part of an animal, never letting anything go to waste.
Fogg shares these stories in her blog, and explains the history, too. She says some of it she just knew, but she does research, although the traditions are not well-documented.
Many of the most popular recipes on Fogg’s blog are Pennsylvania Dutch classics — ham and green beans, Pennsylvania Dutch pot pie, and hog maw.
Other very popular posts focus on the holidays.
Keeping Pennsylvania Dutch Holiday Traditions Alive
One of Fogg’s top five most popular blog posts was about clear toy candy that German immigrants gave their children at Christmas.
People would make a hot sugary syrup and pour it into a 3-D mold shaped like an animal or Santa Claus or some other figure and let it cool. The candy would be red, green, or clear.
Children actually played with them, Fogg said. “They played with them and then they washed them off and started to eat them.”
Fogg put a lot of time into her research when she wrote about the candy in 2019, and wondered if it was worth it.
About two hours after she posted it, she said, “My husband called me, and said, ‘Lori, this thing has exploded.’ There were so many likes and comments saying, ‘Oh my god, I remember these! These were Christmas to me,’ and I can repost that recipe, and I still get hundreds of comments, shares, and likes, and it really strikes a chord in people that I just never expected.”
Fogg also has written about boilo, a spiced whiskey drink that’s popular in the anthracite coal region. Miners drank it to warm up, and Pennsylvania Dutch families always made sure to have a pot warming on the stove for visitors at the holidays.
“Everybody’s got their own recipe, it’s like potato salad, and everybody thinks theirs is the best,” Fogg said.
While some families guard their recipes closely, most include citrus fruits, honey, cinnamon, caraway seeds, cloves, and whiskey. Boilo-makers often use Four Queens whiskey, due to its high alcohol content and low price.
The tradition is still very popular, and firehouses and bars in Schuylkill County host boilo-making competitions. In the coal region, a mason jar of boilo with a ribbon on it is a common Christmas gift.
Creating Cultural Connections Online
Fogg often receives messages of appreciation from people who use her blog to feel connected to their roots. Her website has how-to videos, blogs, and over 200 recipes available for free.
“My husband said to me, ‘Lori, you’re providing a connection that’s getting lost,’” she said.
Fogg’s husband and sole caregiver, James, died unexpectedly in January 2021 of heart failure.
“My husband was my biggest cheerleader. He was always so proud of it, and he used to like to look at all the comments, and he really encouraged me,” she said. “I could hear his voice saying to me, ‘If you need to walk away for a while you can walk away for a while.’”
She cut back on working on the blog, posting once weekly rather than sharing two or three recipes a week. James’ passing and Lori’s health issues have delayed her plans to write a cookbook, but she is still determined. She says it will include just as much storytelling as her website, because that’s what her readers like.
“I like to think that I inspired some people to bring [traditions] back into their lives — it strikes a memory that makes them want to be part of it again,” Fogg said.