When you move away from or travel outside the region you’ve long called “home,” you discover new cookbook authors for your cookbook collection everywhere you go.
Betty Groff (September 8, 1935 – November 8, 2015) wrote six cookbooks, owned a restaurant with her husband, Abe, and shared her Pennsylvania Dutch cooking with the masses via print, television appearances, and cooking demonstrations at various events.
How isn’t this Pennsylvania Dutch food cookbook author better known beyond her Pennsylvania home?
Betty Groff Was the Pennsylvania Dutch Food Authority
I don’t see many mentions of Betty Groff’s work — at least not since 2014, when The New York Times featured Betty’s Glazed Bacon recipe in a round-up of Thanksgiving favorites from all 50 states.
Betty’s recipe represented Pennsylvania, of course, though I’m not sure how well that reflects the state. What do you think? Are there any long-term or lifelong Pennsylvanians here who wouldn’t consider Thanksgiving Thanksgiving without a platter of Glazed Bacon? I’m curious.
But The New York Times highlight? That wasn’t the first time Betty was featured or mentioned in The New York Times.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) and look at Betty’s personal information and how she found such a broad, receptive audience for her Pennsylvania German recipes.
Who Was Betty Groff?
Betty Groff grew up on a farm in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. She was a 10th-generation Lancaster County resident — her Pennsylvania Dutch, or Pennsylvania Deutsch, ancestor, Hans Herr, was one of the first to settle the Lancaster countryside.
Visit the 1719 Hans Herr House, a registered landmark, in Willow Street, Pennsylvania. It is the oldest original Mennonite meeting house left in the Western Hemisphere.
Her parents were Clarence Newton (1905-1990) and Bertha Kreider Root Herr (1908-1977). Her father was a butcher and led half the family, while her Uncle Emory led the other half. All three generations lived “out of one purse,” as Betty wrote in “Good Earth” on their 84-acre farm.
Betty’s favorite childhood memories, which she shares in abundance in her books, typically include the kitchen. It’s where Mennonite children played while busy mothers frittered around cooking, canning, and preparing every meal.
Mealtime typically included at least a dozen people.
By age 13, Betty entered and won the fair’s adult and youth divisions with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and her homemade cake, specifically, a tall lemon chiffon cake she continued to serve as an adult. Betty was active in 4H, the Mennonite community, and played the cornet in the high school band.
Betty graduated high school when she was 16 and started working. She first saw Abe while on a date with someone else — even asking her date who he was.
After more than a year of catching sight of Abe here and there, it was when Betty’s friend brought him over on a date that she had a chance to chat. Four weeks later, he asked her out. They had their first date at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
Mennonites traditionally date on the weekend. After a year and a half of dating, Abe asked Betty to marry him.
Betty married Abram B. Groff on November 12, 1955. The newlywed couple knew farming was the life for them and started searching for a farm to call their own. Betty’s father, Clarence, found the 1756 East Donegal Township home and offered to fix it up over the long winter.
The young couple finally moved in after July 4 of the following year, though not before her husband, Abe, learned a lot about butchering, cuts of meat, and carving from her father.
As is the Mennonite tradition, Betty provided the furniture, Abe provided the animals and farm equipment needed for their tobacco and dairy farm, and they purchased the rest of the items they needed together.
Betty Groff Starts a Restaurant
The years went by. Four or five years into their marriage, Betty was bored — or restless, as she shared in her “Good Earth” cookbook.
Their farm didn’t have the hustle and bustle she was used to. On the family farm, she was used to a large crowd at the dinner table and people coming and going. It only got bigger when her dad’s older, widowed half-sister moved in with her two children.
Betty spent much time in her mother’s kitchen.
Betty wanted to be around people more often. She considered working part-time in a bank, since she had worked in an office before her marriage, but her father wouldn’t allow it.
Fortunately, her mother told her (as a joke) that The Willows, a local restaurant, was searching for a Mennonite woman to cook dinners in her home for bus groups.
Betty liked the idea, having already completed the Amish tradition of cooking for all the people at once who had previously invited the newlyweds over during their first year of marriage.
It was a 32-person party: The aunts, uncles, and cousins.
So, Betty discussed the idea with her husband, who didn’t mind — “as long as it didn’t interfere with the farming schedule,” she said in her Good Earth book. Her parents, however, didn’t see the point.
Who would drive 22 miles into Pennsylvania Dutch country for Betty’s cooking? Why would anyone care about Pennsylvania German recipes?
Betty was undeterred.
It started slow, first groups, then the locals, and then one day, Craig Claiborne of The New York Times.
Betty’s father’s friend said they would have a very important friend with them, and requested a party of four for dinner. The couple, however, had never accepted less than twelve guests. It was a hobby at that point. It didn’t pay to entertain a number less than that.
But their friend was insistent. At first, Abe and Betty didn’t know what to do. They discussed whether or not to make an exception — but then her father’s friend called again and said the dinner party was now bumping up from four to eight people.
Betty agreed to the change for dinner the next day. She was still in such a tizzy with all the group sizing conversation, she never thought to ask for information about the special guest.
The next day, the dining room was all set with antique napkins for eight. Betty’s father’s friend appeared with a full group of twelve. The special guest and a photographer were introduced without names — but the guest headed to the kitchen and started talking about the food.
He asked questions about the vegetables and the differences between the snow peas and the sugar peas before rejoining the rest of the diners.
Betty’s chicken Stoltzfus was chosen as one of the ten best dinners of 1976, according to a 1977 F&M College Reporter. It wasn’t until The Washington Evening Star did a feature on Betty that life changed again. Her husband, pictured carving meat, made the front page of the women’s section — in full color.
Restaurant duties took over, and Abe sold off his dairy herd. Abe no longer had to be up at 4:30 AM to milk the cows. It marked a tremendous change in their lives.
Betty Groff Gets Featured in a Cooking and Writes Her Own
Are you familiar with the Time-Life Foods of the World series on American regional cooking? If not, it’s terrific. The hardcover books in the series feature people and places with a smattering of recipes thrown in among the history (the spiral-bound companion books include more recipes related to the main hardback book title).
One of the authors of that series, José Wilson, heard about the Groff restaurant from James Beard and headed over for an interview to get the scoop on Pennsylvania Dutch cooking in the fall of 1969.
José wrote about the Groffs; the Time-Life photographer took pictures, and the editors asked for a few recipes and asked if Betty would work with John Clancy, the test kitchen chef.
Of course, when American Cooking: The Eastern Heartland (1971) hit the shelves, Betty sold copies in the restaurant. It contained images of Betty, her family, and her recipes.
The restaurant was a family affair.
The publication of that cookbook and the subsequent raves and questions from visitors to Groff’s Farm Restaurant were just the motivation Betty needed to begin her own cookbook.
John had won several awards in his high school for his food preparation skills. He already worked in the family business and planned to make it his career. But shortly after Betty Groff’s Country Cookbook was written, John died in a motorcycle accident on June 10, 1979 — on his 18th birthday.
I imagine “the Circle” was a comfort for the rough time ahead.
Groff’s Farm Restaurant Grows
Before farm-to-table became a buzzword, Betty Groff raved about her love of farm-fresh vegetables. She prepared in-season foods long before it became the thing to do.
Read any of her cookbooks, and you’ll get the idea. She emphasizes the wonders of seasonal vegetables in her introductions.
Betty had long loved to be a part of the action. Dinner parties were no different. She had a few rules for a successful dinner event that made sense to me.
Those who dined at Groff’s Farm Restaurant experienced more than Pennsylvania cooking traditions. They enjoyed a visit from Betty Groff and sometimes a little cornet playing, too.
“In a 1981 story published in People magazine, James Beard, who was a champion of food and a friend of Groff’s, said, ‘I think of Groff’s Farm as a wonderful example of how great American cooking can be,'” according to a PennLive article.
James Beard dined at her home a few years ago. But when Betty heard James would speak at the end of a cooking class series she took in Reading, Pennsylvania, she sent a letter asking if he’d like to come to their restaurant for dinner.
He responded, saying he’d like to have dinner at their house and wanted to stay overnight.
James Beard joined the family for breakfast the next day. After he’d left, and later when Betty cleaned the room and pulled the sheets from the bed, she made a discovery.
There, wrapped in plastic, under the pillow, was an 1856 Philadelphia Cookbook. James had left it as a thank you, after hearing of Betty’s love of antiques and cooking.
“We have never forgotten his visit nor the kind of man he is,” Betty wrote.
Groff’s Farm Restaurant Gets Rave Reviews
In the days before online customer reviews, word of mouth helped spread the news about the wonderful Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine served in an out-of-the-way locale. It attracted the attention of restaurant reviewers, who agreed this was good food.
Rave reviews often focused on the unusual practice of beginning with a sweet treat and ending the meal with a bigger portion of dessert.
Some sources incorrectly comment on how each meal includes “seven sweets and seven sours.” This is not entirely true, as Betty is quick to correct in her book, “Good Earth and Country Cooking.”
Pennsylvania Dutch choose the sweets and sours that match the meat served.
It was something they did. Betty contemplated the idea as something Mennonites did to cleanse their palette in lieu of wine.
Betty Groff enjoyed canning fruits, pickles, and relishes.
For Betty and her family, it was fun. They enjoyed deciding which canned goods should compete.
Now, what about this chicken Stoltzfus these reviews keep mentioning? What is chicken Stoltzfus?
I’ve heard how Pennsylvanians handle pot pie differently than we do in the Midwest. Back home, a chicken pot pie included a top and bottom crust. In the opinion of my youngest son and I, the crust is the best part. Not so for many homes in Pennsylvania.
Chicken Stotzfus veers in a different direction.
Word of Betty’s cooking spread. New opportunities came her way.
The Groffs wisely decided to expand operations.
Yes, they decided to reach a larger audience. With so many people clamoring for a spot at their table to enjoy Pennsylvania Dutch food, they needed more room and decided to try something a little different.
She continued to write cookbooks about Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine (six in total, as you’ll see at the bottom of the page).
Betty didn’t stop there. She built an empire.
Betty had the people-oriented, busy life she had hoped for. They sold the inn in 1996.
Betty Groff’s Later Years
From appearances on The Today Show and Good Morning, America, according to a 1981 article in The Gettysburg Times, Betty shared the cozy goodness of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.
But that’s not all. From receiving the Lancaster Chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association’s first Lifetime Achievement Award to beginning a publishing company (GFE Pond Press) to cooking demonstrations for the Farm Show, fundraisers, and other groups as requested, Betty Groff lived fully.
“To this day, Groff said her favorite meal is chicken pot pie, especially with her recipe for thin homemade noodles,” according to a 2007 LNP: Lancaster Online article.
Betty died on November 8, 2015, a few days before reaching her wedding anniversary. She left behind her son, Charles N. Groff and two grandchildren. She was 80 years old.
Betty Groff Cookbooks
This is the quick list of Betty Groff cookbook titles. They include the following six Pennsylvania Dutch cooking books:
- Good Earth & Country Cooking (1974) with José Wilson
- Betty Groff’s Country Goodness Cookbook (1981, 1987)
- Betty Groff’s Up-Home, Down-Home Cookbook (1987)
- Betty Groff’s Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook (1990, 1996)
- Betty Groff Cookbook: Pennsylvania German Recipes (2001)
- Classic Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking (2010)
Note the publication dates of the works below so you don’t accidentally purchase the same book twice.