A road trip through Pennsylvania’s culinary history

Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — As a registered dietitian and public health professional, Mary Miller has long been focused on bettering the well-being of her community. She’s equally passionate about history, especially as it relates to Pennsylvania’s culinary traditions, heritage and agricultural history.

She ran the food tour company A Fork and The Road from the mid aughts to 2016, and also has taught culinary tourism, Pittsburgh food history and food science in Chatham University’s Food Studies program. Back in the “good old days,” the Fox Chapel resident even penned a bimonthly food column in this newspaper for former food editor Suzanne Martinson.

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So in her mind, it made perfect sense that the folks at the Pennsylvania Tourism Office might want to curate a food trail offering an immersive look at the state’s unique food culture with visits to local farms, artisan food producers and other food-related businesses. And that she — a born wanderer and food trail veteran who knew all the edible magic the commonwealth had to offer — was the person to help them get it off the ground.

4 new trails: In the end, Miller ended up being the lead researcher for not just one new food trail but — count ’em — four trails that take travelers on a wide-ranging culinary journey across the entire state.

Launched in September 2021, the self-guided culinary trails represent the rich culture and history of the state, with an emphasis on the tasty, distinctive dishes popularized by immigrants who built communities here — items like kielbasa and soppressata, sauerkraut, salt-rising bread and cider. The tours are Picked: An Apple Trail, Baked: A Bread Trail, Chopped: A Charcuterie Trail and Pickled: A Fermented Trail.

Funded by a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, they were developed in collaboration with Chatham University’s Center for Regional Agricultural, Food and Transformation (CRAFT) and the Department of Community and Economic Development. They add to the already existing Scooped: An Ice Cream Trail and Tapped: A Maple Trail, which launched in 2018.

Experiential travel has led the industry in recent years, say experts, and culinary tourism, which allows travelers to take a deeper dive into the distinctive foods that help weave a city or region’s cultural fabric, is among the most popular ways to experience a particular place. So Miller was on the mark when she started sending (unsolicited) emails to the tourism office in 2015 pitching the idea of a food trail.

The olive bar at DeLallo Italian Marketplace in Jeannette is shown in 2016. The store features a king-sized version of the company’s popular olive bar that can be seen nationwide at various grocery stores. Pennsylvania has four new food-themed trails to showcase local favorites.

Persistence: As it happened, her friend Danielle Spinola, who owns Tupelo Honey Teas in Millvale, is best friends with director of tourism Michael Chapaloney. After persuading her to share his email address, Miller sent the same email every month for a year — despite her husband Ralph’s opinion it was a lost cause.

“He was always like, ‘Yeah, that’s never going to happen!” she says with a laugh. Yet Miller is nothing if not patient.

In 2018, she finally got a call from deputy secretary for marketing Carrie Lepore. And when they met in the lobby of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, “It just clicked,” Miller says.

That’s because food, notes Lepore, whose job is to promote Pennsylvania’s tourism, is about so much more than something good to eat. “It’s an interesting angle into our history, culture and heritage,” she says. “It tells us who and what and why we are.”

Unlike the ice cream and maple trails, which started as passport programs, the new trails are all about storytelling — of Pennsylvania’s foodways and the state’s agricultural history as a major producer of dairy products, fruits and grains. They also offer a diversity of experiences, with butcher shops and pasta shops joining farms, bakeries and breweries on the various tours.

Break down barriers: With the rise of home cooks and gardeners, people are more interested than ever in learning about where their food comes from, says Lepore. As the country and state have grown more divided politically, food and travel provide a way to break down some of those barriers and share different cultures.

“Breaking bread while having conversations and learning about our past is more important that ever,” Lepore says, adding, “We’re thrilled and lucky to be able to share these stories of the past and future.”

For Miller, the tourism office’s desire to be both diverse and comprehensive meant spending countless hours on the road, criss-crossing the state in search of local farms and food businesses responsible for growing and making the region’s food both today, and historically. She figures she probably put some 10,000 miles on her car over the two years she spent researching the project, because the state has “so many great products and people who work hard for their craft, and I’d find new things around every corner.”

That said, there was a method to the madness she calls her “dream job.”

Each scouting trip started with her looking at the map and using pins to mark a circular route that could be driven in two or three days, with no more than about an hour between stops. “And I talked to a lot of people, and made a lot of phone calls,” she says, because it was important to represent everyone in the state in a fair and equitable way.

People enjoy an afternoon picking apples, on Sept. 28, 2019, at Norman's Orchard in Tarentum, Pennsylvania. (Michael M. Santiago/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

300 locations: Things got a little weird with so many businesses closing during the pandemic. But in the end, Miller and her colleagues ended up with 300 local bakeries, restaurants, wineries, cideries and other food businesses worth visiting on the four trails.

Organized in four or five clusters separated by region, the list also includes places to stay, and you’ll also find historically significant sites like covered bridges and museums that speak to the state’s history. On the bread trail in Fulton County, for instance, you can follow the state’s largest (painted) barn quilt trail; the charcuterie trail in Pennsylvania Wilds includes a visit to the only working elk farm in Elk County.

“And there’s always an alcoholic stop,” Miller says, because, well, travel is tiring and people get thirsty.

Miller says she was surprised to discover how many different kinds of charcuterie there are, and also that the Schuylkill Valley trumps Pittsburgh when it comes to kielbasa. She also found quite a few fire halls with buckwheat pancake breakfasts and so many fun and wonderful cheesemakers and brewers.

“It’s just so inspiring,” she says. “They work so hard and love what they do, and I wanted to give them attention.”

And if you’re interested in following one of the tours now that it’s officially vacation season, Miller suggests picking a topic that looks interesting, getting in the car with your GPS and a cooler, “and just go.”

Then, talk to the people listed on the trail. “Ask them about why they do what they do, and what they like,” she says, because they’re happy to tell their stories.

“I want people to have that connection,” she says.

For more information, see visitpa.com/trips-and-trails.