Where The Calorie Is King

June 27, 1995|By Boston Globe

PELLA, Iowa -- This is the town that pastry built.

Actually it was built by Dutch settlers, and today it is sustained by a famous window-maker, but pastry is what makes Pella different from Prairie Meadows and Prairie City and a hundred other remote crossroads that are sprinkled across rural Iowa like confectioners' sugar.

You can walk into Jaarsma's Bakery and commit a caloric catastrophe by picking out a few doughnuts (glazed, sugared, cinnamon and jelly) or creating an assortment of strudel (cream cheese, apricot-almond, raspberry or blueberry).

A few doors down, in the Vander Ploeg Bakery, you can pick up a raspberry coffee cake, cinnamon sweet rolls or a raisin crimp, a sort of loaf of raisin English muffins.

Pella (population 9,270) is a little bit of Holland dropped right in the middle of the American heartland.

It began when 800 tradesmen, artisans, farmers and, of course, bakers boarded four ships and set forth for America in the spring of 1847. They acquired 18,000 acres and planted themselves on the prairie, living in sod houses with straw roofs.

Fortunately, they packed their recipes.

For generations the Jaarsmas have been baking in Pella, and today their pastry shop is a monument to the power of pastry in human affairs. Just the other afternoon, a woman named Sandy Cooney found that she couldn't resist pulling into Pella as she drove from Winthrop, in northeast Iowa, back to her home in West Des Moines.

"I'd like three pillows and three letters," she said, leaning against the glass cases. "Pillows" is shorthand for "puff pillows," delicate strudel with a butter-cream filling. "Letters" are "Dutch letters," the S-shaped almond paste specialty that is so celebrated that Ralph J. Jaarsma, the potentate of pastry, estimates that he makes a quarter-million of them a year.

Making Dutch letters is no easy task: Roll almond paste into puff pastries of 64 layers. Add egg whites and sugar. Bake for a half-hour. Eat. Be hooked for life.

"Most American pastries are bland," says Mr. Jaarsma, who is 59. "These have a little more zip."

Today Pella's businesses include De Ruiter Lawn Equipment, De Vries Construction and Den Hartog Fishing Supplies. But above all there is Jaarsma's Bakery.

The pastry shop employs eight full-time bakers. They create the Speculaas cookies, combinations of ginger, cloves and cinnamon, producing a thin and crispy cookie. They labor over chewy almond macaroons. They fashion a loaf of frosted apple bread that may be illegal in some states.

Over the years, various religious disputes have divided the people of Pella; an account of the Reformed Church's split from the Christian Congregation in 1851 is indecipherable to outsiders today. Now the principal dispute in town is the price war over Dutch letters. Jaarsma's charges $1.15. Vander Ploeg's charges $1.10.

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