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PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY IS PLACE TO GO FOR A HEARTY `TASTE OF AMERICA’

SHARE PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY IS PLACE TO GO FOR A HEARTY `TASTE OF AMERICA’

There are some places in this country famous for abundant cuisine: Rhode Island (for shore dinner halls), northern Nevada (for Basque hotel dining rooms) and Pennsylvania. To those of us who relish the regional flavors of America, Pennsylvania's lofty culinary reputation is built upon a muscular foundation of soft pretzels and oozy cheese steak sandwiches, on traditional Amish tables laden with "seven sweets and seven sours," and on farm stands along country roads where women in bonnets sell jugs of homemade root beer, jars of relish and freshly made whoopie pies.

Anyone who likes to eat in a really big way will find his promised land in Pennsylvania Dutch country - Lancaster County, west of Philadelphia. Here are old-fashioned diners and newfangled eating barns where the specialty of the house is multicourse, megacaloric feasts of such hearty things as chicken and waffles, pork chops and fillin' (sort of a cross between stuffing and mashed potatoes), sizzling scrapple for breakfast and dozens of kinds of pies (including shoofly) for dessert.If you are traveling west through the Keystone State, as we often do when embarking on a cross-country trip, the lavish eating doesn't stop at the Lancaster County line. A couple hours beyond Harrisburg along the turnpike in the town of Somerset is one of the most bounteous of all Pennsylvania eateries, the Oakhurst Tea Room.

Don't let that "tea room" appellation give you the notion that this place is small and ladylike or that the food is served in dainty portions. It started as a tea room back in 1933; since then the Oakhurst has grown into a gigantic restaurant, including a parking lot big enough for tour buses, an organist playing favorite melodies every weekend and roving musicians who surround tables of families and sing "Happy Birthday" or fiddle "The Anniversary Waltz."

There are three spacious dining rooms, seats for 450 guests and a battery of buffet tables. Diners pig out on an unbelievable variety of hot and cold foods, from Jell-O and ambrosia salads, to baked or fried chicken and country ham and roast beef, to a galaxy of puddings, cakes and pies and mousses. Each Friday night is the famous-for-miles-around surf 'n' turf smorgasbord: Help yourself to all the T-bone steaks, fried shrimp, stuffed flounder, lobster tails and filet mignon you can eat!

We haven't been to a Friday night feeding, but the weekday dinners we have ingested at the Oakhurst were awe-inspiring. Not all the food was four-star level, mind you; we wish the baked chicken hadn't been sitting out on the steam table quite so long, and some of the pie fillings were a bit gummy for our taste. But the fillin' was superb, and we hit the roast beef just as it was getting carved from the haunch. The puddings for dessert were swell.

The business card of the Oakhurst Tea Room says that all the food is "prepared with skill and patience to tempt the most jaded and pampered appetites." We don't know too many jaded and pampered people, but we can tell you this: Few restaurants anywhere mount such a devastating assault on an eager appetite.

Among the multiplicity of desserts you will find on all of Pennsylvania's serious country-style tables is a farm-wife favorite known humbly as cracker pudding. It is easy to make, creamy-good and really rib-sticking . . . which is why we'd like to print it here as our salute to the dazzling bounty of this outsized "tea room."

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Now available! Nearly 200 of the most-requested recipes from this column, all in one book, "A Taste of America." It includes Jane and Michael Stern's favorite restaurants, as well as photos from their coast-to-coast eating adventures. Available in paperback, it can be ordered by sending $9.95 plus $1 for postage and handling to Taste of America, in care of the Deseret News, P.O. Box 419150, Kansas City, MO 64141.

Cracker Pudding

3 eggs, separated

4 cups milk

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup shredded sweetened coconut

2 cups saltine crackers, crumbled but not pulverized

Nutmeg as garnish

Beat egg yolks until smooth and sunny.

Heat milk to just below the boiling point. Vigorously beat a half cup of the milk into the eggs to warm them up, then beat the eggs back into the milk (Do this quickly, so the eggs don't "cook.") Stir in sugars and coconut, then cracker crumbs. Mix well.

Over low heat, cook and stir mixture until thick, about five minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold into cooled egg-and-cracker mixture. Chill in refrigerator.

Serve garnished with a light sprinkle of nutmeg if desired.