The Funnel Cake Queen
This amazing story comes courtesy of the Reading Eagle:
Alice Reinert’s life was adrift for several years after her 12-year-old disabled son, Harlan Reinert Jr., died in 1961.
She was the boy’s primary caretaker and rarely ventured far from his side. Adjusting to life without him did not come easy.
In 1965, her husband, Harlan Sr., suggested Alice might try selling funnel cakes at the Reading Fair.
“I said OK, just like that,” recalled Reinert, who’s 85 and lives in Maidencreek Township.
Reinert threw herself on the mercy of Reading Fair officials and was given a stand in a converted chicken coop.
There, with her husband’s $96 vacation pay check, she started a culinary revolution that made the funnel cake a fixture at county fairs, folk festivals and block parties.
Alice Reinert would earn the unofficial title of Funnel Cake Queen, a reign that would last 26 years until her retirement in 1991.
Though she shies away from being called a feminist, Reinert claims to have been the first woman to own a stand on the midways of county fairs throughout the region.
To be certain, she did not invent the funnel cake, long a Pennsylvania Dutch staple.
But as its primary promoter, she popularized the waffle-like delicacy at a time when it was relatively unknown outside the Pennsylvania Dutch community.
Known as Dutchie Alice, she appeared on Philadelphia television stations with personalities like Captain Noah and Sally Starr.
In May 1970, she was featured in the Pennsylvania Dutch Excitement Exhibition at Gimbel’s Department Store in Philadelphia. She was a regular at the Bavarian Summer Festival in Barnesville, Schuylkill County, in the 1970s.
Ever the promoter, Reinert devised tricky slogans to entice customers.
On her stands and in advertisements, she wrote things like: “Get in touch with the Dutch. Have a funnel cake!” and “A little bit of this, a little bit of that and the touch of a real Dutch family.”
The early years
That first day at the Reading Fair, Reinert sold her entire stock.
By the end of the week, she had enough money to buy a portable funnel cake stand.
“I rented a Hertz truck,” she said, “and we headed for Bloomsburg.”
Reinert and her funnel cakes got a less than welcome reception at the Bloomsburg Fair that first year.
“They thought we were gypsies,” she said. “Nobody would come near us.”
Reinert spotted a radio reporter, who interviewed her. The next day, she was inundated with customers.
For a former stay-at-home mom, life on the fair circuit proved a challenge.
Harlan would set up the stand, work opening weekend and return to his day job at Bowers Battery in Laureldale.
In his absence, Alice slept on the floor of the stand or in the back of a truck, curled up atop boxes of shortening.
“I remember the loneliness,” she said. “I was all alone, and I cried a lot at night.”
On the farm
Alice learned to make funnel cakes as a child on the family farm in Greenwich Township.
As was the custom among the Pennsylvania Dutch, Ellavada Wolfinger would whip up a batch of funnel cake. With some cold sausage left over from breakfast, she’d take it to her husband, Jeremiah, mid-morning in the fields.
Little Alice would help her mother, unaware that she would someday earn a living making funnel cakes.
The Great Depression, which began when Alice was 8 years old, hit the Wolfingers hard. Jeremiah kept food on the table by making moonshine, Alice said, in a still he hid in the basement.
The Wolfinger children walked 2 miles to Leiby’s School, a one-room school in Greenwich Township.
Alice, who spoke only Pennsylvania Dutch, recalls being made to stand in the corner by the schoolmaster when she was unable to remember English words.
“I couldn’t understand that yolk was the yellow thing in the center of an egg,” she said. “To me, a yolk was the thing we put around our horse’s neck.”
She would go to eighth grade, but would miss third, fifth and seventh grades. She quit school when she was 12.
“I wanted to go to high school, but my mother made me work on the farm,” she said. “I wanted to be a female doctor.”
Instead, at 16, Alice married Harlan Reinert, a local boy. They would have three children and be together for 47 years until his death in 1989.
Puff and squiggly
Alice made funnel cakes at the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival in Kutztown in the 1950s.
Indeed, she worked for Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker, one of the festival’s founders.
When she opened her own stand, Alice experimented with the batter. She’d make subtle changes, monitoring the reaction of her customers.
“When I saw families gathering around a funnel cake and sharing it,” she said, “I knew I had the right recipe.”
To the basic milk, flour and eggs, Alice added a secret leavening she called “puff.”
She credits her vegetable shortening, which she bought by the ton from a Massachusetts company, with giving her cakes a unique taste.
With a funnel in one hand and a fork in the other, Alice stood over cast iron frying pans and made the squiggly conglomerations we know as funnel cake.
The squiggles, as Alice put it, made the batter cook faster.
In aprons and calico dresses, Alice and her daughters – Shirley and Mary – worked in close quarters for hours on end.
Mary Reinert Berger of Maidencreek Township recalled it as a family affair.
“It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun at times,” said Berger, 64, who’s retired. “And, we were all together.”
Shirley Reinert Rauenzahn, 67, of Topton remembers the heat.
“It must have been 140 degrees in there,” she said. “The thermometer was as high as it could go, and then some.”
To perfect her funnel cakes, Rauenzahn recalled, Alice would buy cakes made by competitors. The family would taste test them and give a critique. Often they’d be too sweet or rubbery.
Alice kept refining her recipe, making certain not to duplicate the mistakes of competitors. It apparently worked.
“At the Bloomsburg Fair,” Rauenzahn said, “they’d be waiting for funnel cakes in an S-shaped line that snaked down the midway.”
Dutchie Alice sings
In the galley of her funnel cake stand, Alice passed the time by singing country songs.
She wrote her own songs, which were recorded by Earl Keller’s Melody Rangers & Elmer, a New Tripoli country band. She also wrote and sang the 11 songs on her LP album, “Alice.”
Often, her poetic lyrics were odes to her husband and beloved son.
In “Pennsylvania Dutch Boy,” she envisions her husband as a teenager: “Flat-top hair, eyes of blue, lips I’d like to touch. He’s the only one for me, and he’s Penn-sil-vane-ya Dutch.”
In the kitchen of her apartment, immersed in memorabilia, Alice stomped her right foot rhythmically as she drifted back to her days as Funnel Cake Queen.
She gazed down at a family album that contains sheet music of “Mama’s Little Angel,” which she wrote when her son was 8.
“Mama’s little angel, daddy’s little boy, came to us one day and filled our hearts with joy,” she sang in a frail voice weakened by time.
She stopped, choking back tears, too emotional to go on.