Visitors (witting and unwitting) to the Reading Terminal Market's first Scrapplefest on Saturday were witness to yet another disjunction between season and foodstuff, though it could be argued that scrapple long ago went AWOL from the natural cycle of things.
This was April, after all, and it was sunny and in the 70s. Scrapple was born as an offering of autumn, the byproduct of outdoor hog slaughtering, best accomplished when the days are cool.
At Scrapplefest, the pig was more a distant and abstract figure, rendered in a pink graphic. The scrapple itself, though, was both blank canvas and muse. Ben Burckhardt and his buddies from Shippensburg came in T-shirts inscribed with their MySpace Web site "breakfastcandy." Art students Julianna Lose and Leah Mackin peddled their hand-printed "Ode to Scrapple," suggesting outfits to dress up your scrapple (Amish Paradise, Thug Life, Sunday Best) and otherwise singing scrapple's attributes. (At $10 a pop, they'd sold about 40 by 2 p.m.)
There was even, inexplicably, a towering, gray wedding cake modeled from scrapple, as enticing as a sand castle of Spam.
Will Weaver, whose Country Scrapple plumbs the subject, was not in the house so far as I could tell. But while scrapple has been a recording label, appropriated by a New Zealand jazz band, and even "the theme of a . . . bebop tune by the late saxophonist Charlie 'Bird' Parker," Weaver insists its local affection is built on more than whimsy and good looks: It has remained, he says, resolutely regional and down-home, setting Philadelphia apart as defiantly as conch fritters in Key West, a folk food off the chain menu of post-industrial America.
Have I mentioned that in a lapse of judgment, I agreed to be one of the judges for Scrapplefest's finale, an Iron Chef scrapple slap-down without the ticking clock. (The other judges were Michelle Shannon, a Center City District honcho, and David Meier, the out-of-uniform mascot for Hatfield Quality Meats: "I'm Smiley the Pig. Better not say that: Say, I'm 'Smiley's best friend.' ")
One purist proposed strict standards: "Don't give any prizes to beef scrapple, or to lean scrapple, or turkey scrapple. Just to full-fat pork scrapple."
The entrants felt less constrained. Jordan Shapiro, part-owner of the Down Home Diner, rethought scrapple's very nature. Since it was pork gruel suffused with cornmeal or buckwheat, he concluded, it's not really meat so much as "a bread with pork-fat flavor."
He scooped melon balls of the stuff and fried them up as croutons (lardons?) to top a sweet-sour frisee salad. And he employed crisp-fried scrapple as toast points upon which he propped seared sushi-grade tuna, and slices of avocado and mango. (This was enough for second place. Third went to my flavor favorite - Tommy DiNic's pulled pork-prosciutto-and scrapple on a roll with shaved soft and aged pecorino cheese.)
There were even more fanciful entries, including "Scrapple Nouveau," an invention of Andy Unk of Foster's Gourmet Cookware, that involved amazingly crisp pork-and-bacon scrapple he made himself, layered with micro-greens, slathered with goat-and-chive creme, with blood- orange coulis and honey-roasted apricot compote. (I'm still dazed that it didn't place, though the word "nouveau" and the inclusion of salad greens may have upset my co-judges.)
The grand prize (a $100 gift certificate to any stand in the market) went to Nick Ochs of Harry G. Ochs & Sons Prime Meats, for his reimagined "scrapple burger and fries." The "fries" were deep-fried sticks of scrapple that, with proper ketchup, had a certain guilty appeal.
The burger itself had the texture of a crabcake, its crumbled scrapple combined with sauteed red onion and sweet pepper, an egg, bread crumbs and Worcestershire sauce, then formed into patties, pan-fried, and served on a bun with lettuce, tomato, onion and, yes, ketchup.
Betty Kaplan, who presides over the market's demonstration kitchen, volunteered that the burger impressively masked "that liver-y flavor."
Its crowning achievement, in her professional estimation?
"It didn't taste like scrapple."