From humble origins to trendy restaurants: Why Philly still loves scrapple
A new generation of chefs have begun making their own versions of the Pennsylvania Dutch staple: duck, fish, even vegan.
In the winter of 1872, the letters page of the New York Times was hijacked for weeks by talk of scrapple, a topic jump-started by a Pennsylvania transplant who bemoaned that he couldn't find any in New York City. Readers responded passionately, with some decrying it as a "poor man's meat" and others declaring their love, such as one man who proclaimed it "a positive luxury, throwing the Frenchman's pâté de foie gras entirely into the shade."
"It was a heated online message board before its time," wrote Philadelphia food writer Amy Strauss in her new book, Scrapple: a Delectable History (The History Press). "It was a fiery comment section before the keyboard-clacking millennial era."
It's been a while since scrapple overwhelmed the Times, but to many in this region, the Pennsylvania Dutch pork-loaf product remains as essential as it was to that homesick letter-writer.
In recent years, it has also been embraced by a growing number of local chefs and companies who have transformed it in ways that would have been unimaginable to the German settlers who first made it in the Mid-Atlantic region: with pizza, vodka, beer, and ice cream, and by making it out of duck, fish, and even a vegan version made with mushrooms.
Strauss, who for her book interviewed everyone from large-scale producers to tiny family-run butcher shops, said scrapple has never been trendier.
"There's something about scrapple that has really been able to leave a footprint over the decades," Strauss said. "It's a flavor memory. People who knew it when they were young continue to want it."
Invented as a way to use the leftover bits from a pig killed on butchering day, traditional scrapple is made with pork, cornmeal, and spices that are brewed together into a polenta-like mass, shaped into a loaf, sliced, and pan-fried until crispy.
The nose-to-tail movement has encouraged interest in foods that minimize waste, according to William Woys Weaver, author of As American as Shoofly Pie, a book on Pennsylvania Dutch food. But he said scrapple has also endured thanks to a new generation of chefs who want to honor their heritage.
"There's a whole movement on getting back to regional food," he said. "Chefs are trying to go back to ways of keeping these traditions alive."
Adam Diltz, the chef at Johnny Brenda's, grew up outside Bloomsburg, Pa., where making scrapple was part of butchering-day traditions on his great-grandparents' farm. Diltz, who added a scrapple sandwich to his lunch menu, said homemade scrapple appeals to people interested in eating whole, unprocessed foods.
"When you grow up around a farm, you have a knowledge of where the food you're eating comes from," said Diltz, who recently began leading scrapple-making workshops hosted by Greensgrow Farms in Kensington. "Now, you can buy chicken in a store and not even think of it as an animal."
Scrapple also appeals to people looking for new flavors. Last year, after a photoshopped image of a pint of scrapple ice cream circulated online, the Franklin Fountain ice cream shop partnered with news site Billy Penn to create a batch. It didn't sell great, admitted co-owner Ryan Berley, but they decided to try again this year with scrapple ice cream sandwiches stacked between cornbread cookies. At a launch event at the shop this month, Berley said he was amazed by how many people popped the treats into their mouths without hesitation, even if they'd never eaten scrapple before.
"People are becoming more adventurous eaters," he said.
When Delaware native and chef Mark McKinney began searching for vegan items to add to the Triangle Tavern menu in 2015, his mind drew him back to his childhood, and eating scrapple on Sundays with his father. McKinney, by then a longtime vegan, experimented with a blend of mushrooms and spices until he came up with a version of scrapple he could eat. Once on the menu, it sold well — sometimes better than actual scrapple.
"Once you make it, it opens a door into so many other things you can do with it," he said. "You can make it into anything you want."
Nowhere is that more evident than in Diltz's Greensgrow-hosted scrapple-making workshops. On a recent Saturday afternoon, he led 16 students through the basics, showing them shortcuts and modifications for ingredients like, say, a pig's head.
Diltz recommended his students start with pork, a shoulder perhaps, maybe some liver, and simmer it for a few hours in water until the meat is falling off the bone. He told them to shred it with their hands as though they were making pulled pork, then grind or chop it as finely as possible.
Diltz likes adding sage and pepper to the reserved pork broth (resulting from boiling the meat), then adding cornmeal and the meat back to the pot until it turns into a homogeneous, gelatinous mass, like porridge. The aromas emanating from the pot as he stirred were nutty and meaty, like Thanksgiving crossed with barbecue.
The next step is pouring the mixture into loaf pans — Diltz suggests lining them with cellophane — then letting it cool overnight. By the next day, it'll be ready to slice and fry up. The texture inside comes out smooth, the exterior crispy-crunchy.
But any scrapple recipe is just a jumping-off point, Diltz said. You can strain the stock before boiling, or not. You can use other cuts of meat, add red pepper flakes, or make it in a crockpot, or use plastic takeout containers to shape it. To every question Diltz got, his answer was almost always a version of, "Sure, you can do that."
Ed Hilinski of Ocean City, N.J., attended the workshop with his daughter, Kate, who bought him the class as a birthday gift.
Hilinski's father was a butcher, so he grew up with scrapple. The class was the first time he'd tried to make scrapple himself, and he said he was relieved by how forgiving the recipes can be. He said he'd likely take a stab at making it at home.
"I was worried about where do you go for a pig head?" he said. "I didn't realize how flexible it was."