My father grew up in the Philadelphia area. I have written before about some of the local delicacies he sought out on our visits back to his family – TastyKakes and Goldenberg Peanut Chews were high on his list. It was fun to watch his eyes light up as he opened a fresh pack of these treats. It was less fun to watch the wary look when it became clear that a good Dad shares with his children.
There was one taste of Philly that was absolutely not on his “must have” list on those visits, and it was the one that was most often served in my grandparents’ home: Scrapple.
Breakfast when visiting relatives is always a fun time. A new day is full of possibility. As a kid, most of the rules are relaxed and there is an almost unending opportunity for new experiences and getting to experience how distant relatives live their lives in these places that seem so exotic.
Breakfast at my grandparents was a bit of an event and “eggs and scrapple” was almost always part of it. Except for my grandfather, that is – he had some digestion issues and breakfasted on oatmeal and prunes.
While my father would not touch scrapple, I watched everyone else eat it (including my mother) and I tried it too. I decided that I liked it and from there on I felt at home at those long-ago Philly breakfasts. As for my younger sister, well let’s just leave her out of this.
Scrapple is one of those things that is highly regional. Those who grew up in New York or Massachusetts may find it as foreign as those from the midwest do. Even across the river in New Jersey there is something called “pork roll” that takes on the “most-favored breakfast meat” role. One sure thing about scrapple is that is is almost never found in Indiana.
I am not sure when I first got the idea to take a cooler with me on one of those Philly trips as a young adult. But the idea was a fabulous one. I would buy a few packages at the Shop ‘N Bag store, chuck them into the ice and about ten hours later all but one of them would be safely stowed in the freezer. Scrapple freezes wonderfully, in case you were curious.
But that one remaining package would go into the fridge so as to be close at hand for the first big-breakfast day. A big-breakfast day involves skillets (as opposed to a regular-breakfast day that involves bowls and cardboard boxes).
I went into a funk when the last of my relatives either died or moved from that area, because I feared that my scrapple days might be behind me. But as if by magic, my wife’s sister and her family moved there, ensuring fresh reasons to go visit. With a cooler.
As the years have progressed a few of these relatives still live there and remember their eccentric Indiana kin who loves this stuff (that they could never summon the nerve to try). One of them married a guy from a little distance away who keeps pestering me to try pork roll. Be patient, there is one in my freezer so we will get there.
The funny thing is that I have had to practice that look my father used to give when I eyed his TastyKakes – of the five Cavanaughs who have lived under this roof, four of them are scrapplers. The one remaining – well, she has always had an independent streak. And she has eaten plenty of Chicken McNuggets so she has no room to hold her nose and go “EWWWW!”
One kid was visiting recently and gave me an excuse to pull a brick of frozen scrapple out of the freezer. And, that experience being fresh in my mind when I started wondering about a topic for this week, well – here we are.
First, some of you (OK, almost all of you) might wonder “Just what, exactly, is scrapple?” Let’s just go with “meat product”. Really, do you read the ingredients of those Slim Jim sausages you buy at the gas station when your are on a road trip? You don’t if you know what’s good for you.
Alright, if you must know, it includes some less-choice pig parts finely ground, mixed with cornmeal and spices, and cooked in a bone broth before being cooled in loaf pans. Those old Pennsylvania Dutch found a way to use pretty much everything that surrounded the oink, thus the name.
If you want more on this the nice folks at Habbersett are happy to have you come to their website (which is here) to read all about it. Frankly, I find it cool that there is still a little processing plant that makes and sells a longtime regional favorite. One that has not been gobbled up by some food conglomerate that trades old brands like playing cards in a game of Go Fish. Oh wait, I just learned that it has been owned by a Wisconsin company (Jones Dairy Farm) since the 80’s. It could be worse.
Now that we are past that unpleasant business, I can see your next question: “How do you make it and what’s it like to eat?” Well, that is actually two questions, but this is a friendly place so we will answer both.
The product is in the shape of a loaf. It is not tightly bound together like, say, bologna or salami, but is of a softer consistency, more along the lines of cornmeal mush. A sharp knife will slice it into quarter-inch thick slices so that it can be dipped in flour and then placed in a skillet.
The flour coating will give the outside some structure so that it holds together when you flip it over. I fried it on a dry nonstick griddle and some butter would crisp the outside crust more.
You may have come to the (reasonable) conclusion that I will not be making a living as a food photographer any time soon. So let’s go with a better picture taken by someone with a better eye for this sort of thing. Or someone who is not terrifically impatient because he is salivating over the subject of these photos. There, better?
When everything is finished you have a slice (or two, or three, or . . . ) that is crispy on the outside and soft and mushy on the inside. The flavor is not really easy to describe, but the strongest individual note that comes through to me is black pepper.
OK, we need a quick discussion of brand names. My grandmother would allow nothing but Habbersett scrapple into her kitchen. Jones Dairy Farm also owns Rapa brand scrapple. Both are made in the same facility, but on different days and using different recipes. There are surely some others, but not being a Philly native I am not going to go off into those weeds. There are undoubtedly some who would argue that any of these commercially prepared brands are terrible and that homemade is the only way to go. For me, that is just a step too far on the do-it-yourself scale.
The Habbersett company website has some recipe ideas – but the idea of things called Alabama Scrapple Pizza does nothing for me. What on earth would Alabama know about scrapple, anyway? The biscuits and scrapple gravy might have some promise, but I get the stuff rarely enough that I am unwilling to eschew a sure thing for a bet on the mysterious flavor behind Door No. 2. My reply? [Wait a sec while I muster my best Philadelphia accent . . . ] “Dewnt get faancy with the scraaaaple”. (That was taxing – I’m thirsty and need a glass of wooowter now.)
I am pretty convinced before I even hit the big red “Publish” button that none of you will ever try scrapple. Which means that one of these times there will no longer be enough loyal diasporatic Philadelphians to keep the little Habbersett plant in business. But for the guy willing to drive 216 miles for a can of beef stew, what’s another thousand miles for something to partner-up with the eggs on my breakfast plate? It’s worth it, I’m tellinya.
Package – as listed for sale on Porkroll.com
Vintage advertising – offered for sale at Worthpoint.com
Serving plate – from a 2016 piece on Thrillist entitled Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Scrapple
All other photos by the author.