Scrapple: A Love Letter

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Photo sources:

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.

19 thoughts on “Scrapple: A Love Letter

  1. Reading the ingredient list in the top picture helps provide Scrapple with a somewhat exotic aura. Being able to conjure up mental images of all these things certainly helps. Not having been to the Philadelphia area since 1989, I’m pretty certain I haven’t tried it but am certainly curious.

    How gelatinous is it upon removal from the package?

    Scrapple sounds infinitely better than some other delicacies consumed in this part of the world primarily by those of German lineage – blood sausage (it’s used for color) and brains with scrambled eggs.

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    • It is not gelatinous at all, more like a cross between packed wet sand and pound cake. Wow, that sounds awful, doesn’t it.

      You make me think about all the stuff we never have the nerve to try – we are probably already eating it without knowing. Who actually knows what’s in that hamburger, hot dog or sausage we buy at the store?

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  2. Well, since I’ve never heard of Scrapple before you mentioned it previously I can consider myself a more seasoned Scrapple expert now.

    The full description is interesting, but we used to eat head cheese when I was a kid so it strikes me as a cross between head cheese and schnitzel. At any rate we visited Philadelphia about 5 years ago, saw the Bell, ate the Cheesesteak but did not encounter any Scrapple.

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    • “saw the Bell, ate the Cheesesteak but did not encounter any Scrapple.”

      I have been noticing that. When I was young it seemed that every restaurant that served breakfast in the Philadelphia viscinity offered scrapple, even chains. But in more recent years it is hard to find anywhere other than local mom & pop diners.

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  3. Well done…..never heard of it, but it was interesting. I like hot dogs occasionally, but try never to think about what goes into them. My dad and grandparents would occasionally eat “head cheese” , which doesn’t even bear thinking about….

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  4. I’ve definitely heard of it and I think I’ve eaten it (I’ve also had haggis, “fresh” in Scotland, as well as canned here in the US). I’m curious to try it now, and I found it on Amazon. Shipped in an insulated box with dry ice. Six, 1 lb packages for $42. That’s a lot of scrapple. By the way, here on California’s Central Coast, surrounded by fields that produce almost year around, it’s hard to find prepared meat at many grocery stores. My two usual grocery stores have more linear feet of staffed butcher counter than packaged, let alone processed, meat coolers. And other than tuna and sardines, not much in the way of canned meats. No Spam even. Hmm, we do have one high-end charcuterie in town that makes their own sausages and things … maybe they stock scrapple, or would even make it.

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    • Wow, six pounds is a heckuva commitment for someone who is no more than curious. But good luck. 🙂

      You raise an interesting question about whether some of the small specialty meat processing shops make anything like this. We have one locally and have tried some of their sausages and other cuts.

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  5. I would go with the Tastycakes and Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, which were delights of my youth—especially the latter as movie sustenance—and forgo the Scrapple entirely. (At least I would have before I developed migraines and found chocolate is an inevitable trigger.)

    But your reverie and illustrated tribute to Scrapple was entertaining. Yes, I had heard of it, and had a vague idea of its contents.

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    • I think having only a vague idea of its contents is a healthy attitude for anyone, especially those of us who enjoy the stuff. And it has never given me a migraine, so there’s that. 🙂

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  6. Hmm…I can’t say I’ve ever seen it here in Saskatchewan, nor have I heard anyone here mention it. Here’s a Scottish meat concoction that I bet you’ve never heard of: Potted Hough. It was not a favourite of mine, and when my mother made it, I silently called it Potted Yuck!

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  7. Pingback: 2020: It’s Here – Or Is It? | J. P.'s Blog

  8. I loved reading this. You’re not the only one who would travel back from Philadelphia with a cooler full of scrapple. 20+ years ago when I lived in North Carolina, I would take a cooler when visiting my parents in Philadelphia, and fill it up with scrapple on the return trip. My favorite brand was Kirby & Holloway, which was a niche brand (if there is such a thing) that was sold only in Delaware; it had a stronger pepper taste than most scrapple. Eventually I found a supermarket right off of I-95 that carried K&H scrapple, so I’d stop there, load up the cooler, and go on my way.

    Of course my friends in North Carolina had no idea what it was. Back when I had roommates, I’d say that scrapple consisted of “lips, skins and anuses” and that generally kept my roommates from raiding my scrapple hoard. I wasn’t entirely stretching the truth.

    I haven’t had scrapple much recently. My midwestern wife isn’t a big fan, and my kids haven’t inherited those strong Philly taste buds. But I can get Rapa scrapple here in Northern Virginia (the only place where one can get grits and scrapple at a diner… it’s actually a good combination), and I indulge myself occasionally. My mouth’s watering now…

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    • Haha – I got acclimated as a kid on annual visits to the grandparents. The funny thing is, my father the Philly native couldn’t stand the stuff but my mother (from northwestern Ohio) liked it. In my adulthood, I was surprised when my wife took a shine to the stuff – she was the one who grabbed a package out of the freezer over the Christmas holiday! Two of my three kids are fans too, which leaves my daughter the odd girl out when the scrapple comes out and everyone is together.

      I can remember when scrapple was a regular breakfast menu option at Philly-area restaurants, but it ain’t there anymore, at least not at the places I have visited. I have not tried the Rapa. There is another brand (from Wisconsin, I think) sold at one big super-duper grocer a couple of hours away, but I can’t bring myself to try scrapple from Wisconsin. It just doesn’t seem right.

      Thanks for reading my “other” writing outlet! 🙂

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  9. I stumbled into here from Curbside Classic and was quite surprised to see an article about scrapple. I’m a scrappler from way back, hailing from a part of southern NJ that is close to Philadelphia, and where scrapple and its culinary cousin pork roll are part of the local cuisine. They are definitely very local phenomena, generally unavailable and undesired even in neighboring states. I consider myself fortunate to be able to buy them occasionally in CT, though I don’t eat too much of either one anymore.

    Scrapple has a serious identity problem that starts with the name. Who, in their right mind, except under pain of starvation, would eat something whose name begins with the words scrap or crap? Perhaps the word apple might save it, but many know enough about it to rightly perceive that it is more closely related to scrap than to apples. If you can get through that, most descriptions of the ingredients sound unappetizing, though in fact they are probably no worse than sausage or hot dogs. If you can get over those hurdles, you are confronted with a gray rectangle of vaguely meat-like stuff that tastes unlike anything else and fills the kitchen with a strange odor. In my experience, not many who didn’t grow up with it will begin to eat it later in life, and I have yet to come up with a description of its virtues that compelled a cultural outsider to try it.

    In my childhood we vacationed a lot in Pennsylvania, and for several years went to an agricultural fair in Pennsylvania Dutch country. The fair had many cool exhibits such as crafts and barn raising demonstrations, by my most persistent memory is of the scrapple-making demonstration. It was done in a large, open-sided shed, beginning with a live pig. They would shoot the pig with a rifle, then take it apart, showing various cuts of meat, and then grind up certain parts and mix them up with spices and cornmeal, put the ensuing grey glop into loaf pans and cook it. They portrayed it as a way for frugal farm families to get the most food out of their pigs.

    Though my siblings and I, as suburban kids, were initially shocked by the public killing of the pig, we quickly overcame it, and in future years bugged our parents to make sure we were on time. It was one thing that all of us agreed on, and in all the years of going, we never missed the shooting of the pig. I wonder if they still do that.

    Thanks for writing the article, and for giving me the space to go on about this weird food that is part of the culinary culture of my childhood home.

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    • Thank you Fred – it is no trouble, as we scrapple-philes have to stick together.

      Your pig tale (sorry) reminds me of a favorite story – a former law partner, who would now be a bit over 80, remembered taking a field trip with the cub scouts in about 1947. The destination was a local meat packing company. All the cub scouts got to watch the big man kill a pig or cow (I forget which) by hitting it between the eyes with a huge sledge hammer. Each kid got a package of hot dogs at the end. I so wanted to suggest a trip like that when my own kids were in cub scouts – could you imagine how that would go over now? 🙂

      Anyway, thanks for reading, and don’t be a stranger.

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      • Thank you for the kind response JP, and for the interesting site. That was my first time at your site. I post responses at CC from time to time, where I enjoy reading your insightful comments, and I also share some of my vintage vehicle finds on the cohort site.

        Your response reminds me of another childhood experience that is probably never to be replicated in the modern era. I took an economics class in high school with a teacher who was a real character, with unconventional teaching methods. He took us on several trips, one to a Chevette plant in DE, another to a Wonder Bread factory, and the most memorable to a pig processing plant. They showed us the whole process from unloading the animals from the trucks, to turning them into hot dogs and other products. The method of killing was a captive bolt to the head, followed by hoisting the animals, rear legs up, onto an overhead trolley, which went to a person standing in a recessed pit with a floor drain, dressed in rubber raincoat a and pants, holding a large knife, That person’s job was to slit the throats of the animals, some of whom let out a scream to announce their final moment of life.

        At the end, they offered us hot dogs in the cafeteria. Many students did not partake.

        As I reflected on it later in life, the slaughterhouse and the automobile assembly line have much in common, and I eventually learned that slaughterhouses provided some inspiration for Henry Ford. I don’t remember if the teacher made that point to us, but it made a lot of sense when I learned of the connection.

        I teach a class in which I could easily justify a trip to a slaughterhouse, and would love to take my students to one. Unfortunately for us, that business has become very centralized and there are no major ones around here. I don’t know if such places even allow visitors anymore. From what I have read in The Omnivores Dilemma, the big ones are pretty secretive.

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