“Right there on the package, it’ll say: pork back, pig hearts, pig liver—there might even be hooves in there”
Sandwiched between New England and the South, the mid-Atlantic states can sometimes feel like the East Coast’s no-man’s land. But the area, which spans from Virginia to Pennsylvania (and even to New York by some measures), has a proud culinary tradition that it has exported to the rest of the United States and beyond. There are Philly cheesesteaks, water ice (aka Italian ice), soft pretzels, Chesapeake crab cakes, snapper soup—but one Amish-inspired dish has managed to stay local, thanks to an unpalatability matched only by its popularity: scrapple.
Technically a meat pudding (though no one who eats it would ever call it that), scrapple is sold in plastic-wrapped packages with ingredient lists that read like the most undesirable parts of a pig—hearts, liver, skin, and (some claim) even hooves—blended with cornmeal or some other pasty carbohydrate. It can be found in sliced form at every diner from D.C. to Center City Philadelphia to the heart of Amish country, and in bricks at grocery stores along the way. The late food critic Josh Ozersky famously professed his love, the now-defunct MidAtlantic Wine and Food Festival once hosted a Scrapplegasm event, and my own dad eats it with gusto (and eggs).
Via Flickr user stu_spivack
Now, this point of regional pride is undergoing a rebranding, being worked into everything from beer to ice cream to a vegan version of this most porky of offal dishes.
Like any food with a dedicated following, there are diehards who insist on specific brands (Rapa or Habbersett’s, depending on where you live), ingredients, or serving style (plain with sunny-side up eggs, with ketchup, or drenched in maple syrup). But given scrapple’s homegrown backstory, there’s more variety to the dish than one might think.
“If I can get you to think that this thing we call scrapple is appetizing or at least worth trying, I don't care as much what the standard ingredients are,” says Adam Gerard, the webmaster behind WhatIsScrapple.com and the 14,000 member What is Scrapple! Facebook page. Growing up in upstate New York, it wasn’t until he moved to Maryland in high school that Gerard first tasted the breakfast side and became instantly enamored with the golden brown rectangle’s mix of crispy outside and silky interior mush. “At its essence, when people say what is scrapple, I try to tell them how it’s made.”
The origins of scrapple are an early example of nose-to-tail eating that’s closer to the don’t-ask-don’t-tell hot dog-making process than the trendier incarnation of the philosophy. (A common misconception is that the name scrapple refers to the scraps from which it’s made. It actually comes from an Americanization of the Pennsylvania Dutch, or Amish, panhaskröppel, “slice of pan-rabbit,” an early name for the dish.)
“I like to think of it as an efficiency thing,” Gerard explains. “You’re a farmer, you have pigs that you’re raising. You slaughter the pig to make the standard things: ham, bacon, sausage. And you’ve got all of this stuff that’s left over: organs, meat on the bone, feet and bones, the head—perhaps that has some meat on it. So you boil all of that, you sift out all of the bone and some other things that you can’t eat, and you’ve got a lot of good cooked meat and organs and a broth. Add some spices, mix it up and it becomes scrapple. You’re using every part, essentially, of the animal, which is great.” It’s an argument for the dish he even makes to vegetarians, he says.
This nonspecific recipe lends itself to alternate interpretations of scrapple—with sometimes surprising results. West Coast Scrapple, a Seattle-based company started by Pennsylvania expats, toyed with a salmon variety, and, recently, a mushroom-based vegan variety has become popular—even outselling the original at venues like South Philadelphia’s Triangle Tavern, deeming Gerard’s all-parts-of-the-pig argument moot for potential scrapple eaters who are curious but meatless.
“People use the term ‘meat’ with scrapple, but I say ‘porcine-based’ because there’s not a lot of actual meat in it,” explains Daniel Hale Zantzinger, one half of Russian Pepper USA, a specialty foods purveyor based in Chester County, Pennsylvania, whose family roots in the area date back to before the American Revolution. “It’s animal byproduct—snout and tail and entrails and esophagus and that kind of stuff—so what they did to make that nastiness palatable was put in corn and buckwheat and salt and pepper and a constellation of herbs and spices, and they blended it up so you didn’t see the esophagus. You’re almost halfway there with the vegan aspect, because you’re already camouflaging something.”
For their “snout-free” vegan version of the dish, Zantzinger and his wife, Svetlana, honed in on the flavor of Habbersett—which bills itself as “Philadelphia’s Favorite”—on which Daniel had grown up. Using old Amish cookbooks and trips to Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market for inspiration, they created a version of the dish using crimini mushrooms from nearby Kennett Square (the so-called Mushroom Capital of the World), organic non-GMO polenta, and buckwheat flower.
Svetlana Zantzinger holds up Russian Pepper's vegan scrapple
“We picked something low on the food chain—basically it’s lower than hot dogs,” Zantzinger says, “and we elevate it to gourmet.” Still, even they admit there’s a bit of novelty to their vegan scrapple’s appeal, which they use to help them market their other products, including a number of pepper pastes.
Given its humble background, it’s no surprise that scrapple has become someone of a defiant source of pride. It’s continued existence is almost a battle cry trumpeted by the blue-collar populous of the mid-Atlantic: “You can’t stomach it? Well, we love it!”
Which makes products like Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery, which includes Rapa Scrapple (another First State brand) in its Beer for Breakfast blend, a kind of nose-thumbing boozy protest. Same goes for Philadelphia’s Franklin Fountain, which, after fake photos of a Wegman’s-branded scrapple ice cream went viral, created a version of their own. And it’s practically revolutionary that acclaimed New York-by-way-of-Tokyo ramen chef Ivan Orkin has experimented with a scrapple waffle and scrapple Scotch eggs.
But these instances of scrapple sneaking into the mainstream are few and far between. Back in Philadelphia, vegan chef Rachel Klein of Miss Rachel’s Pantry notes that while many of the best-known local specialties like cheesesteaks and roast pork sandwiches are more popular with tourists than they are on the local food scene, scrapple might have a more limited appeal.
“I think a lot of the foods that we are famous for are now used more by other places,” she explains when asked about the area’s unhealthy, meat-first reputation. “The food scene is actually changing. People are thinking of Philly as not just a place to get cheesesteaks. Of course every diner has scrapple, but truthfully we’re getting a lot of good recognition for our emerging food scene and the great chefs that are coming out of the city and winning James Beard Awards and opening in other places.”
And while some might be quick to question meat-free simulacra, she supports it. “People come by veganism through a lot of different avenues,” Klein says. “If it’s something that’s going to keep somebody from eating something from an animal, then I’m all about it. It’s not for me, but I’m very happy it exists.”
Still, for those who swear by the original, there’s a bit of a fear factor when it comes to converting others. “People get grossed out because right there on the package, it’ll say: pork back, pig hearts, pig liver—there might even be hooves in there,” says Gerard, ever the scrapple enthusiast. “It says all these things that sound really disgusting, but they’re all real pieces of the animal. And, in reality, it’s delicious … If you give it a shot.”