A longtime scrapple lover investigates the ingredients in this Pennsylvania staple
“But what’s in it?” I asked my father as a kid, sitting at the kitchen table, legs still short enough to swing barefoot from an antique chair, as I shoveled another forkful into my mouth.
I asked every time hunting season rolled around and this polarizing delicacy, tucked away among more identifiable edibles, emerged from my father’s Igloo cooler. My question was like an annual religious incantation that summoned forth a family ritual.
“I can’t believe you’re eating that!” my mother would always say, the corners of her mouth drawn down nearly to her jawline, the balance of her frame shifted onto one hip in an effort to support the weight of disgust, the weight of who is this child who gobbles that up?
Now my father’s face would light up, anticipating his punchline, our familiar dialogue. Eyes sparkling, he stood proudly upright and dropped another white butcher-paper-wrapped block on the counter: “Everything but the oink!”
He said it with a practiced, practically audible wink, eyes twinkling as my mother (a gastronome in her own right, but with a longer list of won’t-eats than wills) dropped her coffee cup into the sink with an exasperated sigh as once again, I preferred my father’s tastes over hers. Say “I love scrapple” in polite company and be prepared for looks of disgust. How can those skeptics (without fathers who returned home from hunting trips in Pennsylvania’s Dutch Country with solid blocks of pork purée to slice, fry crisp, and bathe in maple syrup) understand the livermush you hold so dear?
As an adult, as a trained chef, I am genuinely curious. What is scrapple, exactly? This question, whether asked at a Jersey shore diner or around the home breakfast table, is still a lightning rod for curled lips and suppressed gag reflexes—or for a raised eyebrow, a conspiratorial secret password, a knowing smirk: the sly indication that you love scrapple, too.
Scrapple hails from New Jersey and other states, but here in the mid-Atlantic region, it’s most identified with Pennsylvania Dutch Country, specifically the area near Lancaster, PA. I decide to set out to investigate scrapple recipes. I would visit a few butchers, poke around. Would they tell me what was in their scrapple recipes? The easy answer is found on the Internet: pork stock, cornmeal, spices, and vague references to organs. Celebrity chefs with road-food television shows describe “meaty ribs and hocks” or authentic-sounding “pounds of pork liver.” G-rated recipes for the home cook on colorful recipe aggregators tell us the main ingredient is just good, clean “sausage.” It is more than a little intimidating to waltz into a rural butcher shop and say, “So tell me: What’s in it?” As any restaurant cook presented with lists of patrons’ allergies can attest, this question sounds like an assault, no matter how well intentioned. But with all things heirloom and home-canned making the covers of urban style magazines, maybe scrapple just needs some good PR.
Andrea Beth, a family friend, warns me that Pennsylvania Dutch scrapple makers are rather. . . insular. “They are very unfriendly.” Her father is my Uncle Jimbo. Jimbo and my father (though not blood relations) grew up riding bikes around their Long Island neighborhood; when they were old enough, they got shotguns and hunting licenses.
Eventually Jimbo moved to the Pennsylvania countryside, while my father stayed put on the tidal salt marsh, thus providing our families with mutually satisfying vacation destinations. Jimbo had a big hand in getting kid-me intoxicated with the pleasures of food and hospitality. Round, jolly and warm like a real-life Santa Claus, he never arrived until well after a child’s bedtime, but that just meant the andouille jambalaya he whipped up was that much more savory as a midnight snack. The smell of Wild Turkey bourbon was sweet as the grownups imbibed, not noticing or caring that it was a school night.
I call Jimbo and ask him to recommend a few places I can go to investigate scrapple. He begins a roll call of places that were “good,” “really great” and the best: “What my buddy calls gourmet scrapple!” I plot points on the map, anxiety and anticipation firmly in place as I prepare to ask insular butchers, “What’s in it?” My first stop off the highway is the Lenhartsville, PA, post office. After a few hours on Route 78, I’m lost and in desperate need of a ladies’ room. I expect the federal employee sorting L.L. Bean catalogs to direct me to the nearest fast-food establishment. Instead, she swings the door open wide and says, “Head on back. First door on the left.” I haven’t been behind the post-office counter since a kindergarten field trip. But there I am, passing family portraits and inspirational wall hangings above employees’ desks.
“Peter Brothers? You’re almost there. Few more doors down, on the right, red building.” This is the detail a mail carrier can provide that a GPS unit cannot. I thank her, turn off my Garmin and head toward the clearly labeled Peter Brothers driveway as instructed.
In an empty town with dusty “For Rent” signs and neglected “Will Return At” plastic clocks hanging in nearly every Main Street window, the parking lot at the butcher’s is full. There’s a steady stream of people coming in empty-handed and leaving laden with large brown paper bags. Inside, there’s the heady smell of blood and bacon. At the counter, I ask for a brief education in scrapple-making. The lady helping the customers looks at me skeptically. Am I a health inspector? A member of PETA? No, I promise, I’m just a cook looking to satisfy a childhood curiosity.
She keeps one eye on me and walks along the counter, past her regulars, to a small group of butchers in long white coats with blood-soaked aprons, working on a carcass on a large table. She says something, and in unison they stop working and turn to look at me through the glass partition, knives dangling at their sides.
One man breaks away, walks up to me and says, with zero interest in talking, “Well, you slice it about yea thick,” holding his meaty thumb and forefinger about an inch apart.
“She knows how to cook it. She wants to know how to make it,” the counter lady barks at him.
Where before he’d been merely annoyed at being distracted from his work, now he eyes me suspiciously, a look shared by the silenced posse over his shoulder.
“Well, ya start with your pork and beef bones, boil that in water awhile, and then you add your spices: salt, pepper, coriander...” He stops to gauge my satisfaction.
“Do you put any organ meat in?” I press.
“We used to, but now we ain’t got ’em around anymore ’cause we don’t do our own slaughtering no more. We just get back the stuff people wanna eat.” I can hear sad nostalgia creeping around the edges of his story. At the four butchers I visit, no one says “city slicker” aloud, but I can hear it each time I press beyond the first answer to my question, looking for the catalyst, the ingredient that causes gag reflexes in so many urban throats.
A few miles away, Dietrich’s Meats sits just off the highway, behind an enormous billboard designed to divert Bucks County-bound tourists with the lure of Pennsylvania Dutch specialties (quilts, honey). Dietrich’s parking lot is full of what my mother would call Elmer Fudd types: plaid flannel, non-ironic trucker hats. They’re similarly skeptical of my interest, childhood curiosity story notwithstanding.
The lady behind the counter at Dietrich’s has hair, skin and glasses that are, perplexingly, all the same shade of translucent. She gestures to a woman behind the other branch of the L-shaped counter, who nearly fills the space between two shelves displaying jams and jellies of every imaginable variety. “Well, ya start with your pork and beef bones left over from the week of butchering and boil that in water with your spices: salt, pepper, coriander...,” she says.
She tucks her chin into her neck, furrows her eyebrows behind thick glasses and shakes her head in a gesture I think I recognize as disgust. “We add the head and the liver and kidneys, but none of that weird stuff.”
But then she continues, “Nah, we keep all that stuff for pickling.” She gestures to the shelf on her right.
What I had assumed was a continuation of the displays of apple butter, wild blueberry preserves and apricot jam is, in fact, the same white, screw-topped jars of various sizes filled instead with pickled duck gizzards, lambs’ tongues and pig snouts. The snouts press up against the glass like faded specimens in a biology classroom. “How do people eat these?” I ask.
“Just like that,” she says: like, duh.
I tried to imagine what a roomtemperature pickled pig’s snout might feel like between my molars.
“No bread or mustard?”
“Nope, just like that, outta the jar.”
I buy a jar of pig snouts. City slicker, indeed. At Hi-Way Meats in Womelsdorf, I get a different answer from the two men working the counter:
“We just use the meat because if people can taste the liver, they tell us they don’t like it. So ours is just the meat from the butchered bones. And we got lots of bones too, ’cause now people want everything boneless, ’cept T-bones and pork chops.” Again, disappointed nostalgia for the old ways of the American palate.
I ask why they think scrapple has such a bad reputation. “Back when people were doing barn butchery, no refrigeration, they just threw everything in, ground it up and called it what it was: all the scraps. So I guess now it’s got a hard time shedding that.”
I point into the case at a beautiful display of their famous, subtly irregular, handmade hot dogs. “Why don’t people have the same reaction to hot dogs?”
They laugh out loud and exchange insider glances. One says (the mockery in his voice palpable), “Now, a hot dog is a whole different animal. In that you can have up to 30 percent fat and still call it a hot dog and people will love it.” I think of my mother rolling pigsin- a-blanket for every holiday meal—and of every suburban kid at every cookout, ever.
At Christman’s Meat Market in Oley, home of the gourmet scrapple, there’s a mounted deer head every few feet. Antlers crown the woodpaneled room and in the center there are a few aisles of provisions:
yellow mustard, white bread, blue boxes of macaroni and cheese. A freak October snowstorm is bearing down on the area, causing Christman’s to buzz with pre-snowpocalypse urgency. Shoppers are stocking up on smoked pork, bacon, potato salad—emergency supplies. The lady running the busy counter goes into the back to get the owner.
“I’ve been told your scrapple is gourmet.”
His shoulders relax and he laughs, blue eyes sparkling. “Well, it’s my great-uncle—no, wait, my greatgreat- uncle’s recipe. Takes all day. You collect up all your bones from butchering for the week. Put those in a pot, cover ’em with water and add your spices: salt, pepper, coriander. Liver goes in, some kidneys, some heart. Not too much.
Just a couple pounds for a 300-pound batch of scrapple. Now, here’s the secret family recipe: add cornmeal till it’s yellow enough, buckwheat till it’s dark enough and flour till it’s thick enough.”
I recognize the millionth retelling of a well-honed story and hear my father’s cadence in his voice. “Can I get some?” “Nope, sold out. Storm’s comin’ and it just got bought up.”
What’s in scrapple? Not the pickled pig snouts from Dietrich’s that now sit next to my keyboard, reminding me of my boundaries and making my lip curl. Maybe liver, but maybe not. Not fat. Not “any of that weird stuff.”
Just a bad reputation.
Back home, I fry up a few slices of my meat-pudding souvenir, my sensory memory warm and humming with friendly Penn-Dutch butchers and sunlit childhood comfort breakfasts. I pour on some maple syrup, then some more, and check the Internet to discover that the web URL www.scrapple.com is not available. It’s owned by someone in Brooklyn. Depending on that person, this may be scrapple’s first step to ironic rehabilitation. So long as some butcher groupie doesn’t ask, “But what’s in it?”