Let Boston have her beans,
Her Emersonian themes,
And with weighty philosophic questions grapple;
But we in Philadelph,
Disintegrate the wealth,
That lurks within our own and only scrapple.
-Philadelphia Inquirer, December 7, 1889
For many people, the notion of waxing rhapsodic over "mystery meat" would boggle the mind and turn the stomach. But for countless generations of Dutchies and English alike, scrapple has been an inseparable part of the Keystone State's culture, and Pennsylvania has been what the Philadelphia Inquirer called in 1890, "Scrapple Paradise."
Scrapple is but one of the many varieties of dishes that arose from the need for the poorer classes in society to use as much of their butchered hogs as possible. This frugality has given more than one wag cause to refer to scrapple as "everything but the oink." In his book Country Scrapple, food historian William Woys Weaver lauds scrapple, reminding readers that "hot dogs and fast-food hamburgers contain far more frightening ingredients" and that if one were to "change the name to polenta nera [black polenta, or polenta made with buckwheat], you can sell scrapple in any upscale restaurant."
So, to paraphrase many non-Pennsylvanians, what the heck is scrapple?
Traditional scrapple is a by-product of the hog butchering process. Weaver describes scrapple as "a mixture of meat and flour cooked in meat stock until it thickens. It is allowed to stiffen and set like Italian polenta; it is then sliced and fried in a skillet until brown and crispy on both sides."
More specifically, the meat is culled from all over the hog after the standard cuts have been taken. Once the hams, the chops, the pork belly, and even the best sausage-making bits are harvested, there is still a fair amount of "usable pig" left. These pieces, including the parts generally referred to as "offal" (liver, kidneys, jowls, snouts, etc), are boiled in water to extract both flavor and natural gelatins. The meat is then removed from the broth and minced finely; bones are scraped to remove the last tiny morsels. When this process is complete, the meat is re-introduced to the broth and flavored with spices. Varying mixtures of sage, thyme, and marjoram are most common.
Once the flavorings are added and deemed properly made, the flour is mixed in. This is not, however, a simple dumping of all-purpose flour into a vat. Pennsylvania scrapple is known for including more than one kind of flour. Indeed, the traditional flour for scrapple throughout the Commonwealth is buckwheat flour. It is usually mixed with cornmeal and sometimes with wheat flour. The mixture is constantly stirred until it thickens. Ernest L. Rhamstine recalls that, when making scrapple at home in his youth, "the kids were drafted for stirring the thick meat-cornmeal mixture. Long wooden paddles, bigger than some of the kids, were used to mix the magic elixir in huge black iron kettles hung from tripods over outdoor fire pits." Once thickened, it is poured into molds to cool and set. In times before refrigeration, the loaves of scrapple would be covered in a layer of fat that would help preserve the scrapple. Commercially-produced scrapple clearly differs from the "one-pig-a-time" method described here and seen in the accompanying illustrations taken by the Klinger family during their annual scrapple-making in Pine Grove, Schuylkill County.
While the genesis of scrapple is not definitively known, antecedents of the dish are thought to have existed among the ancient Celts for whom the pig was a valued creature, often sacrificed to the gods. Clear ancestors of modern scrapple are found in medieval manuscripts and illuminations. Many scenes of peasants butchering hogs for their lords' tables have been found accompanied by scenes of them stirring great cauldrons, exactly the process followed in making traditional scrapple.
Medieval hog butchery and the need to save as much of the animal as possible for consumption led to many variations on a theme. French country patés come from the need to preserve the little bits of pork not part of more glamorous cuts of meat or even of sausage making. Anyone who has eaten a breakfast in Britain or Ireland has likely been served other scrapple cousins: black pudding (made with blood) and white pudding (without). Even on Pennsylvania shelves, there are other products that look "related" to scrapple.
One commonly found product in the scrapple family is headcheese. Larger sized chunks of meat from the head, feet, and other parts of the pig are cooked, seasoned, and placed in a mold of some sort. Natural gelatins bind the bits together. Later, the headcheese is sliced, generally for sandwich uses.
Another relative of scrapple is souse. The Farmer's Cabinet of Amherst, NH gives a recipe for this particular country treat: "Boil the feet of hogs till the bones come out easily, and remove them. Put them in a pot with pepper, salt, and cloves or allspice, and cover with vinegar." Where scrapple is usually a dull brown color, and while headcheese features clearly discernible chunks of meat amidst the gelatin, souse is usually a dull gray, flecked with the black grains of pepper. Unlike scrapple, souse is served cold.
Nowadays there are many sorts of scrapple. Traditional scrapple, of course, is made from pork, but a number of commercial manufacturers in the Mid-Atlantic region also produce a beef scrapple. Others market turkey scrapple, and there are recipes available for nut scrapple and even vegetarian scrapple!
Scrapple entered local parlance with meanings having nothing to with meat products of any kind. In Philadelphia in 1889, the Washington Critic noted that local politicians, ward bosses and others were "distributing the scrapple" on the street corners. Far from an effort to feed the poor, "distributing scrapple" was the local euphemism for bribes paid to voters! The Philadelphia Inquirer used the same terminology, saying that up to $40 per division had been paid out as "scrapple." Neither source speculated on the provenance of the term, though the similarity in the size and shape of sliced scrapple and paper currency seems a not unlikely origin.
A less sinister usage of "scrapple" can be found in an 1884 issue of the Wheeling Register. A short article with the headline "Scrapple" appeared on page three, and featured snippets reprinted from the New York Journal, the Burlington Free Press, the Bismarck Tribune and other publications. Only one story was over three sentences long. Clearly the physical qualities of scrapple—minced bits from all over the pig—struck the editors of the Register as a fitting metaphor for this highly-varied column filler.
Over the generations, scrapple has become synonymous with Pennsylvania cuisine. The heart of its commercial manufacture lies in Lancaster County where companies like Hatfield and Kunzler 's turn out thousands of one-pound packages of the Keystone State favorite. Small and specialty batches of scrapple can be found at butcher shops, Mennonite markets, and meat vendors throughout the Commonwealth. Many people in rural areas still make scrapple (or ponhaus, an older name for the same product) by hand, one hog at a time.
Regardless of the source of the scrapple—some of it is even made in Delaware!—it is a very popular product. Where diners across the rest of the country only offer bacon or sausage with a morning's eggs, Pennsylvania eateries usually offer "bacon, sausage, or scrapple." When diners are brought their thin-sliced, crispy-fried pieces of scrapple, they then must decide whether to eat it plain, covered in ketchup, in syrup, or in a variety of specialty sauces.
The Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia has held a "Scrapplefest" honoring what the food author Kenneth Finkel said was "a metaphor for Philadelphia." He insists that "Philadelphians can't exist without scrapple."
While this account from the Philadelphia Inquirer is over 100 years old, its assessment of the impact of scrapple in the Keystone State seems to hold up well:
Talking about scrapple, it's curious to observe what a hold it has on Pennsylvanians. It's like doughnuts Down East. There's more doughnuts eaten in Maine and Massachusetts in one winter than there are people in this country. Pennsylvania is the same kind of scrapple State. The people all love it. Society beauties who talk of nothing else but pate de foie gras at receptions, eat scrapple in the privacy of their own homes. Think of it! Scrapple on a West Walnut Street table! Maybe it doesn't sound high toned, but scrapple is a great dish.