In further defense of scrapple

Doubtless some readers will have been puzzled yesterday by my use of scrapple as a model of purity. But, you know, there is scrapple, and then there is scrapple. There’s country scrapple and city scrapple, as the distinction used to be drawn, back when country people, or at least country butchers, still made their own. There was country panhaas, made by Pennsylvania Germans, and there was its bastard cousin Philadelphia scrapple.

Scrapple, for ye uninitiated, is simply a meat pudding: a rich pork broth, thickened with cornmeal and seasoned with herbs, spices, and scraps of meat too small for other uses. It came from old Germany, where it was made from rabbit carcasses and thickened with buckwheat or spelt flour — hence the German name panhaas, which means, literally, “pan rabbit.” In Pennsylvania the Germans used what they had available to them, namely pork and cornmeal, and panhaas evolved into a way to salvage the last bits of the pig at late-fall butchering time. Molded into crocks, sealed with rendered lard, and stored in a cellar, the pudding kept all winter. City butchers learned the dish from their German neighbors, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, panhaas was becoming known outside the region as “Philadelphia scrapple.”

The debate over which version was better raged for more than a century. A city businessman named Joseph Hildreth claimed in the 1940s that panhaas was bland stuff, and that Philadelphia butchers had improved it by adding spices and meat scraps. But a fellow by the name of Bland Johaneson spoke up for the old-timers:

Scrapple, a butchering-time corruption of “scraps,” has been appropriated by Philadelphia, and labelled Philadelphia scrapple. What a lean corn-mealy, pepperless slab of melancholy mush masquerades under that name! And how it cries out for ketchup, Worcestershire sauce or whatever palate-jogger you will. Scrapple in Berks County is luscious, dark, and as dignified as black walnuts. It groans for no alien condiment or foreign frying fat. It fries itself, and the seasoning was done by an artist when it was made. Bland Johaneson, “Victualry Among the Pennsylvania Germans,” in The American Mercury, October 1926, pp. 196–198.

Nor was scrapple the only Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy to walk, as I once said, the “fine line between delicacy and disgust.” (I offer the usual apologies for quoting myself.) How about souse? If you’re thinking “head cheese” and gagging quietly into your keyboard, read James Michener’s depiction of the Mennonite butcher Levi Zendt at work:

Extracting stock from the bubbling kettle [of hogs’ feet, lean pork, and tongue], he poured it into a large crock to which he added twelve cups of the sourest cider vinegar the area could provide. “That’ll make ’em pucker,” he said. He then added twelve tablespoons of salt to give the souse a bite, three teaspoons of pepper to make it snap, and a handful of cloves and cinnamon bark to make it sweet. He placed the crock on the back of the stove, keeping it warm rather than hot. Twice he tasted it, smacking his lips over the acrid bite the vinegar and salt imparted, but he crushed two more cloves to give it better balance.

He now laid out twelve souse pans and placed in each of them round disks of the sourest Lancaster pickles and here and there a single small slice of pickled carrot. Then like an artist he adjusted various items to produce a more pleasing design.

After a few minutes he took the kettle of bubbling meat from the fire and with tongs began fishing out the larger pieces of meat, arranging them among the pickles and carrots in the bottom of the pans. It was here that Zendt souse achieved its visual distinction, because the meat came in two colors, white chunks from the fatty parts, red meat from the lean; he kept the two in balance… James Michener, Centennial (New York: Random House, 1974), pp. 304–305.

You get the idea. And my mouth is watering.

Here’s what I wrote elsewhere about the debate over country and city scrapple:

In part these claims are simply patriotic posturing, but the debate over the true nature of scrapple reveals the different ways “country” food — and by extension all of rural culture — is characterized. On the one hand, country cooking is primitive, bland, heavy, uncreative; on the other, it is rich, pure, homey, full of simple goodness…. Everyone agreed that scrapple was proof of Pennsylvania Dutch frugality… Dutch cooking was also democratic and unpretentious; food writer Archie Robertson commented that scrapple shows Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine to be “completely without class consciousness.” In the city, however, frugal became cheap and egalitarian became poor man’s food, what mothers served their children for breakfast because they could afford no better. Garden Spot, p. 119–120.

The debate no longer rages over scrapple, because nobody makes their own scrapple any more. (Well: except me, on occasion, and I have to buy neck bones to do it, which is hardly sporting.) What you can find is all nasty poor man’s industrial stuff; the country butchers have consolidated, and they’re doing things pretty much the way the city butchers always did. Instead the debate rages over hamburgers — and the arguments about frugality and egalitarianism have been flipped. Old-fashioned frugality is invoked to justify mechanical deboning of animal carcasses and the purveyance of “pink slime,” as is the high cost of food: poor people, it’s charged, have to eat. And what’s more egalitarian than a burger? If, on the other hand, I say that I’m going to buy a hunk of beef and grind it myself so that I know what I’m eating, I come off as an elitist. And to some extent I am; it’s hardly frugal to buy grass-fed chuck to grind for burgers a Boston butt to make homemade sausage. I’m hardly communing with the great democratic masses, hardly partaking of the daily bread of America. Food production has become so thoroughly industrialized that only a factory can claim the mantle of old-fashioned frugality, because the rest of us are buying retail. In the mid-twentieth century it was possible to claim the virtue of the old ways, because the old ways still existed; now those of us who try to re-create them are culinary tourists, foodies, pretenders.

I still, as I said, want the whole scrapple. The stuff in the meat case at the supermarket ain’t it: that’s a cheap plastic replica. But neither, exactly, is my homemade version made from neck bones, even if I buy them from the farmers’ market; it is, instead, a museum object, preserved for study. The culture that created it is gone, and I’m doing nothing to revive it; in its own way it’s as dead a thing as a frozen meat patty.

The solution, clearly, is to start raising my own hogs. In the meantime, I’m going to see if the guy at the farmers’ market has any pork tongue. You can eat pretty well in a lot of these museums nowadays.

2 thoughts on “In further defense of scrapple”

  1. it is indeed time to revive the value of frugality. not by eating the cheapest industrial manufactured slime we can find at the chain store, but by either raising (and killing) it ourselves, or perhaps buying or bartering for it from/with someone we know who did. the whole point of meat frugality is that the food is valuable. each and every part of it. especially if it was an animal…those are complex beings who have been sacrificed to feed us. it is appropriate that they should be expensive, and that we should honor them by using each and every part. you are not an elitist when you buy from the farmer’s market. have you asked them at the market what they do with the scraps? perhaps they would sell you some….

  2. Buying from the farmers market isn’t elitist, no. (Their scraps go into sausage, which I am generally happy to buy from farmers out there, although even then they don’t always closely control what the processors do. I’ve had problems with ground beef from the farmers’ market, too, because of processor sloppiness.) But I won’t go to much trouble to argue that buying a chuck roast from Whole Foods and grinding it myself for burgers isn’t elitist. Anyone who says it is would have a valid point; I’m buying the best cuts of meat at retail.

    Of course, Levi Zendt was using carefully chosen meat, too, so maybe I’m making too much of this. In any case I want to avoid any self-righteousness in talking about this stuff: I recognize my own complicity in the system, which I can’t entirely escape.

    Ultimately I think the other point I wandered into is that to re-create a food divorced from the culture that gave it life is to make it into a kind of museum object. That is a far more complicated subject than I probably should have raised in a blog post that was ostensibly about something as simple as scrapple.

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