By Richard Schneider
I have this theory about tourism, adventure, and priorities: If you can make a passable sketch of it, it’s probably not worth your time. Call it Pictionary Theory.
My wife and I have traveled a fair amount, and we don’t get much satisfaction rushing madcap around a new city, checking off tourist hotspots and worrying if we’ll make our next destination and not miss our flight. This is especially true now that we have kids. So we aim for depth of experience rather than breadth, usually scheduling one major destination a day, and planning a couple bonus outings in case everything goes well. Pictionary Theory helps us rank our options.
Take my hometown, Philadelphia. Given only one day to really get to know the city, what are the essential destinations? Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Rocky statue? Pictionary Theory says no. Most first-time visitors to Philly have probably seen those sites at the airport, in movies and textbooks, on TV and postcards, and could draw them well enough to win a round of Pictionary. So why bother? How much could actually visiting them add to the experience? The park rangers aren’t going to let you, like, ring the Liberty Bell.
Likewise, if you start your culinary tour of Philly with a cheese steak, a hoagie, and a soft pretzel, you’re missing out. Every “Philly-cheesesteak” pizza, every microwave pretzel, every Subway sandwich creates in your imagination an artless, amateurish, barely palatable sketch of the Philly originals. Even if you’ve dodged all those dodgy examples, you can guess what steak+cheese+bread is going to taste like. The room for magic is limited.
You don’t have to settle for a glance at the Liberty Bell and a tourist-model hoagie. You’re going to do Philly right, and that starts with eating Philly right. If you’re going to do the Magic Gardens, the Reading Terminal Market, and the Mütter Museum of Medical Oddities all in a day, you need a proper Philadelphia breakfast — the mottled gray/green, gelatinous oblong of pork parts called scrapple.
Like the best oddball regional foods, scrapple is a frugal old farm recipe that transcends its ingredient list: Pork Stock, Pork, Pork Skins, Corn Meal, Wheat Flour, Pork Hearts, Pork Livers, Pork Tongues, Salt and Spices, boiled and ground, then reboiled together and formed into a convenient loaf.
Yum. But, as Joni Mitchell sang so beautifully in one early demo, “I’ve looked at scrapple from both sides now.” Scrapple has a lot going for it: You can count the ingredients on your fingers, you can pronounce them, and they don’t include MSG or nitrates. Give it to the French and it might wind up as foie de porc.
Philly has a great diner culture, and a ton of breakfast joints. Any semi-respectable joint will serve scrapple all hours of the day. Don’t even bother sitting down if it’s not on the menu; life’s just too short for bad breakfast. The restaurant where I bused tables and flipped eggs in high school had trays full of the stuff in the fridge, prepped in long generous slices ready to be dropped into the deep fryer.
If you make scrapple at home, you probably slice it thin and sauté slowly, patiently, until it develops a crisp brown crust with a texture almost like a cracklin’ and a punchy black-pepper flavor. Or maybe you slice it thick and develop that same crust, but leave a warm, smooth center. Any way you slice it, you now love eating pig heart.
Scrapple thickness is a genuine issue in Philly, and my parents are on opposite sides. Dad would always rise half an hour before Mom and start the pan, our iPhone-thin slices making a ring around hers, which was a good half-inch thick. As a child, I assumed he did this because he was an old man and couldn’t sleep in anymore. Now, as a married father myself, I recognize that waking early to make breakfast is a supreme act of love, and THE THIRTIES ARE STILL THE PRIME OF YOUTH. Mom would peel back the crunchy top layer and scoop up creamy forkfuls, like crème brûlée, dabbing each one into ketchup before she ate them. Dad usually took his with a side of scrambled eggs streaked with ketchup. Scrapple is starchy and bold enough to stand on its own, but it plays well with others, too.
Since I moved from Philadelphia, my parents have kept me supplied with Christmas shipments of scrapple and other goods, often from Habbersettscrapple.com, where expats go for their fix of Philly’s favorite breakfast food. Come an autumn Saturday when your plans for the morning fall through, and you’re home alone sipping coffee and waiting for the day to begin rolling, and you’re wearing a flannel shirt, and Friday night lasted just a little too long, those shipments are a godsend.
Around this time every year, though, when there’s only one brick left in the freezer, I find myself lingering among the meat grinders in the local hardware stores thinking, “If we gave homemade scrapple for Christmas gifts, we’d have this puppy paid off by the end of the year.” Because if you asked me today, as hungry as I am, I’d give you my last slice. And if you didn’t ask, I’d talk you into taking it. Like the Rodin Museum, the Masonic Lodge, and the Toynbee Tiles, scrapple deserves to be appreciated, and you deserve to appreciate it.
I could shoot for the heroic simile comparing Philadelphia with scrapple, all those humble, disparate, gelatinous refugee parts coming together in an unexpected and deeply satisfying way. But ultimately it boils down to this: I saw a banner once on South Street that read, “If you wanted clean, you’d have visited Mom.” That’s the thing about scrapple and Philly. Sometimes, to taste the really exciting stuff, you need to lay aside the comfortable and familiar, look past the gray and slightly gritty exterior, and trust the locals’ strange appetites.
Richard Schneider is a Philadelphia expat and occasional writer who has managed to eat scrapple everywhere from Houston to the Slovak Republic.
Photos courtesy the author and Philadelphia Market Cafe.