In Philadelphia, we love to debate about our favorite local foods. I’ve seen alliances form over who sells the best hoagies, and friendships tested over where to find the ultimate cheesesteak. But there are few regional foods as polarizing as scrapple. People either passionately love it or vehemently detest it.
While it’s uncertain whether the word scrapple comes from scraps, the diner staple itself certainly does: It’s a waste-not, want-not food born of resourcefulness. And like its many relatives around the world — from chicken feet to tripe to perhaps scrapple’s closest American cousin, meatloaf — it can pass as a delicacy just as easily as it can a deterrent.
In Anna Wetherill Reed’s 1963 cookbook The Philadelphia Cook Book of Town and Country, documenting “famous dishes and celebrated menus from Colonial days to the present,” a recipe for Pennsylvania Dutch scrapple calls for cooking the head meat, tongue, liver, and skin of a pig as well as “other bones with any amount of meat” until the meat falls off the bones. The cook should then grind the meat, boil it with spices and buckwheat flour (some variations also call for cornmeal), stir it until thickened, and press it into a gray, mushy “bone-broth loaf.”
Based solely on this kind of description, a lot of naysayers will reject scrapple before it even hits their plates. But as a lifetime member of the scrapple fan club, I urge you to keep an open mind to the mysterious charm of this pork pate. Once it’s fried up on the griddle and those floppy gray slices turn crispy, golden brown on the outside and soft on the inside, you’ll understand why scrapple is the cornerstone of so many breakfasts in the Philly area.
But the local love of scrapple is about more than just its flavor. For many who live in the Mid-Atlantic, scrapple is a sentimental taste of nostalgia. It’s part of a family tradition, whether that be breakfast at grandma’s where the Habbersett (our region’s iconic scrapple brand) never ran out, or a butchering day tradition where families of farmers would work together to use up every part of the pig (scrapple contains “everything but the oink,” as they say).
For me, scrapple is a diner ritual. I slide into a booth, get a hot coffee in a thick, white mug, and thumb through the lengthy menu, considering its many options only to order my usual: two eggs and home fries with a side of scrapple. I don’t even remember the first time I tried scrapple, or combined its savory saltiness with the runny yolk of my sunny side up eggs. It’s an implicit memory — a habit that brings me back to simpler times and the flavors of my youth. To me, scrapple is the epitome of comfort food.
It’s a comfort I go back to when I’m craving a sense of familiarity, especially in moments when I miss what Philadelphia used to be. So much in the city has changed over the years. Institutions have been knocked down to make way for high rises, and other landmarks face similarly uncertain futures. Some of my friends, newcomers to the city, never got to hear the 3 a.m. cacophony of scrapple sizzling on the griddle at the original Little Pete’s Diner (though a solid alternative exists) or cap off a scrapple breakfast with Melrose Diner’s famous butter cookies. (The owner of Melrose Diner has said it would stick around, but in recent months, locals complain it’s been closed).
But there are still time capsules that preserve the unpretentious energy that I always felt was the core of Philadelphia’s spirit. Mainstay greasy spoons like Down Home Diner and Dutch Eating Place in Reading Terminal Market, South Philly’s Penrose Diner, and Sulimay’s Restaurant in Fishtown remain bastions of working-class customers, upholding the humble sustenance of scrapple. Meanwhile, a new generation of restaurants and butchers like Stockyard Sandwich Co. and Elwood have returned to the dish’s farming roots, paying homage to its resilient nature by making their own small-batch scrapples from scratch.
Change is inevitable, but while it’s exciting to see where Philadelphia is going, I still like to dip my fork into where the city has come from. Scrapple has maintained a comforting consistency that anchors Philadelphia’s identity as a place where you can come as you are and turn an unlikely hodgepodge of ingredients into something great.