Helen Chappell - January 2007
Recently, I found myself with some British visitors, looking at the breakfast menu at Carpenter Street. “What’s scrapple?” they asked.
“Only the most wonderful breakfast meat in the world,” I replied.
“It’s pork stuff, cornmeal and spices. Sage, pepper, salt and a smidge of red pepper. You fry it until it has a nice little crust, then you serve it.”
“Pork stuff?” my female British acquaintance asked, wrinkling her nose.
“Everything that’s left over when you slaughter a pig. What doesn’t make ham or pork chops. They grind it up with cornmeal and spices, and shape it into a loaf. They you cut off slices and fry them, preferably in an iron skillet. It’s quite popular around here. In the deep South they call it liver mush.”
“Ugh,” said her male companion. “Including organ meats?”
“Like sausage, but without the casing,” I pointed out.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” she said, as if I had suggested they have a nice mess of baked grasshoppers.
I’m sitting there, looking at them ordering omelets and thinking about the old saying that hell is a place where the British do the cooking. Think greasy fried fish, boiled-to-death vegetables, mutton, sickening sweet tea pastries, wretched coffees. Plonk. Shepherd’s pie! No wonder so many British people eat curries. The cuisine of India has that of the U.K. beat all hollow. And they think scrapple is awful? No wonder the sun set on the British Empire.
But I got to thinking about it, and it does seem that scrapple is one of those things you have to be born into. Either you love it or you hate it. No one is indifferent to scrapple, it would seem.
Really, it’s just sausage without the casing. And a true sausage casing, you’ll be pleased to know, is made from the cleaned out entrails of a hog, so how can you sit there and say it’s any different? Except, of course, that scrapple is far superior to sausage for anyone who grew up with a side of that fine product next to their pancakes and eggs on the breakfast table.
The days when people grew and manufactured their own food is long gone, of course. Now everything comes from the supermarket or the roadside produce stand. Save for a few hardy souls who still raise their own tomatoes and maybe some beans and cukes, we no longer get down and dirty they way people once did when everyone kept a few chickens and raised a pig every year in their own backyards.
The small farm has been replaced by agribusiness, which around here means raising corn, soybeans and tract housing. The beans and corn go to feed the chicken houses of Perdue and Tyson. I’m not sure what the tract housing feeds, except they’ve never heard of scrapple, which is a great shame.
I’m not saying scrapple is good for you. Just looking at the fats and organ meats will probably cause your arteries to slam shut like a bank vault. And the days when the seven or eight family members could polish off a pound of it at breakfast, together with a couple dozen cat’s head biscuits, ham, bacon, a raft of eggs, two-foot-high stacks of pancakes and red eye gravy, then work it all off in the fields – well, those days will not come again.
Still, when the weather turns cold, and the darkness comes early, comfort food takes the edge off the long winters, if done in moderation.
A rainy, blustery night can seem less dreary with a bit of scrapple and some scrambled eggs all fired up in that ancient black iron skillet, eaten in a warmly lit kitchen with the outside elements held at bay.
And what Sunday morning doesn’t pass more cheerfully with the leisure to make honest-to-God real buckwheat pancakes and a second, maybe even a third cup of coffee with weekend guests? Add some homemade scrapple and you have the real deal, the stuff childhood memories are made of.
So, every fall, I go to the butcher’s and buy a pound of scrapple – my supply for the entire year. Autumn is traditionally the time when fattened-up pigs are killed and their meat preserved for a long winter ahead. I parcel my scrapple out, bit by bit, until it’s gone – then it’s back to the beige sensibility of oatmeal and fruit and coffee. Hardly a trencherman’s meal, but then I don’t lead a trencherman’s life either, and the rest of the year I rarely eat pork.
The days when I could go down home and buy several pounds of John Lewis’ homemade sausage in Cornersville, below where I grew up on Ross Neck, are long gone too. John retired and sold the store where I spent a lot of my childhood, and now everyone’s a stranger. It wasn’t quite scrapple, of course, but it was wonderful and it made great Christmas gifts for people who might otherwise never know what real sausage tasted like. People raised in suburbia, whose sausages were pumped out of factories and into plastic tubes, might not have known what they’d missed.
But like most people raised to eat scrapple, I treasure it, not simply as a comfort food and a great memory of childhood, but as a regional dish you either love or you hate.
I can really understand why people whose exposure to scrapple came late in life might turn their noses up at it. It just sounds awful to those from away. And in an age of food snobbery, scrapple is just awfully plebeian. And maybe even more plebeian, when you call it livermush, as they do further south of here, where they have been known to pour syrup on it. When I was a kid, we sometimes made sandwiches, and poured ketchup on it.
It comes from a time when making food was hard, and nothing, but nothing got wasted because people were poor and winter was long. I’ve been unable to discover if its origins are English or German. But for some of us, scrapple is in our genetic code, passed down through the generations. For us, it’s a comfort food, invoking fond memories of childhood and cholesterol.
As a regional food, understanding of scrapple seems to extend from western Pennsylvania, into southern New Jersey, as far west as parts of West Virginia and as far south as Georgia. It’s interesting to note that a friend, native to Kentucky, never heard of it until I explained it to her. And even then, she thought it was liverwurst. Manhattan knows scrapple not, nor does Boston. Poor them!
It seems to have definite geographical boundaries, for mysterious anthropological reasons as yet undetermined.
Yet, so popular is it in this corner of the world that Bridgeville, Delaware, holds an Apple-Scrapple Festival every year!