To Scrapple, with Love: Memories of a Mid-Atlantic Mystery Meat

Until last month, I hadn’t eaten scrapple since I was nine or ten years old. But I’ve thought of it often throughout my life. It’s haunted me, I suppose. For a long time, I wanted to eat it again. Just not enough to pay $50 to order it online (stores don’t sell it in the Pacific Northwest, where I’ve lived for almost two decades now). Part of me was glad it wasn’t easily accessible. I feared it wouldn’t be the same, would be diminished—but I treasured the memory of it as much as the fact that it existed at all. And that it persisted.

Scrapple is a thing of contradictions: humble in appearance, yet exquisite in taste and texture. Perhaps equally beloved and reviled (by those who even know what it is). Mysterious, yet completely straightforward (once you know how it’s made). Immensely appealing, even when it’s also sometimes a little repulsive. The first bite itself is dichotomous—the craggy, crunchy, red-gold exterior belies the ineffably creamy center that almost liquifies on your tongue.

Scrapple is also a time machine, capable of transporting anyone who eats it back to culinary days of yore when every part of the animal was used by necessity and food was often both incredibly labor-intensive and relatively simple, as far as the end result. For me, the mere thought of scrapple evokes more recent history; it fixes me firmly in my childhood and connects me specifically to my father.

So, What Exactly Is Scrapple?

When I was little and first loved scrapple, I didn’t know anything about its make-up or origin, other than that it contained pork liver and came out of a bold red, white, and blue package (we were RAPA people, you see).

I can’t recall the liver component ever being a hurdle for me. I ate braunschweiger, another soft, livery mush-meat, just as often and with as much gusto as a kid (in thick, gout-inducing slices smushed between structurally unsound Wonder Bread, with an eye-watering amount of sharp yellow mustard and nothing else—and yes, this is still a fantastic combo). I might have been more squeamish about scrapple if I’d had the full story, although I like to think otherwise. If I’d still been eating scrapple as a teenager, I would have loved how it aligned with my fixation on the Foxfire books. They detailed, among many other facets of old-timey Appalachian homesteading life, how to dispatch, butcher, and use every little bit of a hog, save the squeal.

The traditional scrapple recipe involves boiling not just the liver but the heart, bones, snout, ears, tail, skin, tendons, and collagen-rich head—minus the brains, a delicacy best immediately scrambled with eggs (so I’ve heard), and the eyeballs, one of the few parts summarily discarded. It’s a totally organic Frankenfood composed of whatever hasn’t been used up yet, really.

After contributing their unctuousness to the mix, the bones and any large chunks of fat are tossed out. The nearly-collapsing meat is chopped or shredded and set aside, while the rich, porky broth is used to boil cornmeal until it’s pleasantly mushy—basically, meaty gruel. The finely chopped or ground meat is stirred back into this mix along with spices—sometimes a sage-heavy blend, though others emphasize coriander—and some flour (traditionally buckwheat flour) for binding. The porridge is then formed into rectangular loaves and cooled until set. It’s already cooked once you buy it, but before frying it, it’s a rather unappealing grey-to-beige in color, with darker bits speckling it throughout (for RAPA, anyway). Other brands and homemade versions may vary in color and general appearance but none of them are winning any food beauty contests.

Think of it as a crumbly pâté, if you will. If you like pork terrines, there’s no reason to balk at scrapple. If you don’t like them, consider trying scrapple anyway; once it hits a hot pan, it’s transformed into something directly opposed to terrine’s chilled smoothness. Despite its staunch working-class modesty, properly cooked scrapple is even a little akin to seared foie gras: the crispy crust yielding to the creamy, almost-melting middle. Okay, maybe only if you use your imagination. (And, to be perfectly honest, I have never actually eaten foie gras.) 

A properly crisped slice of scrapple ready for its close up (image by Jen Wheeler)

The Amish, Mennonites, and Pennsylvania Dutch in general are to thank for scrapple’s presence in the United States. They called it panhas (“pan rabbit”), and it might be that “panhaskröppel” (or “a slice of panhas”) is the actual origin of the “scrapple” moniker, rather than the fact that it’s made from scraps. It’s a fun word, in any case. And the more important point is that it’s a food endemic to the Delmarva Peninsula and other adjacent mid-Atlantic states. I grew up in Baltimore, which lies firmly within the Scrapple Belt. Philadelphia turns up a lot in online scrapple search results, most notably when it comes to restaurants serving it. There’s an annual scrapple festival held in Delaware.

Maybe if scrapple was rebranded—Amish breakfast pâté, Mennonite meatloaf, pork polenta, foie hog, breakfast sausage terrine—it would have a better chance of really taking off. Maybe not. Spam is extolled (if sometimes ironically) all around the world. But scrapple lacks the appealing kitschiness of the canned pork loaf, not to mention the astounding range of flavors which help make Spam internationally popular—although RAPA does make a Hot ‘N Spicy scrapple now, as well as one studded with bacon. And scrapple clearly appeals to a certain set of chefs who fetishize and/or celebrate artisanal American nose-to-tail eating, so you can sometimes find it far outside of its historic home range (including several places in Portland, OR, although for years I had no idea this was true). You can also find it in newfangled forms like scrapple poutine and scrapple waffles served okonomiyaki style.

Scrapple’s been on TV a few times, most notably as a Viewer’s Choice ingredient in a “Chopped” mystery basket. It didn’t go over too well, but that was in 2012. In more recent years, there have been several articles explaining and sometimes even celebrating scrapple. There was an entire book about it published in October 2017. William Woys Weaver’s Country Scrapple dates back to 2003, but despite excellent reviews, apparently didn’t do much to raise public consciousness of panhas. Both scrapple beer and scrapple vodka have been made reality. The Farmers’ Almanac notes a National Scrapple Day on November 9.

Hell, scrapple has a pretty healthy presence on Instagram. It may be a throwback, but it certainly hasn’t been left in the past. Yet it’s there, embedded in my own semi-ancient history, that it resonates so profoundly with me.

Scrapple Gets Personal (And Things Get a Little Dark)

Until last month, I’d never eaten scrapple in a restaurant, and I’d never cooked it for myself. Still, I’ve always possessed firm opinions on how it should be prepared. Because the scrapple loaf is so inherently soft, you should slice it thinly—not too thinly, lest it carbonize or turn out totally dry, if not crumble completely before you can get it to the pan. But a bit too thin is better than too thick, unless you want a mouthful of semi-liquid loose meat pudding. I only find the aforementioned almost-melting center enjoyable in small, proportionate doses. The pan (or griddle) should be cast iron and moderately hot. It should have plenty of oil or other fat in it, and you should sear your just-thick-enough slice of scrapple until each side has a robust, deep golden-brown crust. There should be substantial crunch on both sides, but the middle should be slightly creamy and warmed through and scrumptiously soft in contrast to the outsides.

There are many who consider scrapple a fine sandwich component, and while that is surely true, I never ate it that way.

I never even ate it as a breakfast side, which is how most sources categorize it, in the same realm as bacon and sausage links. I just ate it by itself, crisp and creamy and salty and deeply savory, still piping hot, doused in a sticky amber pool of sweet syrup (King Syrup is great if you can get it, but maple syrup will do).

Not nearly enough syrup on this scrapple (image by Neil Tierney)

That’s the way my dad served it to me. The only other food he ever made for me was vanilla ice cream with an exceedingly liberal dusting of Nesquick on top (which I would eat in powdery mouthfuls along with a scant layer of the ice cream beneath it so the malty chocolate granules would have to be replenished several times, because I acquired my sugar addiction early on).

There was no significance imbued in the cooking and eating of scrapple itself, at least not in the moments as they occurred; it wasn’t a special occasion meal, or even a meal at all, necessarily. It was just a homey, hearty snack he fried up on a whim and that we ate standing in the kitchen of my grandmother’s house, holding the plate in one hand and the fork in the other. I know he cooked it for me more than once but have no notion of how many times in total. Maybe two, maybe twelve. All those slices of scrapple are the same slice of scrapple. All those moments are distilled into one perfect blip of memory.

I am a natural and enthusiastic proponent of the notion that making and offering any kind of food is a sign of caring, which can definitely have its downside (overfeeding in the name of love was rampant during my childhood), but the idea is so resonant across cultures and eras and so ingrained in me that it’s just what I do. Throwing a party is essentially an excuse to make a massive amount of food. If you’re invited, it means—even if I barely come out of the kitchen to talk to you—I want to make you happy and make you feel welcome because I really like you. And if I believe that this is what all cooking for someone else means, then perhaps that’s why the image of my dad making scrapple for me sticks so persistently in my mind. It’s not just because the scrapple was delicious, although it was. It must also be proof that my father was kind and caring, at least some of the time. And that he cared for me, specifically.

It could be hard to tell; he struggled with bipolar disorder and other mental illness and could sometimes seem scary because of it. That’s a major oversimplification, but I was too young to understand anything other than how I felt when his mood darkened or spiked into mania. He could be hilarious, and wonderful—he made me laugh a lot, so hard my stomach hurt. He took me sailing. He taught me to use his IBM Selectric typewriter (which might in fact have been a Wheelwriter). He sort of tried to teach me to play guitar. Any inborn writing aptitude I possess is because of his blood, and his genes, in my veins and DNA, and it’s one of the very best things about me. But he could also be unnerving, and hurtful, and it was difficult to know how to deal with it all.

He punched me in the stomach once when I was just a little girl. It was the only time he ever struck me and it was enough to make me afraid of him forever. The pure shock of it and the emotional injury, at least in my recollection, were so much worse than any physical pain. Yet I got over it, I guess, in the sense that I didn’t think about it too much, and I didn’t stop seeing or speaking to him.

That disconnection didn’t happen until I was around 12 or 13, when, among other jarring comments reeled off on an answering machine, he called me “big evil” for failing to return his messages when he was hospitalized. I think it was just too overwhelming at that point to weather the reliable unpredictability of his moods anymore.

He couldn’t help being sick, of course, and I couldn’t help feeling powerless to manage my response to it, which was simply to retreat. I was in the throes of my own mental health issues at the time, and I was angry with him for passing those genes on to me too. I stopped engaging with him, refused to answer his calls, hid in my room when he came to the house (my parents divorced when I was a toddler but still lived within walking distance of each other). I avoided going places where I might run into him around the neighborhood; he was a habitual drinker of Big Gulps, so I stayed away from 7-Eleven as much as possible. Luckily, I preferred Royal Farms for their fried chicken and potato wedges anyway. I only really felt relaxed once I moved across the country, although he wasn’t the reason why I went.

cropped photo of bearded dad holding infant daughter
Family resemblance from day one (image property of Jen Wheeler)

I thought, many times, about writing to him. I’d hear a new song that I thought he’d like, or I’d go to the beach and remember how much fun it was when we went sailing, and how much we both loved the ocean. I wanted, often, to let him know I didn’t hate him, because I was afraid he might think I did. But I was also afraid of opening my life back up to him, because I didn’t know how or when he might get scary and upsetting again. And I never wanted him to know where I lived, because I knew if he did I’d feel unsafe and uncertain. He could show up at my door at any moment or appear while I was walking down the street any day. Even if that was unlikely, I’d always be on edge. There were lots of reasons not to contact him, so I didn’t.

He knew, generally, what was going on in my life because he talked to my aunt on occasion. I would likewise get sporadic updates about him—that he’d moved to a new apartment on his own; that he got a job driving a train at the zoo (and fell asleep at the wheel); that he was eating a lot of $16 rotisserie chickens from a boho grocer; that his hair and his beard had gone white, which was so odd to picture, and which I never did see for myself until his obituary ran online.

I knew, at some point, the longer I went without sending a letter and the older we both got, that he would probably die without us ever reconnecting. I frequently wrestled with whether I was okay with that. I never was, entirely, but I never reached out either. I felt sad about it, naturally (and guilty, and disappointed, and so many other things). In some ways, I felt like I’d already mourned him—or at least grieved and come to terms with the loss of our long-fractured relationship—well before he actually passed away.

But, of course, it was different to get the news that he had actually died. To know that it was finally too late. That he was gone—out of reach, forever.

That’s not wholly true, though, because he’s still here for me in so many real, immediate ways: in my need to write, my love of the water, my depression, the shape of my nose, my irregular urge to sprinkle chocolate milk powder on my ice cream, and in so many of my memories, happy and otherwise.

A Bite of Scrapple as a Bridge

My dad was complicated because he was human, and I thought about drawing some sort of parallel between scrapple—the one hot meal he ever cooked for me—and the amalgamation of all the intangible things I inherited from him, and our shared history: both the good and the bad, all intermingled, adding up to what could be considered unappealing by some, but which others could see the value in and appreciate, like I do.

Or I thought about suggesting that, along with all the other diametric things scrapple is—a curiosity, an artifact; a delicacy, a down-market punchline; derided, adored; old-fashioned, hip—it could also be, through the lens of my memory, synecdoche. It could be love.

But those flights of fancy are at odds with scrapple’s core down-to-earth simplicity. It’s a mushy, unassuming brick of congealed cornmeal and pig parts that many would just as soon throw away as eat. It’s humble food, rhapsodized by some, lambasted by others, and completely unknown to many more. In and of itself, it’s not a symbol, or a status item, or freighted with any intrinsic meaning. It’s just what was there and needed to be used up. And in my own life, it’s the same. It’s what was in the fridge when my dad and I were hungry. But he got it out and cooked it for me—for us both, and we ate it together—and for that, I’m glad, and grateful.

Last month, I finally ate scrapple again, at Gigi’s Café in Portland. It was inordinately exciting just to know they had it, and then to see it on the plate (the crunch gloriously evident before I even picked up my fork). I was still nervous that it wouldn’t be quite the same. And, of course, it wasn’t. I wish they sliced it a bit thicker and I’m sure the spices were slightly different than the ones I half-remember from my youth, but I was floored by the first bite, by how familiar it tasted and how much it was like taking a sacrament—at least for a moment.

I did get the tiniest bit teary; who wouldn’t when meeting an old friend after so long apart? But then that passed, and I simply enjoyed the experience, only dimly marveling at how strange it was to be tasting scrapple again at all, and in such a foreign-to-me context—with other people in a restaurant, with eggs and potatoes and a fabulously distracting miniature lemon curd waffle sharing the spotlight.

I’d still like to get a block of “raw” scrapple and slice it to my own perfect thickness, fry it up at home, and eat it when no one else is around, with nothing else on the plate save syrup. I don’t know if it would be a better or purer or more transcendent experience, but it would certainly be delicious.

At Gigi’s, I focused on the scrapple itself and did feel transported in the sense that it briefly zapped me back to another time and place in my mind. But I was also still entirely in the present. It was neither an exorcism nor a resurrection. It was an edible memory aid that could never be as poignant as the memory itself.

It was, ultimately, almost anticlimactic, no doubt due to overinflated expectations. But it was good. And in no time, it was gone.

overhead view of white plate with egg yolk and maple syrup after breakfast
Another memory in the end (image by Jen Wheeler)

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