Scapple is a meat with a history that’s as long as the history of our country. Though it’s not collectible (though its packaging is), it’s the kind of thing that can get people — some people — very excited.
I once knew a man, now gone, named Horace Bannon. Horace, who was 100 years old, claimed to have eaten scrapple every day of his life. When he finally went into a nursing home, they refused to serve it to him for health reasons. So he routinely tried to bribe the staff to smuggle it in. “You can hide it in your pants,” he’d offer helpfully, his gray eyes twinkling under brushy eyebrows.
Sitting in his wheel chair, he would talk about all the scrapple he had in his life then, filled with memories, he would let out a deep, satisfied sigh and fall asleep, smiling.
Horace’s reaction is not unusual. The truth is that this breakfast meat creates either trance-like dedication or utter revulsion. There is no in-between as far as scrapple goes. So polarizing has the discussion of scrapple become that it can bring otherwise reasonable people nearly to blows, a food version of the debate about gun control, global warming or President Obama. You either love scrapple or you hate it.
Some say that scrapple was born of the early Amish and Mennonite settlers’ desire to be frugal, to use every last scrap, and thus the name. Others claim that because it was a food made from the by-product of butchering, the name comes from scrabble, as in “living a hardscrabble existence.” Either way, while the concept of frugality is admirable, many people find the resulting food disturbing enough to freeze a fork midway between plate and mouth.
Food historian William Woys Weaver politely describes scrapple as “a mixture of meat and flour cooked in meat stock until it thickens . . . [which is then] sliced and fried in a skillet until brown and crispy on both sides.” Wikipedia, on the other hand, less generous and more graphic, says it is “typically made of hog offal, such as the head, heart, liver, and other trimmings, which are boiled with any bones attached (often the entire head), to make a broth.”
Scrapple was never really meant to be cooked in a kitchen. For hundreds of years scrapple came to life in one of millions of humble, fly-filled butchering sheds. It was a cold weather food, made when the pigs were slaughtered in the fall and one that had a limited shelf life. In the days before refrigeration and plastic wrappers, scrapple was delivered in crocks or pans, sealed with a thin layer of rendered pork fat.
Today, tamed by the meat-packing industry and confined to the kitchen, scrapple is taken from its vacuum sealed surroundings and cut into thin slices. The heat on the stove is turned on high, the skillet is put on and brushed with just enough pork fat to make it look shiny. When the fat begins to smoke, the heat is turned to low and the scrapple dropped in to brown on one side for 8 – 10 minutes. Serve the scrapple when there is a golden crust on both sides.
Would you like to try making your own slice of meat history but are put off by an ingredient list that could scare the wits out of even the most dedicated meat eater? Try the recipe below. And instead of using hog offal, use some ground meat of your choice. That way you can control what goes in it and you can enjoy it without having to (shudder) think about the ingredients. Maybe you can even substitute Morningstar Farms soy “Meal Starters” for the meat.
Authentic Amish/Mennonite Scrapple Recipe*
3 c. water, stock or broth
3/4 c. raw ground meat of your choice
1 1/2 c. cornmeal
1/3 c. flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. each of savory, sage and pepper
1 1/2 c. cold water
Bring a pan of water, stock or broth to a boil. Slowly add the cornmeal to the boiling water. Stir constantly with a wire whisk. When it begins to thicken, add small amounts of the raw meat.
When the mixture is well blended, turn it into a double boiler and cook over hot water for two hours. Pour into a loaf pan and chill for 12 hours. Slice into 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick pieces, dust with flour and fry until golden brown. Scrapple is often served with syrup, jam, apple sauce or apple butter.
So the next time you’re traveling through the Lancaster County region and you see a billboard for a restaurant enthusiastically touting “Local Favorite Scrapple!” stop in for a bit of food history. At least, now, you know what you’re getting into. Then we’ll talk about another historic food favorite, stuffed pig stomach.
Or maybe not.
Joe Miller, AtticExplorers.com
See clips from the Discovery Channel program Dirty Jobs where host Mike Rowe makes scrapple. For a readable but near scholarly book about scrapple, check out Country Scrapple: An American Tradition. Thanks to Stu Spivak for the scrapple photo.
*Recipe is an actual heritage recipe with generic ground meat substituted for pig offal.