Unpacking scrapple: How a loaf made from pig scraps became Baltimore’s favorite breakfast meat
By Kit Waskom Pollard
For The Baltimore Sun|
Jan 24, 2018 at 5:00 AM
As the head butcher at Parts & Labor, George Marsh chops up about six pigs a week. Some of the cuts become pork chops served at Woodberry Kitchen; some become bacon for Artifact Coffee.
But others — those that might be tossed by a different butcher — are shaped into a Mid-Atlantic delicacy at once venerated and reviled: the loaf of breakfast meat known as scrapple.
For Baltimoreans, the love of scrapple, an amalgam of pig scraps, cornmeal and sometimes buckwheat flour, is often tied up in nostalgia.
"I grew up eating scrapple. If my dad made breakfast, he would make scrapple. And I loved it," said Marsh, a native Marylander. "It's crispy; it's delicious."
Marsh makes between 100 and 150 pounds of scrapple every few weeks, cooking the "spare parts" of the pig — liver, kidneys, heart, skin, whole head, trotters and spleen — before they're diced, chilled and ground up for a mixture that includes cornmeal, buckwheat flour, pork stock, onions and seasonings, plus maple syrup for sweetness. The mixture is poured into dough pans to be chilled, then shaped into individual loaves, sliced and fried to order for diners.
It's not a pretty process.
Even scrapple's biggest fans acknowledge that it's "gross." But that doesn't stop them from loving it.
"The ingredients in hot dogs are as gross, if not more so. But all around the world, the 'gross foods' are often dishes that come from thrift and resourcefulness, so for those who love it, it will always be a badge of pride," said Kara Mae Harris, the Baltimore resident behind the blog Old Line Plate.
Marsh's techniques are similar to how farmers and butchers have made scrapple for centuries; the food's American roots can be traced back to the 17th century, when it was made by German immigrants living in Pennsylvania.
"When ancestors from the Rhineland came to America, they brought things they knew from Germany. Then the crop of corn was so prosperous, there was so much cornmeal, they began to incorporate it with sausage. It was the marriage of the corn and the meat," said Amy Strauss, author of the 2017 book "Pennsylvania Scrapple: A Delectable History."
Though scrapple is often thought of as a Pennsylvanian food, its connection with Maryland runs nearly as deep.
"Baltimore is as much of a scrapple town as Philadelphia," culinary historian William Woys Weaver wrote in his 2003 book "Country Scrapple."
The Pennsylvania native points to some of Baltimore's historically important scrapple makers, including Parks Sausage Company, founded by the prominent African-American businessman Henry Green Parks Jr. in 1951. The Parks brand was sold to Dietz & Watson in 1999.
Weaver also credits a Marylander for the oldest datable recipe for American scrapple, published in the 1821 cookbook "Domestic Cookery: Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers" by Elizabeth Ellicott Lea. (She started with "eight pounds of scraps of pork, that will not do for sausage.")
Today, making scrapple at home is highly uncommon, and scrapple from small makers amounts to only a small percentage what's consumed in the Baltimore region.
The Bridgeville, Del., company supplies about 75 percent of the scrapple sold in the Baltimore-Washington region, according to Strauss. (Rapa executives did not respond to requests for comment on this article.)
When Blue Moon Cafe owner Sarah Simington moved to Baltimore from Southern California in 1996, she had never heard of scrapple. When she did learn about it, she heard that Rapa was the brand to buy.
"I did research on my region and area and decided that Rapa was the best way to go," she said. "That's the big one."
Marsh said his scrapple differs from Rapa's because the pigs he uses, high-quality heritage breeds and cross-breeds, are fattier. But when he started developing his own scrapple, he looked to Rapa for seasoning inspiration.
"When you talk about scrapple, everybody's like, 'Rapa's the best.' And I get it," he said. "When we make ketchup, we're trying to make Heinz. It needs to be similar to products people know."
But Rapa's dominance doesn't extend north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
In Philadelphia, Habbersett Scrapple, an old Pennsylvania brand, has about half the market, with Rapa taking just a quarter, Strauss said. She describes Rapa as being more heavily seasoned than the scrapple she grew up eating in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Though both brands have been owned by Jones Dairy Farm, a Wisconsin company, since the 1980s, they're a testament to scrapple lovers' hyper-regional preferences. Strauss said makers have stuck with the same recipe for generations, relying on family experts to taste each batch for consistency. She likens scrapple makers to the whiskey industry, where a master distiller is responsible for tasting the final product.
However, some elements of the process have evolved over time.
The staff at Miss Shirley's found that out when the restaurant opened in 2006 without scrapple on the menu.
"We had so many requests, so the second year we were open, we added it," said executive chef Brigitte Bledsoe.
It's now one of Miss Shirley's best-selling side dishes, and its popularity is unfailing.
"Scrapple is really consistent in sales," said Marsh. "It doesn't spike, doesn't drop off. It's just constantly selling at a decent rate."
It's even inspired drinks, like Dogfish Head's Rapa Scrapple-infused "Beer for Breakfast" stout and "Off the Hoof" scrapple-infused vodka from Delaware's Painted Stave Distilling.
The vodka — flavored with scrapple and common scrapple seasonings during the second distillation — quickly became the most successful product in the Painted Stave portfolio. Co-owner Ron Gomes said he gets emails from people all over the country hoping to buy it. By the end of last year, Off the Hoof was available in about 215 stores and restaurants in Maryland and Washington, D.C.; the company is hoping to double that number in 2018.
"It's an odd product, for sure, a niche product," Gomes said. "But it's been fun, and people seem to enjoy it."
Strauss sees potential for scrapple to gain new fans through the connection between its historical roots and today's food culture.
"Interest is growing because it's very sustainable," she said, referring to its production as a way to use the whole. "It fits with our nose-to-tail movement."
In recent years, scrapple has shown up on menus from Los Angeles to Portland, Ore. But in Baltimore, diners are often traditionalists when it comes to regional specialties. Here, the love for scrapple is ultimately tied to its regional roots and its unique flavor.
After all, as George Marsh said, "When scrapple is good, it's delicious."
The scrapple served at Artifact Coffee is made at Parts & Labor, the rare restaurant in Baltimore making it from scratch. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)
Making it yourself
It can be "pretty unappetizing" to make scrapple, admits Kara Mae Harris, the writer behind the Maryland food history blog Old Line Plate, and it requires hunting down ingredients and being flexible when it comes to recipes.
When Harris tried making scrapple at home, she sourced pigs' livers from Parts & Labor and found a jowl at Lexington Market. But, she warns that you might want to call ahead, since butchers won't necessarily have the necessary pork parts on hand.
Harris relied on several recipes, including one she calls "most practical," from "Chesapeake Bay Cooking from John Shields." Still, her final product turned out mushier than she would have liked, so she recommends playing with the amount of cornmeal included.
And because every pig is different, it's tough to simply follow a scrapple recipe exactly, said Parts & Labor head butcher George Marsh.
"I had to make it a lot of times before I felt like I had it right," he said. "Trying to follow a recipe, you can take some of the guidelines and get the base ingredients. But I have almost never found a recipe anywhere that I tried to replicate that I really liked."
Cooking from a loaf
How you prepare scrapple, from the slice to the fry, is just as important as the product itself.
"There's a science that goes into the slicing and preparation," said Blue Moon Cafe owner Sarah Simington. "People are very particular — it can't be too thin or thick."
Simington likes to slice hers somewhere around half an inch thick, while Parts & Labor's Marsh prefers a thinner slice, around a quarter-inch.
Frying it requires a degree of patience from the chef.
"We tell people it will take a little longer," said Simington, who cooks Blue Moon's scrapple in butter for at least 7 minutes on each side.
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George Marsh also warns to resist the temptation to flip the scrapple too soon. "You've got to be really, really patient and just let it get crispy," he said. "Don't bother flipping it. That's the point: to try to get it crispy."
Serving and plating
Scrapple is great on its own, but it also lends to condiments.
"There are ketchup scrapple eaters and syrup scrapple eaters," said Simington.
Culinary historian William Weaver Woys' family called their accompaniments "scrapple sauce." They might include pepper hash or green tomato relish; like Marsh, he falls firmly in the "no ketchup" camp.