Baltimore people fantasize about foods from their past. These are the dishes we savored and took for granted, then mourned when they were no longer around. That feeling of food nostalgia occurs plenty this month because of Thanksgiving and all its accumulated memories.
The old Heil meatpacking business in Hampden is no more. It shut down years ago and the plant, a rambling, cavernous structure, is now the Nepenthe Brewpub. Devoted fans of this pork operation rue the loss of the hams and sausage, but the Heil scrapple was the stuff of hog heaven.
We’ve just come off National Scrapple Day (Nov. 9) and this dish seems to be enjoying something of a culinary renaissance. If nothing else, it has gained in respect. It was once just one of those semi-weird regional dishes (derisively called the gray meat) offered at neighborhood hash houses and served by old time Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania cooks.
November is the month of homemade and small batch scrapple production. Hogs fattened up over the summer and fall get killed and transition into bacon and sausage. But those leftover parts don’t get thrown away. Think scrapple.
There is now a Facebook group, the Scrapple Trail, devoted to honoring this somewhat beloved dish. If you don’t like the concept of this dish, stay far away. It is not a meat product for the lily livered.
There is a geography attached to scrapple. While Philadelphia once claimed it as its own, the boundaries of the scrapple belt have expanded. The scrapple district now extends into New Jersey as far north as Toms River and north of Scranton, Pennsylvania. In Maryland, the market encompasses the Eastern Shore, Cecil and Harford counties as as far west as the mountains. Southern Maryland is included, as well as eastern Virginia and on down to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Scrapple seems to have found a spot for itself in the gentrified world of fancy butchers and food purveyors. Its fans are partisan and have their favorite pork packers. Like craft beer brewers, there are craft scrapple makers throughout the small towns of the Eastern Shore and Pennsylvania.
A Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture scrapple promotion asks the pointed question, is scrapple a “gross loaf or strange magic?”
There is also the question of what should accompany scrapple. The truly adventurous will make their own ketchup from ripe Maryland tomatoes in September. Otherwise, it’s the prepared ketchup found in any grocery. Others like scrapple with syrup and here it gets tricky. The favorite Baltimore syrup is King’s, once made on Key Highway in South Baltimore. Finding King’s is difficult and will take several trips to grocery stores.
A newcomer in the scrapple accompaniment discussion is bottled Old Bay sauce, a taste that will keep it local.
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There is no debating that scrapple requires a red-hot griddle or better yet, a well seasoned cast iron frying pan. It must be served with a crisp crust. Soggy, under-cooked scrapple is not nice.
Scrapple is made of bits of pork livers, snouts and other pig parts that don’t seem to end up in sausage. It is combined as a dose of corn meal and seasonings in one way or another.
Scrapple-eater H. L. Mencken commented in this newspaper on Nov. 15, 1906: “The scrapple season dawns upon us with its ravishing perfumes. For the brief month following the falling of the leaves it is the king-victual and master-aliment of the great plain people.”
“All the flavor is in the fat,” said master scrapple mixologist George Wetzelberger in a Sun article 25 years ago.
His family was in the pork products business in Baltimore since long before anyone worried about clogged arteries. The Wetzelberger family traded for decades along Gay Street at the Belair Market in what later became known as the Oldtown Mall.