Open a breakfast menu south of I-195, and you will likely find scrapple nuzzling up to the bacon and sausage like a groupie angling for a photo with the headliners. North of that handy dividing line, the crispy, pan-fried breakfast meat is usually out of the picture. Why is that?
South Jerseyans have scrapple in their blood, or perhaps their arteries. They’ve been eating it since the late 1800s, when it crossed the river from Philadelphia, where the locals picked up the scent and sizzle from the Pennsylvania Dutch. Those settlers from Germany’s Lower Rhineland—“Dutch” was an Americanization of “Deutsch,” the language they spoke on arrival—had brought it with them in the late 1700s. In the Old Country, they called it panhas.
Scrapple gets its modern name from its essential ingredient, pork scraps. Gathered up after butchering, the leftover parts were, and still are, boiled for hours to produce a meaty broth that is traditionally thickened with cornmeal and buckwheat flour. Liberally seasoned and cooked to a pudding-like consistency, it is poured into loaf pans to cool. Sliced and sautéed, it adds a rich, porky mouthfeel to even the simplest breakfast. But because of what it’s made from, scrapple has had an image problem, as evidenced by its never beating bacon, ham or sausage for top billing on menus.
Yet scrapple may be poised for a comeback. Does any foodstuff better epitomize the ageless, waste-not-want-not ethos now in vogue as nose-to-tail eating?
“Scrapple has had a revival,” says Jeff Bringhurst, owner of Bringhurst Meats in Berlin. Interest in artisanal products free of preservatives, binders and MSG is winning new customers for the economical ($2.49/lb) scrapple his family has made since his father and uncle opened their butcher shop in 1934. “We have a huge influx across the whole gamut, from old-timers to young people who want to buy local,” he says.
The Bringhursts, native Philadelphians, brought their recipe with them when they settled on a Camden County farm in 1908. That recipe, flavored with sage and a little pepper, exemplifies the Philadelphia style, which Bringhurst, 56, describes as darker in color and more flavorful than the Lancaster County Pennsylvania Dutch style. “I like the pepper flavor we have,” he says. “It’s not the first flavor you taste. I think the sage is the first flavor that hits you, and the pepper is the second.” Unlike some commercial scrapples, Bringhurst never tosses pork skin, offal or whole heads into the pot. “We stick to hearts, tongues and jowls,” he says. “I think it gives a cleaner flavor.” He sells between 200 and 400 pounds a week.
Pennsylvania is where husband and wife Peggy and Theodore Zervos learned to love and make scrapple. They picked up the skill working in a diner on the left side of the Delaware. Now their Edison Family Restaurant in Edison is the rare eatery that makes its own.
By 1908, when the Bringhursts hit the Garden State, the Haines family of Mickleton, Gloucester County, already had four decades of scrapple savvy under their belts. When the Civil War ended in 1865, enterprising Rachel Haines hitched up her wagon in the autumn and made the rounds of farmers slaughtering their pigs. She turned their piles of carcasses into money in the form of compact loaves of tasty food.
Rachel’s great-great-greatgranddaughter Margaret and her husband, Harry Sheldon, still follow the original recipe. At the Haines Pork Shop in Mickelton, Sheldon took a few minutes from helping customers to explain the process.
“We add hearts, tongues and livers in net bags and hand-pick all the meat off the bones after boiling for four hours,” he said. “Then we grind the meat, put it back in, add our own seasoning and stir in cornmeal and wheat flour.”
Wheat makes Haines the rare scrapple that is not gluten free. (Another is made by Niblock’s Pork Store in Quinton, following a generations-old family recipe.) Wheat, more neutral in flavor than buckwheat, may account for the distinctive taste of Haines, in which cornmeal shares the spotlight with the vivid pork notes that are a hallmark of artisanal scrapples.
“My wife doesn’t like it too much,” Sheldon remarked. “I love it, though. I know what we put in our scrapple, and I would eat it every day of the week.”
Sheldon made about 400 pounds a week on site, until last summer, when the old boiler gave out. Now he commissions Leidy’s, a leading pork purveyor in Pennsylvania, to make scrapple following the family recipe.
“It’s hard to tell the difference,” Sheldon said. “Customers don’t ask for one or the other. Sometimes our Pennsylvania batches are a little more dense or drier. Making scrapple is a feel thing; there’s no science to it.”
Additional reporting by Brian Yarvin