In the world of breakfast meats, scrapple ranks as the most underappreciated. Part of scrapple’s unpopularity is likely due to its name, which contains both the words “scrap” and “crap.” But the other part comes from the fact that most people have no idea what the hell scrapple actually is.
That includes me, a longtime resident of the unofficial scrapple region of Pennsylvania. A region 20 minutes east of a place where there are still horse-drawn carriages, Amish farmers’ markets, and towns with names like New Holland. Out here, you’ll find scrapple on just about every diner menu—and if it’s not, you had better find a different diner.
Scrapple, as locals joke, is made of “everything but the oink,” meaning that you’d make scrapple out of whatever parts of the pig you had leftover after cutting bacon, chops, ribs, and loin. The processed pork product has the size, shape, and color of solid concrete blocks. Uncooked, it’s not much to look at. But sliced into quarter-inch-thick rectangles, hot-cooked crispy around the edges and slightly soft in the center, scrapple is a two-textured treat of salty, porky deliciousness. Even thick-cut bacon can’t match its flavor.
Curious as to how scrapple derives its powers, I spent the day at Dietrich’s Meats & Country Store in Lenhartsville, PA. Dietrich’s, a family-run operation, has been butchering, curing, smoking, and slicing at their facility since 1975.
“We’re carrying on tradition here,” says Marlin Dietrich, a barrel of a man whose hands look like they could crush stone. “Years ago, farming was a way of life. You were inventive and self-sufficient. Scrapple was part of that.”
It’s 7:45 a.m. and I’m standing in what can only be described as a scrapple sauna. Steam rises from two massive stainless steel vats. The largest, Marlin tells me, contains 500 pounds of pork and beef bones. I feel the heat from the roiling cauldron against my temples. The entire rooms sweats.
“Back in the day, the Pennsylvania Dutch would cook their scrapple in cast iron over a wood fire,” Marlin says. “But the government won’t let you do that anymore if you want to sell it.”
The bones, left over from the week’s slaughter, will boil for at least four hours. Next to the bone vat is a separate vat filled with liver and skin, some of which will eventually join the meat to enhance its richness.
Periodically, Marlin plucks a hunk of animal product from the tub. “It’s ready when you can pull the meat off the bone,” he says. Sliding a morsel of what may have been a pig’s foot between his lips, Marlin nods. “Let me get Larry.”
Larry Kutz struts into the sauna as Marlin departs. He’s stocky in a powerful way, and you immediately learn why. Larry hoists a long-handled strainer up and into the pot of bones and lifts. Steam billows. Golden broth streams from the giant colander. Larry’s forearms strain.
“So you’re the muscle, huh?” I say.
“Either that or the dummy,” he responds.
Larry transfers the cooked bones to several large stainless-steel carts. The bones on the cart will cool until they are safe to touch, about an hour. He then drains the liver-and-skin vat, the contents of which lands in large plastic buckets with a strong plop! The scrapple sauna smells of iron ore, wooden crates, nutmeg, and that strange sweetness unique to organ meats. The luscious stock left behind continues to simmer.
Then, six Dietrich’s employees—Bill Moyer, Andrew Dietrich, Anson Dietrich, Andrew Pike, Emily Kutz, and Becky Zinn—gather around one of the bone carts. They begin picking up pieces and removing the meat from the bones by hand. To the sounds of buzzing bone saws, clattering steel, and industrial exhaust fans, the bullshitting begins.
Bill tells a story about the time he accidentally set himself on fire (“I just took my shirt off.”), someone professes their love of gumbo (“You mean the thing with the big ears that flies around?”), and in a quick hour the flurry of hands has collected three behemoth buckets of pulled meat.
Bill then takes each of these buckets, heaves them onto a floor scooter, and pushes them over to a formidable industrial grinder with the name “Butcher Boy.” Bill then shuttles the 300 pounds of ground meat back to the scrapple sauna, where it reunites with the simmering stock and joins some of the reserved ground liver and fat.
Marlin enters with a pail that contains a 20-pound mixture of salt, ground black pepper, and ground coriander. Why coriander?
“That’s what the Pennsylvania Dutch use,” Marlin says matter-of-factly. He then lowers what looks like front of a small prop plane onto the vat and asks me to step back. The large paddles awaken. A few gallons of hot meat broth tidal-waves over the rim and into the grates below. The smell of coriander pierces everything.
Over the course of the next several hours (“It’s usually two to four, depending on how distracted Marlin gets” Bill says), Marlin fine-tunes the scrapple. Periodically, he’ll add a hefty shake of ground flour and/or ground buckwheat to the meat scraps.
“It takes very little to make good scrapple,” he says. “The flour thickens the texture. The buckwheat isn’t too heavy. It lightens things up. You want a creamy texture.”
Towards the end of his alchemy, Marlin pulls a gnarled spoon from a nearby shelf. He dips the bowl of the spoon into the swirling scrapple and lifts it before his eyes.
“You want it to stick to the spoon. When it cuts off like that, it’s done,” he says, referencing the gravity-defying ability of the scrapple mush to cling to the utensil.
Marlin then tastes the nearly finished product, adds more ground coriander, tastes it again, and issues his nod of approval.
Bill arrives to help Marlin fill 5.5-pound plastic containers with scrapple, which they then shuffle to a 34°F refrigerator to chill overnight.
A few Dietrich’s employees visit the kettle to scrape and lick the scrapple remains, as if it were cake batter, before Larry hoses down the machinery.
You’d never know, looking at the stuff, that Dietrich’s scrapple took more than 24 hours to produce, with the assistance of seven employees, and close to a half ton of ingredients. If you knew, you might be less likely to dismiss the delicacy. This isn’t some hipster chef making small batches of lookalike scrapple. This is rough-hewn, old-world, down-and-dirty cooking that requires sweat, brute force, and respect for tradition.
“People say you shouldn’t eat scrapple,” Marlin says. “But you go out and eat a pizza and drink a Pepsi. What’s in that? Scrapple is just meat and flour.”
“Today, most everything is marketing. You see a picture of a farm on a truck or on a package and you don’t see any animals. People don’t want to know about where their food comes from anymore,” he says.
Toward the end of the scrapple cooking process, Marlin’s grandson, Owen, jumped into Marlin’s arms. They both watched the hypnotizing swirl of paddles churning the scrapple in the vat. Marlin asked him if it looked good and Owen beamed.
When I unwrapped my scrapple at home the next morning, I did so with more reverence than usual. When a slab hit the skillet, I inhaled the coriander. I flipped the slice with greater care. And when I finally bit through the crunchy crust to the creamy meat inside, I could taste the effort and attention and time. Before I knew what was happening, I was nodding my head in approval, just like Marlin.
Scrapple Tea Sandwiches with Maple Syrup
This is the recipe I make for people who have never had scrapple before. The keys are a hot cast-iron skillet, some cheap white bread, and syrup, which creates a one-two punch of sweet and salty.
- Yields: 4 sandwiches
- Cook Time: 10 minutes
- Hands-On Time: 5 minutes
- Total Time: 20 minutes
In a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the scrapple, working in batches if necessary, and sear until the underside is crispy and dark brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Flip the scrapple and sear the other side until crisped, another 3 minutes. Transfer the scrapple to a plate lined with paper towels to drain.
Place a slab of scrapple on a slice of bread, drizzle with syrup, close the sandwich, and cut off the crusts, if you want. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. Makes 4 sandwiches.