Executive Chef Nick Elmi says no outsiders in the kitchen, as he bounces two-year-old daughter Grace Marie on his knee. “Not right now,” he adds firmly. “Sorry.”
It’s two o’clock on a Thursday afternoon in early December, and while the Rittenhouse Tavern dining room is calm – the wooden tables have been cleared of food and neatly set with silver utensils for the next round of guests – behind the scenes, it’s a madhouse. Tonight, Elmi will roll back his gingham sleeves, feed three parties, and lend his friend a hand offsite. He allegedly brought extra cooks on board to help him get it all done, and they’re purportedly buzzing around behind those closed doors. Anyone who doubts the veracity of Elmi’s statements is just going to have to take his word for it.
On top of it all, Elmi’s got a towering tray of pig trotters to worry about. The team has to braise them, and stat. They’ll sear the parts off lightly, reduce some wine, add pork stock, and cook the brew for six hours. Why the rush? Elmi sighs deeply and takes a gulp of his cappuccino. This Tuesday, he says, scrapple is back on menu.
The chef who once wore the toke at Le Bec Fin tried nixing the dish (“I get sick of stuff. I get bored”), but his clientele –well-heeled Rittenhouse residents and the twenty-something food-infatuated – demanded its return.
Just to be clear, Elmi’s creation isn’t run-of-the-mill mush. Historically, scrapple, also known as panhaus, has been a hodgepodge of animal bits, thickened with cornmeal, sprinkled in spice, congealed, cut, and panfried.
Elmi goes a different route. After braising the trotters, he grinds the meat, rolls it into a torchon (that’s “a long tube” in culinary jargon), and cuts it into little coins, which he rolls in floury oatmeal and fries. The resulting crispy, delicate discs are plated five to an order, with a deviled egg mouse piped on top, dusted in dehydrated egg whites and smoked paprika. “It’s a little bite that’s just this big,” Elmi makes his thumbs and forefingers into a circle the size of Hanukkah gelt, “But it’s all encompassing.”
All encompassing, just like the scrapple trend that’s been sweeping Philadelphia since 2005. Chefs Daniel Stern (formerly at Gayle, now at R2L) and Jonathan “Johnny Mac” (Snack Bar) were fans from the start. Other restaurants followed suit, but with their own takes on the classic: MidAtlantic did it with crab, Silk City did it with foie gras, and Oyster House did it with oysters, dishing up a pan-seared slab seasoned with toasted fennel seed and cayenne pepper, finished with horseradish crème fraiche and two sunny-side-up eggs. “When you live around town,” Elmi says, “Scrapple is hard to miss.” And it’s still on the rise.
Scrapple’s rags-to-riches story is one of many. The pierogi – a potato-filled dumpling that was once the poor man’s meat substitute – is served at Vernick’s with braised lamb neck and breadcrumbs for sixteen dollars a pop. The hot dog – one of America’s most prototypical street foods – gets dressed up in homemade chili and scallions at Hot Diggity. It’s won nods from the likes of Craig LeBan at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Like the dumpling and the dog, scrapple wasn’t always served with a silver spoon.
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No one alive understands scrapple better than William Woys Weaver of Devon, Pennsylvania. He’s a food historian and a thirteenth generation Pennsylvania Dutchman. (Not Pennsylvania German, he insists. His ancestors are Swiss). He’s written an ode to Pennsylvania’s trademark meaty mélange, titled Country Scrapple, which he published in 2003. Three of Weaver’s twelve books have garnered IACP Cookbook Awards (he’s not interested in getting a James Beard award because they’re too politicized for his taste). He’s been fatigued recently because he’s been staying up late to work on his newest volume, As American as Shoofly Pie, which is due out in April.
To Weaver, scrapple is imbued with a magical, historical quality that overshadows its flavor and texture. “Most important,” he pens in his primer on the polenta-like product, “Scrapple is a lasting symbol of hardy endurance, having survived all the major shifts in taste that have transformed American cooking over the last three hundred years.”
There’s no doubt that Weaver has a soft spot for preservation. He lives in a used-to-be tavern, which is aging but remarkably well maintained. His pantry walls, which serve as the backdrop for his innumerable cooking projects, are festooned with his great-grandmother’s black and copper cookware. He stores stewed and pickled stuff – he loves a homemade batch of sauerkraut – in a naturally chilled refrigerator that juts off the side of his house.
And when he’s not plucking paw paws in the garden or shredding cabbage in the kitchen, Weaver uses his writing to embalm heirloom cuisine for future generations. He insists that to do his authorial duty – carefully tracing the genealogies of dishes like catfish and waffles and muskrat scrapple – he has to get his hands dirty in the field. Before writing Country Scrapple, Weaver hammed it up at Pennsylvania Dutch family reunions across the state, grilling hundreds of people.
Today, as he sips microwaved English breakfast tea in his pantry, Weaver waxes philosophical. “Scrapple,” he muses seriously, “Has thereness.” He’s appropriating Gertrude Stein, another Pennsylvania-born Europhile like himself. Weaver furrows his leonine brow and drops his teabag into a silver compost bucket. He leans back against the kitchen counter, stares into space, and launches into his epic.
* * * *
Search for the earliest thing resembling scrapple, and you’ll find yourself staring down some blood pudding in pre-Roman Europe. Look for something a little more recent, and you’ll learn about the poor Germanic communities who ate scrapple in gruel form, a mush of warm odds and ends that they couldn’t afford to refuse, even if they found it less than appetizing.
In the early 20th century, Northwest Germans came to the United States and settled in Pennsylvania, bringing the highly economical scrapple with them. This is generally how food culture functions, Weaver explains. Those who arrive at the scene first establish the trend, and the latecomers respond by either adopting or refusing it. Which means that most German immigrants who made scrapple in the States had never actually eaten it back home.
The notion of a Pennsylvania Dutch identity as separate from a Germanic one emerged during World War II. Pennsylvania Germans saw Hitler’s rise to power in Europe and rushed to disassociate themselves from Germany. They found a new way of life among the peaceable Amish and began to call themselves Pennsylvania Dutch. It was no coincidence that in 1933, the first Amish cookbooks were published and the first Pennsylvania Dutch language clubs were founded. The Amish quickly became a symbol of American values, the good and plenty of Main Street America, and nationally circulated magazines like Better Homes and Gardens raved about the Amish’s peace-loving lifestyle.
As being Amish was on its way in and being German was on its way out, a savvy businessman in Lancaster County decided to change his restaurant’s name from The German Village to The Village. It was 1934. He also started serving real Pennsylvania Dutch specialty dishes – like scrapple, schnitz un knepp (dried apple dumplings) and chicken and waffles – and fake ones, too – like wiener schnitzel (deep fried veal cutlets native to Austria) and sauerkraut. The clever capitalist shuttled tourists in and out of his restaurant using the bus company he already owned, and he gave his guests things to see (via maps on the backs of the menus), buy (via an Amish gift shop he implemented next door), and play with (at night the place became a bordello). Thanks to this able businessman, the Amish-watching industry was born.
Others saw how well The Village was profiting off of the tourist boom and decided they should go Amish, too. A ring of old-country diners sprang up around Philadelphia. It became trendy for middle class city-goers to take Saturdays off and train out into the country, where they’d stay the night in a hotel and wake up to an Amish meal of scrapple on Sunday.
And so a dichotomy emerged between how tourists consumed dishes like scrapple and how the Amish ate them. While the first were led to believe that scrapple was for special occasions, the second would never have served it in company. Scrapple was something that a “buckwheat Dutch” (otherwise known as an impoverished Dutch, as opposed to the hasenpfeffer Dutch, otherwise known as the “marinated rabbit Dutch”) housewife made on Monday with leftovers from Sunday dinner. She needed to make something substantial in one fell swoop to feed her family of fifteen. Only then, she could finish the laundry and perform a myriad of other wearying but necessary tasks before the sun set.
If you go to a Lancaster County diner right now and ask for a menu, Weaver says that you’ll see “The Amish Table” firsthand. You’ll see the same seven items, and scrapple will be one of them. He catches the term “The Amish Table” between his two fingers, hooking it in quotation marks, to show its fakeness. The idea that there is just one Amish table prevails today, and it doesn’t tell the whole story.
The truth is, Weaver says with a flourish of the hand, there are many Amish tables. Unfortunately, though, America’s food consumption landscape has perceptibly changed in the last hundred years. Supermarkets and chain restaurants provide cheap, corn-based options for those on tight budgets, keeping most of our population fed, but also dangerously overweight. The Amish are no exception, and many choose frozen prepared foods over home cooked meals. “All of their money is tied up in land,” explains Weaver as he pops another cup of tea in the microwave and shakes his gray head. “So they don’t have a lot of cash.”
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In the Rittenhouse Tavern kitchen, something is sizzling behind closed doors. The air smells rich, like meat and wine commingling. Something crashes to the ground, and a man cries out. No guests allowed.
A young cook shuffles into the dining room bearing a piece of paper.
“I thought I’d give this to you?” she says. “It’s for the Cryovac.”
Elmi doesn’t bat an eye. “Give that to Sue,” he says. “I don’t want that.” The cook ducks back into the kitchen, and Elmi turns back to his visitor, inhaling another sip of liquid energy. He’d like to wrap up the interview so he can get back to daddy-daughter day, which ends when he has to go back to into that kitchen.
Finally, it’s time for the last question: had Elmi tried scrapple before he made it? He laughs heartily. “No, I’m not from Pennsylvania,” he says, as though the very idea of it is a shock to his system. He’s from Newburyport, Massachusetts, where the word scrapple is as foreign as schnitz un knepp. Until Elmi met his wife Kristen six years ago, he hadn’t tasted scrapple. But Kristen, who hails from Bucks County, has the magical ability to turn the thick, generic brand – “just mush,” cringes Elmi – into a thin, crispy edible, one not unlike the elegant bar snack her husband serves in house.
There’s a squeal, and Grace Marie toddles past Chinese art and yellow candles to fall against her dad’s knees. She turns her face upwards and gives him a gap-toothed grin. This child likes scrapple. She’ll eat anything.
Maybe someday the Elmis will tell their kids the story of The Little Meat Product that Could: a food born from the hardscrabble lives of a few German farmers. A food stalwart enough to survive a trip across the ocean, slip into Amish homes, slide onto menus in Lancaster County, swoop back out into Bucks County, and superstar its way to the top in Rittenhouse Square. William Woys Weaver would get a kick out of that.