Yes, Please: ScrappleFest 2009

I love scrapple, and I always have.  So, when I found out that there was going to be a ScrappleFest down at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia last weekend, attendance became an absolute imperative.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with scrapple, Wikipedia defines it as “a savory mush of pork scraps and trimmings combined with cornmeal and flour”, which is pretty much a spot-on description.  Cut into slices and fried until crisp (but with the inside still soft), scrapple tastes, to me, a bit like breakfast sausage.  To my wife, who hates scrapple, it tastes like barn.  There is no middle ground when it comes to scrapple – either you absolutely love it or you can’t stand it.

A little more background exposition, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Philadelphia – the Reading Terminal Market is a large hall filled with a dizzying array of food vendors, produce stalls, fishmongers, and butchers.  Chances are, if you’re craving a particular food, you’ll find it there.  At the height of the weekend during tourist season, there’s barely enough room to move through the crowds that pack the aisles, either gawking at menus or waiting in overflowing lines to place an order.  Seating, as can be expected, is always an issue, and finding an open table feels like finding a parking spot at the mall during the holiday shopping season.

ScrappleFest took place in the middle of it all, in a central court that, I believe, is usually taken up by that all-important seating that I mentioned.  Thankfully, since we’re still in the off-season, the Reading Terminal Market was well-populated, but not too crowded, so the reduction in tables and chairs was hardly noticeable.  Imagine a large rectangle of scrapple vendors, and a line of scrapple enthusiasts performing a slow, rotating tour of all of them, and you’ve gotten the gist of Scrapplefest.  There was a recipe contest, as well, pitting various creative interpretations of scrapple against one another, but in all of the time that we spent there, I never saw where the contest was being held.  It’s a shame, since I would have wanted to see that, but the charm of ScrappleFest lies in the fact that it’s not well publicized, not slickly marketed, and it doesn’t have a dedicated website.  You kind of just show up and eat scrapple.

All of the major pork product producers were at ScrappleFest, such as Dietz & Watson and Leidy’s, as well as smaller companies and family-owned operations.  At each station, there would be one or two staffers dutifully frying up the signature slabs on portable electric griddles, or frying pans set over hotplates, and a tray of samples from which to pick from as you walked by.  There was even an offering of vegan scrapple, which I can at least now say that I have tried.  I must admit that the turkey scrapple was better than I would have expected.

Oh, and no writeup of ScrappleFest is complete without a mention of the scrapple sculptures.  There was a Phillies cake made out of scrapple – while the shout-out to the local World Series champions was certainly appreciated, in all other respects the cake was merely a large rectangle of porkiness.  But, the true awesomeness of scrapple artistry came from Leidy’s, whose table featured a small Leidy’s delivery truck, manifest as scrapple, with little cherries for lights, slowing bleeding crimson rivulets down the porky contours of the sculpture.

You can check out other writeups of ScrappleFest here and here.  Amazing that there aren’t more, really.

March 26, 2009   Comments

Re: Memorial Day Weekend

As much as we would have liked to get away last weekend for Memorial Day, it just didn’t seem worth the price of gas to book it down to the beach.  Given the fantastic, utterly perfect weather, we maximized our long weekend at home by picking up some perennials and planting them into the flower bed in front of the house.

Oh yes, there was something else, involving pork.

On Saturday, my neighbor held a small Memorial Day weekend gathering to inaugurate his new grill.  Seeing the opportunity to smoke some ribs without the production of having a lot of people over at our own place, I offered to bring barbecue.  The offer was gladly received, and on Friday we picked up about four racks of spareribs.

Here’s the thing about true barbecue – you need time and heat, and the actual mechanics of the process are more art than science.

Last summer, I treated myself to the only smoker that I will ever need to buy – a 200lb behemoth of welded steel, with an offset firebox and enough cooking area to feed a large party.  At the start of spring, I went and picked up a couple of boxes of hickory, and a recent Costco run yielded a nice double-pack of charcoal.  To say that I was ready for barbecue season would be an understatement.

On Friday, I filled a contractor’s bucket with water from my garden hose, and sunk about 8 logs of hickory into it.  For barbecue, it’s important to soak your wood before you begin, because if the wood is too dry, it will burst into flames instead of smoldering gently, which is what you need it to do in order to get a decent smoke going on.  I also whipped together a double batch of my rub, which is a mixture of cane sugar, paprika, garlic and onion powders, and a few other things which I am conveniently forgetting to list here.

On Saturday morning, I woke up and took the spareribs out of the fridge to let them rest on the kitchen counter (you don’t want to put cold meat into a hot smoker, because there’s a chance that creosote, a black tar-like substance, will condense onto your meat).  I took some time to clean out the smoker from the last session, emptying it of ash, and lit a bunch of charcoal in my chimney starter.  When the charcoal was ready, I dumped it into the firebox, opened up all of the vents, and let the smoker come up to about 225 degrees.

While the smoker was warming up, I cut the sparerib racks into manageable pieces (I would prefer to leave them whole, but with so many ribs, I had to use rib racks to hold the smaller pieces upright).  A heavy dusting of rub on both sides, and they were ready.  I carefully moved them into position in the smoker and closed the lid with a thud.

The best part of barbecue is the first addition of wood to produce smoke.  I fished out a nice-sized piece of hickory from the water bucket and put it on top of the charcoal in the firebox.  Within moments, faint wisps of blue smoke started piping from the smoker’s stack.

Put simply, smoking barbecue meat requires a sustained temperature of 180 to 220 degrees, fired by wood and charcoal, for several hours.  It’s a nice day spent at home, that’s for sure.  So, for most of the day on Saturday, I tended to the smoker, adding charcoal when the temperature got too low and wood when the smoke subsided.

By the time we delivered the final product next door, the ribs had gone for about seven hours, and were so tender you could pull the bone out with a gentle tug.

In case you are wondering about the picture, another thing that benefits barbecue is a good baste, or mop.  This time, I decided to make a mop of cider vinegar, onion, garlic, and Victory Hop Devil beer.  Good times.

May 29, 2008   Comments