Fine Dining

Every region of the United States is blessed with food offerings that are idiosyncratic and, though they are exported to other parts of the country, remain identified with their place of origin. Central Pennsylvania is not immune from gastronomic delights that fairly scream for attention on the dinner table.

Many of the truly unique culinary contributions from Central Pennsylvania have their origins in the substantial German influence on the area, particularly the Amish and Mennonite settlers who farmed, and still farm, the region. One of the noteworthy attributes of the German (Deutsche, and incidentally, it’s not Pennsylvania Dutch; someone got this one very wrong, and it’s too late to correct it) settlers was their unflinching resolution to not waste anything. And, anything extended to the livestock that they raised, particularly pigs.

One of the dishes passed down to us by those intrepid souls farming the neighborhood is scrapple. Also known by the Pennsylvania Dutch name Pannhaas (pan rabbit), scrapple is traditionally a mixture of pork scraps and trimmings combined with cornmeal, buckwheat flour and spices. It’s formed into a semi-solid, congealed loaf that is then sliced and pan-fried.

Wow, delicious. Simply considering the contents was probably the reason that long-time Camp Hill resident, Frank Swit, a transplanted Canadian, responded like he did when his next-door neighbor – a born-and-raised Central Pennsylvanian – asked him if he had ever tried scrapple. His response was brief and to the point.
“I make it a point to never eat anything that contains the word ‘crap.’”

And, Josh Ozersky commented as well, in Esquire magazine: “Scrapple is the ultimate statement of pork offal, all of the least-loved body parts mixed together in one delicious block. In that sense, it’s the summit of porcine sustainability.”

This leads us to yet another Pennsylvania Dutch (it’s Deutsche, OK?) dish based upon another not-to-be-wasted body part: souse. Basically a variety of head cheese specific to those Germanic farmers of Central Pennsylvania, souse is made from the pickled meat of often unused animal parts, usually pork, that often include the feet, head, tongue and heart. One of the more bland descriptions of souse, probably in an attempt to make another unsuspecting individual try a bite of it was, “pork-flavored Jell-O.” But it’s so much more.

Its categorization as a head cheese means that it’s not a dairy cheese, as such, but rather a terrine, meat jelly made with flesh from the head of a calf or pig and often set in aspic. It may be flavored with onion, black pepper, allspice, bay leaf, salt and vinegar. It’s usually eaten cold or at room temperature. Recipes for souse often include a euphemistic variant for pig’s feet, calling them pig’s trotters. No matter what they’re calling them, they’re going in the pot.

Historically, souse can be traced back to the peasants of the Middle Ages when the head of an animal was simmered to produce stock, which congeals because of the natural gelatin found in the skull. A recipe from the Pennsylvania Dutch (there it is again) chapter of the United States Regional Cookbook, published by the Culinary Arts Institute of Chicago in 1947, includes the following steps:

  • Clean the pig’s head thoroughly, removing tongue; split head open.
  • Clean feet and hocks; place with the head in a large kettle.
  •  Cover with water, bring to a boil and cook until tender enough to remove bones easily.

Anyway, the rest of the recipe is equally revolting and carnivorous in presentation and ends up with, well, pork-flavored jello that one can “cut into pieces for salads, sandwich meat, or to fry.”
Staying with the portions of the pig that would otherwise be discarded, another local delight, and this one is truly local, is the rather disturbingly named delicacy, hog maw.

Specifically the stomach of a pig, and more specifically the exterior muscular wall of the stomach with the interior lining mucosa removed, is, oddly, a component of various soul food, Chinese, Mexican, Portuguese and Italian dishes, as well. It would appear that no one really wants to waste any part of the pig. However, in the Pennsylvania rendering, also called “pig’s stomach,” “Susquehanna turkey” and “Pennsylvania Dutch goose,” hog maw is often a traditional Central Pennsylvania meal not unlike turkey at Thanksgiving or ham on New Year’s Day. The use of animal stomach as an enclosure for other edible contents is part of the recipe for Scottish haggis, which is traditionally sheep heart, liver and lungs cooked in the animal’s stomach.

Despite the seemingly worldwide appeal of cooking something in a pig’s stomach, the Pennsylvania version is stuffed with cubed potatoes and ground pork kneaded together like meatloaf. Traditional recipes call for the stomach opening to be sewn closed with cotton thread after stuffing and then baked in the oven. It comes out like meatloaf and is then cut into slices for serving. One can consume the stomach lining, but fortitude and a great set of molars is required since the lining itself is like dried-out tough leather and virtually inedible.

Hog maw – the Pennsylvania version – has appeared on television, although not necessarily a Hollywood favorite. In The Office’s December 6, 2012 episode, entitled “Dwight Christmas,” Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) served hog maw as the main dish for the Dunder Mifflin crew in a Pennsylvania-Dutch-themed Christmas party.

Another uniquely Central Pennsylvania delight not often tried but nevertheless a part of the region’s gustatory offerings is cup cheese. A soft, spreadable cheese, with a heritage dating back to the Amish and Mennonite immigrations to Pennsylvania in the late 17th Century, it has its origins in a German cheese called “kochkase.” Typically available in a cup container, hence the name, it comes in several consistencies that give the appearance and appeal of glue in a container.

James Michener commented on cup cheese in his 1974 novel, Centennial:
“You ever tasted my mother’s cup cheese? Best in Lancaster.”

Taking a corner of his black bread, he spread it copiously with a yellowish viscous substance that one would not normally identify as cheese; it was more like a very thick, very cold molasses, and it had a horrific smell. Rebecca was not fond of cup cheese; it was a taste that men seemed to prefer.

“Poppa likes cup cheese,” she said with a neutral look on her pretty face.
“You don’t?” Levi asked.
“Too smelly.”

“That’s the good part.” He put the piece of bread to his nose, inhaling deeply. He knew of few things in the world he liked better than the smell of his mother’s cup cheese that smelled stronger than limburger and tasted better. He ate her piece, his own, and what was left and then licked the container.