It sounds like an oxymoron. But it's not.
Scrapple and Philly go way back. The heartland of scrapple production and consumption may be Lancaster County, but no self-respecting diner in the city or its environs will deny you the option of scrapple with your sunny-side-up eggs. It's in the grocery stores too: shrink-wrapped into one-pound packages. You'll see it behind the case at the Reading Terminal Market, saran-wrapped in much larger blocks, portioned upon your request.
Sure, it's made from the parts of the pig that we'd rather not think about. Snouts, tails, liver, whatever else is left—cooked, minced, bound together with corn meal, doused with a smattering of savory spices, cast into loaves. Better than leaving that all on the slaughterhouse floor. The pigs died because of the demand for pork chops, bacon, tenderloin. Glamour cuts. But there's no rational reason to let the rest go to waste; especially when, thus transformed, sliced, then fried, these leftovers can be so satisfying.
Simple squeamishness might thus not be a morally defensible reason to avoid scrapple. But what about principled opposition to factory farming and confined animal operations? Just because scrapple is local doesn't mean that it's necessarily produced by small-scale farmers who show serious concern about the welfare of their pigs. At only $3.29 a pound for the higher-end scrapple I recently procured at the Reading Terminal Market, produced by Frank's Meats, simple economics make this unlikely. Or suppose you have vegetarian friends, averse to all meat, even the ethically treated variety?
Nature abhors a void, and for over a year now, Vrapple has been available as an alternate breakfast loaf to all those who resist scrapple for whatever reason. Described by a friend as "like a fried, savory breakfast brownie,” Vrapple is the brainchild of Sarah Cain, the manager of the Fair Food Farmstand in the Reading Terminal Market.
Cain, who moved to Philadelphia as an adult, had never tasted scrapple. But after hearing the laments of a close friend, now a vegetarian, who grew up in Berks County, she was moved to experiment with a meat-free version of the breakfast staple.
"The idea of real scrapple—what's commercially available—disgusts me," says Cain, who's not a vegetarian, but avoids meat from large-scale producers that rely on animal confinement. "I did try it one time … that was enough."
Instead, she relied on input from friends with a "greater scrapple background," before arriving at a final recipe that incorporates seitan, locally grown and milled cornmeal and buckwheat, organic cane sugar and canola oil, along with a mixture of spices.
If it isn't obvious, even with my recognition of the questionable ethics involved, I'm an unabashed scrapple devotee. Had I known of Cain's distaste for the original before I sampled her rendition, I might have been unfairly motivated to dismiss Vrapple. Instead, her efforts succeed, not by replicating scrapple, but by creating a lean, flavorful alternative breakfast protein. Like scrapple, when fried, it's crispy on the outside and creamier in the middle. Unlike scrapple, it needs a little oil in the pan, but holds together with less effort. And, of course, while it does succeed in combining sweet and savory notes, it doesn't have the unmistakable taste of pork.
That hasn't stopped the product from taking off. While Cain started producing Vrapple on her own, she now relies on a co-producer, located, ironically enough, in Lancaster County, to meet demand, while maintaining her busy schedule running the farm stand.
Restaurant clients have expanded too. Initially, Cain had an exclusive arrangement with Milkboy Coffee in Ardmore. Now, Vrapple is on the menu at Rx in West Philly and the Belgian Café in Fairmount. And it's available in small and large blocks at the Fair Foods Farmstand in the Reading Terminal Market.
I'm not about to give up my pork scrapple. But I have no qualms about mixing a little Vrapple into the brunch repertoire. And apparently plenty of others feel the same way, especially this time of year. According to Cain, Vrapple sells so well during Lent that she's adopted a seasonal slogan: "It's tasty to repent, eat Vrapple for Lent."
Pig out on It! Eating scrapple takes nerve, but actually making a loaf of nebulous pig parts earns you a special medal for culinary bravery. Should you wish to learn the fineries of scrapple assembly ...
The world of artisanal food production tends to attract dreamers, misfits and others just disinterested in following an unswerving path through life. It’s as if it’s almost a requirement. Michael Dolich himself got a law degree and worked as a trial lawyer, doing personal injury cases and mediation. Now he's making some real bread.