Traveling to Philadelphia? Why Not Eat Your Way Around the State?

Philadelphia is a great city- not so small as to become boring, and not so large that one cannot take it all in in a few days. But after you dine at Bookbinders, take in the Art Museum, and of course, gaze at the Liberty Bell you might be wondering, ‘What’s next?’ While in recent years Philadelphia has become a great dining destination, it would be remiss not to recommend a day trip of two beyond the burbs to sample the best of Pennsylvania’s amazing food culture. Visitors to Ben Franklin’s favorite city and state might be astonished to learn that many of their favorite all-American foods are in fact, Philadelphia and/or Pennsylvania proud, and not found anywhere else. Other edibles are so popular, that other parts of the U.S. claim to have ‘invented’ them. This year, plan a trip to the City of Brotherly Love and/or the Keystone state and let your taste buds be the judge!

Philly Cheese Steak
Upcycled but never equaled the original Philly cheesesteak sandwich is made from wafer-thin (frozen raw for easy slicing) strips that are always grilled on a flattop, alongside translucent onions and melted Cheez Whiz, served on a long, toasted, hoagie (submarine) roll.

Soft Pretzels
Outsized, breadlike, and topped with salt by the chunk, these confections are meant to be served hot, fresh, and with a squeeze of sharp mustard. There are stores that cater to numerous sweet and savory varieties of soft pretzels and folks have been known to travel several states just to buy them by the box. A big box. Okay, a very big box- a carton in fact!

Pepper Pot Soup
Remember that children’s fable ‘Stone Soup’ wherein townsfolk hoarding foodstuffs brought them out to add them to the pot to make soup from ‘stones’? At Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War enterprising cooks made pots of stew from vegetable pairings, tops, tripe, and the only spice they had in abundance, pepper. Try it on a wintery day!

Scrapple
Another food item born out of necessity, like Pepper Pot Soup, Scrapple is made from, well, pork scraps, and is truly an acquired taste. If like this author, your mom came from Penn Dutch Country, you were raised on it. In which case, like Pepper Pot Soup day, you did not enter the kitchen on Scrapple day ‘cuz the smell of the raw ingredients was far worse than the end product. Which, truth be told, once combined with cornmeal and fried in bacon fat, was actually, quite tasty and very filling! More Scrapple, please!

Chow Chow
Another Penn Dutch variant said to come from Germany and/or Poland, Chow Chow is a winter condiment or side dish served cold with sandwiches. An example of ‘waste not, want not’ any veggies that did not fully mature by the first frost were not allowed to wither on the vine. Instead, they were chopped, combined with vinegar and sugar and canned. Now you know what to do with those late bloomers (cauliflower, tomatoes, carrots, beans, eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and cukes) who will never mature!

ShooFly Pie
The first time this author was served this pie, it was at Gran’s house. Thought she had forgotten the fruit, but that’s how it is- a gelatinous confection made from molasses and brown sugar with a pastry crust. That glorious crust is then dotted with confectioner’s sugar and served warm, or at room temperature with a dollop of whipped cream. You will not miss the fruit!

Red Eggs
Dyed with beet juice, brined or pickled, these hard-boiled eggs are customarily served at every festive occasion and never, ever chopped nor mixed with mayonnaise!

Teaberry Ice Cream
Yet another regional favorite that has not yet ‘caught on’ with the rest of the nation, Teaberry ice cream is a tint below Pepto Bismol’ and tastes like Wintergreen. This may explain why the rest of us are slow to follow PA’s lead, at least on this regional treat. It is a commercial product available from several regional manufacturers and sold in grocery stores. At your own peril, people.

Birch Beer
Often confused with root beer, or the once-popular sarsaparilla, birch beer tastes pretty much the same. Only it is made from the bark of birch trees. How? Lawd only knows and, like teaberry ice cream, he can keep this recipe to himself as well!

Lebanon Bologna
Italians are renowned for their superior charcuterie including salami, mortadella, and prosciutto. In Pennsylvania in the 1700s, German immigrants brought the recipes for their versions of smoked sausage meats with them as well. You guessed it, they settled in what came to be known as Lebanon, PA. These tangy slices make a great sammie and taste like a sweet yet tangy salami. That is, if salami tasted sweet and tangy! Try it!

What are the takeaways for a couple of weeks spent exploring the food legacy of European immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania? A thicker waist, perhaps a couple of new food fetishes, but definitely genuine respect for those who made something from nothing and let nothing go to waste.