Yes, scrapple is more than a culinary cul-de-sac. It’s a down-home metaphor that will never, ever, be known as Philadelphia Pate. Scrapple’s pure to this place, and visa-versa. It’s the real thing, the honest thing. No Philadelphia food is older and none so distinctive, in a haggis kind of way. Someone once claimed that the Scottish haggis tastes like bagpipes sound. Does scrapple taste like the Mummers sound?
We’re not sure what scrapple sounds like, although we are sure we’ll never hear the end of it.
During the recent visit by Charles and Camilla, we heard (again) a scrapple story nearly as old as the Academy of Music itself. On Saturday, The Inquirer’s Edward Colimore reported that the future Edward VII, when asked of his visit to Philadelphia in 1860, “spoke of ‘eating biddle for breakfast and meeting so many citizens named Scrapple.’” Catherine Lucey, in today’s Daily News, reports that Charles himself took a shot at the story on Saturday. The Prince got a laugh deploying the seemingly self-deprecating anecdote about his ancestor: “He seemed to think he had met a charming family named Scrapple and discovered a food named Biddle.”
We don’t doubt the story. We do wonder about its migration over the years, and what it really means.
The Inquirer’s citation traces the story back to 1860, and the Daily Evening Bulletin. Charles didn’t bother to say where he might have heard it (family lore or a royal publicist?). But a look through the literature assures us that the anecdote will never die. Here are only a few of the places the scrapple/biddle story has appeared:
1918:The Book of Philadelphia. Author Robert Shackleton denies the royal origin of the story and attributes it to an unidentified visiting Englishman.
1945: In Struthers Burt’s charming book Philadelphia: Holy Experiment. “I met a very large and interesting family named Scrapple, and I discovered a rather delicious native food that they call biddle.”
1955: In an article entitled “Hard Scrapple,” Time magazine reviews the newly published My Philadelphia Father, by Cordelia Drexel Biddle, both of whom repeated the earlier version, almost word for word. (Biddle chose to call her family merely “large,” not “very large.”)
1963: Nathaniel Burt (son of Struthers) presents the anecdote in his book Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of An American Aristocracy.
2003: In a New York Times food story entitled A Taste of Philadelphia: In Hoagieland, They Accept No Substitutes, the late R.W. Apple harkened back to the Burt version.
And then there’s our 2007 reprise. So when did the food took on this role as urban metaphor?
We’d have to trace that moment back 99 years, when William M. Bunn, Philadelphia clubman, raconteur and semi-professional after dinner speaker made scrapple the theme of a speech at the Majestic Hotel, up Broad Street at Girard Avenue.
“What’s in a name? Philadelphia, Brotherly Love, for instance. Something in that. . . Scrappletown and Slowtown – more in them.” Bunn asked his listeners to “just ponder the faith, the unwinking, unthinking blind faith of the thing! Scrappletown takes her scrapple on trust – just as she took her Schuylkill water on trust for so many years.”
“Ever investigate politics?” Bunn asked. “You get politics on the house-top, in the cellar; at the legal bar, and the licensed bar; at the club, office sociable; in the hall and pulpit; in Chinatown, Little Italy, Rittenhouse Square; at weddings and funerals; in stock brokering and philanthropy. . . You can get it raw or hashed or mulched; but in the end, both ends for that matter, its all – what? Scrapple!”
“. . . And isn’t it glory enough to know that this is Scrappletown; and scrapple is the real thing. No doubt it’s a made up thing, blind, fearfully, and wonderfully made up to be sure; but Philadelphia is plucky; it makes no scrutiny into the mutiny. It takes it medicine like a little many, and asks no questions. What proves to be good for it, it clings to.”
It certainly does. In his book, Nathaniel Burt helps us understand how. “The Biddles serve the function, peculiar to the Philadelphia psychology, of being a lightning rod.” They descended from a Quaker shoemaker, who “suffered for conscience sake in England jails.” Somewhere along the way, the Biddles took a turn and became “Philadelphia’s First Family for public consumption,” a role, apparently, worthy of derision all around. “When a Biddle gets drunk he thinks he’s a Cadwalader,” wrote Bennett Cerf.
Most of us duck that humor. A few wink. So, what, exactly, was Charles’ point?
Good thing we stick to our scrapple, here in Scrappletown.