The Endless Road Trip: Philadelphia’s Top 10 Eats 5. Pretzels, Pretzels Everywhere

New York can have its bagels, Chicago its hot dogs, LA its churros and  I will even spot NOLA its delectable beignets. For me, Philly’s signature on-the-go edible blows them all out of the water. I’m not talking about cheesesteaks or even wudder ice, but pretzels.  You can find Philly soft pretzels on just about every corner in the city and everyone has their favorite place to pick them up. The city even has a park named after the doughy treats!

Like any signature city snack, there’s significant debate about which variety is the very best. There are a few different styles you can find, so here’s a crash course for next time you’re in town.

1. Philly Soft Pretzel

This is the traditional version. A slab of pretzels shaped in figure 8s, baked and sold in multiples of twos. Fresh, soft and chewy, there is just the right amount of coarse salt. Walk on by the ones that look moist, as they have been sitting around too long, but just try to resist a batch of these fresh out of the oven. All these beauties need is a squirt of yellow mustard (forget about Grey Poupon). To this day, I am convinced these pretzels actually taste better when they are bought and then wrapped in a brown paper bag, which many mom-and-pop shops provide.

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Going Dutch

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I would say that my ethnic heritage has a reasonably significant impact on my tastes.  I’ve thoroughly documented my Italian blood, and given you a look at the best of my English background.  And, of course, my prodigious beer intake perfectly illustrates my Irish ancestry.  The one bit of lineage that has always been given short shrift was the German roots of my family tree, though a recent trip to the Pennsylvania countryside had me questioning what that is.

Any time you head north and west of Philadelphia, it’s clear that you’re headed out into Pennsylvania Dutch country.  (Confused as to why we’re talking about Germany and saying Dutch?  Go here.)  The rolling farmland hills and the sight of hex signs on the barns can conjure up thoughts of German-style sausages and some amazing baked goods.  So when Mrs. TVFF and I  worked out a deal for a new car up in Quakertown, I put out word for any food suggestions and our very own ML came through in a big way.

ML pointed me toward Fleck’s a bakery in a flea market that had the best sticky buns in the area.  If you’re not familiar with sticky buns, take a cinnamon roll, drench it in syrup and top it with chopped nuts and raisins.  It’s a triumph of German baking.  I apologize that the photo was a hastily-shot camera-phone picture, but I needed to taunt ML with my bounty and I knew that they’d be half devoured by the time we even got them to the car.  The buns are chewy, the nuts crunchy and the syrup is lick-your-fingers delicious.

It reminded me how simple, rich and satisfying Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine can be, and how many of the dishes made their way onto our table when I was growing up.

It may be true that sticky buns, apple dumplings and funnel cake — three fantastic PA Dutch deserts — can make you think that the best they have to offer comes in the form of sweets, but the savory dishes are fantastic as well.  An assortment of sausages and delicious sauerkraut are some of the more common German dishes that have found a home in the Pennsylvania countryside, but local specialties like scrapple, Lebanon bologna and bot boi are a testament to the kind of down-home country cooking that you don’t expect north of the Mason-Dixon.

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Happy National Scrapple Day!

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I think it’s hilarious that today is “National” Scrapple Day, considering: (1) you can only get the stuff in a relatively small portion of the country and (2) in places where it is available, a solid 85% of the people won’t touch the stuff.  But maybe what this horrendously under-appreciated delight needs is a day of observance to boost its reputation.

For those of you who don’t live in the mid-Atlantic states, I suppose that scrapple deserves a little explanation. Essentially, it’s a meat product made using pig offal.  After the butchers have taken the “desirable” cuts off the pig, the rest gets boiled, the meat is minced and grain (cornmeal, usually) and spices are added to thicken the mixture into a loaf.

Once it gets to your kitchen or diner, it’s either pan- or deep-fried and what you get is a wonderful slice that is crunchy on the outside, smooth and creamy on the inside.  There is a rich, meaty flavor here that you’re never going to get from a lifeless cut of meat like a quick-fry pork chop.  Do yourself a favor and stop in a diner during your next trip through South Jersey or Eastern Pennsylvania.

I understand that scrapple can be scary.  Shit, just the word is creepy. There’s the vaguely Germanic sound and the unfortunate inclusion of “scrap” and/or “crap.” But what really gets me is when I tell someone how much I enjoy it and they come back with: “But don’t you know what’s in that?!?”  Yes, I do, which makes me like it even more.  Here’s why…

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