My oldest son likes to send me text messages. He is texting me now to tell me he’s eating a cheesesteak at Donkey’s, a legendary steak shop in Camden, New Jersey. For some reason, I decide to ask if he’s ever eaten scrapple. He says he’s never tried it, but he’ll give it a shot. Can you recommend a place? he asks.
I’ve never thought about it. Scrapple can be good or bad, but usually, it seems fundamentally identical wherever you eat it. But maybe I’m wrong; maybe scrapple is best cooked with a loving hand, rooted in a place and its history, even if it’s one you’ve adopted for yourself. Maybe that can be a thing we can try exploring together.
Not everyone likes scrapple. It’s made with pork scraps left over from butchering, mixed with cornmeal and buckwheat flour, congealed into a loaf. Hardly the stuff of legend. My son’s mother refused to touch it. To this day—and she lived in Philadelphia longer than I did—I don’t think she’s ever eaten it. But she never ate kiszka either.
Kiszka (KEESH-ka) was always my dad’s thing, the only time I’d ever see him cook. If he was in charge of the kids, we usually microwaved our own TV dinners. But sometimes, on a Sunday morning, or a holiday, he would cook kiszka and fried eggs, served together in a sandwich on bread or toast.
Partly, kiszka was my dad’s thing because it’s not hard. Kiszka comes in a ring, basically a long twisted tube. You cut it into slices like any other sausage, then fry it in a pan. The only trick is knowing when it’s done: you want it crispy on the outside, but still slightly squishy on the inside. Whether it’s overdone or underdone, you don’t have to worry about it being crumbly. Kiszka is made crumbly. It’s always crumbly.
Kiszka gets its unusual texture from its ingredients: buckwheat groats, pork livers, and beef blood, spiced with black pepper, marjoram, and large sweet onions, served in a natural casing, where “natural” means “disgusting to think about.” Blood sausage turns a lot of people off. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character says: “People like blood sausage! People are morons!” But Andie MacDowell’s character responds, “I like blood sausage.”
(All of Andie MacDowell’s Groundhog Day food opinions—“no white chocolate, no fudge”—are basically correct.)
In Detroit, you can find ring kiszka with the other sausages at most grocery stores. Outside of Detroit, or maybe Chicago, you probably need a Polish specialty shop. Detroit has a huge Polish population, overflowing the meccas of Poletown and Hamtramck and spread throughout the neighborhoods and suburbs. In Detroit, we call Mardi Gras “Fat Tuesday” and celebrate by eating enormous paczki (POONSH-key): overfilled, over-rich donuts stuffed with fruit, jelly, custard, and every other filling that can be imagined. Supposedly, baking paczki was a way to get rid of all the milk, eggs, and butter before the austerity of Lent. Since Detroit is north of Canada, there’s no carnival, no dancing or showing our flesh. We stuff ourselves with donuts and bless our Polish neighbors as we line up around their bakeries.
This isn’t to say ethnic coexistence was always bliss. Growing up in Warrendale, on Detroit’s west side, my father’s experience with his Polish neighbors was a bit more mixed. Detroit’s Irish population was concentrated in Corktown, on the near southwest side, but for one reason or another—thrift was almost certainly a factor—my father’s parents, both immigrants from County Kerry, picked a steel-frame bungalow across the street from St. Christopher’s, where they attended the Catholic church and my father and his brothers went to elementary school. The neighborhood was almost entirely Polish; my father and his family were the odd ones out.
In any Irish immigrant family, eating at someone else’s house is a matter of survival. There are too many children and not enough food, and the food you’ve brought with you from the old country is almost universally terrible. On top of this, my slim grandmother hated cooking, hated food, and would eat tea and rye crisp for every meal.
My grandmother, named Ellie, hated her neighbors. In particular, she hated the Polish nuns at the church she attended multiple times a week, who taught and disciplined her sons. Every year, on the feast day of St. Joseph, the patron saint of Poland, she would blast Celtic music from a record player on her front porch, the closest she ever came to raising her middle finger at anyone.
My father tells this story: In third grade, he got his first pair of eyeglasses. On the playground at St. Christopher’s, a sixth-grade boy broke them. They cost 35 dollars, more than a year’s tuition at the school. My father knew that his father would beat him when he found out the glasses were broken, so he (my father) decided to beat on the sixth grader first. He was taken to the mother superior, a big Polish woman built like a linebacker (so my father says), about 5′10″, 225 pounds. She refused to hear my father’s explanations, and bent him over her knee and whipped him with a special ball whip she used to mete out punishment for grave offenses. My father went home, fearing that worse awaited him.
He found his mother at home instead of his father. He told her the entire story, about the broken eyeglasses, him seeking revenge, and the mother superior whipping him. In response, my grandmother went to her bedroom and came back with my grandfather’s belt; she went past my father and out the front door; she crossed the street, found the mother superior in her office, and began whipping her with the belt.
It did not matter that the mother superior was the mother superior, or that in a fair fight, my 90-pound grandmother stood no chance. It did not even matter anymore that the eyeglasses had been broken. All that mattered was that this nun had laid hands on her son, that she had refused to hear him out.
From that day on, my grandmother and this woman were enemies in a cold war that would last until the mother superior’s death. We all have different gifts, and hatred was hers. If violence could stand in for words, for food, for love, then violence would have to do.
My grandfather and his sons, meanwhile, developed a taste for everything Polish. They mistrusted the nuns, and the boys who continued to scrap with the Irish kids, but they loved fresh kielbasa and sauerkraut, paczkis and pierogies, stuffed cabbage and pickle soup. Polish food is sufficiently bland, potato-based, and voluminous to please the Irish palate, but its variety in textures and flavors can pass for exotic among the whitest of white people. And so, when my grandfather went looking at the grocers and butcher shops along Warren Avenue for something approaching the blood pudding he’d eaten and loved in Ireland, he discovered kiszka.
Like my grandmother, my grandfather Pat was complicated. He drank too much, too often, and he was stubborn and violent to the point of cruelty with his children. Unlike his wife, Pat had a capacity for great outward shows of joy and compassion. He loved wordplay and wit, and food. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his forties, and he spent the last fifteen years of his life bedridden, dotingly cared for by my grandmother. This is how I remember him; a jar of candy by his bed, sneaking them to the grandchildren who shared his red hair, whenever my grandmother would leave the room.
He took over the cooking on the weekends, and any time else he had off from his job driving trucks for Detroit Edison. When he cooked, he went big for his growing boys: cut-up chicken fried in lard, roast beef with pounds upon pounds of mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs with bacon, and kiszka. Pat liked every meal to have some meat in it; he didn’t leave his family farm outside of Castleisland for his children to eat potatoes for dinner.
My father would also work too much and drink too much, but he shared his father’s love for meat and rich, Polish food. He, too, would fry up kiszka on the weekends. He looked so incongruous, this tall, dark-haired stranger we rarely saw, wearing a mustache and wielding a spatula. Instead of yelling at his children, he was gently scooping tiny black circles onto a plate lined with paper towels for them to eat. It was a form of care he’d learned from parents who, like him, had a difficult time saying, “I care about you.”
He had married my mother, a redheaded French-German-Métis woman who grew up in an Italian neighborhood on the East Side, who loved butter and cheese and cooking, and who also worked too much, frequently leaving her children to fend for themselves. Very early on, my sister and I learned how to cook the food we ate, from macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese and spaghetti, to bacon and eggs and pancakes. And kiszka.
Kiszka stayed in the family when I left home and went to college. I would cook it for my older brother when we lived together, my brother who has only now learned how to cook for himself in his forties, after marrying a redheaded Polish woman and fathering redheaded Irish-Polish-French-German-Indian children.
At 22, I moved to Philadelphia for graduate school, but my apartment was far away from the Polish neighborhoods in the northeast, and so out of kiszka’s reach. But like my grandfather with his blood pudding, I soon found a substitute.
Scrapple is essentially kiszka, but made without blood. The other ingredients are identical. Scrapple is not served in a ring, but in a squarish loaf, and fried not in little circles, but rectangular slices. It was brought to Philadelphia by the Pennsylvania Dutch, Germans who ate food similar to that of their Polish neighbors. Scrapple is eaten throughout the mid-Atlantic, but maybe especially in Philadelphia, where it’s as readily available in grocery stores as kiszka is in Detroit, and much more available in diners and restaurants. It is as distinctly Philadelphian as cheesesteaks, water ice (WOOR-ter ICE), and soft pretzels, even if it doesn’t have the same national profile.
Scrapple has the same crispy outside, mushy inside, and crumbly texture as kiszka. I first ate it in a West Philadelphia diner on my second visit to the city, when I was looking for my first apartment. It was fried perfectly. For a boy in his twenties missing home, it was exactly what I was looking for.
Today, I am back home in Detroit, and I still eat kiszka on special occasions, or a nice Sunday breakfast. My father doesn’t do the cooking anymore, since his back doesn’t let him stand for any great length of time. But my mother’s a dab hand with a spatula, and sometimes I make it myself. It’s strange now that after all those years of eating scrapple and remembering kiszka, I eat kiszka and remember scrapple.
Mostly, though, I dream about moving back to Philadelphia, the city where my boys were born, the city where I really became an adult, through all the trials and heartbreak that entailed. It would be a return to a home that isn’t one, an adopted home that’s more real than all the homes I’ve left behind, a cornucopia of homecoming and nostalgia that always gives more than what’s been lost.
Maybe I’ll take my son out to the Down Home Diner at Reading Terminal Market for some scrapple. If he likes it, I can show him how to fry it for himself. I can tell him stories about his grandparents and great-grandparents that he’s never heard. I can tell him anything. That’s how we are; that’s what we do.
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