One of the best American breakfasts remains mostly a regional affair, but maybe not forever
There is a fleeting moment most mornings, between the time that Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market opens for another day of being one of the country's largest and oldest food halls, and the arrival of the crowds—locals, visitors, old hands, first timers, the people that make this American food culture artifact one of the most popular markets in North America, year after year.
Stroll the aisles now, right after those heavy doors are unlocked at the stroke of eight, and you’ll observe plenty of vendors easing their way into the day, setting up shop and sucking back large coffees, anticipating the inevitable rush. At one end, however, specifically the area occupied by a small group of what the market refers to as its Pennsylvania Dutch merchants—the ones who do not come into town on Sunday, which is the day that still belongs to the Lord, last they checked—everything’s already at full tilt, particularly at the Dutch Eating Place.
There are so many things to eat at the market, foods from around town, around America, and the world. Still, this humble outfit known for the Pennsylvania Dutch basics—this is the food so many Philadelphians can't seem to get enough of. Twin horseshoe counters are packed to capacity with the breakfast crowd; law enforcement, transit workers, men in suits, hoodies, all eating quietly, quickly, like they’ve got places to go. I am here too, blessed with the good fortune of having to be nowhere in particular today; all I really need to do is figure out what I want on top of my apple dumpling.
Heavy cream, or whipped cream? The patient server asks the question the way even patient servers do, when they have asked the same question countless times before you swanned in here for your breakfast, and I request neither, the better to appreciate one of the most celebrated apple dumplings around, one that has been on television at least once or twice, due to its very deliciousness. An avalanche of cinnamon apple swimming in sugar syrup, barely contained by a now-sagging sphere of short crust pastry—you do the math, does such a thing need to be guilded? Furthermore, should such a thing be eaten for breakfast?
Probably not. By now, however, I have been hanging around this part of Pennsylvania for six weeks, mostly out in Lancaster County, where they routinely put whoopie pies on the breakfast buffet, where freshly-fried fruit fritters are a dollar at the supermarket, where every kind of dessert and delicious snack food seems to be available at all times, and in mass quantities, at prices too low to turn down, and I’m afraid I don’t know what’s right or appropriate, anymore, and I’m not sure why I’m even apologizing—my self-care regimen, my choice.
Dumpling order in, there is now more time to observe the efficient Eating Place crew, some in flowing dresses and traditional head coverings, others not so much, instead sporting Start Your Day The Amish Way t-shirts, all working in concert to meet the needs of one of the most diverse crowds you will find in a Philadelphia restaurant, gathered together over a shared love of honest home cooking. Cinnamon apple French toast, creamed chipped beef over delicious home fries, griddled sticky buns, crispy slabs of scrapple—this is the culinary equivalent of a warm hug, in a city not widely known for its nurturing side.
The wait for a seat at the counter can be long, but nobody appears to be bothered; there’s a take-out counter, after all, for those in a great hurry, with a line of its own, because the food is just as good, no matter where you sit down to eat. Construction workers, white collar types, ladies of a certain age in church hats, bus drivers, the very young and very old, black, white, kids who should probably be in school instead of lingering over pancakes, retirees with all day on their hands to sip coffee—everybody is here, on a weekday, during work hours, treating themselves because what’s a few bucks, casually celebrating one of America’s finest regional cuisines.
Widely appreciated anywhere close enough to the Lancaster County heartland to have acquired the taste over the centuries, and by now mostly unheard of elsewhere, Pennsylvania Dutch cooking is honest, straightforward, and typically quite affordable. Utterly ill-equipped to survive in these visual times, this is food stripped down to the bare walls, often with a minimum of appreciable seasoning. Under threat? Not around here, not even close. Just try for a at the Eating Place, during the lunch hour. Try your luck at the smorgasbords of Lancaster County, on a Saturday. You'll see.
Today a very reliable source of comfort cooking, Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine goes back to the very beginnings of modern-day America, when scores of German faithful arrived to make new lives in William Penn’s welcoming colony. What we now know as Dutch food, Dutch being an English simplification of the way the immigrants pronounced Deutsch, or German, is in many ways an evolved thing; entire books have been written about the transformation of the regional cuisine the settlers created, exploring what’s authentic and what was later added on, particularly after Lancaster, far ahead of the curve, first attempted to use the local food to drive tourism. (Safe to say, it worked.)
Eagle-eyed menu readers can still find obscure callbacks to early times, back to when money might have been scarce, or the wisdom of the day meant eating terribly simply—there are breakfast restaurants in this part of Pennsylvania where you can order a bowl of crushed crackers stewed in a bowl of milk and melted butter, or a side of stewed tomatoes, or slabs of fried corn meal mush, the latter actually appearing quite frequently. These days, however, your average Lancaster smorgasbord spread would be considered luxurious by comparison.
One thing remains largely unchanged, simply because if it were to go away, much of Pennsylvania would likely go on strike, and of course we are talking about scrapple. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the famed grey-brown loaf, besides the fact that it lives on breakfast menus all through the Mid-Atlantic region in the 21st century, generations after it came into fashion as the preferred way to stretch a pig to the very last, is how few ingredients there typically are in the stuff. That is, at least, when you buy from a local butcher in the part of the United States where butchers carry these un-enticing loaves of pork off-cuts, sometimes including offal, molded with cornmeal mostly, though buckwheat flour was once quite common. Scrapple is a dinosaur dish, the sort of thing you'd expect to have been made extinct the moment producers figured out how to make bacon and pork sausages affordable and plentiful, and yet, here we are, and if you’ve never, well, you must.
Typically sliced thick, then fried until the outsides are nice and crispy, turning the slab golden brown (a significant visual upgrade), people eat scrapple as a side with eggs and toast, or perhaps on its own little plate with ketchup, or lots of maple syrup, or in some old-school households, molasses. One of the best ways, however, to get your hit of funky goodness (there’s a little back note there, admittedly, but nothing most people can’t handle—imagine you’re eating a pork-flavored polenta cake, if that helps) is to put a big slice of scrapple in a breakfast sandwich.
Soft on the inside, crispy on the out, nicely-griddled scrapple can only be improved by wearing a cape of melty Cooper Sharp, a processed but still slightly crumbly cheese that people in this part of Pennsylvania know as one of the finest Americans around. Introduce a fresh, flour-dusted potato roll, the kind you buy from local bakers on market days, not the gummy, supermarket-grade rolls certain chefs in other places have now made famous, and now you have the breakfast taco of Amish country. Typically, you'll see restaurants and delis trying to sneak some scrambled egg on there, don't let them—this is all about the meld between musky scrapple and that white cheddar-like cheese, a taste like no other. Nobody needs the egg. Nobody wants the egg. The egg is a third wheel.
FIVE GREAT STOPS TO GET YOU STARTED
The Dutch Eating Place Philadelphia
Lancaster County may be more than an hour’s drive west, but the quality here is consistently higher than many a tourist-friendly restaurant, out in the Dutch Country heartlands.
Dienner’s Country Restaurant Ronks
Some of the better cooking you’ll find in a large restaurant in tourist Lancaster, from a family of Amish heritage.
Katie’s Kitchen Rocks
This bare-bones, Amish-owned diner is an essential stop for anyone looking to get as close to the real experience as possible.
Hershey Farm Strasburg
Not all Lancaster smorgasbords are created equal—this one charges a bit more, but the food is better, and the service is terrific. Not that you have to eat them for breakfast if you don’t want to, but their whoopie pies are some of the best you can buy in a shop.
Lititz Family Cupboard Lititz
A cozy deep into the county, expect to be surrounded by elderly locals who know each other, plus the occasional visitor from the Rock Lititz complex, just next door. (The very modern production and rehearsal facility has hosted everyone from Lady Gaga to Elton John.) Come for the Saturday buffet.