Tuesday, October 5, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

Drum roll, please: Today marks the debut of my new Museum Mystery series, which opens with Fundraising the Dead. The series will take you behind the scenes in some interesting Philadelphia museums (and you’ll probably learn more than you want to know about what really goes on there). I’ll bet you never realized that fundraisers make great sleuths—they know everybody, and nobody notices them. Did I mention I used to be a fundraiser? We had files on everybody who was anybody. Anyway, in honor of Nell Pratt’s first public appearance, I’m going to talk about Philadelphia food.

What’s the first thing you think about when you hear “Philadelphia” and “food” in the same sentence? If you know Philadelphia at all, the Reading Terminal market has been providing wonderful fresh meats, fish and vegetables for a century or so. But you won’t get to explore that until the next book!

This time around I'll just give you the basics:

Cheese Steaks: If you haven’t been living in a cave most of your life, you know what these are: a long roll sliced in half, with a layer of shredded beef cooked on a grill (the flat kind, not the barbecue kind), with a thick layer of gooey orange cheese on top. Onions optional. Okay, there are variations, but this is the essential sandwich.

There are two major competitors who claim to be the best and/or most authentic cheese steak vendors in Philadelphia (and probably the world), Pat’s and Geno’s. If you’re in Philadelphia and you want to compare, it’s easy, because they’re across the street from each other, at the intersection of Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia.

Scrapple: This local product has always mystified me. Wikipedia defines this as “a mush of scraps and trimmings combined with cornmeal, flour and spices. The mush is formed into a semi-solid congealed loaf, and slices of the scrapple are then pan-fried before serving. Scraps of meat left over from butchering, not used or sold elsewhere, were made into scrapple to avoid waste.” Doesn’t that sound yummy? Once on sleep-over when I was in elementary school, a friend’s mother served it to me without identifying it, and I politely ate it. When I went home and told my mother, her horrified response was, “you ate WHAT?” Needless to say, it wasn’t on our menu at home. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, like Irish black sausage.

Soft pretzels: I really don’t understand these. They’re most often sold by street vendors, sprinkled with coarse salt and squirted with yellow mustard. If you read the Philadelphia papers, you see a lot of health code violations slapped on these vendors. You do NOT want to know what they find in those pretzels.

Hoagies: Now the story gets interesting. Most regions have some variation of this sandwich heaped with meat, cheese, and any number of other items. They call them grinders, subs, and a lot of other things. But the Philadelphia legend holds that the “hoagie” originated with Hog Island, an area on the southwest side of Philadelphia, near where the Delaware River and the Schuylkill River meet (if you’ve ever been to the Philadelphia Airport, that’s the place, thanks to a lot of landfill.) It was home to a major shipyard during WWI and WW2, and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania claims that the Italians working on Hog Island created the sandwich.

Philadelphians are very committed to “their” version of the sandwich: You take an Italian roll, sprinkle it with oil (not mayo!), add shredded lettuce, onions, sandwich meats and sliced tomato, then sprinkle with herbs and salt and pepper. Most also include cheese, usually provolone. No pickles!

These are the biggies. There are other food products associated with Philadelphia: Campbell’s Soup (well, it’s across the river in Camden, NJ); TastyKake, founded in 1914 and still going strong; the Fleer Corporation, which was the first company to successfully manufacture bubble gum (I grew up chewing its Dubble-Bubble, invented in 1928), which sadly went bankrupt after selling off a lot of its products. As for Dubble-Bubble, it went to Tootsie Roll, and they changed the recipe. It’s just not the same.

Aren’t you glad that Nell Pratt likes to eat (but she doesn't really care about cooking, so no recipes)? I plan to send her to a lot of restaurants, where she can hang out with her colleagues to try to solve a few Philadelphia crimes.


  1. Congratulations on your release, Sheila! I can't wait to get my copy!

    I didn't know about scrapple! Cheese steaks and hoagies sound like they're really important to the folks in Philadelphia...and they have their own way to prepare them, too. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I grew up eating this stuff (and still do). Scrapple nowadays (in my lifetime, in fact) is made from good pork cuts and is heavenly served with maple syrup. One never buys soft pretzels from street vendors. Get them somewhere where they're served warm, like a Phillies game (go Phillies!) And several more important foods: roast pork sandwiches, shoo-fly pies, funny cake.

    Now I'm hungry.

  3. I remember my first visit to Philly and there were two things we had to have: Philly steak and hoagies. I never heard of scrapple.

    Congrats on the book launch today.

  4. I thought about including shoo-fly pie, but it's actually too sweet for me. There's still a strong Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch presence--there are a lot of Amish vendors at the Reading Terminal Market (which I adore), and many sell meat and sausage. I'd trust their scrapple, but the rest of the world hasn't quite figured it out.

    As for the pretzels, I think it's a case of "buyer, beware!" I'm sure the ones at the Phillies games are safe.

    I miss Dubble-Bubble (even though I don't chew gum any more). They had comics. And Fleer was one of the earliest promoters of baseball cards--to go with the early Philadelphia baseball team (more about that in book 2).

  5. What a bunch of fun trivia for the day. Good luck with your new series. I know it's going to be great!


  6. This is my first visit to this sight. What an informative and fun sight you have. It makes sense that fundraisers make good sleuths. The ones I know, know more about me than I do. It seems so, anyway.

    Though I'm not from Philly, I've been there many times. Your cheese steaks are the best anywhere to be found. Thanks for the tips!

    Good luck with your new book. I'll be getting one.

    This is a fun sight. I'll be back.

  7. I grew up in Maryland eating Scrapple. Love it! When we first moved to Boone, NC, I couldn't find it anywhere and when I finally worked up the nerve to order Livermush (Terrible name!) in a restaurant - Voilà; it's Scrapple. Now I see Scrapple in our grocery stores all the time. Still love it!

  8. It will take more courage than I have to try Scrapple, but I'd love an authentic cheesesteak sandwich! Museums sound like a fascinating background for murder. Looking forward to reading your book.

  9. Good luck with your new series!! I spent a lot of time at student housing for Thomas Jefferson Hospital and loved our Saturday mornings at Reading Street Market. I will admit there was an Amish diner there that served the best fried scrapple with real maple syrup!!! Look forward to traveling back to Philly via your stories!

  10. I grew up in Reading and now live in California. I've spent many nights trying to duplicate the taste of a real hoagie. It's harder than you'd think!

    Congrats on the launch!

  11. As for me: Hoagie lover here. In NYC, they call them "subs," but where I grew up in Western, PA, we also called them hoagies. In the Pittsburgh area, you'll also find they are mayo-free. Instead, we used oil AND vinegar with various herbs (what the sandwich vendors called "salad dressing").

    Fun post, Sheila, and FUNDRAISING THE DEAD sounds like a great read. Congrats on the launch of your new mystery series!

    ~ Cleo
    Coffeehouse Mystery.com
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter