Philadelphia Fish and Fishing
Less than a century ago, Delaware Bay, Delaware River, Schuylkill River, Pennypack Creek, Wissahickon Creek, and dozens of other creeks in this swampy region were teeming with edible fish, oysters and crabs. They may be coming back, cautiously.
Customs, Culture and Traditions
Abundant seafood made it easy to settle here. Agriculture takes longer.
Food and Drink in Philadelphia
A flowing abundance of food sources made Philadelphia the capital of food and drink, right from earliest times.
|The Ritz Carlton|
New Orleans is famous for its cooking, and its residents claim it is impossible to get a bad meal in NOLA. New York is famous for its restaurants, where you can get things to eat that are available nowhere else, even though there is lots of bad cooking in that city. Philadelphia is famous for its food, which puts a slightly different twist on the matter. The Delaware Bay provides seafood, the Garden State of New Jersey provides fresh fruit and vegetables, the Pennsylvania Dutch Farm area provides meat and produce, the Diamond State of Delaware is famous for poultry, and lately, the shipping for Chile brings in fruit and vegetables out of normal season. Philadelphia is within easy distance of the very best and freshest of groceries. The city responded with bakeries, meat markets, fish markets, breweries, dairies. One by one, the latest ethnic arrivals brought in new recipes, quickly modified to fit the local style. All of this explains why Philadelphia can be famous for its ice cream, for example, even though it was not invented here as some local patriots carelessly contend.
Snapper soup is certainly one of the traditional Philadelphia dishes. To make it in the traditional way, you have to dedicate a stove for the process. New material is dumped in the top and today's soup is taken out the bottom, imitating the process for making sherry wine. The Old Original Bookbinder's restaurant had such a dedicated stove, but it has gone out of business, apparently leaving the Union League as the only traditional snapper soup source. Philadelphia Pepper Pot Soup is pretty much the same as Snapper soup, substituting tripe for the turtle as the meat base.
Scrapple is not to everyone's taste in this age of cholesterol fears, but it is certainly a locally famous dish, usually served as fried slices for breakfast. Scrapple is actually a mixture of cornmeal mush and Pennsylvania Dutch Puddin', a stew of scrap meats which is also sold as a chilled loaf. Puddin' is a dish for real traditionalists who have inherited low cholesterol to protect them from it. Only one or two old stands in the Reading Terminal market still carry it, and then only at butchering season. The Reading and Lancaster farmers markets are a more dependable source for Puddin', and Scrapple survives as more popular because it can be obtained in cans in the supermarkets. While you are there in a farmers market, you might get a loaf of head cheese, which substitutes gelatin for congealed fat as the binder for cooked meat chips with spices. Among the local heavy breakfasts must be mentioned stewed kidneys on waffles. The local belief is that this surprisingly delicious dish was introduced from Virginia, by steamboat vacationers to Cape May who mixed with Philadelphia vacationers at places like the Chalfonte Hotel, where stewed kidneys can/may still be obtained on Sunday morning.
Cinnamon buns, or Philadelphia Sticky Buns, are a local delicacy with the tradition of coming from Saxony in what is now Germany. The more butter and sugar the better, and real Philadelphians fry the sticky buns for breakfast. Out in San Francisco, they are famous for sourdough bread, while in Philadelphia the locally famous bread is black bread, a form of pumpernickel. Unfortunately, it is easily imitated by putting cocoa in white bread, so you need to lift a loaf before you buy it. Real black bread is as heavy as a cannonball, and about the same size and shape; it's even better with raisins in it. Toasted Crumpets are a Scottish introduction to the town's traditions, ambrosial if you can get fresh crumpets. Crumb cake is another traditional breakfast bun, known as coffee cake in the Dutch country, and imitated in commercial form as Tastykake.
When turtles were more abundant, snapper stew, fried oysters and sherry were favorites, but now terrapin is such a rarity that it is saved for special occasions and special guests. It's usually served in a cream sauce in Philadelphia, whereas cream sauce is called abhorrent in Baltimore. Because of the availability problem, the party dish nowadays is apt to be fried oyster and chicken salad, and even oysters are getting a little scarce.
No one seems to challenge the idea that iced tea originated in Philadelphia, and in the Dutch Country, it is quite common to have iced tea 365 days a year, pitcher after pitcher. Let's not forget meatloaf, and corned beef hash with an egg, which is both perfectly delicious when served by someone who knows how to make them. They sound like leftovers, but it depends on where you get them. In the men's clubs, and in some Reading Terminal Restaurants, they are a star feature of the menu.
Around March 15, it is a good idea to ask if shad or shad roe is available. The trick is to get the fish with the bones removed. In recent years, shad is increasingly abundant, but it isn't so easy to find a butcher or chef who knows how to excise the bones while leaving the filet intact. At the moment, just about the only place that serves traditional planked shad is the Salem Country Club, out on the tip of the abrupt bend in the river above Salem, New Jersey. The ceremony is to split the big fish and nail it to a board, which is then placed in the open fireplace to cook, snapping and popping while its marvelous aroma fills the dining area. Owen Johnson once wrote a famous Lawrenceville book about The Tennessee Shad, so other towns must enjoy shad, too, but we wouldn't really know.
Special Philadelphia dishes may be a little hard for the tourist visitor to find. If you click on this link , you'll find a website put together by an enthusiast, who lists some of the better places for a wandering tourist to find local specialties. Philadelphia has quite a few high-toned fancy sit-down restaurants, too, but these are cheap, good, and easy to find.
Originally published: Thursday, July 03, 1997; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019