Forget the culinary tours promising “Sicily Food Adventures,” “Thailand Food Trails,” “Flavors of Colombia,” and other gastronomically themed trips.
There is a culinary adventure right under our noses and as close as our cupboards that is worth sampling.
That is because our placement in the Delaware Valley region connects us with a cornucopia filled with centuries of innovations in eating.
And while this food belt pretty much guarantees stretching one’s waist belt, it is a great way to welcome the fall and celebrate the region’s homegrown contributions to sweet life.
So let’s get rolling with — well — pork roll.
Along with political pork barreling, pork roll is a pure product of New Jersey’s capital city. And you can thank mid-18th century Trenton entrepreneurs John Taylor and George Washington Case for the salty and spice-minced pork product whose exact nomenclature causes a beef in different regions of the Garden State.
So let’s answer the big question: “Is it Taylor Ham or Pork Roll?”
Doesn’t matter. What does is Taylor and Case are major regional pork purveyors that are still going hog wild in Trenton.
The bigger question than the name is “Is there a difference?” The two pork roll brands are similar in flavor — think fatty, salty, tangy — suggesting that taste buds might be just fooling the tongue.
To find out I previously asked Case’s Pork Roll president Tom Dolan for his thoughts about what separates the two. “Taylor is bigger than us,” he says. “That’s really the main difference. Both Case and Taylor have a great product. I guess it’s a preference in taste.”
Dolan says another difference is his company gets a lot of orders from diners, so it is a good bet that a pork roll sandwich can be found just about every greasy or non-greasy spoon in the region.
But both Taylor and Case can be found side-by-side in area supermarkets as well as a one-of-a-kind area shop: the Pork Roll Store and More in Allentown.
If you really want to pig out, there’s the “The Pork Roll Cookbook” (Cider Mill Press), with recipes by Susan Sprague Yeske, longtime food writer for the Times of Trenton, and don’t forget the annual June Pork Roll Festival in Trenton.
Trenton Tomato Pie
It is easy to forget that Trenton has a special place in pizza pie history — with an accent on the pie.
The term “tomato pie” popped up around 1900 to help Americans understand the concept of something new on the scene: pizzas. Trenton pie makers adopted the name, added their own twists to the making, and created a regional specialty: Trenton Tomato Pie.
Although it is round like a Neapolitan pizza, the Trenton version goes its own way. As Pizza Today writer Scott Weiner writes, “Unlike contemporary cheese-laden pizzas, Trenton tomato pie puts crushed tomato on top of a gentle layer of low moisture mozzarella. Each purveyor has a slightly different take, but all versions are dense and crunchy without the characteristic flop of a New York slice.”
Trenton history shows Italian immigrants arriving in Trenton to work in the factories and moving into the city’s Chambersburg section. In 1910 Joe Silvestro opened his Joe’s Tomato Pies on South Clinton Avenue. The formula was based on a thin crust with a light sprinkling of cheese topped with crunchy crushed tomatoes. Two years later, former Joe’s employee Joe Papa opened his Papa’s Tomato Pies nearby and became a city icon until it moved several years ago to Robbinsville. It has also gone down in history as the oldest continuously run pizza restaurant in the United States — and a real food destination if ever there were one.
Trenton is home to the Italian Hot Dog — also known in the region as the Casino Dog.
The casino part of the name refers to the once legendary (now gone) family-run Casino Restaurant on Anderson Street in Trenton. The dog is a hot dog served on a firm torpedo roll and topped with olive oil-braised fried peppers and boiled potatoes. Credit for the mixture goes to Italian-born Canio Sbarro, who arrived in Trenton in 1922 and by the 1930s was peddling his dog from his food cart near the state house. That was before he was able to set up his brick-and-mortar shop in the heart of Chambersburg. He was also known as “Tony Goes,” a nickname he got from his habit of rushing from his cart and shop to get fresh produce.
There is something more about this dog. As the website Eat Up Kitchen reports, “On Thursday, October 7, 2004, the State of New Jersey Senate and General Assembly passed a joint legislative resolution that honors and salutes the Casino Restaurant (Tony Goes). In celebration of the resolution, proclamation, and the 70th anniversary of the Casino Restaurant, the third-generation owners . . . renamed Casino’s creation, the Casino’s Original Italian Hot Dog, as ‘The Jersey Dog’ — The Official Sandwich of New Jersey.”
With the Casino Restaurant closed, Italian hot dogs can be found at various area cafes — just don’t confuse them with the Newark-styled dog with onions and fried potatoes.
A popular sandwich with a very familiar name is also a Delaware Valley region concoction.
Mary Rizzo, co-editor of the Public Historian and public historian in residence at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities at Rutgers University-Camden, has been chewing on hoagie history for some time and writes about Philadelphia’s official sandwich.
First there is her definition: “A hoagie is a sandwich made on a long Italian roll containing a variety of Italian meats and cheeses, lettuce, tomato, and onion, and dressed with olive oil, vinegar, and spices.”
And then the name. “Known outside of the Philadelphia region as a submarine sandwich, a grinder, or a hero, according to the Oxford English Dictionary the word hoagie did not come into common usage until 1967. However, within the region people were using the term as early as the 1930s, and it appeared in the Philadelphia City Directory for the first time in 1945. In 1950 a letter to the New York Times from a tourist to Philadelphia from Baltimore noted that the sandwich he recognized as a grinder was being referred to as a hoagie, hoggy, horgy, or hogy.”
Getting to the meat of the matter, Rizzo says, “These alternative names give some clues to the hoagie’s still-mysterious origins. Some people have argued that the name derives from the Italian laborers who worked at southwest Philadelphia’s Hog Island during World War I and brought the sandwiches with them for lunch. The nickname for the laborers — hoggies — was applied to the sandwich as well. However, since the name does not appear in print until much later, this story seems unlikely. Another variation is that Italian street vendors, known as ‘hokey pokey’ men, sold them, so that hoagie is actually a corrupted version of ‘hokey pokey.’ The most widely accepted explanation, however, is that Al DePalma, a former musician, used the name at the sandwich shop he opened in 1936. Years before he had seen a friend eating the large sandwich and thought that he’d have to be a hog to finish it. DePalma called his sandwiches hoggies, but his customers pronounced them ‘hoagies.’”
But what’s in a name? These hefty sandwiches are very much part of our cultural landscape — with Wawa convenience stores’ annual Hoagie Festival, the very good Primo Hoagie chain, and the beloved Hoagie Haven in Princeton — so no one will ever starve looking for one.
But do any hoagie makers really stand out? The answer is yes and no.
From this Philly-born guy’s standpoint Italian Peoples Bakery in Trenton has the right stuff to make it work: fine deli products and the fresh bread that provides a lift but noticeable crust crunch. But as purists know, although the right ingredients are key, the real magic is in the mojo of the person who puts them all together. So look for the place that cares and shows it.
“A cheesesteak is a long, crusty roll filled with thinly sliced sauteed rib-eye beef and melted cheese,” posts Visit Philadelphia, the official city visitors’ port for regional info. And it, and other writers (including yours truly) readily say the cheese of choice is Cheez Whiz — a glowing, mild-tasting processed cheese sauce developed by Kraft foods in the 1950s. American and provolone are acceptable substitutions.
The birth of the cheesesteak is linked with South Philadelphia hot dog vendor Pat Oliveri. Seems Oliveri cooked up the idea of putting beef on his hot dog grill and put it on a roll for a taxi driver client. The cab driver told other drivers about his mouthful and a line of cars headed to Pat — who spiced up the menu by adding cheese. Oliveri eventually opened the shop on the corner of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue, the site of Pat’s King of Steaks.
Today, with cheesesteak competitor Geno’s across the street, the corner is a 24-hour hot spot.
Experience dictates that one needs to know the protocol and lingo when ordering a cheesesteak in Philadelphia, where the line of hungry costumers doesn’t want to hear someone ask a litany of questions to the simple formula. So step up, know what you want, and say it as clearly as possible: “Whiz and onions” or “American no onions.”
So what’s the best place in Philadelphia to get a cheesesteak? Pat’s and Geno’s won’t disappoint, but my preference is Jim’s on South Street. The meat is sliced thinner and less chewy, and there is upstairs seating where one can enjoy both the taste and sights of the city.
But one doesn’t have to travel to the City of Brotherly Love for the love of a cheesesteak. There are a good number of places in the area that do a fine job, including Meatheadz on Brunswick Pike in Lawrenceville. In the former Stewart’s Root Beer stop, it made big food news in July, 2019, when it was rated No. 1 by an aficionado with 295 regional cheesesteaks under his belt.
But my simple recommendation is a visit to Pete’s Steak House. With its roots in Chambersburg’s fabled Italian restaurant culture, the tasty tradition lives-on on Whitehorse Avenue in Hamilton.
It’s probably the region’s most indelicate delicacy, something about which Rizzo again provides some authoritative insight.
Rizzo defines scrapple, a German import to the region, as a “loaf of cooked pig parts thickened with cornmeal or buckwheat usually spiced with sage and pepper. Once cooled, the loaf is sliced, fried, and served as a breakfast side dish, often with syrup. Not just a culinary transplant, scrapple exists because of the interplay of Old and New World traditions and ingredients.”
The practice dates back to 16th century hog-butchering when “everything but the oink was collected for scrapple and for black or blood puddings, of which scrapple is a variant. The German product did not include cornmeal, which was not available in Europe,” notes Rizzo.
While the Germans called it “panhaskroppel,” historians say the current name, first recorded in 1820, was a shortened version coined by English settlers who also made it.
Rizzo, who thinks that the name may be connected to the idea of using scraps, says scrapple was an enterprise that took off during the Civil War when the nation saw a need for industrialized food production.
That is also when, in 1863, Joshua Habbersett started Habbersett Pork Products. Operating today as the Habbersett Company, it calls itself “Philadelphia’s Favorite” scrapple and is available in regional supermarkets.
As a nod to my Philadelphia family background, I cook turkey scrapple on Christmas morning. Here’s my recipe: Slice the loaf into half-inch sections, place the sections in a hot frying pan heavily coated with oil or butter, and fry until each section is dark brown. Serve with eggs and baked beans or just by itself, but top the scrapple with maple syrup to sweeten the taste — and a family memory.
Philadelphia Soft Pretzels
“Soft pretzels are to Philadelphia as crepes are to Paris,” writes Dianna Marder, a veteran Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who got her taste for food writing while she reported on courts and crime.
Marder adds: “Philadelphia soft pretzels are distinguished from all others by their shape (a figure-8, not loopy with a thick center and thinner ends), their texture (chewy, not crunchy), and their distribution method (look for them on street corners, not supermarkets). They come lightly salted, or, on request, as ‘baldies.’”
The writer says pretzels are part of the legacy of the region’s Pennsylvania Dutch who arrived in the 1700s. Then in 1820 there is the first mention of a street pretzel vendor, Daniel Christopher Kleiss.
Then things heat up in the 1840s when the Sturgis family opened the first commercial pretzel bakery in Lancaster County and sold their pretzels as treats and as a product to raise funds to support Union soldiers during the Civil War.
With the addition of the Nacchio Family’s Federal Pretzel Baking Company in 1922, hot dog vendors adding pretzels to their menus (and starting the tradition of slathering mustard on them), and the habit of selling pretzels to Philadelphia-region schools (including the one that I attended), pretzels slowly became part of daily life in the region.
Still available on Philadelphia streets, they can also be found at the Philadelphia Pretzel Factory in Ewing, Robbinsville, and Rocky Hill.
Sweet tooths Philip Bauer and Herbert Morris founded this now national brand in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in 1914.
As J.D. Bowers, a Pennsylvania-born Northern Illinois University history professor, tells it the first cakes “were full-sized loaf cakes with icing, priced between five and ten cents. The company sold close to three million items in its first nine months of operation. The city’s industrial class, made up of laborers in the factories, mills, and mines and their families, enjoyed the inexpensive baked goods as an added treat in their lunchboxes and on weekend picnics in the region’s parks. Over the next century, with only small changes to its equally iconic logo, the company’s products became a staple of packed lunches, snack time, and Phillies baseball games.”
He says locals and “the constant waves of immigrants took to the treats so much that within eight years Tastykake outgrew its original site and moved to Hunting Park Avenue. There the bakery began to add new product lines, most notably the personal-sized treats for which they are known today, including the Chocolate and Coconut Juniors. In 1927 came the first Butterscotch Krimpets and soon thereafter a line of individually wrapped fruit and cream pies, all of which were bundled in wax-paper, a tradition that lasted into the 1960s. The Tandy-Kake introduced in 1931 became the Kandy Kake, the most popular cake in the company’s history, with nearly half a million baked and packaged each day.”
By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, globalization had caught up with Tastykake, and in 2011 the company was sold to Flowers Foods based in Georgia. But they remain a treat found in just about any regional grocery or convenience store.
While water ice’s history goes back to Roman times, its American appearance is connected to 19th-century Philadelphia. As Philadelphia Daily News writer Chuck Darrow writes, “Philly’s infatuation with the stuff definitely can be traced to the great wave of Italian immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The new residents began selling ‘Italian ice’ out of their homes or from street-corner stands.”
A frozen blend of water, sugar, and flavoring, water ice exists somewhere between a slushy and sorbet — and not to be confused with a snow cone (scoops of ice granules with flavoring poured over it).
Water ice is pretty easy to get, thanks to Bob Tumolo. He is the retired Philadelphia firefighter who opened a small water ice store in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, in 1984, and then expanded it through franchise operations. Now Rita’s, named after Tumolo’s wife, has more than 600 stores across the nation supplying what began in this region as a summer treat.
Original Trenton Crackers
The story of an enduring area food product begins in Trenton in 1847 when English immigrant Adam Exton starts cooking up a type of British cracker to add to oyster stew.
Then, as a Smithsonian Institute document tells the story, “in 1848, one year after the Exton crackers arrived on the Trenton scene, Ezekiel Pullen began baking an ‘Original Trenton Cracker’ in the kitchen of his home. He sold his crackers from the back of his wagon as he made his way along Trenton streets. Both businesses grew as a craze for oysters developed in the 1860s and 1870s. OTC crackers became available from wooden barrels in neighborhood stores and in seafood restaurants. During the Civil War the Exton Company supplied its crackers to the Union Army. In 1887 Christopher Cartlidge bought the Pullen Cracker Company and renamed it the Original Trenton Cracker Company. In 1962, after 115 years of rivalry, the Cartlidge family bought the Exton Company, making it at last the one and only ‘Original Trenton Cracker.’ In the latter part of the 20th century the OTC company was bought and sold to larger companies, currently distributed by Panorama Foods in Massachusetts, yet the Original Trenton Cracker name continues — as does the flavor that has been a favorite in Delaware Valley Restaurants for over a century. ”
They can be found in some supermarkets and are available online.
Green Bean Casserole
The dish that now appears on 30 million Thanksgiving tables was first cooked up in 1955 at the Campbell Soup Company in Camden. The chef was life-long New Jerseyan Dorcas Reilly, Campbell’s test kitchen manager.
A Drexel University graduate, Reilly was honored by her sorority, Alpha Sigma Alpha, as the “mother of comfort food” in 2008.
The sorority commendation says Reilly’s “inspiration for the Green Bean Casserole was to create a quick and easy recipe around two things most Americans always had on hand in the 1950s: green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. Like all great recipes the casserole requires a minimal number of ingredients, doesn’t take much time, and can be customized to fit a wide range of tastes. In 2002 Mrs. Reilly appeared at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, to donate the original copy of the recipe to the museum. The now yellowed recipe card takes its place alongside Enrico Fermi’s invention of the first controlled nuclear reactor and Thomas Alva Edison’s two greatest hits: the light bulb and the phonograph.”
Making Green Bean Casserole is simple and can be found at www.campbells.com/kitchen/recipes/classic-green-bean-casserole.
Although it had been around for years, tomato soup got on the culinary map thanks to another chef at Campbell’s Soup. Paris-born Louis Charles DeLisle came up with the right recipe in 1902 and created what Adweek calls “an indispensable fixture in American kitchens.”
One reason is that it is a convenient and inexpensive food that can be served as itself or an addition to other foods. Another is that it was so well marketed that it became one of the most celebrated products in the United States thanks to American artist Andy Warhol’s painting celebrating the mundane in modern life as well as one of his regular lunches.
Yet the main reason is that it tastes good, and that taste is connected to a major regional food innovation: the cultivated tomato — or tomatoes to be exact.
One is the Rutgers Tomato. Originally developed by Campbell Soup scientists in 1928 and refined in 1934 by Rutgers professor Lyman Schermerhorn, this juicy tomato has a pleasing balance of acidity and sweetness. It also has strong vines, large fruits with fewer seeds, and “flesh” strong enough to create cut slices but soft enough to chew. Some reports say that at one point 70 percent of all tomatoes in the United States were Rutgers.
The other is the Campbell’s 146 tomato. As a Rutgers University agriculture-related document notes, the 146 “was developed in Riverton, New Jersey, by Campbell’s tomato breeder George B. Reynard and released in 1956. This variety was wilt-resistant, crack-resistant, and better flavored than other processing types. KC 146 was the predominant variety grown by Campbell’s contract growers for a few years, along with another variety with good color, KC-135. But, in Campbell’s quest to continue to improve varieties, it was eventually replaced with newer varieties that had a wider range of disease resistance. Campbell’s maintained the KC-146 stock as a flavor standard. We agree, this is one tasty tomato.”
Since food often needs to be washed down and sometimes water just won’t do, there are several beverages that flowed from our region.
One of the most legendary Trenton-made products is Champale.
Known as the “poor man’s champagne,” it is actually a malt liquor spiced with yeasts normally used in wine fermentation.
Originally launched circa 1939 as the product of the Metropolitan Brewing Company in Trenton, the bubbly product was made in Trenton at Lalor and Lamberton streets until the 1980s. The company moved when it was sold to the Heileman Brewing Company in Wisconsin and then its current owner, the Los Angeles-based Pabst Brewing Company. Champale’s former office building, the former Delaware Inn, still stands and waits for its rebirth — potentially for the home of a seaport museum.
Available in three flavors — Golden, Pink, and Extra Dry — the beverage was also be noted for an aggressive ad campaign to appeal to young African-Americans with the slogan, “live a little on a little.”
The Union League of Philadelphia archivist Theresa Altieri writes that “Root beer, a popular beverage in the United States since the late 18th century, began as a medicinal beverage produced at home. In the 19th century carbonated root beer grew in popularity, particularly after Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires (1851-1937) presented his version of root beer at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.”
Altieri says making tea from roots was common in the late 18th century, but it became more popular when it became root beer — changed by adding yeast and soda water to create carbonation. “But Hires revolutionized the manufacturing and distribution of root beer in the 1870s by supplying powders to help home brewing and then root beer syrup to supply soda fountains nationally and internationally.”
She also credits his success to understanding marketing and building a strong brand, becoming the beverage industry’s first major advertiser and mass marketer, and creating promotional materials: trading cards, booklets for children, pocket mirrors, and so on.
By the 1950s Hires faced serious competition from other companies and increased manufacturing costs. The family sold its shares. The company was liquidated and became a division of another company. And then it was purchased and moved from Philadelphia.
No longer sold in the Delaware Valley, Hires Root Beer can occasionally be purchased online.
A strange but sweetly addicting brew conjured up in Riverside, New Jersey, BOOST is a regional phenomenon that has endured for more than 100 years.
As a Philadelphia Inquirer article reports, it was around 1910 “when pharmacist Benjamin Faunce reportedly set out to create a soft drink without bubbles. The result was a syrup that, once mixed with plain water, creates a caramel-colored drink with a strong, sappy, citrus flavor. He called it TAKABOOST. The original version has 32 grams of sugar and plenty of caffeine in an 8-ounce container.”
After its inventor died in 1949 the company stayed afloat despite a family rivalry that created two competing companies and a lawsuit, and BOOST became the official name. Another challenge arose when the nationally prominent Mead Johnson Company brought a beverage product with the same name to South Jersey. As the Inquirer reports, BOOST! struck back and “won a temporary restraining order claiming the drink infringed on its trademarks on its home turf. Mead paid a $350,000 settlement in 1996 and stopped shipment to South Jersey.”
Still made in Riverside, BOOST is sold as a slushy at restaurants and shops starting from the edge of Hamilton at the White Horse Circle down to Burlington. It is also sold as syrup in quart and gallon jars at various supermarkets, including the Yardville Acme in Hamilton.
BOOST syrup is mixed with plain water. The result is Coca-Cola without the fizz.
The benefits? The syrup can soothe an upset stomach. The caffeine can get one moving. And, according to one person interviewed for a Philadelphia newspaper story, it can help relieve a hangover. It is also good for regional business.
Let’s end the story with something new and something old and blue. First the old and blue, the cultivated blueberry is linked to Elizabeth White. The daughter of a prominent cranberry farmer in Whites Bog in the Pines, Elizabeth had a natural interest in agricultural research and talent for farming and often discussed cultivating other berries for commercial use. One was the blueberry, which grown naturally has smaller and drier fruit.
In 1910 she read an article on experiments in cultivating a commercially viable blueberry. The author was Frederick Coville, a botanist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Intrigued by the agricultural and economic potentials of such a berry, White arranged for Coville to come to New Jersey. Together they merged their backgrounds — his in research and hers in farming — and in 1916 released what is now the standard commercial blueberry.
And finally, one of the newest food imports to the region is the celebrated Junior’s Cheesecake’s move from New York to Burlington. One of the most famous and best cheesecakes in the Big Apple decided to go small on its budget and move its bakery in 2015. And while they still supply New Yorkers, the Burlington factory also has a bakery outlet store that saves regional cheesecake fans a trip to New York and the opportunity to save. Visit www.juniorscheesecake.com.