Philadelphia foods: The ones you know and those you don't

Philadelphia regional foods packed for overnight shipping by Taste of Philadelphia are displayed in Folcroft, Pa., near Philadelphia, Tuesday, Pa., March 13, 2007. Americans transplanted from their hometowns are scouring the World Wide Web to find the comfort food they crave _ and it's created a cottage industry for entrepreneurs willing to deliver across state lines (AP Photo by Matt Rourke).

I was back in Philadelphia last month before leaving for Europe and inspired me to write a handful of posts, from my humble suggestions for the Philadelphia Inquirer to some lessons from an internship with the Philadelphia Business Journal – and the 10 Philadelphia books you have to read.

Here’s another, my missing the delicious food specialties of the original first city of America,


Yo, it’s a beautiful thing, food traditions. With the mixing and mashing of people and traditions, so much culture is going by the wayside. Cities – where so much American culture thrived – were killed and are no slowly being brought to life by young people – like me – who don’t know a damn thing about any of this cool shit.

It’s not only the best beer town, but Philadelphia is the best place to eat in the entire country. The food is good and more than anywhere else, this place has its own distinctions, tastes and smells. People actually ship this food across the country – figure it out.

Soft pretzels

Eating a stack of hot Philly pretzels - dipping in brown mustard - August 2007.
Eating a stack of hot Philly pretzels - dipping in brown mustard - August 2007.

Accept it, the American hot pretzel started in southeastern Pennsylvania and took off on the streets of Philadelphia. All those freakin kraut Germans brought the rough idea from their homeland, but it got over salted, smooshed into Philly’s traditional tighter eight shape (to fit more on the pan, see above photo) and made delicious.

Yo, Philadelphians eat 12 times as many pretzels in a given year than the rest of the country. That’s real, son. Buy a pretzel for less than a dollar from a cart off the street in Philly – but only if it has the above shape. Oh, and get some spicy, brown mustard if you know what’s good for you.

Irish Potatoes

As an article by Irish Philadelphia aptly began in 2007, “Irish potatoes aren’t Irish and they aren’t potatoes.” They are a distinctly Philadelphia candy made from cream cheese, butter, confectioners’ sugar, coconut, vanilla, a little milk or cream, rolled into potato shapes and covered in cinnamon.

Here’s a recipe for you and a half-assed column from the Bulletin clamboring about them.

Cream Cheese

In 1880, ‘Philadelphia’ was the first cream cheese brand name, after the city’s noteriety for highest quality food. Philadelphia is used by some as a generic term for cream cheese, and in Spanish it is translated as Queso Filadelfia.


Where I come from – North(west) Jersey – they’re called sprinkles. As a matter of fact, they are called sprinkles in much of the United States. Not when you’re talking to anyone from the Philadelphia region worth their salt. They’re rainbow jimmies or chocolate jimmies. They won’t even understand what the hell you mean when you ask for sprinkles on your ice cream cone.

To be fair, the term jimmies may have come from Bethlehem, Pa., but part of the region nonetheless and Philly gives the term its power, my friends.

Water Ice

Like the sprinke/jimmy debate, this is a split between the spheres of influence of Philadelphia and New York. I can remember being confused by the phrase ‘water ice.’ Why wouldn’t I? Water steam? Italian ice, which I grew up licking with a wooden spoon when it got hot in the summer, is a different animal but is an effective cousin to water ice. Still, like most food distinctions, this is a source of pride. Yo, you buy water ice in and around Philadelphia.

Water Ice is smoother and often served around pretzels. Hey, these guys will answer your ‘wooder ice’ questions.


I don’t know of another cultural institution so attached to a single region in the country as scrapple is to Philadelphia. In arguing just that about Philly’s pork mush product, someone mention grits to the Americna South, but for one, the south is too broad and, two, I have known others who ate grits. Not only do I doubt anyone eats scrapple who hasn’t lived in Philadelphia, I’d go as far as to say no one knows what scrapple is who hasn’t lived in Philly.

To be fair, I have been called out on it being a singularly Philly treat, but – as anyone who knows will tell you – it is strictly Philly today. Check this research from the Culinary Slueth:

Unless you live in the Middle Atlantic states, you may have never had the dubious pleasure of breakfasting on scrapple—a fried slice of pork-mush. Often erroneously called Philadelphia Scrapple, it’s really a dish that originated in the Eastern Pennsylvania farmlands of German born settlers—far from the city of Brotherly Love.

It’s dictionary defined as “cornmeal mush made with the meat and broth of pork, seasoned with onions, spices and herbs and shaped into loaves for slicing and frying.” The word, scrapple originates from “scrap” or “scrappy” meaning made up of odds and ends for that’s exactly what it is—boiled, ground leftover pig scraps with cornmeal and spices thrown in. Scrapple lovers think of it as food for the gods. Anti-scrapplers consider it a culinary abomination.

Scrapple is the unique creation of the Pennsylvania Dutch, and therefore only quasi-American as the immigrants combined their German heritage with New World ingredients. The term “Pennsylvania Dutch” is a corrupted form of Pennsylvania Deutsche, mostly transplanted Rhineland farmers who worked hard and ate heartily. They are frugal people and many of their dishes make imaginative use of every part of the butchered hog’s anatomy. Scrapple is one of them.

Still, as I said, it’s Philly now. I still haven’t brought myself to be able to eat it. …A dozen times I have stared at a plastic container of it at the supermarket or on Ninth Street. I could never bring myself to buy it. Yet, few things made me happier than being out for breakfast with a buddy from South Philly and watching him – in the seriousness of an early morning hangover in a sterile diner – order and devour scrapple. Food is one tradition still holding on with globalizaiton. Hell, scrapple is a freakin’ blog about the Eagles.

So, if you’re into brands, they tell me – not that I know – Habbersette Scrapple is the way to go.


Yo it isn’t a long sandwich, a hero or a zep or a po’ boy like in New Orleans. I grew up calling cold cuts and cheese and lettuce on a roll sliced like a hot dog bun a sub, like submarine sandwich, I guess. …Oh how foolish I was. It’s a hoagie, my friend.

In Philly, it’s a hoagie. Lots of debate over why.

Whether it actually was born in Philly or nearby Chester, Pa. – which owes its existence to Philly – is yet another source of contention, but, like other arguments, in my mind, they are silenced because we’re talking regionalism, and Philadelphia gives all of this food mystery flight.

Today, in my experience, the defining characteristics of a real hoagie, a Philly hoagie, is a round shape, like seen above, rounded because its so god damned stuffed with cold cuts, cheeses, lettuce and other goodness, drenched in oil, vinegar and heaven. If it’s ovaled or – worse – flat, rectangular, boxy, anything else, it’s an imposter, I say. Oh, and you’re probably supposed to have it on a fresh Amoroso hoagie roll.

The Cheesesteak

But, in the end, this is what you come to eat in Philadelphia. Hey, I can’t freakin’ blame you. I haven’t met a steak I don’t like in my half-decade in Philly. It is this city’s last prominently associated, international representative.

Pat’s and Geno’s are enduring classics. Tony Luke’s and John’s Roast Pork fight for the insider’s title of best of the big names, but, the dirty little secret is that they’re all delicious. It’s in the fresh rolls and the ground beef and in the mythology that surrounds it. There is something good and right about a steak in Philadelphia – like so many other treats special to particular locales. You make it as good as you want it to be.

The only real dilemma I have is deciding whether its two words or one: cheesesteak or cheese steak. I can’t decide! On second reference it’s just steak, so does that mean two words? Help!


You got pepper strips and sliced cherry peppers for sandwiches and Philly pizza. Then you have those smaller companies that don’t go far beyond a region – for whatever reasion – they are always primal ground for a regional food identity. Philly has OTC Oyster Crackers and Frank`s Black Cherry Wishniak, Goldenberg`s Peanut Chews and Sweetzels Spiced Wafers. Ninth Street is full of independent butchers and cheese shops that I haven’t begun to explore in depth.

Outside Philly

Of course, Philadelphia’s eating has extended outside the city limits. Its water ice history set the foundation for Rita’s, the popular chain known for its Philly suburban roots. Similarly, Wawa, the conveinence store with a cult-like following, was born just outside Philadelphia in Delaware County.

But not all of Philly’s corporate eateries are suburbanites. Tastykake is one of those great corporate citizens. It is a Philadelphia institution – gooey and tasty and cakey – and never leaving this god damned city. Its CEO is a power broker of his own accord. Dietz & Watson brings its meats and cheeses around the country and they’re based in Bridesburg on Tacony St.

Outside Philly, it’s not just Pennsylvania, either. My native New Jersey outside Philadelphia has held its own.

For the Philadelphia Business Journal, I wrote about a South Philly Italian food company with long ties in deliciousness.

Ever heard of Taylor ham? Yeah, well that’s a Jersey thang because, seriously, that cut of tubed ham was developed in the 19th century by some cat named John Taylor in Trenton, N.J. In Philly that sausage-like pork product made from coarsely ground pork shoulder is called pork roll, which I think sounds a little gross, but, hey, that’s tradition for you.

There also was a time when Camden, N.J. wasn’t just the country’s largest crack den. That’s where panzarottis first came to the United States from Italy. Because of the Camden’s proximity to Philadelphia, they became a South Philly treat – though South Jersey sure might fight that. The original panzarotti store is still in operation, at the corner of Marlton Avenue and Midvale Street in East Camden.

Oh, and let’s not forget Campbell’s. which made soup a regular part of the American diet in the 19th century. They never sold out. The mega corporation is still based in Camden – I love them for that.

Indeed, Philadelphia – the best place to eat in the country – doesn’t need any help with its home grown treats, but for sure, the entire region is rich in tasty-ness.

Any foods I’m missing?

Photo from Day in the Life.

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