The flavor is in the fat Tradition: November is scrapple-making month, when leftover parts of slaughtered pigs are mixed in a cooked meat pudding.

November 16, 1995|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

These specialists wear sterilized gloves and dart about in white coats. The floor is frequently flushed with clean water. The overhead bright lights glance off the stainless steel carts.

Is this a medical lab? Not at all. The scrapplers are at work.

Once a week on the Falls Road in Hampden, two or three workers transform the lowliest scraps of a butchered pig into 500 pounds of solid rectangles of scrapple, the cooked meat pudding so loved -- and often berated -- in parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Combined with a healthy dose of corn meal, laced with a handful of secret spices, the ground pork parts become tomorrow's breakfast, maybe dinner.

"All the flavor is in the fat," said master scrapple mixologist George Wetzelberger, whose family has been in the pork products business in Baltimore since long before anyone worried about clogged arteries.

Mr. Wetzelberger, 66, whose wife, Jackie, works alongside him, brought his recipe for scrapple to the Henry Heil Co., one of the city's surviving pork packers, when he went to work there decades ago. "I came with my own seasonings," Mr. Wetzelberger said.

Today, the Wetzelberger business, which started around 1810 in Baltimore, is gone. But the name is so honored in pork products that Heil stamps "Wetzelberger" on fresh sausage.

By tradition, November is the scrapple-making month. Pigs fattened up over the summer and fall get slaughtered and become hams, bacon and sausage. The left over parts are the basis of scrapple.

Scrapple-eater H. L. Mencken commented in this newspaper Nov. 15, 1906: "The scrapple season dawns upon us with its ravishing perfumes. For the brief month following the falling of the leaves it is the king-victual and master-aliment of the great plain people."

This was four years after the founder of the Hampden pork-packing plant went into business in the 3600 block of Falls Road.

"Pappy started with a basket on the arm and went door to door," said Heil's current owner, Alvin "Bob" Jewell, grandson-in-law of the first Henry Heil. For about 25 years the Heil firm had a pork operation, Ridge Farm, about 12 miles due north in Baltimore County. Today the original pig runs are a pricey housing development.

It may be the Wetzelberger formula that makes this scrapple taste the way it does, or else it's the big iron steam-jacket kettle -- about the size of a small Jacuzzi -- where the liquid scrapple bubbles away at 185 degrees Fahrenheit.

"I've been here 47 years, and it was old when I arrived," said Mr. Jewell of the venerable semi-spherical vessel. "The old-timers will tell you it's best to use a cast-iron kettle."

On scrapple-making day (usually the middle of the week), the air here is filled with a heady scent of sage and salt and cooking pork. On a cold and damp afternoon, the vapors swirl around the boiling kettle like an aromatic fog. Or possibly the set of a "Macbeth" production.

With the windows wide open, the workers are dressed in layers of warm clothing. They wear substantial rubber boots, thick rubber aprons, hats or hairnets and white lab coats.

Brain LeFlame, 28, initiates the scrapple operation each week. He starts with a big rolling cart full of pork scraps, literally the scraps that give scrapple its name.

They include livers, snouts and other pig parts. Using a big stainless steel shovel, he scoops this mix into a meat chopper. Once chopped, the pork then goes into the steam kettle. Then he dumps in bags of Virginia Maid white corn meal. Soon a Tinkertoy-like machine of rotating gears and spinning paddles churns the mixture so it won't burn.

After an hour, he and fellow worker Barbara Cooke don the sanitized cotton white gloves.

Mr. LeFlame dips a pitcher into the liquid scrapple mix in the steam kettle and pours it into long trays. He hand weighs each form. They sit overnight in the refrigerator. The next morning the scrapple is cut into pound blocks or left so city market butchers can slice up whatever amount of scrapple a customer needs -- at about $1.25 a pound.

It is said that locals divide into two camps -- those who like the pungent taste of scrapple and those who run from it in fear.

Among the scrapple devotees, are another two camps, the syrup or the ketchup dousers. Some people insist on the

tomato-vinegar taste of the red Heinz. Others want the sweetness of Log Cabin.

The one thing people don't argue about is the way to cook scrapple. It's got to be fried in a hot pan (preferably cast-iron) so that the top is crunchy when a fork touches it.

Like the recipes for scrapple and sausage, the hours of retail operation at Henry Heil are strictly their own -- Saturdays only from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.. Enter through the loading dock in the alley behind the 3600 block of Falls Road. Wear warm clothes too. The products are sold within a large refrigerated room.

* Scrapple Fact No.1:

November is scrapple month, the time of year when the pigs, fattened up during the summer and fall, are slaughtered.

* Scrapple Fact No. 2:

It's pork scraps, including liver, smouts and other pig parts, that give scrapple its name.

* Scrapple Fact No. 3:

-! The cost about $1.25 a pound.

* Srapple Fact No. 4:

The kettle, where the scrapple is boiled, as a key to the taste, "The old-timers will tell you it;s best to use a cast-iron Kettle." says Alvin (Bob)Jewell, left president of the Henry Heil Co.

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