What are Regional Foods?
Regional foods and foodways (food customs) are the distinct identity foods and dishes that set an area apart from its neighbors. Regional food evolves out of cultural preferences and terroir (natural determinants of the soil), and therefore are partially shaped by agricultural practices and climate. Scrapple (a species of pork liver-based pot-pudding akin to sausage filling) is a regional food distinctive to southeastern Pennsylvania. It developed out of Pennsylvania Dutch customs based on fall and winter butchering, at which time scrapple was served as a hot porridge to everyone who participated in the butchering event. It was originally a dish only eaten during the winter. As another example, the muskrat cookery of South Jersey evolved due to the presence of marshlands along the Delaware River and Bay and a local trapping industry focused on the collection and processing of muskrat pelts, thus leaving an abundance of carcasses for culinary purposes.
A third type of regional food includes food products that originated in a specific place, such as the Seckel Pear, which was discovered near Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century and named for Lorenz Seckel, the wine merchant who owned the original tree. Other food products of this type from the region include the Brandywine Tomato (introduced in 1889 by Philadelphia seedsmen Johnson & Stokes), the Philadelphia White Box Radish (1888), Philadelphia Dutch Butter lettuce, and the Smokehouse Apple of York County. All of these heirloom fruits and vegetables are still available in local markets today.
Pennsylvania is the third largest agricultural state in the country with one of the largest concentrations of organic family-owned farms in the East. Our landscape is rich with a wide variety of traditional food products and we are unique in the country for being blessed with five distinct culinary regions.
The Five Culinary Regions of Pennsylvania
- Philadelphia, its historical trade connections with the Caribbean and the ring of counties surrounding the city on both sides of the Delaware River.
- The Pennsylvania Dutch region in the Pennsylvania heartland comprising an area roughly the size of Switzerland.
- The Northern Tier counties influenced by New England and New York and the transformations of the lumbering and mining industries.
- The Allegheny Mountain and Southwest Appalachian Region centering on Pittsburgh and its interaction with the Ohio River Basin and the Upper South.
- The Northwest Lakeshore region bordering Lake Erie.
The Pennsylvania Dutch called it Boddeg’schmack; the French call it terroir but it all means the same thing: that special taste that soil and microclimate give to food and wine. One of the key purposes for creating a map of Pennsylvania’s food regions is its usefulness in helping agricultural producers improve the labeling of their products. Pinpointing terroir is just one more way to show how special a cheese, wine, maple syrup, or potato may be since these foods are very much influenced by soils.