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You Gonna Eat That?

A Field Guide to the Baltimore Diet

Photos by Sam Holden

By Tom Scocca | Posted 2/23/2000

Before we turn to the question of what the health effects of a strict diet of scrapple and rye whiskey would be (preview answer: not good), it may help if we step back and consider what it means to eat scrapple and drink rye whiskey in the first place.

Not long ago, while I was living off in a cosmopolitan Northeastern city, I shared an apartment with a Michigan-born friend. Though he was fairly well-traveled, his knowledge of my home state pretty much consisted of one anecdote, which he would tell whenever he got the chance. Visiting Baltimore, he said, he stopped at some diner or short-order place. On the menu, he came across an unfamiliar item, something called "scrapple." Being naturally curious, he asked the waitress what it is.

"Oh," the waitress replied, as my friend told it, "you don't want that, honey. That's the whole pig."

Those last words he would draw out with bemused dread, in a tone one might use to describe Manhattan taxi driving or the air quality in Mexico City. Something fearsomely alien, with overtones of myth: In Baltimore, they eat the Whole Pig.

Like any good myth, it's not strictly factual. If you check the label on a pack of, say, Rapa Original, you'll see that it features only a generous subset of the pig--pork livers, pork fat, pork snouts, and pork hearts, plus whatever parts are used to make pork stock. Still, that's close enough to comprehensive to make the spirit of the waitress' warning ring true.

And up in New England, in that cosmopolitan city, one might as well have been discussing roast griffin or unicorn steak as scrapple. The supermarkets sold cherimoyas and endive and live lobster; fresh duckling, kumquats, and unpasteurized sheep's-milk cheese. But in three years of shopping, I only found scrapple at one place--in the freezer case, intermittently, at a discount store called the Market Basket.

There was a time, of course, when nobody expected to find their native foods outside their hometowns. Food was inherently regional. You ate what you and your neighbors could grow, hunt, or fish out of the nearest water. If you were English, you ate mutton and peas. If you were Russian, you ate cabbage and beets. If you were Aztec, you ate corn and guinea pigs.

Now, with migration and rapid transport and mass consumer consent, things have leveled out. The Canadians sell fresh tuna to Japan; the Japanese open restaurants in Canada. Everyone eats McDonald's.

This leveling process, though, is uneven. What one eats, or ceases to eat, is a serious business. So regional eating survives, in the age of global cuisine, as a collection of lingering obscurities, new inventions that fail to spread, and odd, ceremonial relics. In Appalachia, they prefer beer in 10-ounce cans. In Cincinnati, they serve chili on top of spaghetti. In Greece, everyone drinks the same three things with equal patriotic enthusiasm: ouzo, retsina, and frothed-up instant Nescafé.

And in Baltimore, people characteristically eat--what? The Whole Pig, yes, consolidated into a loaf and sliced and fried for breakfast. The familiar and tourist-friendly produce of the Chesapeake: steamed crabs, soft-shell crabs, crab cakes, oysters. Lake trout, pit beef. Lemons with peppermint sticks. Rye whiskey, by tradition, and National Bohemian beer, by habit. Muskrat.

This gastronomic patrimony has seen better days. Rye and Natty Boh are both imported from out-of-state now. In the whole of Lexington Market, you can only get muskrat at Faidley's--and who has actually eaten muskrat? Oyster and crab shortages have become routine summer news, like drought and homicide.

So it was that the waitress issued her warning to my Michigan friend. The Baltimore diet--once a beacon to gourmets, who feasted on cream-of-crab soup and terrapin with sherry--has become something more eccentric, something not without menace. Something that is not, in the most useful sense of the word, a diet at all.

"Totally inadequate in fiber, totally inadequate in fruits and vegetables," Dr. Stephen Havas says upon being presented with City Paper's list of characteristic Baltimore foodstuffs. Havas is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine; he and a dietician colleague, Jean Anliker, have agreed to help us evaluate the nutritional value of local edibles. Fortunately, both have a sense of humor.

"It'll provide protein and alcohol," Anliker says, consulting the list. "Anything that's fried adds substantial amounts of fats and calories."

Many of the things Baltimoreans eat have been officially listed as bad choices for a few thousand years--since the Lord dictated Chapter 11 of Leviticus to Moses and Aaron. "The pig . . . does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you," God told the Israelites, putting scrapple off-limits. "Everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable for you. . . . All that walk on their paws, among the animals that walk on all fours, are unclean for you." Goodbye crabs, goodbye oysters, goodbye muskrat.

Modern Americans, of course, are no less shame-filled and religious in their attitude toward food than the tribes of Israel were. Health is virtue these days, and food is presented less as sustenance than as medicine. People eat wholesome food when they want to be good and unwholesome food when they want to be wicked. Hence the national habit of referring to desserts, for instance, in theological terms, with sexual overtones: "tempting," "decadent," "sinful."

What, then, do we make of fried scrapple, or Lady Baltimore cake--with its 10 egg whites, eight figs, pound and a half of sugar, and stick of butter--in the land of the veggie burger and the Diet Coke? How bad are our old-relic eating habits?

"Selecting on occasion from this list would have no adverse health consequences," Havas says, helpfully. But leaning heavily on these foods, he adds, could lead to increased risk of cancer and heart disease, or osteoporosis.

Anliker points out that our roster of Baltimore foods is shaped by a bias against more healthful items, which we tend to take for granted: "Fruits and vegetables are available everywhere, so we don't think of these as uniquely local foods."

True enough, as far as it goes--though even now, closing my eyes and trying, I literally can't picture a slab of scrapple sharing a plate with a perky mesclun salad, or with any sort of vegetable, for that matter. So what would happen if one were to embrace the Whole Pig? What if, out of state spirit, you forswore all food and drink but scrapple and rye?

The nutritionists burst out laughing, and keep laughing for a while. "You'd probably die of malnutrition before you'd get cirrhosis," Havas says.

"But your cirrhosis would be aggravated by the malnutrition," Anliker adds.

Havas hands over a copy of Nutrition in Clinical Practice by Marion Nestle, Ph.D., opened to a table listing the effects of malnutrition. Pork liver supplies a good dose of vitamin A, but beyond that, the imagination is free to roam the chart. Vitamin C deficiency: scurvy, bleeding gums, poor wound healing. Vitamin B: anemia, irritability. Niacin: dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia.

That would be an extreme case, though. "You can build a healthy diet around these things," Anliker says, reassuringly. The seafood items, indeed, can be downright salubrious, as can the vegetables that qualified for the list--corn and tomatoes, the companions to the summer crab feast.

But, Havas cautions, many Marylanders don't build especially healthy diets. People here suffer from above-average rates of obesity, he says, and of diet-related illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. It's not anything inherently local about the food, though, save for a general tendency--the influence of the South, perhaps--to eat too much fried food. Baltimoreans don't get fat on oysters and backfin crab cakes, it seems, but on the same crap all Americans get fat on.

So with that in mind, and with the generous assistance of Havas and Anliker, what follows is City Paper's nutritional survey of the Baltimore diet. Some foods were tougher to evaluate than others ("pit beef" is not a term recognized by the University of Maryland Medical School's nutritional database), and some necessary guesswork and approximation came into play. Certain nutrition facts (the saturated-fat content of muskrat, for instance) were unavailable. Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Fourteen crabs, six lake trout, three oysters, one muskrat, part of a cow, and an unknown number of pigs were harmed in the creation of this article.

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