When it comes to defining the notable foods of eastern Pennsylvania, the choices usually come down to cheesesteaks or Hershey’s chocolate. These overshadow the array of signature food and drink from the place that brought us Little League baseball, The Office, and the Declaration of Independence.
Now, the regional delicacies from my life as an eastern Pa. native have expanded into Pittsburgh, offering strange and, perhaps, initially off-putting new options to local consumers.
As a favor to my adopted city, I wrote a primer on the snacks, processed meats, and other offerings being shipped westward to Pittsburgh.
Gibble's Home Style Potato Chips (Chambersburg, Pa.)
Tasting Notes: classic potato, great lard taste, very crunchy
If you enjoy the refreshing taste of lard, then Gibble’s potato chips are for you. Produced in Chambersburg, this cult snack has managed to withstand every health food craze, delivering pure animal fat to the masses.
Even as Lay’s, Ruffles, Pringles, and other snack giants over-diversify, making chips mere vessels for uncanny, multi-ingredient flavors ranging from spicy enchilada to Italian sub, Gibble’s has kept it simple, relying on a recipe of potatoes, “Prime Lard,” salt, and preservative TBHQ “to protect flavor.”
A staple in my hometown of Williamsport, Pa., Gibble’s only recently hit store shelves in Pittsburgh. I first saw the company’s signature bag — the design unchanged after over two decades — at my local Giant Eagle Market District about two years ago. I immediately snapped a photo of it and sent it to my friend with something to the tune of “Omg, the lard chips I ate as a kid are here.”
I expected her to respond with disgust. Instead, she asked where to buy them.
If it was not already apparent, I am not a fan of Gibble’s, finding them far too greasy. I am, it seems, in the minority, however, as online reviews rave about the crunchy, tasty, lardy snack.
Despite their popularity, Gibble’s almost disappeared for good when, in 2013, operations were shut down, according to a story by the Chambersburg Public Opinion. It was rescued and reopened by the owners of King's Quality Foods in Lancaster County, who considered themselves fans of the Gibble’s brand and saw customers demanding that the chips be brought back, including in a Facebook group.
Pittsburgh locals wanting to try Gibble’s may have a difficult time finding them. A Market District associate informed me that the supermarket chain no longer carries the brand. A friend told me he recently bought them at the Shop 'n Save on 1620 Babcock Blvd. in Millvale. Squirrel Hill Market at 2329 Murray Ave. also carries them.
While this vegetarian will never eat these crunchy babies again, I wish happy hunting to anyone on the lookout for the apparently elusive Gibble’s.
Middleswarth Potato Chips (Middleburg, Pa.)
Tasting Notes: classic flavors include bar-b-q, sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar, thin and crisp chips
For fans of unlarded potato chips, there’s Middleswarth, another cult snack out of eastern Pa. that graced many cookouts and family gatherings in my youth. I sometimes joke about getting a tattoo of the illustration from the company’s extra-large Weekender bag, a cartoonish display of people playing golf, tennis, and other sports, fueled, I assume, by the power of Middleswarth chips.
As the story on the company’s website goes, Bob Middleswarth founded Ira Middleswarth & Son in 1942, producing potato chips with “a single kettle” in a two-room building off the side of his family home. Besides plain, Middleswarth sells a limited selection of classic flavors, including barbecue (spelled “bar-b-q”), sour cream and onion, and salt and vinegar. There are also kettle-cooked options.
Middleswarth chips are undeniably beloved by eastern Pa. consumers. In high school, my friend spent a summer in Vermont and told me that, the second she crossed over to Pennsylvania, all she wanted was a bag of bar-b-q Middleswarth. In terms of taste and texture, Middleswarth produces a thin, crispy chip, perfect, not only as a side but as an ingredient, adding the right amount of crunch to an otherwise dull sandwich.
The Middleswarth website claims they deliver to 11 distributors throughout Pennsylvania, including in Pittsburgh. Market District once again came up short, but, like Gibbles, Squirrel Hill Market carries them in various flavors and sizes.
The Meadows Scrapple (Lancaster, Pa.)
Tasting Notes: pork-forward, best fried, served with maple syrup
Despite what this list suggests so far, eastern Pa. produces more than just snack foods. There’s also scrapple, a decidedly not snack-sized block of processed meat parts.
Head to select Giant Eagle refrigerator sections and you will find, nestled among the various packaged bacon, sausage, and cold cuts, The Meadows Scrapple, produced by Kunzler and Company in Lancaster. Inside its bright yellow wrapper is a recipe of pork skins, livers, and hearts, as well as corn meal, broth, and buckwheat flour, along with other, less substantial ingredients.
Scrapple was often bought for my brother as a treat whenever he visited home from the Air Force. Like many fans of the Spam-like specialty, he sliced it, fried it in a pan, and topped it with maple syrup. The Meadows label provides similar instructions on how to prepare its product, along with the options to broil or bake it for a “drier consistency,” and serve it with “catsup and salt.”
While the food may sound less than appealing to the uninitiated, it’s difficult to discount decades of loyal scrapple fans.
Seltzer’s Lebanon Bologna (Palmyra, Pa.)
Tasting Notes: smoky and sweet, similar to venison, great on hot or cold sandwiches
The number of grilled sweet Lebanon bologna and cheese sandwiches I ate as a country kid is, in a word, staggering. This overly smokey, overly sweet, somewhat greasy processed sandwich meat has fed many eastern Pennsylvanians, myself included. It remains one of the few things I miss as a vegetarian, a past favorite that has become more of a temptation now that Seltzer’s Lebanon Bologna has appeared in local stores including Giant Eagle
No other cold cuts compare to pre-sliced Lebanon bologna, especially the sweet Lebanon variety. Seltzer’s naturally smokes their version — a mix of beef, sugar, salt, and spices — with hardwood. I sometimes compare the taste to venison.
Newcomers can best experience Lebanon bologna rolled up with a slice of cheese, like hors d'oeuvre served by a WASP-y grandma, or in a sandwich where the strong flavor of it can really take center stage. Even better, DiAnoia's Eatery in the Strip District uses Seltzer’s Sweet Lebanon Bologna in its stuffed cornetti breakfast pastry, and its sister restaurant, Pizzeria Davide, offers it as a topping.
Appalachian White Birch Beer (Harrisburg, Pa.)
Tasting Notes: caffeine-free, fizzy, minty
What is white birch beer, and why is it the best soda ever produced? This effervescent treat smells something akin to minty Skoal chewing tobacco, a familiar, maybe even nostalgic comparison for anyone who grew up in the mostly rural wilderness of eastern Pa.
White birch beer stands on its own regardless of brand. I was surprised to come across it recently as, over the years, I have only ever encountered the dark, reddish version of birch beer in Pittsburgh.
While I can't recommend my favorite white birch beer, as it’s only available at my childhood Weis supermarket chain, I can suggest one variety available in Pittsburgh.
Spotted in Market District, Appalachian Brewing Company touts its white birch beer as being brewed with “pure cane sugar, a touch of honey and an essence of birch extracts.” It comes free of artificial flavors and colors and free of caffeine, making it one of the few fizzy indulgences you can enjoy any time of day. Chugging what I consider to be the equivalent of liquid Altoids should be enough to wake you up anyway.