Scrapple (Photo credit: Kate Hopkins) Scrapple
Scrapple (Photo credit: Kate Hopkins)

If you’re itching for gastronomical excitement in your life, certain Pennsylvania foods and beverages can help deliver.

Food in Pennsylvania spans both palates and cuisines. From the pierogies of Pittsburgh to the cheesesteaks of Philadelphia, to all the Pennsylvania Dutch food in between, there are a lot of food cultures in this one state. Some foods may seem unique, perhaps using ingredients you’ve never tried together before, and some places in Pennsylvania may offer unique food experiences.

If you’re itching for some gastronomical excitement in your life, read on to see how certain foods and beverages in Pennsylvania—whether invented here, made here, or simply growing here—can help deliver.

Scrapple

Scrapple can be found on numerous diner and restaurant menus across Pennsylvania, so you might not start feeling adventurous for ordering it until you ask what’s in it. Of Pennsylvania Dutch origin, scrapple is a mushy mix of pork scraps and offal, spices, and flour or cornmeal. It’s like a partly-solid meat pudding that you pan fry.

Full disclosure: I had to look up the word “offal” and I’m convinced scrapple is for the Pennsylvanians who grew up on it, and also the adventurous.

Birch Beer

Root beer is traditionally made from the bark of the root of the sassafras tree along with a sweet syrup.

Birch beer, by contrast, is not really anything like root beer except that it is also a carbonated soft drink made from tree bark. In this case, you guessed it, the bark of birch trees.

Birch beer is found across the Northeast and is a particular favorite of many in Pennsylvania, especially those in central and eastern PA. The drink has a distinct, earthy flavor that goes well with a scoop of ice cream—which makes a birch beer float.

While trying birch beer may be adventurous, you don’t have to go on an adventure to find it: it’s likely sold in the soda aisle of a nearby grocery store.

Homemade birch beer
Birch beer (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Foraged Mushrooms

Did you know that about two-thirds of US mushroom production happens right here in Pennsylvania? What a truly fungible asset.

There are a lot of different mushrooms grown in the state that are wild and interesting, but you know what’s the height of adventurous mushroom eating? Foraging for them yourself.

The woods and forests of Pennsylvania are ideal spots to hunt for any of the numerous edible mushrooms that grow in the mid-Atlantic region. If you’re just starting out with foraging, you may want to stick to the foolproof four, mushrooms that are easily identifiable and don’t have any nasty, possibly poisonous look alikes. The foolproof four are morels, chicken of the woods, giant puffballs, and chanterelles.

But even if you’ve found one of these mushrooms, make sure before cooking and eating it that you’re 100 percent sure of its identification by checking with a state board-approved mushroom forager. As they say, there are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.

Pickle Juice Drinking Contest

Of Pennsylvania’s many food festivals, one in Pittsburgh is dedicated solely to the illustrious pickle. Each summer, Picklesburgh attracts crowds seeking pickles, pickle-flavored beer, and pictures with a giant Heinz pickle balloon. It also attracts about 100 brave souls who enter the festival’s pickle juice drinking contest.

Whoever can guzzle a jar of Pittsburgh Pickle Company brine the fastest is named “Mayor of Picklesburgh.”

Drinking a jar of pickle juice on its own seems brave. Drinking a jar in public, where those who “excessively spill or regurgitate” will be disqualified from competition? That’s the height of adventure.

Chicken of the woods
Chicken of the woods mushroom (Photo credit: John Donges)

Pho King Challenge

Pho may not be a dish invented in Pennsylvania—it’s a type of Vietnamese soup—but the Pho King Challenge at the Noodle King restaurant in Lancaster is all PA.

The mission is thus: finish a five-pound bowl of pho. That’s five pounds of noodles, meat, and vegetables like bean sprouts and scallions. At least you don’t have to finish the broth!

Winners get a free t-shirt and their picture on the wall…but that doesn’t happen very often.

Beto’s Pizza

If you’re up for trying something new, Beto’s Pizza in Pittsburgh serves its pies with an interesting deviation from the norm. It’s not that the pizza toppings are unique or anything, it’s that they’re cold. Cheese included.

Hot crust, hot pizza sauce, and a handful of cold, shredded provolone. (Just like in the old country, right?) Your (cold) toppings are also added after the pizza bakes. 

Apparently, you can also order a pizza the usual, hot way, but that sounds a little boring since the Beto’s original is what has had people flocking to this pizza place for decades.

Altoona Pizza
A slice of Altoona pizza. (Photo credit: hello_gina)

Altoona Pizza

Another uncanny pizza slice can be found in Altoona, near the center of the state. Here, pizza is made up of hot Sicilian-style crust (ok), hot tomato sauce (ok), green peppers (ok), deli salami (intriguing, ok) and a hot slice of gooey, yellow, highly-processed American cheese (what?). 

Originally created by the Altoona Hotel in the 1960s or 70s, the pizza migrated to other restaurant menus in Altoona when the hotel burned down in 2013.

Altoona is only about two hours from Pittsburgh just in case you’re thinking about taking a road trip from Pittsburgh’s Beto’s to any of the Altoona restaurants serving this distinctive pizza. 

Gyro Challenges

Greek food, like the gyro sandwich, is pretty popular in Pennsylvania, so ordering a gyro isn’t that daring. Trying to eat a gyro made with three pounds of meat and all the fixings on a giant pita? That is decidedly a little more daring. 

There’s more than one gyro challenge in the state, including the “Hero Challenge” at Wexford’s Gyro Shop and the “Mount Olympos Challenge” at Olympos Gyros in McKees Rocks. 

Or, if you’ve never had a gyro before, you could order one and challenge yourself to pronounce “gyro” correctly! Most Pennsylvanians I’ve talked to pronounce the sandwich like it’s spelled—”JI-roh.” But it’s actually pronounced “YEE-roh.” Ah, the spirit of adventure: risking embarrassment.