Who'll save pepper hash?

Only a few stalwarts still serve this Philadelphia standby, a worthy accompaniment to fish.

Posted: April 12, 2009

May we put in a good word for pepper hash, handmaiden of the fish cake, stand-in for the pricey lemon (in Victorian times), friend of the workingman - on the verge now of culinary extinction in a Philadelphia where ho-hum coleslaws, chow chows, and that tart cherry-pepper hoagie relish seem to be coasting just fine, riding free and easy.

Is there no justice? Sweet pepper hash has more than earned a place at the table where for most of the city's existence it was a fixture. "Fish cooks paired it up with fried oysters, soft-shell crabs, codfish balls, shad fritters, and grilled catfish," historian William Woys Weaver recounts, noting its perfect attendance at catfish suppers once prevalent hereabouts.

Other accounts, citing its linkage to the doughy, potato-y fish cake, recall it as an unstinting condiment during Depression years.

All of which would be of no great concern if pepper hash weren't worth the saving. But it is, and without doubt - a refreshing un-coleslaw, mayo-less and mildly vinegary, a cool contrast to fried fish, scrapple or in tuna salad, crisp and tangy, but sweet in the finish.

Pepper hash, of course, is not "hash" in the sense that corned-beef hash is hash. It is uncooked, for one thing, and served room temperature. And it is not primarily pepper (we're talking bell or sweet peppers here); it is closer to 90 percent shredded cabbage, with the peppers and carrot providing extra juiciness and crunch in a sweetish, vinegar-sugar brine. (Some would argue, in fact, that it has become too sweet, losing its edge, and gotten too light on the peppers, which used to compose far more, even the bulk, of a pepper hash of yore.)

It is gone these days from the Mayfair Diner, where it was a regular. And suspended at the Sansom Street Oyster House while the place is under renovation. And at Acme, and even Phil's, the steakery and fish cake stand on East Passyunk, blank stares greet a request for it.

But there are converts out there, and pepper-hash dreamers, one at a fraying hot dog stand called Lenny's Hot Dogs, situated in a modest shopping strip along Street Road in Feasterville.

This is what remains of the legendary Lenny's empire (once in Margate, Mount Airy, and on Castor Avenue in the Northeast), whose lineage dates to 1935 and two Russian immigrants, Max and Ida Kravitz: It was Ida's pepper hash that was Lenny's (originally, Mom and Pop's) trademark at the first family stand at Fifth and Passyunk.

Last week in Feasterville, the current owner, Wayne Knapp, and his crew were busily cranking out a batch, about 60 pounds of the stuff, being shredded in an ancient Hobart grinder.

Knapp said half his customers ask for hash on their dogs (including a superlative smoked frank from Illg's, the Chalfont butcher), sausages and combos, which is to say a hot dog and fish cake. He is so convinced that pepper hash is still the secret to pushcart success that he has printed up labels for buckets he wants to wholesale, some fine day, to the hash-less hot dog vendors who populate Center City.

Another pepper-hash stash can be found at Johnny's Hots, where owner John Danze is carrying on the business that his father, John (né Nunzio), started from a lunch truck on a pier near his current location, the former site of Peg's Diner, across from Penn Treaty Park.

In homage to bygone Levis Hot Dogs, Danze had already put the combo ("surf 'n' turf," to aficionados) on his menu. He added the pepper hash later after an old-timer, appalled that Danze didn't offer it, brought him the recipe.

Danze's wife, Jodi, now makes it up at home each week, fresh, wet, sweet, juicy, salad-y stuff, more finely minced than some, informed by garlic, salt and carrot, pepping up the bland fish cake, tamping down the hot sausage heat.

So they come here at 5 a.m., working stiffs getting pepper hash with their eggs and spicy, kielbasa-style sausage. And then cops headed for or leaving court, stopping by for lunch on their way to I-95. And then some suits, even.

But the best thing to do is to take the combo across Delaware Avenue, down to the rocks at the river's edge, and watch the tugs nose barges upstream under the Ben Franklin Bridge.

What must it have been like to canoe here? Or to work a shift at Jack Frost, the sugar house, before factory jobs left and gaming tables loomed? Before pepper hash suffered that worst of fates, the blank and unknowing stare.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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