Gas industry gives Pa. stores taste for the South

GENARO C. ARMAS
The Associated Press
Modified: May 3, 2013 at 6:15 pm •  Published: May 3, 2013
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PENNSDALE, Pa. — The land of scrapple and chipped ham is starting to get a taste for jambalaya and boudin.

Thanks to an influx of Southerners filling jobs in north-central Pennsylvania's booming natural gas industry, a region not often placed on many culinary maps is finding itself flush with the foodways found below the Mason-Dixon line, arguably the source of some of the nation's richest culinary traditions.

Suddenly, convenience stores stock sweet tea, barbecue is a hot seller, and the almost Norman Rockwell-quaint Country Store in Pennsdale even makes its own boudin, a pork sausage popular in Louisiana.

Store owner and Pennsylvania native Tom Springman had never heard of boudin until a few months ago, when a customer — a relocated Southerner — came in looking for a local source.

"They get it shipped in," Springman said of the workers. "They're paying for 50 to 100 pounds of boudin to be shipped in from Louisiana. I'm thinking 'We could make this easy.'"

Now, he makes two or three batches a week, selling it alongside fresh kielbasa and pepperoni sticks.

The rush of Southerners was triggered by energy companies moving into the region during the last decade. New drilling technologies have helped them unlock the vast reserves of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation deep underground that extends through much of Pennsylvania. From 2009 to 2012, the number of gas field workers in the state jumped from nearly 12,000 to almost 31,000, according to state data. Many come up from the South.

North-central Pennsylvania is one of the areas caught up in the boom. It's a region with German and Italian roots that isn't particularly known for its cuisine.

The region's hub is Williamsport, a blue-collar city best known as the birthplace of Little League baseball. But its downtown has enjoyed a revival in recent years, with new hotels and restaurants. Some longtime restaurants have tweaked their menus, too, adding spicier dishes and the occasional special smoked-pit barbecue cookout.

"These guys go out at night when they're done working," George Logue, the owner of Acme Barbecue in Williamsport, said of the gas workers. "They don't want to leave work and sit in their (hotel) room to eat take-out."

Acme, which opened about three years ago, has a menu that pulls together barbecue styles from around the country, though brisket is the hot seller with gas workers. Catering to the crowd, Logue now offers side dishes like collard greens. He said he's also smoking sausages for a nearby restaurant that's adjusted its menu.

At Hurley's Fresh Markets in Towanda and Dushore, the offerings are starting to look a little different, too. About two years ago, general manager Nick Hurley traveled to the South to do food research in anticipation of workers from the region arriving. Now they sell alligator meat, boudin and crawfish, among other staples.

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