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.
Store manager Kathy Fleming said Hurley's also now stocks mayonnaise from Blue Plate, a brand that dubs itself the "Legendary Spread of the South." And the market is looking for a distributor for live crawfish, since what Hurley's sells now is shipped frozen.
Like many of the workers, Jerry Roberts, a drilling foreman on a rig outside Montoursville, flies home to Mississippi every two weeks. When he returns to Pennsylvania, he often brings culinary comforts from home. He says he loves almost everything about Pennsylvania. Almost.
"I hate bland food," Roberts said in his office trailer half-jokingly. "I want a biscuit. And I want some gravy. And I want some sausage in that gravy. Some Jimmie Dean. I want some salt and black pepper in it."
All these changes have made eating easier for people like Cameron Simon, who came from Houston four years ago to be a regional operations manager for Stallion Oilfield Services in Williamsport. Until recently, making Tex-Mex food at home was a challenge.
"It used to be you could only find a couple cans of salsa and a couple cans of black beans," he joked. "It has certainly been interesting kind of how everybody embraced that change and opportunities. ... It's nice to have that taste of home."
Richard Hoschar, owner of the Chef Hosch and Ann Catering Mobile Kitchen, does the usual catering work, including weddings. But lately he has made serving up Southern cooking to the gas workers a mainstay of his business. On a recent day in the gas fields, he ladled out jambalaya with sides of cornbread and banana pudding.
His pitch is making authentic cuisine on site. On this overcast afternoon, the pungent smell of jambalaya wafted out of the truck, and workers trickled over for lunch. Hoschar, of Williamsport, said he had his mobile kitchen designed for working gas drilling sites, some of which are rural enough to be difficult to get to.
"You have to have the right vehicles to get on site. I made sure that I met all the safety requirements," he said. "I'm licensed as a mobile restaurant. That's where I set myself apart."
Conversely, transplanted workers get a taste of different foods, too. The Williamsport area is full of mom-and-pop Italian restaurants.
"You can get pizza here that you can't get in Texas," Simon said. "That whole change has been nice for us."
Meat, cheese and veggies piled high on Texas toast
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