SSoP Podcast Episode 23 — Pennsylvania: Political Player, Potato Chip Maker

SSoP Podcast Episode 23 — Pennsylvania: Political Player, Potato Chip Maker

Monday, 25 January, 2021

Every four years, when presidential elections roll around, Pennsylvania is a big deal: It’s a swing state with 20 electoral votes. But it’s been a power player in politics since the beginning.

Pennsylvania was one of the original 13 colonies. During the Revolution and Civil War, Philadelphia was the capital, and two documents that are still making news, 245 years later — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — were drafted and ratified there.

Fast forward to the 19th century, and you land smack in the heart of The Gilded Age with captains of industry who inscribed on institutions throughout the state: Carnegie, Schwab, Rockefeller, Heinz, and Hershey. (Thank you, Milton, for the chocolate kisses!)

Which brings us to food. Pennsylvania is snack food heaven! You’ve got your cheesesteaks and hoagies and stromboli. Funnel cake, whoopie pies, Twizzlers, Tastykakes, shoofly pie, and oh, yeah… scrapple.

Not only does it lead the nation in potato chip production, it’s also tops in pretzel bakeries, mushroom growing, meatpacking plants, rural population, the number of licensed hunters, State Game Lands, and covered bridges. Bonus shout-out to Crayola Crayons; they’re all made in PA.

In this episode, we discuss the state’s unusual tourist attractions, romp through its history, and name-drop some of the best-known and best-loved Pennsylvanians. Then we recommend five books we love that took us to the Keystone State on the page: two memoirs that go deep into the unique culture of western and eastern Pennsylvania, two novels set in Philadelphia (one dark, one light), and a literary thriller starring, perhaps, the world’s biggest introvert.


Read the full transcript of Episode 23: Pennsylvania.

Ways to Hide in Winter

buy | read review

An American Childhood

buy | read review

Long Bright River

buy | read review

Long Bright River

buy | read review

Growing Up in Coal Country

buy | read review

Growing Up in Coal Country

buy | read review

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas

buy | read review

other books we mentioned


other cool stuff we talked about

 john o'hara statue in pottsville, pennsylvania
John O'Hara statue in Pottsville, PA.
  • The Museum of Material Failures: This quirky museum is part of Matergenics, Inc., (a company that does structural analysis) and is dedicated to things that have fallen apart.

  • Oh, Centralia. Burn, baby, burn.: The town of Centralia had an underground coal fire that started in an abandoned mine in 1962. That fire is still burning, almost sixty years later. Read more about it on the Uncovering PA website and

  • Mr. Rogers Grave: The kindhearted Mr. Fred Rogers is buried with his parents (and grandparents) in Latrobe, PA.

  • Jim Thorpe—The man, the town: Jim Thorpe was one of the 20th century’s greatest athletes, and a town in Pennsylvania bears his name, even though he never set foot there. Read more about Jim Thorpe at Mental Floss.

  • The Jaws tombstone: Lester C. Madden served in the Korean War. But his greatest love — as far as we know — was a movie: the 1975 blockbuster Jaws . He’s buried in a cemetery about 3 miles from downtown Pittsburgh in a grave marked with a tombstone depicting the Jaws movie poster. Get the story and photos (!) on Atlas Obscura.

  • Charles Dickens’ raven: Dickens had three different ravens during his lifetime, all of them he named Grip. The first one was written into his short story Barnaby Rudge and later, that bird inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write his poem The Raven. The original, taxidermied Grip now resides at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Get the story at the Free Library website and Atlas Obscura.

Grip, the raven, at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
  • Sarah St. Vincent: She’s the author of Ways to Hide in Winter. In this interview with LitHub, she talks about domestic violence, power, and vulnerability. And in this video, she talks about her path to writing and her novel.
  • Susan Campbell Bertoletti: She’s the author of Growing Up in Coal Country — as well as many other excellent children’s books about tough subjects. Get the whole scoop on her website.

  • Liz Moore: She’s the author of Long Bright River. Here’s a video of her appearance at the legendary Strand Book Store in NYC. And this article from the BBC explores Kensington, the tough neighborhood where the action of Long Bright River takes place.

  • Annie Dillard: She’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and wrote our recommended book An American Childhood, among many others. Here she is, in conversation with NPR.

  • Marie-Helene Bertino: She’s the author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas. In this video, she talks about her book at the BEA Librarian Breakfast.

And here’s a sneak peek of the recipe coming soon in our Food+Fiction series: Whoopie Pies.

whoopie pies on a serving plate
Whoopie pies. Yes, they will make you whoop with joy.



Subscribe to our podcast so you never miss a must-read book or thrilling destination!

If we're not available on your favorite podcast-listening platform, send us an email!

Top image courtesy of Sean Pavone.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

Is it a cookie? Is it a cake? A whoopie pie is two large, soft chocolate cookies held together with a luscious buttercream filling. Its origin may be in dispute, but we can all agree that it's a truly American treat.
Tucked onto a side street in Pottsville's center is a gem of a coffee shop that serves books alongside its crepes and cappuccinos. The coffee is rich. The food is delicious. The music is chill. The vibe is welcoming.
Andrew Carnegie built 59 libraries in Pennsylvania, and the Braddock Carnegie Library near Pittsburgh is an eclectic medieval-style masterpiece. But other libraries found throughout the state are equally stunning.
In the early 20th century, Pennsylvania experienced a gilded age of dramatic architecture and elaborate decor. These photographs of now-discarded and nearly-forgotten sites are a moving, melancholy, magical tribute.
Pennsylvania leads the nation in potato chip making! It's also tops in pretzel bakeries, rural population, and covered bridges. It's also an inspiring setting for thrillers, family stories, and historical fiction.
In this episode, we're excited about two new books — Where There Was Fire by John Manuel Arias and The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride — then Mel serves the story of the Philadelphia cheesesteak.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.

This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.