People who hail from Philadelphia or its environs–as I do–have much to be proud of. There’s the whole cradle of Liberty thing. Betsy Ross. Benjamin Franklin. The oldest zoo in the country. A reputation as the city with the most unruly sports fans. Scrapple. Soft Pretzels. My beloved Mummers. David Boreanaz. (Side note: cream cheese is really made in New York and has been since 1872. In 1880, Philadelphia was adopted as the brand name because the city was considered at the time to be the home of top quality food).
But all of those claims to fame (except for David Boreanaz) pale by comparison to the thing that really makes Philly special: the sandwich. In particular, two sandwiches: the hoagie and the cheesesteak.
The hoagie, which is known in its lesser forms in other parts of the country as a submarine sandwich, hero or grinder, may have gotten its name from the Italians who worked at the Hog Island shipyard during World War I. The overstuffed rolls they brought for their lunches were filled with different meats and cheeses, spices, oil, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and peppers. That’s pretty much how they are still made today. The sandwiches were known as ‘hoggies’–like the workers themselves–and, eventually that morphed into ‘hoagies’. Another story has it that a Philadelphian named Al DePalma went to Hog Island to find work. When he saw the workers eating their giant sandwiches, his first thought was, “Those fellas look like a bunch of hogs.” Instead of applying for a job at the shipyard, he opened a diner that served those big sandwiches. He listed them on the menu as “hoggies” named for the piggy sandwich eaters. I don’t know how many cities have official sandwiches (although apparently the state of Massachusetts has adopted the Fluffernutter as its own), but Philly does and it’s the hoagie.
And then there’s the cheesesteak. Invented by Pat Olivieri in 1930, this marvel consists of thinly sliced steak, frizzled on a griddle, piled onto a long bun and covered in melted cheese. You can add fried onions, roasted peppers, mushrooms, ketchup, mayo and hot sauce. You can also throw on some pizza sauce and mozzarella and heat it up and it becomes a pizza steak.
The Cheez Whiz issue is highly controversial, with many purists considering it de rigeur (both Pat’s and Geno’s–arch rivals and the most famous cheesesteak purveyors in Philly–both use the Whiz uniquely), while others just think that it’s gross. It should be noted that John Kerry was widely ridiculed for ordering his cheesesteak with Swiss when he passed through during his presidential campaign. I grew up on those things and sure do wish I had one right now.
Before I sign off, I just want to give a big old shout out to my brother-in law Joe. Saveur did a special issue on sandwiches recently–which was awesome–and it included an article on Philly’s best sandwich shops. Joe had eaten at every single last one of them, an accomplishment that impressed me incredibly and that has given me a goal for my next visit home.