A week ago I was in Philadelphia reading at the Penn Bookstore, my first East Coast stop. I was pretty uncomfortable about Philadelphia, as it was a city I had no base in, so I accepted the offers of two friends to come down from New Jersey and New York for the event, bringing along their mother and boyfriend respectively. And maybe I had some Ivy League anxiety, too, as I had wanted to go to Harvard but was turned down not by Harvard but by my parents, who didn’t see why anyone should go in debt when a perfectly good education was available at the University of Minnesota. So I finally got to make it to the Ivy League, and it turned out great, one day sufficing for the four years I missed. Philadelphia was very supportive, particularly Penn and the group of young Arab Americans in NAAP (National Association of Arab American Professionals). And people were so enthusiastic about books and the world in general when I was talking to them at the bookstore. So I got to experience Philadelphia’s brotherly love.
You would have thought that Philadelphians I met in LA and other cities would have been anxious to recommend the Liberty Bell and Betsy Ross’s house to me as I went off to their hometown—or even lunch at Reading Terminal or shopping around Rittenhouse Square or spending an evening on South Street. But this is what they wanted to tell me about Philadelphia: “You have to have a cheese steak.”
In fact, my friend Pat, who came down from New York, was able to get her boyfriend, a former Philadelphian, to come along for the ride by promising him cheese steak afterwards. My other friend returned to New Jersey with a look that said “Cheese steaks? You’re going to go chase cheese steaks?” perhaps having eaten with me enough to know I’m not really the kind of person to go cruise a strange city for cow-related products.
I’d gotten numerous recommendations before I arrived in Philly to know that Jims, Geno’s, Pat’s are the holy triumphant of cheese steaks. We asked the opinions of some people at the bookstore reading, too. The bottom line: Jim’s was inconvenient to get to, so go to the old Italian neighborhood and park near the park, as that is safest. We got there between a misguided GPS and stopping to question a homeless guy at a gas station, who set us on the right path in exchange for a dollar (normally directions were free, he hinted, but his mom had died just that day, so a dollar would bring him some comfort) Geno’s and Pat’s are kitty corner from each other and nicknamed “ground zero for cheese steaks.” Pat decided we’d go to Pat’s not because of the shared name thing but because a student had told us that a couple of years ago Geno’s put up a sign that said “This Is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING `SPEAK ENGLISH.” As Italian Americans, Pat and her boyfriend were outraged that an Italian place would do this, so she refused to go there.
While Pat’s was more politically correct, the food seemed to be about the same–large and filled with beef that it would be a stretch to call steak, canned mushrooms, and Cheez Whiz, which I didn’t know they were still making. The peppers and onions were the ingredients most convincingly derived from Mother Nature. Greg savored every bit but Pat and I looked at each other and shrugged. We kept taking bites, waiting for the magic thrill to happen, but it never did. However, I marveled at the humongous cans of Cheez Whiz.
There is much to love about Philadelphia—its shopping, its historical attractions, its educational and art institutions and yes its food, as in the stromboli and hoagies, but the cheese steak sandwich, I’m not so sure about it. Maybe it’s like a nostalgia food, like tuna noodle hot dish, that you like more for the memories than the taste. As one young woman explained if you haven’t been drinking, a cheese steak is just cheese (or imitation cheese) and meat on bread and that’s not really such an exciting thing unless you’re starving or drunk. Now if someone had mentioned Philadelphia Cream Cheese…