PHILADELPHIA: THE BROTHERLY LOVE BETWEEN MAN, MEAT & CHEESE
If my trip to date has proved nothing else, it has shown that, anywhere in the world, people have the capacity to be astonishingly generous.
I did not doubt this of the friends I knew already nor did I doubt it of the ones I had not yet met but had offered invitations for me to join them at points on the tour. But, I was and am constantly astounded by the generosity I receive from many of the complete strangers I have encountered along the way.
So, my Philadelphia Story may be about food, but it is also a letter of thanks to two strangers no longer, Stan & Lisa Cohen.
First of all, however, I had to endure my flight from NOLA to Philadelphia via Memphis. The first leg was not bad at all and I didn’t even mind the fact that I had a middle seat on the next leg as the flight was relatively short.
I had not counted, however, on my seat companions. On one side a gentleman of around 300lbs and on the other side a lady of similar weight. I am not going to get into the argument about paying for extra seats or the reasons for obesity, that is for another blog. I can however, go on about fashion sense as both of them had chosen to wear shorts for this trip which meant that the flab from their legs flopped fluidly onto mine when they sat down. I was trapped.
It gets worse, believe me, it gets worse. I had my eyes closed as the plane began to taxi but soon felt something slapping against my leg. I glanced down and saw the fat from my fellow travellers thighs beating out a gentle drum march as the plane moved towards take off. It got faster and faster as the plane gathered speed until, as we took off, it was sounding like machine gun fire. I closed my eyes again and wished for death.
Once in the air, things settled down and I tried to squeeze my arms out to grab hold of a copy of my favourite magazine of all time, SKY MALL. I couldn’t reach it without causing obvious distress to my companions, so left it there while I tried to go back to sleep.
It gets worse. Oh God it gets worse. The man to my left had brought his lunch with him. In fact, he appeared to have brought a number of people’s lunches with him as he produced a burger, a wrap, nachos and a large bottle of diet Coke (obviously on a diet)
By the time the short flight was over, he had managed to reduce this feast to nothing but crumbs and, after wiping his lips daintily on an airline napkin, let out a huge burp.
The rat-a-tat-tat of fatty leg meat upon mine was repeated as we came into land. The Lunchbox Bandit to my left, prised himself out of his seat and dusted the debris of meal off his stomach and headed off without so much as a “have a nice day”
By the time, I had retrieved Big Red and taken a taxi to the hotel, I was not only shattered but hungry as Hell. There is only one thing that can fit the bill when I get to this state and that is a huge fuck off steak. There is, of course, nowhere better to get one of these things that the good old US of Stateside.
The nearest flesh available was at the reliable chain option of Smith & Wollensky. I have always quite liked these places when I have tried them. A half decent Martini, large steaks cooked to order and precious little else to worry about.
Given that it was Saturday night, the place was heaving but, the staff managed to find a small space at the bar for me to prop against and I sat down to enjoy the first of what became several martinis. I enjoyed my steak too. It is rare that I don’t in the US. They just know how to cook the damn things properly and to serve them in a size that will satisfy even my appetite. In this instance, a large 26oz T-bone cooked exactly as requested, rare with a good char. With some creamed spinach, it was exactly what I wanted.
What I was not sure was if I wanted to talk to anyone. My experiences of earlier in the day had not made me terribly well disposed towards strangers and I was more than happy to just finish my drink and leave for an early night.
So, when the man to my right used a classic opening gambit “you here on business?” I just smiled politely and mumbled something about being in town to try the food.
He persevered, thank God and when he said the words “so, are you going to try a Philly Cheese steak?” he had my complete attention. Of course I was there for a PSC (as I had it noted in my diary) I am sure Philly has lots of other stuff, but I find it hard to be tempted by soft pretzels which are as grim as they sound or even The Hoagie which is strictly a Division 2 effort. My only reason for coming to Philadelphia was The Philly Cheese Steak and this man, apparently, was the one to help me in my quest.
The man was Stan Cohen and, by now, his wife, Lisa had joined us too. They persuaded me to another Martini, not a hard task I will grant you, and began to fill me in on the origins of arguably Americas greatest sandwich.
In 1930, Pat Olivieri opened the first stand selling Italian rolls filled with chopped steak topped with cheese. They were an instant hit and a few years later, Joe Vento opened another store directly opposite his rival’s.
From that day on, a huge rivalry exists. Stan & Lisa explained that you were either a “Pat’s” person or a “Geno’s” person and it was very rare to ever cross over. Stan had been a “Pat-man” until he met Lisa but crossed the line and was now a firm supporter of Mr Geno.
“so, when are you planning to go?” Lisa asked
“well” I said, draining the last of my third martini. “They seem to be open 24 hours, I was going to head down there tomorrow morning”
Stan & Lisa went into a sort of huddle and, when they came up for air, Lisa said the magic words “Why don’t we go now?”
I was full of steak, liquored up and, it being past Midnight, shattered beyond belief, so, of course, I said “yes” I said it loudly enough that most people at the bar turned and stared at us. I think I also added the word “fuck” in front of it just for good measure.
We tumbled out of the restaurant and Lisa, in her role as designated driver, took the wheel and pointed their convertible in the direction of South Philadelphia.
On the way, they began to give me strict instructions on how to order. It is akin to “The Soup Nazi” on Seinfeld. He who hesitates is lost. You need to be word perfect before you get there or your chances of getting hold of one of Geno’s beauties is gone.
“Whizz with” for a steak sandwich with Cheese Whizz
“Whizz with, handicapped” for one you want cutting in half.
As I stood in line, Stan & Lisa watched from afar. I think, as I turned towards them, my arms laden with our order, Stan gave me a visible nod of approval.
Well, given that I was already full, the fact that I polished off a whole sandwich on top of that should tell you how good they are. They shouldn’t be. The ingredients on their own are middling at best. But, they combine to produce a true American classic. The soft bread, the slightly chewy chopped mean and the synthetic saltiness of the cheese combine with caramelized onions to make something that slips down far too easily. It is not hard to see why residents of the city claim to be physically addicted to them.
I almost didn’t make it. In an act of “what can Philadelphia do to me that Calcutta hasn’t?” bravado, I smothered one half of my sandwich in a hot sauce so fiery that it brought tears to my eyes. It took me a good ten minutes before the pain subsided and I was able to finish and to see just how good it really was. My companions politely stifled their laughing as the continued their lesson.
“It’s the water in the bread” Stan offered between bites of his own sandwich. “it is why they don’t taste the same anywhere else” He is right. On the rest of my travels, I tried versions in other cities and they were fine but, they just did not taste the same. Context plays a part, I am sure, just as it did with the Po’Boy a few days before in NOLA. But, a Philly Cheese Steak is a thing of beauty.
After we had finished, Stan & Lisa drove me all the way back across town to my hotel before depositing me safely around 2am.
This was exactly the sort of evening I had envisioned when I quit my job to go travelling. Meeting local people who will introduce you to the local food the way they like to eat it. A great evening.
If that was a great evening, the next day proved to be a bit of an anti-climax. It may have been a hangover. It may have been the fact that I was filled to the brim with beef or it may just have been that by now, three weeks into this leg of the trip, I needed to stop for a while.
I spent the morning walking around the city and doing a bit of the tourist stuff. It is all very interesting and that, but forgive me if touring around the sites of the early USA did not fill me with pant wetting excitement. Before you ask, no I didn’t bother going to see a broken bell.
I did however, go and see Reading Terminal, which, if I am brutally honest left me feeling quite a long way from whelmed.
Admittedly, a lot of the stalls were closed on a Sunday, particularly those carrying produce from The Pennsylvania Dutch, which was a shame as I had my fatty heart set on a slab of Scrapple. Despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t raise any level of excitement for the rest of the market. I am sure they will learn to live with the disappointment.
I treated myself to a large tub of three flavours from Bassett’s, which was not bad, and carried on walking until I was about to flop.
I bought a ticket for my train journey to New York the following morning and stopped for a passable lunch of fish tacos at a place called El Vez.
That, ladies and gents, was about it for me and Philadelphia. I headed back to the hotel and spent the rest of my time in the city in my hotel room writing and catching up on my sleep. The fact I slept from 8pm to 8am the next day was some indication of how tired I must have been.
Philadelphia was not a major stop on this leg of the journey. But, I had come, I had seen and I had eaten a cheese steak. I also met Stan & Lisa Cohen as well as Pat & Geno. For that, I am particularly grateful.
Everybody, after me “one whizz with, handicapped please”
Like a native.