Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Dianna Marder

Cheesesteaks

[caption id="attachment_4011" align="alignright" width="134"] From Tony Luke's in South Philadelphia, the cheesesteak. (Photograph by J. Varney for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

A cheesesteak is a sandwich unlike any John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), might have encountered. Thin bits of frizzled beef served on a locally-made Italian roll, usually topped with fried onions and Cheez Whiz drawn from the can with a paint stirrer, the Philly cheesesteak also is distinguished, in part, by its place in presidential politics.

Cheesesteaks originated in 1930 as simply steak sandwiches, the cheese part coming later. The undisputed creators, Harry Olivieri and his brother Pat, ran a hot dog stand in South Philadelphia. One day, weary of eating their own dogs for lunch, they grilled some sliced beef with onions instead. Before either could take a bite, a passing cab driver offered five cents for the sandwich and declared it better than their hot dogs.

The brothers Olivieri did not make the steak sandwich their main attraction until 1940 when they opened Pat's King of Steaks on Passyunk Avenue, where it intersects with Ninth and Wharton Streets.  They did not initially add cheese because many of their customers in the neighborhood were Jewish and dietary laws barred them from eating meat and cheese together. But after Kraft introduced Cheez Wiz in 1952, Pat Olivieri realized he could simply take the lid off the industrial-size can, put the whole can on the grill to cook, and add cheese to some steaks without tainting the grill for his kosher customers.

Rivalry Across the Street

When Joey Vento opened Geno's across the street from Pat's in 1966, he acknowledged the Olivieris invented the cheesesteak, but insisted he made it better. To be sure, cheesesteak lovers can get their fix in almost any neighborhood in Philadelphia and its suburbs. But the intersection of Ninth, Wharton, and Passyunk remains the center of the cheesesteak universe. Both Pat's and Geno's are open twenty-four hours a day, and customers thrive on debating which shop makes the better cheesesteak. Whatever the arguments for either side, tourists, visitors, and even locals have made sampling cheesesteaks almost a rite of passage to knowing Philadelphia.

In the rest of the nation, candidates in search of voters with whom to chew the fat routinely descend on classic diners and coffee shops. In Philadelphia, they go to the intersection of Ninth, Wharton, and Passyunk Avenue to prove their mettle by ordering a cheesesteak properly.

Candidates need not consume all 1,200 calories, but they must know the lingo. A cheesesteak "wit" has onions, while one with no onions is ordered "widout." If no cheese is desired, the order is "plain." The only acceptable cheeses are American, provolone, and the Kraft sauce known as Whiz. Both Pat's and Geno's have instructions posted. Still, in 2004 the Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry, asked for Swiss and was ridiculed on the evening news.

In 2005, when the Philadelphia Eagles faced the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, then-Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell wagered a cheesesteak against then-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's clam chowder. The Patriots won (24-21), but Romney refused to eat the Philly cheesesteak, saying his cholesterol count couldn't handle all that cheese and fat.

Geno’s Makes National Headlines

The Philly cheesesteak made national news later in 2005 when Geno's owner Joey Vento fed the national debate on immigration by posting a sign telling customers, “This is America - When Ordering Speak English.” The open-air food market surrounding Vento's store, known for decades as the Italian Market, had by then attracted newer immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America. While Vento appeared on national television programs hosted by conservatives Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations charged him with discrimination. Vento ultimately was exonerated of the anti-discrimination charge and said at the time that if his family took the trouble to learn English, recent arrivals should as well. He died in 2011.

[caption id="attachment_4012" align="alignright" width="300"] Behind the grill at Jim's Steaks, South Street. (Photograph by B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

The city's claim to cheesesteak fame is recognized nationwide. Wherever cheesesteaks are sold, they appear on the menu as Philly cheesesteaks. Some high-end steakhouses, the kind that serve Porterhouse and T-bones, developed gourmet versions of the lowly cheesesteak. In 2004, restaurateur Stephen Starr introduced a Kobe beef version at his Barclay Prime restaurant. Made with Taleggio cheese, caramelized onions, and truffles on a brioche roll, and served with a split of champagne, it was priced at an even $100. Ever up-to-date, Starr later replaced that version with a wagu ribeye beef cheesesteak topped with foie grass, truffles, and fontina on a ciabatta roll—again with the half bottle of Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut and the $100 price tag.

Even if those stylized versions are tasty, they miss the crucial point politicians reach for when they order a Philly cheesesteak. It's about connecting with everyday people.

Dianna Marder is a journalist who retired in 2012 after 27 years as a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she wrote about the courts, crime, and the cultural impact of food.

Pretzels

Soft pretzels are to Philadelphia as crepes are to Paris. Both are icons of their respective cities, but one goes better with Nutella and the other with mustard. Indeed, comedian David Brenner (who, like Will Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bellaire, was “West Philadelphia born and raised”) even titled his 1983 memoir Soft Pretzels with Mustard. With cheesesteaks and water ice, soft pretzels complete the city's culinary trifecta.

Philadelphia soft pretzels are distinguished from all others by their shape (a figure-8, not loopy with a thick center and thinner ends), their texture (chewy, not crunchy), and their distribution method (look for them on street corners, not supermarkets). They come lightly salted, or, on request, as "baldies."

Philadelphians eat pretzels on-the-run, in the office as breakfast, or after lunch from the food carts that dot Center City streets. In the suburbs and New Jersey, pretzels are sold in brown lunch bags by entrepreneurial vendors who sit on overturned milk crates at busy intersections. Homesick former Philadelphians even order pretzels to be shipped fresh overnight.

Like scrapple, which is not consumed in anywhere near the same quantity, soft pretzels are a legacy of the region's Pennsylvania Dutch (Palatine Germans) who emigrated in the 1700s in search of religious freedom and fertile soil. In Lancaster County, primarily, Pennsylvania Dutch farming families adhere to old world ways, rejecting the use of electricity, telephones, cars, and even zippers. While their horse-and-buggy culture draws tourists to Lancaster County, inside Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market shoppers line up to watch Pennsylvania Dutch women twist and bake soft pretzels.

[caption id="attachment_3872" align="alignright" width="217"]Pretzels in Art, 12th Century A twelfth-century illustration shows a pretzel at a banquet for the Persian King Ahasuerus. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

 

A Long History

The soft pretzel has a long history, dating to 610 A.D., when French monks twisted and folded extra bread dough into the shape of a person's hands criss-crossed on the chest, each palm touching the opposite shoulder, which was the traditional posture for prayer. The resulting tasty treat of knotted dough had three holes representing the Christian Trinity. These pretiolas, Latin for "little rewards," were given to good little boys and girls. By the 1400s bretzels, as they were known in German, were being hawked from long poles by street vendors in European villages.

One of the earliest historical depictions of the soft pretzel may be an illustration in the 1190 Hortus Deliciarum, which shows a pretzel in the scene of the Persian King Ahasuerus at a banquet prepared for him by Esther. There are many later paintings of that Biblical feast, by Rembrandt and Jan Victors in the 1660s, for example, but no others show a pretzel. The soft pretzel also made an appearance in the lower right corner of The Fight Between Carnival and Lent painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1559.

In Philadelphia, a street vendor named Daniel Christopher Kleiss sold soft pretzels as early as the 1820s, according the curators of The Larder Invaded: Reflections on Three Centuries of Philadelphia Food and Drink, a joint exhibition of the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

First Commercial Bakery in 1861

The Sturgis family of Lititz, in Lancaster County, which started the first commercial pretzel bakery in 1861, says that in the 1840s, a passing hobo who may have been an itinerant baker gave the recipe for soft pretzels to a baker named Ambrose Rauch, who in turn gave it to his apprentice, Julius Sturgis. During the Civil War, Julius Sturgis sent pretzels to his brother, William, who was in Andersonville prison. And pretzels were among the treats sold in Philadelphia in 1864 at the Great Central Fair, which raised money "for the aid and comfort" of Northern soldiers.

[caption id="attachment_3875" align="alignright" width="300"]man with pretzel cart preparing for customers In the depths of the Great Depression, a pretzel vendor sets up shop outside Stetson Junior High School. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

The Nacchio family started Federal Pretzel Baking Company in 1922, and in 1930 even sold pretzels to the Philadelphia public schools to be served to students. (In 1963, Joseph Nacchio made a forty-pound soft pretzel for the film It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.)

Although hand-twisting remained a point of pride for some baking companies into the twenty-first century, automation began in 1933 at the Reading Pretzel Machinery Company. The distinctive figure-8 shape evolved then, to make the pretzels fit the conveyor belt.

Epicenter of Pretzeldom

Federal Baking introduced its machine-cut soft pretzels in 1978. Pretzel-making remained concentrated in Pennsylvania, even after emerging as a national snack in the 1960s.

The practice of spreading mustard on soft pretzels is traced to the fact that pretzels were commonly sold by hot dog vendors, who were already offering mustard.

In the early twenty-first century, haute chefs in Philadelphia and in Manhattan started drawing on the popularity of Philadelphia soft pretzel, baking them round for dinner rolls. A number of gourmet bakeries returned to the term pretiolas, perhaps to make soft pretzels seem more authentic or exotic. Use of the classic soft pretzel recipe to make Pretzel Dogs is also relatively new. In keeping with the taste of Philadelphia, some soft pretzel bakeries even offer a version stuffed with cheesesteak.

Meanwhile, hard pretzels, which came into being when an unidentified Pennsylvania baker left a batch in the oven too long, come in greater varieties of shapes, from rods and sticks to rings and thins, with whole wheat or sourdough recipes topped with chocolate, caramel and more.

Pretzels have had their own commemoration since 1983, when Congress designated April 26 National Pretzel Day.


Dianna Marder
is a journalist who retired in 2012 after 27 years as a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she wrote about the courts, crime, and the cultural impact of food.

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