Why the Philly cheesesteak can swing a presidential election
Pennsylvania is one of a clutch of states that can decide an American presidential election. Its largest city, Philadelphia, leans solidly Democrat but voters in smaller towns and rural areas tend to favour the Republicans, who narrowly won the state in 2016 particularly thanks to backing from the white working-class. All of which means that contenders from both parties make plenty of time to visit Philadelphia. They don’t just chew over policy, however. In what is now a time-honoured tradition for politicians on the campaign trail, most candidates include a stop for a Philly cheesesteak.
In many ways this is a simple dish. Beef, sliced this way and that, is cooked on a grill, placed on a hoagie roll (a long Italian-ish bap) and topped with cheese. It comes “wit”, with onions, or “witout”, bereft of them. The cheese can be one of three types: provolone (arguably the fancy option), American (for the patriots among you), or Whiz, a neon processed-cheese sauce (for those truly in the know). Eating a Philly cheesesteak is an indication that a would-be president, who travels with a motorcade and a phalanx of security, is, in fact, a man (or imagine, one day, a woman) of the people.
It was the cheese that proved to be John Kerry’s downfall in 2003. The Democratic candidate ordered his cheesesteak with Swiss – an unforgivable error. Worse still, he nibbled daintily at the sandwich instead of taking big bites and embracing “the Philadelphia lean”, a stance that ensures the juices dribble down onto the pavement and miss the eater’s shirtfront.
The ridicule that met Kerry’s choice explains why ordering a Philly cheesesteak has been described as one of the riskiest moves a high-profile politician can make. As a presidential candidate Kerry struggled to connect with the population at large, and the cheesesteak faux pas exemplified that problem. Philadelphia is a rough-and-tumble place, says J.P. Teti, a native of the city and the founder of Passyunk Avenue, a cheesesteak outfit in London. “Philadelphians are not interested in politicians carpet-bagging something that is a precious part of their culture,” says Teti.
Others have been more circumspect in their choices. After Kerry’s gaffe, George W. Bush was careful to point out that he ordered his cheesesteak “Whiz with” (that is, with Cheez Whiz and onions). He went on to win the election. Barack Obama ordered the sandwich on numerous occasions without incident.
In September Donald Trump had his own Philadelphia moment when he tweeted a photo of himself aboard Air Force One with not one but two cheesesteaks. Whether his excess will benefit him is unclear, however. Only weeks later he rattled Philadelphians during the first presidential debate with the statement that “bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things” – though whether he was referring to (baseless) accusations about voter fraud in the state, or its most famous dish (perish the thought), is unclear.
Some aspects of the culture around cheesesteaks might well appeal to Trump. For years a sign hung in Geno’s, one of Philadelphia’s oldest cheesesteak restaurants, declaring “This is America: WHEN ORDERING ‘PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH’”. In 2008 the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations brought a case against the owner, Joey Vento, arguing that it was discriminatory. Vento prevailed but the sign was quietly removed some time after his death.
And yet the cheesesteak was concocted by immigrants. It has been part of Philadelphia’s culture since the beginning of the 20th century thanks to a large influx of Italians, many of them from southern and central Italy.
Few foods are actually invented by one person but creation stories about the cheesesteak tend to focus on a hot-dog vendor called Pat Olivieri. Fed up with his wieners, one day he decided instead to fry up some chopped beef and onions and stick them all on a roll. One of his regulars – a cab driver – was so tempted by the result that he requested one for himself. Legend has it that he told Olivieri to forget the ’dogs and focus on his new invention. Word spread, and the Philly cheesesteak was born (the cheese came later). The shop that Olivieri and his brother, Harry, opened in 1940 still stands on the corner of 9th and Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia.
Ordering a Philly cheesesteak is one of the riskiest moves a high-profile politician can make
Italian-American food is a cuisine of its own. Many of its dishes have obvious roots in those of Italy – eggplant parm, say, or Bolognese sauce. Others, including the cheesesteak, bear little relation to anything cooked in the homeland. Yet Teti, whose family came from Abruzzo in central Italy, reckons that the combination of bread, meat and sauce (the cheese plus the steak juices effectively form a sauce) is well aligned with the Italian palette. For those early immigrants, it was a way to satiate their hunger cheaply, a case of “necessity meeting ingenuity”, says Teti, to create something new.
It was not only novel, it was local. American food is often lumped together, for better or worse, as a single national cuisine. Today some Philadelphians won’t order a cheesesteak more than an hour outside the city. Venture farther afield, they say, and who knows what you might get? Some places include bell peppers in a cheesesteak – even in Philadelphia you may be served peppers on your sandwich, but they make no appearance on a classic cheesesteak. (If you do need some kind of garnish go for Italian long hots, a spicy pepper.) The slices of tomato balanced on top of Kerry’s cheesesteak only compounded his Swiss error. Mushrooms are a welcome accompaniment to a regular steak but have no place on a cheesesteak.
Even worse, some people use ground beef. But the sandwich includes the word “steak” for a reason. Ideally the beef should be ribeye, full of fat and flavour. There are legitimate differences over how exactly to cut it: at Geno’s the slices of meat are thin but large; at Pat’s they chop the steak more finely. Either is more than acceptable – mince is not.
Ignorant outsiders have been known to suggest using a French baguette to make a cheesesteak. That would be not only heretical, it would miss the point of the sandwich. The soft hoagie soaks up the juices from the tender pieces of beef and cheese, so that it requires little effort to bite through. Tearing at the crusty exterior of a baguette would ruin the experience. Advocates know it’s a tradition worth defending, if Philadelphia wants to keep its steak in the election.■
ILLUSTRATIONS: BETH HOECKEL
RECIPE ILLUSTRATION: JAKE READ
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/1843/2020/10/12/why-the-philly-cheesesteak-can-swing-a-presidential-election
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