Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Customs, Culture and Traditions
Abundant seafood made it easy to settle here. Agriculture takes longer.

Philadelphia Food: Fast Food

Philly Soft Pretzel

Plenty of people in Philadelphia eat hamburgers and fried chicken at fast-food chain restaurants, so it can't be argued that Philadelphia hates manufactured food. But plenty of Philadelphians do deplore the calories, cholesterol, and grunge of these fast food franchise stands. The amount of Sugar that is poured into what we call ketchup is a disgrace, as is its advertising aimed straight at kids. At the same time, it is impossible not to admire the ingenuity inherent in engineering a frozen-food dinner. The just-in-time concept is carried to almost unimaginable extremes as the inventories of ingredients are timed to match the production of the product. Someone has to order aluminum foil from Canada at just the right moment to match the hatching of an egg which will grow into a chicken, alongside peas and potatoes planted and harvested, and cooked into the orderly production of those product-filled cartons that are loaded on trucks and shipped at night to the supermarkets of the country. It's truly an amazing process of coordination of a complex perishable product, quite cheap, and reasonably edible. Add to that the rather amazing fact that in times of normal interest rates, a supermarket sells its products at zero markups. All the profit is made from the interest float generated by cash business that delays paying its bills until the end of the month, or maybe a month longer than that. Who can compete with such a relentless economic machine?

Well, it is pretty hard to compete with the juggernaut if all you have is food that tastes good, so Philadelphia fast food is struggling to survive. Those franchise restaurants on the highway are an outgrowth of the diner, and the diner was invented locally during the twenties. Just which abandoned trolley car was the first is now unclear, although diners very probably started in southern New Jersey. There are still quite a few aluminum highway restaurants that call themselves diners, although they are no longer abandoned railway cars, but prefabricated special-purpose buildings. They specialize in huge portions of quite good conventional food, quite inexpensive. Truck drivers and others who travel the roads a great deal seek them out, and keep coming back to old friends behind the counter.

At another extreme, Philadelphia soft pretzels, smeared with mustard, are sold by street vendors who buy them wholesale by the hundred and hawk them at cold-weather events like the mummers' parade, but almost any parade will do. They go well with hot coffee, bottled soda, or beer. Beer is preferred at baseball games.

Philly Cheese Steak

As far as pizza is concerned, a disclaimer is needed to the effect that a pizza pie was invented in New Haven, Connecticut, in the Italian district there. The New Haven variety is produced in huge ovens and ladled out with long wooden paddles, in portions for six customers singing the Whiffenpoof Song. In Philadelphia, pizza is generally prepared on metal platters, of the size of a regular pie tin. The Greek community claims this version was their idea.

Hoagies are the local term (thought to refer to Hog Island near the Navy Yard) for what is called a submarine or sub by other regions and are essentially an Italian antipasto salad rolled up in a sandwich roll. The Pennsylvania Dutch take liberties with the concept, greatly increasing its bulk with the thickness of the ham and cheese slices, big tomato slices, and comparatively little lettuce.

More recently, the chicken cutlet sandwich, Italiano, is coming on strong, with provolone cheese and spinach for interest. But the old standby is the Philly Cheese Steak. The meat is sliced and diced, onions added to taste, and Cheese Whiz squirted around before the whole thing is grilled and put in a sandwich roll. Bitter wars are fought by those who argue whether Pat's or Geno's is the first or the best, or some other less-known shop. Curiously, this sandwich industry began and remains near the site of the old Moyamensing prison at 10th and Passyunk Avenues. The concept has spread all over the country, but Philadelphians are certain the products produced outside of Pennsylvania are highly inferior imitations. At the risk of retaliation from outraged Italians, it really must be mentioned that southern Delaware steak sandwiches are made with real steaks, no onions, no cheese whiz. Steak has to be very tender to be eaten that way.

Philly Water Ice

Gelati, or Italian Water Ice, a form of sherbet, is very popular in the summer evenings in South Philly, and it too seems to be spreading internationally.

It's truly remarkable to encounter visitors from other cities who want to visit Philadelphia, see everything there is to see, but the first plink the Liberty Bell, and second have a cheesesteak.

The nearest non-Italian competitor to these specialties is the special sandwich. Probably Eastern European in origin, the word special refers to the addition of coleslaw and mayonnaise to thick roast beef or corned beef sandwich. It doesn't seem so distinctively Philadelphian as the other products, but that probably only reflects the present transient dominance of the Italian influence.


Originally published: Monday, June 26, 2006; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019

Nothing beats a water ice on a sticky Philadelphia afternoon as you walk towards the High Speed Line to go home. Except maybe a soft pretzel with mustard, a year round source of happiness.
Posted by: Margaret   |   Feb 19, 2010 4:51 PM