Wednesday, June 22, 2011


It's sort of sad that so many of the specialty foods created in my hometown of Philadelphia are so diluted and tasteless when attempts are made to duplicate them elsewhere. The ubiquitous cheesesteak is a prime example. For thirty years, I have tried to find one as delicious as Pat's or Geno's or any of dozens of Philly snack emporiums to little avail. Finally, I accidentally discovered Phat Philly on 24th Street near Valencia in San Francisco, as it is on the way to The Marsh Theatre, where I am currently attending a class on solo performance. The rolls and meat are authentic, and they even have my favorite hot cherry pepper slices, very rare on the West Coast where the jalapeno reigns.

But the cheesesteak is just one of the foods originated in Philadelphia--there are four of them altogether. The soft pretzel was invented in Philly, but quickly showed up at New York street vendors. Elsewhere in the nation, not nearly so tasty. In South Philly, the vendors always seemed to have several layers of raggedy clothing and very black palms. To this day, I don't know if this was dirt or some by-product of pretzel baking. But their product seemed to be the most delicious, the small ones selling for 5 cents, the jumbo size a quarter, and always with a splash of mustard.

Next, a sweet treat I've never seen anywhere else except the South Jersey shore, which is practically a suburb of Philly anyway. It's the Italian water ice. This is not a snow cone or shaved ice, it's more liquid, and the authentic version came in two flavors, lemon or cherry, with pieces of the fruit permeating the soft, smooth dessert. It was made in a churning vat quite often standing in the open doorway of corner candy stores throughout South Philadelphia, and served in soft paper cups--2 cents for the smallest. Almost all other versions involve pouring artificial flavors over ice.

And, last but not least, the famed Tastykake snack cakes. My favorites of many varieties were and still are the plain chocolate cupcake (as opposed to the cream-filled) and the chocolate Kandy Kake (which used to be called Tandy Kake). They used to be available more widely, but are largely limited to Philly, New York, and New Jersey.. A few cheesesteak shops have them shopped in, but at exorbitant prices. They have no preservatives, so just a two or three week shelf life, unless frozen. I now have a freezer full of the chocolate Kandy Kakes, as you have to order them by the case from the company, but they're pretty reasonable at $68 for the case of 18 boxes, each containing six packages with two cookie-sized cakes in each. So that's 216 actual Kandy Kakes.
Many online reviews compared Tastykake products to other snack foods, and I like one typical review that says Tastykake is to Hostess products as a premium prime rib is to McDonald's McRib.

Of course, we're all attached to the favorite snacks of our childhood years, and if still available, this is often our first choice for comfort food. Even though the four food items above make Philadelphia probably the leader in specialty treats that originated in any city in the world, there are still more. I've never tasted an Italian hoagie more delicious than at almost any Philly hoagie shop, and Nick's roast beef sandwiches put Arby's to shame, and the old Horn & Hardart retail shops had a chocolate chip loaf cake to die for. H&H also invented the automat in 1902 in Philadelphia, and it also quickly spread to New York. As a kid in Philly, I fondly remember getting a table full of food for a dollar's worth of nickels popped into the slots and then pulling out the dishes like fantastic beef pot pie when the little door flipped open. And chocolate covered frozen bananas were a favorite at many candy stores. They actually have traveled the best, as it is pretty hard to screw them up. Trader Joe's has them sliced in their Gone Bananas version.

On the way to class tonight, I'm stopping at Phat Philly's. And here's a guilty confession--all my life, I have ordered my cheesesteaks without the cheese, just steak and onions and perhaps a few hot cherry pepper slices. So while an ardent addict for this hometown treat, I am far from a purist.

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