Chef Essig's Featured Item of the Week
Philadelphia Steak Sandwiches (aka: Cheesesteaks)
There is much debate about the types of cheese that should be used for this local favorite, the kind of bread, how the meat should be presented, condiments etc. These are serious points of contention among Philly aficionados, but it is not what goes ON it that separates the masses, but HOW you order it.
There is a definite presence about the east coast mentality that you need to move a little quicker, think a little faster, make your decisions, and go with them. This is true in the workplace, driving down the freeway, and especially when ordering food. Ordering a cheesesteak in Philly is a real test of your decision-making abilities (and according to political analysis, it gives a sense of one’s character as well).
John Kerry was scorned during his 2004 campaign when he visited Geno's and ordered his Cheesesteak with Swiss Cheese. This would be comparable to visiting a famous Memphis BBQ and ordering a Veggie Burger. Locals will look at you like a three-headed purple frog that just knocked over their drink. However in the same campaign year, President Bush ordered his with Whiz Wit, hence the now famous political Philadelphia Cheesesteak poll. Both Hillary Clinton and President Obama passed on the cheesesteak test during their campaign, but President Obama did make the news in 2010 for passing the test ordering his with Whiz and onions. Another politician who has taken the Cheesesteak test and passed was Sarah Palin who ordered hers Cheese Whiz and Onions, although the cashier had to ask her for her name. You can watch the video on YouTube it if you want to see it for yourself.
Origins of this sandwich can be traced to the 1930’s, and the business that started everything is still there. Pat’s King of Steaks started selling the sandwich in 1933 when Pat and his brother Harry Olivieri thinly sliced up some steak they bought at the market and fried it up with some onions, serving it to a regular customer of their hot dog stand. The sandwich quickly caught on and Steak Sandwich shops soon began popping up all over the city. Geno’s Steaks, located directly across the street, claims to be the first to add Cheez Whiz to the sandwich, turning the Steak Sandwich into the now well known Cheesesteak.
On a recent trip recently to Philly, I had to see for myself what makes a true Steak Sandwich. The lines were long at both Pat’s and Geno’s, and it is definitely not because the service is slow. The line of people is in constant motion as we approached Pat’s. The menu is fairly simple if you are going there for a Steak Sandwich, but you need to decide what you want on it. Cheese Wit, means you want CheezWhiz with onions or you can order it Cheese Wit-out. I suddenly felt intimidated -- like George from Seinfeld getting ready to order soup from the “Soup Nazi.” You need to decide what kind of Cheese you want, whether you want yours With or Without Onions, and then of course what toppings you want. You relay your order in that order.
I give it my best shot, “Whiz Wit Peppers” which meant Steak Sandwich, with CheezWhiz, Sautéed Onions and Peppers. Before I could even pull a bill from wallet my sandwich was placed in front me, hot and ready to go. Rookie mistake… have your money ready. These guys are serious about their sandwiches and the speed of service, and they are not afraid to let you know when you are messing up their groove. It was the fastest service I have ever seen.
We grab plenty of napkins and enjoy our sandwich before heading over to Geno’s. These are not sandwiches to eat if you don’t want to get messy. Both are greasy and dripping with goodness. At Geno’s we give it another shot. This time I order mine “Prov Wit.” I learned from my earlier “rookie mistake” so I have my money ready, and the service is just as fast. That’s actually a good thing since we are running late and are wondering if we will make it to the airport in time. But I knew I couldn’t leave Philly without sampling this true American classic sandwich.
Dining Services is pleased to offer this American Classic on Thursday night (January 13th) for Dinner at Tobey-Kendel Dining Room at the Grille station… complete with sautéed onions, cheese sauce or provolone, and your choice of mushrooms and peppers. We are happy to make it the way you like it, Wit or Wit-out.
Executive Chef Aran Essig, CEC, CCA
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