The Great Philadelphia Schism
In Philadelphia, there is a great schism. Like Capulets and Montagues, people are torn asunder by a fundamental divide - a partisan rift between patriots of the two great houses:
Pat's Steaks, or Geno's Steaks?
Me, I'm a traditionalist, so I go with Pat's. Better steaks, if you ask me - if for no other reason than their volume of business means that every one is swimming in grease!
A proper Philly Cheesesteak has to be made of sliced and chopped fresh steak. Not Steak-Umms, which are a profanity upon the earth, and should be consigned to the deepest, least delicious pits of Tartarus (sauce). The steak should be grilled until it's done, and hit with a little bit of water while it's grilling in order to retain the juiciness. This isn't terribly hard to do, and lots of place the world over get it right.
The cheese, traditionally, should Cheez Whiz (tm) - a liquid cheese-like confection that is indistinguishable from actual cheese. (If you're drunk, it's 3AM, and you're not too picky anyway). Some heathens like American cheese, or even provolone on their steaks. Those people will be dealt with, in the fullness of time, I'm sure.
A proper Cheesesteak should also have chopped and fried onions on it - just fried enough to caramalize a little, but still raw enough to have some tang and some crunch.
But the most crucial aspect of the cheesesteak is the roll. People don't know this, but Philadelphia is actually blessed with some amazing Italian bakeries, all over the city - particularly in South Philly where Pat's and Geno's glower at each other over Passyunk Ave. What makes a *Philly* cheesesteak special is the roll. Amoroso's is the de facto standard, but the limp-wristed and overly-fancy sometimes prefer the crustier breads from the more traditional bakeries. The roll is all - it should be chewy but soft, very fresh - with a slightly piquant flavor reminscent of kissing Catholic School girls under the grandstands at the football field. Without an honest-to-gosh South Philly Italian roll - a cheesesteak can be naught but a pale imitation, like Icarus imitating the flight of birds -- doomed to crash and perish.
Pat's has the best cheesesteaks. Their rolls are fresher, their cheez-whiz is the gloppiest, and their fried onions - oh just so perfect. When stepping up to the window at Pat's, one does not say, "Pardon me, purveyor of delectables, but could you prepare for me a cheesesteak sandwich, with cheez-whiz topping and some lightly friend diced onion on the top?" Indeed, if one were to say so, one would be stared at in astonishment. One might also be mugged.
Instead, one says, "Cheese. With." This says it all. That you want a steak sandwich is simply understood. Why else would you be there (drunk at 3AM)? Some prefer their steaks dry (I.E. without cheese) and so one must specify that one wants cheese. The default cheese is Cheez-Whiz (tm) so one need not specify WHAT sort of cheese one wants. The weight of tradition has made this choice for you - and you shouldn't defy so many hungry, drunken, boorish Philadelphians by the millions who have gone before you. The last thing one need clear up is the great "with" or "without" controversy. Some fools, some anti-epicureans, feel that onions are gaudy or overdone. To them, I say... what sad little shadows of real people they are, afraid to take great steaming gobbets of life and wolf it down with gusto and whole-hearted lusty relish. Make my stake with onions, by crackey!!
And with that, one will be shouted at to move out of the way, and pay your bill. Soon, you will shuffer further down the outdoor restaraunt (and I do use the term loosely) - to pick up the loosely wrapped, steaming, sloppy, greasy, cheezy chunk of heaven. A great lard-soaked pile of ambrosia.
My ride home this evening started out great. By the time I hit the Art Museum, I felt like I had wings. I put on my cd player (sorry Bob) when I hit Kelly Drive because it's safe on the bike path. My speed was good, and lately I've been making sure that I keep power on the pedals throughout the entire rotation of the cranks, instead of just the downstroke. When I hit the rise just before the big standing rock formation about halfway along, I imagined that if I went fast enough, if I pedalled hard enough, I'd hit the top of the incline and just keep going up and up. Straight up over the river.
Uh, I didn't. And by the time I got to the end of the ride I was badly suffering - my legs were shot. Considering I have a five mile race tomorrow up the side of a hill, and I have to ride my bike to get there - that's not good. But. Anyway - queued up on the cd player (it's one of those mp3 dealies that plays 4 hours on one disc) came "Save Tonight" by Eagle Eye Cherry. Every time I hear that song, I remember driving home from visiting Laura at Brown that first time. Knowing in my head that it was over, but not wanting it to be true in my heart.
And I realized something - one of those little puzzle-pieces about my own life that occaisionally will click into place. I realized that I was addicted to saying goodbye to Laura. The entire time we were together, there was always some parting in sight - her parents finding out, her going away to school, the end of a winter break - whatever. It was obvious that things weren't going to work out for us, but unlike Laura, I didn't want to let go gracefully. Because it was so incredibly intense, every time we said goodbye. It was so romantic, and bittersweet - it was such a crescendo of passion and love. No matter how many times I said goodbye, I wanted to see her again, to feel that intensely again.
Oh sure, I truly did love Laura - and who wouldn't? She was funny, sweet, and so very smart. And gorgeous - my.... was she gorgeous. Someday she'll be famous, I bet, and I'll smile a little secretly knowing that once I knew her. But what kept me coming back when we kept putting each other through so much agony? It was the goodbyes. It was the longing kisses, the tight holdings, the breath on each other's necks. It was that feeling of holding onto a life-preserver after a shipwreck.
It's been over for a long time - years and years. I don't even miss her anymore. Well, not true - I do miss her because I think she'd be a wonderful friend. But she graduated, she's gone. I don't know where she is, or how to find her. But I miss her - as a friend. I wish I could see her look at my slyly after tasting one of her biscotti again. But I wouldn't want to say goodbye again. Not anymore.