Welcome Rachel from Laptops and Stovetops!
When someone says ‘Philadelphia’ and ‘food’ in the same sentence, what is the first thought in everyone’s heads? Cheesesteaks, right? It is pretty cool having one sandwich synonymous with the city of brotherly love, but I have to say, the regional foods of Southeastern Pennsylvania extend well beyond that of beloved steak sandwich and it’s about time cheesesteaks shared the spotlight with it’s sister PA food delights.
I’ve recently returned to Orlando from a trip home to the Philadelphia area to visit family and friends and to also take part in the all-important ritual of bridal shower brouhaha with my oldest, nearest, and dearest friends. While I can’t wait to eat the pasta, sausage, and broccoli raab at my aunt’s, I simply HAVE to have the following signature Philly foods I can not get in the deep south: pork roll, Peanut Chews, soft pretzels, Italian hoagies, Herr’s potato chips, water ice, and Tastykakes. The only way I knew to introduce these foods to the rest of the foodie world is a photo diary of my trip. Note, all these photos are snapped on my iPhone sometimes while eating and sometimes while driving. Hopefully I’ve captured the sense of eating and moving during my five-day northeastern adventure.
Post landing and attainment of my rental car, did I visit someone special for my first to-do? You bet I did. I stopped at the Philly Diner for anything with pork roll. Pork roll belongs to the breakfast meats family and is spectacular on any type of breakfast sandwich with egg and cheese or just by itself as a side.
According to Wikipedia, pork roll was invented in the late 1800’s by John Taylor in Trenton, NJ. For those unaware of the proximity of the area, Trenton is simply across the Delaware River narrowly separating PA and NJ. Legally not meeting the federal definition of ‘ham’ pork roll is compared to SPAM, sausage, and bologna though I think none of these comparisons due this delicious meat justice. If I had my druthers, pork roll is most closely related to the taste and texture of ham. It is saltier but when crisped up just right in a pan, it’s the greasiest, most satisfying choice for breakfast meat in the Delaware Valley.
My next stop was the to the most incredible convenience store in all the land, Wawa. “Wawa” is a Native American word for the Canada Goose that was found in the Delaware Valley, which is why there is a goose on Wawa’s logo.
The reason why Wawa trumps every other food-based convenience store is two-fold; their sheer size and selection, and their own food products are available, the essence of freshness, and very affordable. My affair with coffee started at Wawa when my friend Michelle and I would go there specifically for French Vanilla Coffee. Today, their coffee offerings are iced, latted, or just good old regular coffee. Wawa also makes their own brand of iced tea with flavors from mint to peach matched only by Turkey Hill’s Iced Tea in the region. Does it stop there with their coffee and iced teas? No! When visiting a Wawa you can get a cup of soup, a breakfast sandwich, or a hoagie of your choice made while you shop for other items like Herr’s Potato Chips and Tastykakes. The prices at Wawa’s are always low and that’s why I pine for it down south when having to stop at a Race Trac or Circle K when I’m in need of a quick snack.
But wait, did I just say Tastykakes? You bet I did. How much do we Pennsylvanians adore our Tastykakes? Too much probably. As a child, I ate them so much my nickname was ‘Rachykakes’. While I can unendingly reminisce about this hometown sweet treat, their story is shortly told from their website:
“Back in 1914, a Pittsburgh baker, Philip J. Baur and a Boston egg salesman, Herbert T. Morris went into business in Philadelphia to produce baked goods using only the finest ingredients delivered fresh daily to the bakery. They insisted on farm fresh eggs, Grade A creamery butter, real milk, cocoa, spices, and natural flavorings from the far ends of the earth.
The products were so good that Morris’ wife, after trying some of the samples, said they were “tasty,” so they eventually named the business Tasty Baking Company and came up with the catchy name, Tastykake.
At ten cents a cake, Morris sold $28 worth the first day, $222 the first week. The work paid off. By the end of 1914, gross sales were $300,000.
Since 1914, Tastykake’s employees have taken tremendous pride in the company’s rich heritage and bright future. Unquestionably, our products represent the industry benchmark for consistent taste, quality, and freshness. Over the years, Tastykake has become a true Philadelphia success story, with gross annual sales in excess of $250 million.”
That’s a lot of tiny cakes! My personal favorites are the Butterscotch Krimpets and Peanut Butter Kandy Kakes, which happens to also be their top-selling item. In short, if you visit the Philadelphia area don’t you dare leave without trying a Tastykake.
Once my Wawa/Tastykake and pork roll fix were taken care of, the next foods my mind and body craved were Peanut Chews and an Italian hoagie with Herr’s Potato Chips. Italian hoagies, or sub if you prefer, are pretty common in a lot of areas but we think our version is unique. First, what in tarnation is a hoagie as opposed to a hero or submarine?
Wikipedia has gathered all the myths for the term, the most popular of which I’d like to share with you:
“The term hoagie originated in the Philadelphia area. Domenic Vitiello, professor of Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania asserts that Italians working at the World War II shipyard in Philadelphia, known as Hog Island where emergency shipping was produced for the war effort, introduced the sandwich, by putting various meats, cheeses, and lettuce between two slices of bread. This became known as the “Hog Island” sandwich; hence, the “hoagie”.
The Philadelphia Almanac and Citizen’s Manual offers a different explanation, that the sandwich was created by early twentieth century street vendors called “hokey-pokey men”, who sold antipasto salad, along with meats and cookies. When Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta H.M.S. Pinafore opened in Philadelphia in 1879, bakeries produced a long loaf called the pinafore. Entrepreneurial “hokey-pokey men” sliced the loaf in half, stuffed it with antipasto salad, and sold the world’s first “hoagie”.
Another explanation is that the word “hoagie” arose in the late 19th-early 20th century, among the Italian community in South Philadelphia, when “on the hoke” was a slang used to describe a destitute person. Deli owners would give away scraps of cheeses and meats in an Italian bread-roll known as a “hokie”, but the Italian immigrants pronounced it “hoagie.”
Regardless of its origin, the Italian version is my supreme favorite. The sandwich begins on an Italian roll baked in Philadelphia and is then filled with mortadella, peppered ham, and salami with provolone cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce, white onions, tomato slices, oil, and oregano. It’s simple. It’s hearty. It’s delicious. It’s consistent no matter what deli you order from. It’s the official sandwich of Philadelphia as declared by former Mayor Ed Rendell who is now the Governor of Pennsylvania.
The only true companion to an Italian hoagie is some Herr’s potato chips. A Herr’s chip is always crisp, flavorful, and never too salty or too greasy. That’s why it’s the perfect go-to chip. Herr’s is another born and bred Pennsylvania company and their story is best told from their website, but here is just a taste of it:
“The Herr Foods story began in 1946 when 21-year-old James Stauffer Herr bought a small potato chip company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for $1,750. In 1947, the business moved into a vacated tobacco shed on the Herr family farm. As he learned more about the business, Jim Herr developed new and better cooking processes and a delicious snack food became even better. As demand for Herr’s® Potato Chips grew, so did the company.”
“Peanut Chews are a family of US candy products manufactured by Just Born. They consist of peanuts and molasses covered in chocolate, and are available in original dark chocolate flavor and milk chocolaty. The bars are small, and are similar in size to a “fun size” or Halloween size bar.
Peanut Chews were developed and, during most of their history, manufactured by the Goldenberg Candy Company which was founded by a Romanian immigrant, David Goldenberg in 1890. Peanut Chews were first introduced in 1917. The candies were originally developed for use by the U.S. military as ration bar during World War I. The high energy, high protein recipe and unique taste made it popular with the troops. In 1921 Harry Goldenberg introduced the first wrapped Peanut Chews candy for retail sales. In the 1930s the candy was converted from a full size bar to small individual pieces. In 1949 Harry and Sylvia Goldenberg (2nd generation) purchased the Peanut Chews Division of D. Goldenberg, Inc. to focus solely on the production of Peanut Chews candies. In 2003 Just Born, Inc., a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania based candy company, purchased the Peanut Chews brand and the Northeast Philadelphia manufacturing facility.
Some vegans are fond of the original flavor, which contain no milk or egg products, as would be typical of most chocolate and/or caramel candies. Just Born made changes in both the formulation and packaging of the candy and attempted to expand the region it was marketed in beyond the mid-Atlantic.”
I enjoy Peanut Chews frozen, melty, or just regular room temperature. These goodies are in such high demand by my Philly family whom migrated South that I have to bring home about a bushel’s worth or else!
Even though I am too old to go trapezing through wooded areas, I can’t help but to get nostalgic and hang out in the woods where I would play, or escape to as a youth. One such an incursion, I saw some wild boison berries and boy were they tasty!
And while wild berries are a snack too good to pass up, there aren’t quite iconic enough for this piece. But tomato pie is! I can admit that tomato pie probably originates in New York, but it’s isolated to the NY, NJ, PA area making it part and parcel to the favorites of Philadelphia fare. Again, consulting Wikipedia, I learned the following:
“Tomato pie is a type of pizza that is commonly regarded as unique to Italian-American populations in the Utica-Rome area of New York. Unlike typical New York-style pizza, which is closely related to Neapolitan pizza, tomato pie is derived heavily from Sicilian pizza, and as such can be found in predominantly Sicilian-American communities
Tomato Pie is served in the Northeastern United States, and especially in Italian communities in and around Trenton, NJ, the Norristown, PA area, and East Utica, New York. The closely related Sicilian pizza can be found throughout downstate New York, New Jersey, and the Philadelphia metro area.
The basic recipe for Tomato pie calls for a thick, porous, focaccia-like dough covered with tomato sauce, then sprinkled with grated Romano cheese. Many bakeries and pizzerias have their own variation on this formula. It is not usually served straight from the oven, but allowed to cool and then consumed at room temperature or reheated. Like Sicilian pizza, Tomato pie is baked in a large aluminum pan and served in square slices.
One piece of a typical tomato pie
As evidenced by period photographs of O’scugnizzo’s pizza in East Utica, New York, Tomato Pie was sold as early as 1914. Along with Chicken riggies, sausage and peppers, and “greens” Tomato Pie is regarded as an idiomatic part of Utica Italian-American cuisine.
The Trenton Tomato Pie may even predate the Utica variety. Joe’s Tomato Pie (now defunct) was first opened in 1910. Papa’s Tomato Pie, whose proprietor learned the trade at Joe’s, was opened two years later in 1912.”
Day Four was bridal shower and dress fitting at the seamstress, day so alas, there are no Philly foods to record.
DAY FIVE-THE LAST DAY
Post bridal-shower haze, I woke up and realized that I still need to eat at least three more of my favorite PA foods! This problem needed to be remedied immediately with a Jalapeno Cheddar Bagel from Manhattan Bagel. Once again, bagels are associated and originated in New York but I grew up on egg bagels and American cheese and while I ate the Jalapeno Cheddar bagel, I bought a half-dozen egg to bring home with me!
Manhattan Bagel is a chain but it is always consistent for an outstanding bagel. Those in the South would probably associate it with Einstein’s Bagels, but I can tell you first hand Manhattan bagel puts Einstein’s to shame.
Lucky for me, directly across the street from the Manhattan Bagel was a Rita’s Water Ice, another popular chain.
What is water ice? It is pretty much Italian ice, and why our region calls it water ice I could not un-earth. However I was able to snap this pic while driving to prove that it’s a culture colloquialism that cannot be stopped.
What I can say from years of eating water ice vs. Italian ice is that water ice is not as frozen as everything else called Italian ice. It’s a softer consistency that means you need to eat it as soon as you order or else you’ll be slurping flavored water! At about $1.00 for a small size, this cold, sweet treat is perfect on a summer day, or a summer morning immediately after eating a bagel as in my particular scenario. I selected a small raspberry water ice convincing myself that its like eating fruit for breakfast and was delighted to be waited on by small children on a trip from a local summer camp!
After downing my water ice, I headed to see my mom one more time before flying away to Orlando. But hark! I did not have a soft pretzel! Egad, the horror! The shame! How could I possibly rectify this injustice to perhaps the second most famous Philly food? Get one at the airport for my in-flight snack of course. Soft pretzels are readily available everywhere. As a kid, there were sold on highways and cost $0.15 in my Catholic School. Today, the Philly Soft Pretzel Factory is a stand-alone chain proving how much we love our pretzels.
According to Mark Glicksman at www.bg-map.com/foods.html, “The origins of the Philadelphia soft pretzel can be traced back to a strong Germanic influence during the early history of Pennsylvania. During the 1700’s, a large proportion of Pennsylvania’s population spoke German – in fact German almost became the official language! The “Pennsylvania Dutch” (more correctly called Pennsylvania Germans) still speak an old German dialect. And, many places in southeastern Pennsylvania bear German names. Along with the language came a tradition of pretzel making.”
I have to agree with Mark making my own pretzels a time or two as a youngster for a fun family outing in the Pennsylvania Dutch area near Lancaster, PA. Thankfully though I did not have to make the one I enjoyed with cheese as my last bit of Philly on my last day.
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