Post-Mortem

It might be a little premature to write a post-mortem, but I think self-reflexivity is deeply important in the Field I Intend To Base My Livelihood In (that is to say, communications), so here we are. While I tried to write in an open and explanatory fashion, I recognize that I have been writing for a somewhat informed audience. While explaining everything might’ve slowed things down more than the ‘history sections’ already had, maybe I should have taken the time to fully go into the origins of these provincial foods rather than the thumbnail sketches I’ve used.

Additionally, I allowed perfectionist urges to get the best of me. In lieu of presenting materials to my advisers, I chose to kept it to myself in a self-destructive drive to only show it off when it was perfect. It’s been a problem throughout my life, and, as I understand, in the blood — no part of the old family tree liked to ask help of others, even if it was their job. The nature of the project as a capstone only fueled these perfectionist flames — this would represent the sum total of my work at Drexel University. It had to be perfect. The cycle is one I’ve been struggling with throughout my life — everything is a process. Can’t just expect to get better by addressing it, but it’s a start, if nothing else.

The serial aspect of creating a blog, while it should have allowed me to slowly roll out posts at my own pace, was squashed somewhat by the all-or-nothing nature of the project. I intend to continue updating the blog with further reviews and dives into the history of the city’s food culture, and maybe the freedom of choosing my own schedule will lead to a more satisfying per-post experience for me. Or maybe I’ll forget about it all in the hustle and bustle of the post-college experience and never think of it again. It’s hard to say.

What did I learn? Writing is hard, and finding something to say about a place is difficult, especially when the review is so specifically on the food and not the venue. I try not to spend too much time on uninteresting minutiae — talking about how the table I sat at was a little wobbly isn’t particularly riveting.

For special thanks: my advisers for the project, Karen Cristiano and Stephen Iwanczuk, who understood my erratic style and were always very patient with me. My parents, Kathie and John Roberts, for their support during night after sleepless night. My dog, Bear, for understanding that sometimes when it’s past midnight, the time for walkies is over and the time for sleep has begun. The cafes A La Mousse and Nook for the surely excessive time I spent in them while writing pieces. And You (™), for reading this and #Boosting my #Brand. Please like, retweet, and subscribe.

 

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Wrap-Up

That’s all he wrote. It’s impossible to fully encompass the breadth of Philadelphia food culture, but I hope this blog has done enough to interest you in it. Food trucks to venerable institutions, products that can only loosely be considered food to the creme of the crop, Philadelphia has something for everyone. If even one of these posts has caught your attention, I invite you to head into the city and explore things for yourself. I’ve only scratched the surface, and could probably write this blog forever. I intend to, actually — maybe I’ll try the pepper pot soup, the Moby Dick to my Whizzardly Ahab. I haven’t mentioned the Italian Market, food festivals, night markets, Chinatown, cannoli, gelato, Tacconelli’s… Wallet willing, time willing, job willing, though, I will.

Trying to encapsulate the whole of Philadelphia food culture isn’t a realistic goal, or even much of an attainable one. It does sound tasty, though, and maybe that’s all I can ask. Until the next time, I’ll see you when I see you, and we’ll walk the Whiz-yellow brick road together.

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Shake, Rattle, and Pork Roll

The origins of the intimidating mystery meat called pork roll can be traced back to John Taylor, a late 1800’s state Senator and well-known businessman who originally called the product “Taylor’s Prepared Ham.” But thanks to those tricky folks at the FDA, Taylor was forced to cut out the bit where it said “ham,” as it didn’t meet the new definition of “ham” established by the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. As such, it became a “pork roll.” Not long after that, Taylor tried to protect his invention from competition by trademarking “pork roll,” but failed. Like Cheez Whiz, if you need to tell me something is a food product, I’m a little skittish of it.

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Like with Whiz, if you have to tell me it’s edible, I’m a little disinclined to believe you.

For whatever reason, this pork roll — otherwise known as Taylor Ham the further up north in New Jersey you unwisely choose to go — has become something of a breakfast/lunch staple among the ‘do-everything’ food carts of the world. A pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwich is one of the things I hear ordered most often at my personal favorite (owing a great deal to convenience) food truck at Drexel University, Pete’s Little Lunch Box. While Sue, the operator of the truck, knows that I want a cheesesteak with fried onions with embarrassing regularity, it was when I ordered the pork roll, egg, and cheese that she nodded solemnly and I leaned back on the fence opposite to ponder my fate.

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John Taylor, who I imagine never tasted his product without a serving of mustache to go with it.

Not without a wistful glance to those who had been fortunate enough to get cheesesteaks, I unwrapped the aluminum foil and murmured a brief prayer to the father of modern animal husbandry, Jay L. Lush. I’m not too big on pork. This has been established. It might be an Animal Farm thing, I don’t know. I’m not too big on egg either — I like it fried and on a burger or bibimbap, but not as the main player in a dish. This is, from the start, doomed to fail. I should not even attempt it.

I took about two bites. It is bad. It is very very bad. The flavor is comparable to biting the sole of one’s shoe. For those who haven’t dined on shoe leather recently, I can only compare it unfavorably to Spam. Scrapple was a delight, comparatively. That said, I was determined to understand why people enjoyed pork roll, and as such, I interviewed former attorney and public servant, John Roberts. (John Roberts is still Rich Roberts’ father. –Ed.)

Whizzard: Mr. Roberts, why is it that you enjoy pork roll?
Mrs. Roberts (interjecting): Reminds you off your youth?
Mr. Roberts: That’s it. It’s a tradition. Nostalgic. Grew up eating pork roll, continue enjoying it. Like it with eggs.

Suggested wine pairing: Franzia Sunset Blush.

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Pepper Pot Soup

The idyllic story of the Philadelphia Pepper Pot likens it to be a salve for the flagging would-be American rebel army in the time of Washington: a bit of ingenuity from one of the army’s chefs, who improvised a thick soup of, essentially, whatever he had on hand. That he managed to do so, and create a warming stew of tripe and vegetables to bolster the army’s flagging, sickly spirit, is a warming, prideful tale, which makes it a little sad that the soup comes from the Caribbean. If this chef ever did make his rustic soup, it was probably thanks to inspiration from a Caribbean counterpart.

That said, the soup is almost more famous for its cultural contributions than its dietary ones.  In 1811, a German artist named John Lewis Krimmel had created his piece, ‘Pepper-Pot: A Scene in the Philadelphia Market’ depicting the soup sold along what would later be known as Market Street. (The piece is currently on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) Later on, Andy Warhol would take to the touchstone in his piece, Campbell’s Soup Cans, with pepper pot soup sitting daintily on the bottom left of the artwork.

I confess, in this one experience, I have failed you. Though I attempted to seek out the Whetstone Tavern in East Philadelphia, where a certain onomatopoeic online restaurant review website that I shall not name insisted the soup was served, only to find that they were not serving it that day! (I ended up getting a crab cake sandwich and blueberry cobbler, if you’re interested. It was tasty.) The City Tavern, I would later learn,  served it as well, but (for those unfamiliar) the famous 2nd at Walnut Street landmark that attempts to recreate a colonialist vibe is for those with a fatter wallet than mine.

I imagine it is a thick, spicy stew, but given to my distaste towards soups and chilis in general, and with a stew being somewhere in between, I do not think that I would have liked it very much. This is next-level reviewing, I agree: not even tasting the product in question. Rest assured, this is the exception, and not the norm — I have suffered through myriad pork products for the sake of you, the reader.

Pros: The heart of the American Revolution — that sort of grim determination to stand up for freedom feels more relevant than it has for a long time.

Cons: Could be one of the finest meals I’ve never eaten.

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Soft Pretzels 2: The Saga Ends

I promised more pretzels, and more pretzels you’ll get. At many an auspicious mall kiosk can one find the other sort of soft pretzel, those that hearken back to the clasped praying hands we discussed back in Pretzels 1. This time, I didn’t have to hunt too far at all to get my buttery bounty — the Reading Terminal Market offers it in spades. Miller’s Twist, located in the unofficial ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ corner of the market, offers beautiful, buttery pretzels for a convenient price. It’s difficult not to hand over five dollars and a quarter for not only a pretzel, but a milkshake, too.

It’s soft, it’s buttery, it’s salty, and it complements the chocolate milkshake in my other hand perfectly.  There’s just enough pretzel there that eating most of it feels like enough, and then, inevitably, two minutes later when you’re hungry again, the remaining pretzel has you covered.

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Sometimes, you gotta plate your pretzel.

Of the two soft pretzel varieties, I think this is my favorite. I can’t eat it as often as I could eat the figure-eight variety, but the quality of the Miller’s Twist product more than measures up with the quantity of the Man With A Shopping Cart product.

 

 

 

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Water Ice

Let’s not get it twisted — we’re not talking about snow cones, here — nasty, chopped up ice with syrup lazily dribbled over the top. Nor are we talking about slushies, either. No, when we say water ice, we mean water ice — a prepared dessert sometimes known as Italian ice. It is to the snow cone what a steak is to a hamburger — on another field altogether. Some accounts draw the history of water ice all the way back to the era of Marco Polo, where our beloved pool-sport adventurer brought the recipe with him back to Italy from his Far East explorations, while others suggest that it was a happy accident discovered by servants of the Roman emperor Nero while preparing wine.

But how does water ice differ from snow cones? It’s all in the preparation: water, sugar, mix-ins, and syrup are combined in a specialized machine to churn and freeze the ingredients together, and then stirred regularly to keep from clumping. They’re frozen together, instead of the snow cone method of ‘put syrup on ice’ — frankly, a homemade popsicle is a better touchstone.

Throughout Philly, the Rita’s chain has dominated the water ice industry, though there are still independent holdouts dotted here and there. (I have been informed by an adviser that Rita’s began as a local business, but that does little to change the fact that it is, indeed, a chain. Having roots in Philadelphia doesn’t mean much when you go that commercial.) There’s John’s Water Ice in Bella Vista, there’s Pop’s Homemade on Oregon Avenue, but for me, the end-all, be-all is Italiano’s on 12th Street. Open three days a week, for three hours, you’d be forgiven for thinking of it as more trouble than it’s worth and going somewhere else.

Fresh, bold flavor, always pleasantly cool, and easy to go down. If you get brain freeze from a water ice, that’s almost expected — any other way, you’d not be eating it fast enough. Italiano’s also incorporates fresh fruits with their syrup mixes, which creates a pleasantly uneven texture with the slightly gritty ice. A sister product, the gelati — water ice topped with soft-serve — is also available, and even better, when the flavor pairings are properly matched up. (Strawberry ice, vanilla ice cream.)

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A friend hand-models Italiano’s pineapple water ice just off of 12th Street.

But even if you choose not to patronize super-niche South Philly establishments, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy water ice. While my aggressive local-business views lead me to view Rita’s with distaste, if it’s all you have, it’s all you have, and it’s decent. Next time you’re in the neighborhood, give it a try.

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Reading Terminal Market

So it’s the late 1800’s, and you’re a merchant along High Street, maybe a descendant of one of the many vendors who have been coming to this section of Philadelphia since 1680. You learn, much to your chagrin, that the Philadelphia & Reading company has purchased a swathe of land, the very same swathe where you sell your doodads and geegaws, to build a railroad. Well, you won’t have any of that, and eventually, you, the other merchants, and P&R work out a deal that relocates the merchants below the station, and thus, the Reading Terminal  / Market was born.

You probably won’t be vindicated in your lifetime, having died of blood-letting or something, but you might be gratified to know that the Market will outlive the Reading Terminal around it. Coal supplies ran low, and the uptick in prices drove away train riders, but farmers and merchants stuck around.  These days, in conjunction with the convention center just next door, the Reading Terminal Market (no slash, this time) is booming, boasting over 70 merchants offering everything from Amish specialities to roast duck to wine.

I have a soft spot for the Market. Almost anything I want, I can find there. Usually, what I want is fresh mozzarella from the Valley Shepherd Creamery and Meltkraft, but sometimes, I want some donuts from Beiler’s, or a sandwich from — well, almost anywhere. There’s no better microcosm of Philadelphian food than at the Market — Thai food next to a burger place next to an Amish diner and bakery. Always something new to taste, or to try, and if all else fails, you can always people watch, or listen to one of the musicians in the seating areas.

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One of the busier thoroughfares (at a less-than-busy-time).

My recommendations: the Red, White, and Green sandwich (a hearty, delicious twits on the classic grilled cheese) from Meltkraft, as well as their fresh mozzarella. The milkshake-and-pretzel combo from Miller’s Twist (’cause the price-to-quality ratio can’t be beat, for five dollars). A half-dozen donuts from Beiler’s Donuts, if the line isn’t too long (do some laps while you wait to justify the calories you’ll eat!). Ice cream from Bassetts Ice Cream (ice cream!).  Hope’s Cookies from the Pennsylvania General Store (come near closing, and they’re a dollar each). Fresh juice from Lancaster County Dairy (try the blueberry lemonade). Fried chicken from Kevin Parker’s Soul Food Cafe (the next best thing to actual ambrosia from the gods). Cannoli from Termini Brothers Bakery… 

Honestly, I could name something that I like from almost every store at the Market. Try it sometime!

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