Philly’s Fifth Gift to the World: Cheesesteaks, Tastykakes, and Soft Pretzels

“Man, I could really go for a cheesesteak.” Take any Philadelphian, move them more than a 2-hour drive away from the city, and within 2 months this is what they’ll say. Move them more than a 2-hour flight away and this will be followed by the sad, mournful, “Too bad you can’t get ’em around here.”

There’s something symbolic about the cheesesteak and Philly. I could go into it, but you know what, it’d be missing the point. It’s a classic. Ya got the Whiz, ya got the chopped up meat that doesn’t resemble what it used to be, you’ve got the great big roll — and we make some great bread in this city — and you’ve got it smothered in ketchup, onions, peppers, mushrooms, pepperoni, whatever, as much as you can pile onto it.

The funny part is to see other cities try to imitate the cheesesteak. Carl’s Jr. (a west coast fast food chain) came up with one while I was out in San Diego. They had steak sauce on them. My brother bought one up in New York that was a slice of steak on a roll.

I never looked at soft pretzels as an institution until I realized you couldn’t just buy one off a street corner in other American cities. What? No pretzels? What do those people in other cities eat while they’re out driving? I always looked forward to Thursdays as a kid, because that was the day that Dad bought soft pretzels on his way home. Now that I think of it, I remember buying pretzels from the nuns in grade school during recess — I should be lucky I’m still able to look at one. Those were different, though, the curled-up-shaped pretzels rather than the figure-8-shaped, and they were being sold out of a dingy paper bag that was wet from the way pretzels get when they’ve sat too long and the sweat’s disappeared. Those weren’t real pretzels. My favorite was when I decided to make pretzels a gimmick of mine, whenever I’d be working on my company’s office in Warminster. There’s a soft pretzel bakery at the corner of Jacksonville road and County Line, and I’d buy a bag during lunch. “Matt’s here!” “Did he get pretzels yet?”

And then there’s Tastykakes. You’d think Devil Dogs or Ding Dongs or Ho Ho’s or whatever else the posers have to offer would measure up, but ain’t nothing like a Tastykake, especially when you’re living far away. Creamies were my favorite, the old ones that were joined at the middle and you had to rip in half. Then probably Butterscotch Krimpets, because they were unique. Who else made a butterscotch flavored cupcake? Kandy Kakes are good. The best part about Tastykakes, besides buying them here, is that they ship all over the country. Every year at Christmas my Mom would send me a box. I’d keep a few for me and hand out the rest to my fellow Philly transplants.

4 Comments so far

  1. Tamara (unregistered) on November 29th, 2006 @ 1:16 am

    Before moving to Philly, I never really associated pretzels with this city. I lived in NYC and it’s also pretty common to buy a pretzel on the street there. But what I didn’t realize until I read your post and started to think about it more, is that I’ve already had more pretzels here than I’ve had anywhere else in my life. I sometimes buy the day-old bag of bagels from South Square Market and there is almost always a pretzel or two in there. I doubt you’d get that in another city. In fact, I just realized that my husband had the last pretzel in the house tonight. I’ll have to go out and get some more soon!

  2. darpino (unregistered) on November 29th, 2006 @ 2:10 am

    When I was kid growing up in the Del-Val I used to sell those pretzels for extra cash. Nothing beats the Philly Figure 8!

  3. erin (unregistered) on November 29th, 2006 @ 10:25 am

    As a transplanted Philadelphian [over at Chicago now, on Metblogging even!] I can tell you that those gifts are truly something Philly should be proud of. I miss them terribly, and whenever I go back get a cheesesteak, Tastykakes, and good cannoli virtually the second I get off the plane. Go Philly!

  4. Marisa (unregistered) on November 29th, 2006 @ 11:43 pm

    For more than a year I ate a pretzel for breakfast every work day. That and a cup of coffee from the cart in front of the building where I worked cost $.85. You couldn’t beat it.

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