On The Ground, Day One: New Kid On The Block

In which the new food editor wanders around his brand-new home and eats whatever strikes his fancy…

How you feel about any city in the world can be summed up most succinctly by the thing you need like breath the minute you step off the plane (or train or cab or horse) that brung ya. Landing in Paris, at Charles de Gaulle, it might be bread–good, crusty loaves of the stuff, alive with yeast and still warm in their bags. When I fly into New Mexico, I am instantly stricken with an urge for green chile that’s almost dangerous in its ferocity. Be the body standing between me and that first bowl of verde after too long away and, motherfucker, you best be quick getting out of my way or I’ll bite you.

Going home to Rochester, I want a sloppy mess of a Schaller’s burger with extra hot sauce. In Vegas it’s a double-double from In-N-Out, a fistful of nickels and a map to the nearest low-end house of ill-repute. And in Chicago (a city I have my own problems with that don’t need to be detailed here), I want nothing more than a west-running ticket, a short layover and to get gone.

But Philadelphia? Well, Philadelphia is complicated for me. Philadelphia and I have what you’d call a complex relationship.

See, I’ve spent a lot of time here, but I’ve never lived here. I’ve spent weekends, weeks, the occasional month wandering Center City, nosing around the western ‘burbs looking for veal cutlets, chicken croquettes and pie, and stumbling through the rain in Chinatown, drunk on mai tais and falling in love. Because my wife is from here (and because her family remains here), I have vacationed in Philly (too broke for St. Lucia, the obvious second choice…), which is less sad than it sounds because, after 12 years in the West, eating Seattle Pizza and Denver white clam sauce and Albuquerque cheesesteaks, this place is a goddamn vacation. For a sandwich enthusiast and man of some taste, the three saddest words in the English language might be “cheesesteaks in Albuquerque.” And if you’ve ever been stranded out in the Land of Enchantment with a few bucks in your pocket and some gap-toothed yokel insisting that the cardboard-y whole-grain sandwich roll filled with stringy beef, pepperjack cheese, slimy mushrooms and bell peppers that he just pushed across the counter at you is just the way they make it back in Philly, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

So for me, getting off a plane in Philadelphia always feels somewhat desperate. Every other time I’ve done it, there’s been a countdown running. Like Flavor Flav, I’ve had a giant clock hung around my neck, ticking down the minutes before I have to leave, and I have behaved appropriately–running around like a fat kid locked in a candy store, stuffing myself with anything I can get my hands on and rarely bothering with civility or politeness. Or silverware.

This time, though, things are different. In six hours, I went from the Pacific Northwest to the industrial Northeast and did so with no return ticket, no fall-back plan for if things went suddenly and completely wrong. This time there was no clock, no countdown. I have all the time in the world. But still, as I sat with my nose pressed against the insulated glass of my window seat and watched the ground coming up at us as the plane dropped down out of the clouds, my very first thought when I felt the wheels touch down was, “Damn, I’m hungry. I wonder what there is to eat…”

Soft pretzels to start. From the airport. Five minutes after we’d cleared the arrival gate. And the only thing in the world better than a soft pretzel from the Philadelphia airport is everything else in the world–unless, of course, you’ve been trapped on a plane for most of the day with nothing to eat but a granola bar of indeterminate vintage you found in the bottom of your carry-on. Under those circumstances, the pretzel might be the best thing you’ve ever tasted. Mine was. But it wasn’t enough.

Baggage claim. Passenger pickup. A maze of highways navigated in the dark. Then more food, thank god. We’d arrived in the city with no fixed address and no stuff but what we could load into the belly of the plane, so were staying at Chez Brother-In-Law with him, his lovely wife and their herd of strange, expensive cats. “You hungry?” he asked. And my wife and I said yes. God, yes.

“What do you guys want?”

From a room away came the voice of my darling daughter–seven years old and already way too used to this vagabond life of airplanes, fresh cities and new addresses.  She shouted, “Cheesesteaks!” with a husky, growling tone like she’d been waiting forever and was ready to fight anyone that crossed her; like all of her days, from birth to now, had been lived in anticipation of this one thing.

“I think we’d better get the kid a friggin’ cheesesteak,” I said.

“Fast,” agreed my wife.

So we did, and from the nearest purveyor of sandwiches (among other things), which happened to be Rocco’s. It wasn’t the place that I had in mind. It wasn’t what my wife was craving. She had half-a-lifetime of food memories from the city and surrounding areas, wanted something from Lou’s or elsewhere. I had my own list; was dreaming of Race Street and chrome-on-chrome diners–slabs of cherry pie from the Limerick Diner and roti canai from Penang. But it was late. Rocco’s was close. And open.

And like the soft pretzel, Rocco’s offered, in that moment, the best cheesesteak there was because it was the cheesesteak that was in front of us. We had the best bowl of pasta (a Portofino, with chunks of prosciutto and onions melting into the blushing pink tomato cream sauce), the best brick-oven pizza ever, topped with the best mozzarella. We wiped our mouths with the best napkins in the universe and washed our frantic bites down with the best Cokes ever bottled. In the same way that a man dying of thirst is not going to turn down a glass of tap in hopes that someone soon will come along with a bottle of Evian, we took what was offered and ate standing up, straight from the to-go boxes and sandwich paper, nodding as we went and eating long past the point where we were full because, at a certain point, the eating became about more than just needing fuel. We ate now to fill ourselves with the flavors of this new/old place.

How you feel about any city in the world can be summed up most succinctly by the thing you need like breath the minute you step off the plane. When you come somewhere as a visitor, you have specific needs. You want this sandwich or that bread, to see a certain skyline, walk a particular neighborhood. You know there is limited time, so you can’t imagine wasting a minute or a meal on something that is less than the perfect thing.

When you’re coming to stay, though, the urge if different. The hunger is just as fierce but the specificity is gone. You eat not just to tick things off some internal list of dishes and addresses before going home again, but to fill a hole created by that final leaving. In Seattle, in Denver, in Albuquerque and Boulder and Buffalo and Rochester and a dozen other places, we all had our favorite things. We knew these places by how they tasted to us–a geography of tacos and chicken wings, beef on weck, desebrado, salmon, poutine, pho, yellow curry, moo dade deaw and agnoloti. And every leaving left us needing new maps.

Our Philly map is just begun now. I know some stuff, but what I don’t know could fill encyclopedias. I know vacation-Philly, short-timer Philly, Philly on a schedule. I know what I love on a Friday, but not what I need on a Tuesday. I know twenty things out of a million, and it’s going to take time to start filling in all the blank spaces.

But the good thing? Now that we’re here to stay, it looks like I’ve got all the time in the world.