Eight Foods You Don’t Know About Unless You’re From Philly
And maybe not even then. Ask Grandma or Grandpa, though!
In our buy-local day and age, it’s hardly surprising that regional specialties have become all the fashion. From Native American Three Sisters recipes to New England seafood chowder to Southern-style macaroni and cheese, America is morphing from an everybody-eats-this stance to a what’s-special-about-us mentality. And Philly, with its sturdy us-vs.-them attitude, is only too proud to tout its local innovations. Granted, some of our finest local specialties have long since been swallowed by the sands of time, but others hang on gamely. Here’s the lowdown on eight Philly foods that will draw blank looks if you ask for them in the rest of the 50 states.
Fried Oysters and Chicken Salad
Um. You’ve never heard of fried oysters and chicken salad? You must be a newbie. Philly used to be the fried oyster capital of the universe, with some 300 oyster houses in the city. The specialty’s still on the menu at third-generation bivalver Sam Mink’s Oyster House. Why oysters with chicken salad? It was a mad-popular luncheon offering at local taverns back in the late 1800s, when oysters were cheap but chicken was dear. The combo, served with pepper hash — another local pleasure, standing in for the acid in pricy citrus — served to stretch tight wallets with a welcome touch of poultry elegance.
It’s “snapper” as in “snapping turtle,” those awesome, fearsome Eocene Epoch survivors, and it was a specialty at Old Original Bookbinder’s, the venerable Society Hill seafood house; you can still buy a canned version through Bookbinder’s prepared-foods company. (“I don’t know. Maybe you have to be from Philly,” one Amazon reviewer says.) It was traditionally served with a dollop of sherry stirred in, back when people drank sherry. You can also try it fresh on the menu at Elwood in Fishtown.
Whether you prefer it mush-like or fried dark and crispy, this alternative to bourgeois bacon and humdrum breakfast sausage is what real Philadelphians have with their morning eggs. With plenteous ketchup. And no, we’re not hearing any arguments. Contrary to persistent rumor, there’s no great mystery about its ingredients: It’s simply cornmeal mush with pork trimmings added, cooked down, sliced and fried. It’s originally Pennsylvania Dutch, which explains the alternate name of panhaas, which means “pan rabbit,” which is very cute.
Pepper Pot Soup
Another obscure regional offal entry, this standby was served, according to legend, when Washington’s troops were camped out at Valley Forge and couldn’t buy provisions with their devalued Continental currency. Philadelphia’s version of the soup is based on African and Caribbean recipes, and it’s simmered from veggies, spices, peppers, leafy greens and tripe. Campbell’s discontinued its version earlier this century, but those with long memories still reminisce fondly about the spicy stew, somewhat like gumbo, that was once sold by “pepper pot women” — Black women who dished out servings on street corners as some of the original Philly street food vendors, according to food historian Tonya Hopkins.
Oh, sure, non-locals have the sandwiches, made with cold cuts, cheese and accoutrements on long, narrow rolls. But they call them submarines, or zeppelins, or heroes, or torpedos, or grinders, depending on who “they” are. Back in the 1950s, Philly’s Evening Bulletin newspaper reported that the name “hoagie” came courtesy of Italian immigrants working at the Hog Island shipyard. Alternate theories of origin nod to pop songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, street vendors known as “hokey-pokey men” (as in the famous wedding dance), or destitute Philadelphians who were referred to as being “on the hoke,” like “on the dole,” and reduced to begging scraps of meat and cheese from delis. Who knows where it came from? It’s ours now.
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Philadelphia Butter Cake
We have the Pennsylvania Dutch, or at least Germans, to thank for this delish concoction, which isn’t so much a cake as a moist, gooey marvel. It’s a yeast cake, thus more complicated than, say, Betty Crocker, so you might want to just pick one up at a bakery in Northeast Philly, which is its natural habitat. There’s a doughy sort of crust topped with a kind of butter custard, and there are lots of recipes for different versions online. Go ahead, google the goo.
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Man, this one takes us back to our childhood, when we eagerly ran to the supper table when Mom had these on the menu. This one isn’t complicated: Take a hot dog, split it almost all the way through lengthwise, tuck some folded-over American cheese inside, wrap a strip of bacon around the whole thing like a barber pole, and secure the bacon with toothpicks. Now bake, broil or grill. (The Cup, a now-defunct restaurant in Pottstown, was famous for a deep-fried version of this.) “Popular with mid-century housewives,” says this treatise on the treat, which makes perfect sense, because that’s what Mom was.
“Isn’t that … redundant?” Philadelphians are used to outsiders asking when they talk about this chilly summer thrill. Everywhere else, it’s “Italian ice,” but we take every chance we can get to say “wooder” in our inimitable way. Bensalem behemoth Rita’s tries to duck the issue by only saying “ice” on its logo. But it started out as “Rita’s Water Ice,” and to us, it shall ever so remain.