Cousin Eileen’s Christmas gift arrived this week. It was the same gift I have received for as many years as I can remember: a carton of Tastycake snack cakes. For those who do not hail from Philadelphia or its environs, Tastycakes are akin to products made by Hostess and Little Debbie, although of somewhat higher quality, and are one of the five food items that folks from Philly greatly miss when they move elsewhere. The others are:
1. Scrapple. Scrapple is to die for! The parts of a slaughtered animal that might get made into sausage elsewhere – the parts one would just as soon not have specifically named – are mixed with cornmeal and spices then pressed into gooey bricks. Slices are cut from the brick and fried. Served with a bit of ketchup, scrapple is the perfect accompaniment to eggs and toast.
2. Cheese steak sandwiches. Menus all over the country advertise “Philly cheese steak” but it is never a Philly cheese steak. The bread is all wrong. The meat is all wrong. The cheese is all wrong. Philly cheese steaks simply do not exist more than 20 miles from Philadelphia. Years ago I read a science fiction story in which the earth was successfully invaded by aliens who were obnoxiously self-important. They declared the Philly cheese steak the best food item on the planet, drawing howls of protest from the world’s food critics. The aliens were right, the food critics were wrong.
3. Hoagies. In some cities they would be called “grinders” or “subs,” and there are conflicting theories as to how the hoagie got its name. A genuine Italian hoagie is a mix of flavors and textures that transcends the sandwich genre. The key ingredients are capicola ham (prosciutto if you are going up-market), provolone, and that amazing bread that cannot be made or purchased elsewhere. Those who have only eaten the “Italian subs” from sandwich chains cannot begin to imagine how good the real thing is. If I were condemned to death and asked to choose my last meal, it would be a cheese steak and a hoagie. But only if I were being executed in Philadelphia.
4. Pretzels. Soft pretzels sold in Philadelphia streets bear no relationship to bland “shopping mall pretzels.” And bagged pretzels in Pennsylvania come in dozens and dozens of varieties; so many that they often have their own aisle in supermarkets. Only a few brands of Pennsylvania pretzels are shipped to other states, and they tend to be the least interesting ones. Look for pretzels made by Unique, Sturgis, or Wege.
Which brings me back to Tastycakes. Frankly, they are the Philly food item I miss the least. Yes, they are better than their competitors’ products, but I do not normally eat “snack cakes” of any kind. So we save a few packages, force some on our children, and the rest Susan takes to the university, where people will eat anything. I dare not tell Eileen that we really do not want Tastycakes anymore: it would be poor etiquette and a denial of my geographic roots.
Instead I pay her back in kind. Each year I make a pilgrimage to the Kaukauna Club Cheese plant for their annual warehouse sale, and put together a box of genuine Wisconsin cheese. Or rather, genuine Wisconsin processed cheese products, heavy on the cheese balls coated in crushed almonds. Eileen, I suspect, believes that we Wisconsin folks eat this stuff all the time. I always buy one cheese ball for ourselves and somewhere around April throw it away, untouched: another important tradition.
It may well be that Eileen’s family has no more interest in the cheese box than we do in the Tastycake box. But the Tastycakes say “you are remembered fondly in Philadelphia” and the cheese says “and we are thinking of you in Wisconsin.” Call it an odd variant on the Gift of the Magi. If anyone is nostalgic for a butterscotch krimpet or chocolate candy cake, feel free to contact me. But do it soon: we are trying to get these rascals out of our house.
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