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The Special Meaning of the Philly Cheese Steak

Updated on November 25, 2015
Beautiful fountain on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, PA
Beautiful fountain on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, PA | Source

Cheese Steak Facts

The steak sandwich was declared the “Official Sandwich of Philadelphia” in 1992. The steak sandwich was discovered in the 1930s and in the 1940s, the first steak shop was opened by Pat's Steaks on Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia. The business was opened 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In the 1960s, Pat's Steaks began adding Cheese Whiz to the steaks and ever since, the steak sandwich has been a Philly food staple.

The Cheese Steak--the Essence of Philly

When Mark Sanchez, quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, had his first bite of a cheese steak he soon realized that what he was bitting into wasn't just a sandwich. It was much more than that.

A cheese steak is much more than a comfort food or a grilled-up thinly sliced steak, topped with Cheese Whiz and caramelized onions on an 8 to 12 inch, soft roll. It is much more than something to eat when you are hungry and want some comfort food.

The Philly cheese steak has special meaning attached to it. When Mark Sanchez ate that Philadelphia cheese steak for the first time, his life was forever changed. He became part of Philadelphia. And in a real sense, he was eating the essence of Philly and all its wonderful history and culture.


Unwritten Ordering Rules

  1. Decide what you want before you go to the window and order.
  2. Once at the window, talk loud enough for the guy at the register to hear you.
  3. Don't ask any questions that the guy at the register may consider stupid. Understand that the people who work behind the window are busy and tired as Hell and don't have time for lame questions. They want to just take your money and move to the next customer.
  4. Have your money or credit card ready and hand it over quick.
  5. Know your order number because the steak will be coming out fast and if you are not ready for the first call, the guy with the hairy arms will get perturbed and shout your number and other people will give you dirty looks. So be alert.

Don't be a Fool--Observe First

It starts at the place where you buy the cheese steak, whether it's Pat's, Steve's Gino's, or Tony Luke's (just to name a few).

When you enter one of these sacred places, observe your surroundings for a few minutes and feel the vibe of the people and the culture. There's slang for cheese steak with onions--Wit. And just cheese and not the onions, Widout. Know this before you go up to the window so you don't make a fool out of yourself. Part of the mystery of the cheese steak is the ordering process and then, of course, the eating process. So first watch the way other Philadelphians do it.

Above all, you have to be assertive and decisive when you come into a Philly cheese steak establishment, because everyone in there knows what they are doing and they don't take any bull. They don't care if you are from another city or country, they expect you to follow the rules. Look around and find an empty chair, know where the condiments and napkins are, and be careful not to sit next to a pickpocket or somebody in the Mafia.

Philadelphia and Suburbs

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Your First Bite

Make sure you eat a cheese steak at one of the magical places within the city limits, since there might be some poor imitations in the suburbs. Be prepared, you will eat the steak standing up, either outside or inside the facility, facing a window. You also might be standing in-between two other men who might have a lot of girth to them, as their forearms might be in your personal space.

Be prepared for your first bite. It will take you to new and exciting places.

The first bite will be like a magic carpet ride through our nation's history. You will have images of the Liberty Bell, the signing of the Declaration of Independence. You will see Ben Franklin flying a kite into the air as he begins to discover electricity. You will see our founding fathers in Independence Hall deciding on the best way to govern our country. You will experience Ron Jaworski throwing an interception in Super Bowl XV. You will see Penn's Landing and William Penn's hat and the crack of the Liberty Bell and the Love sculpture in Love Park and Franklin Field where Chuck Bednarak used to play and the home run that Richie Allen hit that soared over the Goldenberg Peanut Chews sign at Connie Mack Stadium.

If your cheese steak is extra magical you will be running up the steps of the art museum in your boxing gloves and you will be reaching your hands up to the sky and singing, Philadelphia Freedom, at the top of your lungs. If that's not enough, you will be rowing a big rowboat in the Schuylkill Regatta along the river, past boathouse row, all the way to the suburbs. And finally, you will become the magical finger roll of Wilt Chamberlain as he scored over the top of a helpless Bill Russell ...

It's all there, inside the Philly cheese steak.

The beautiful and majestic Philadelphia City Hall.
The beautiful and majestic Philadelphia City Hall. | Source

The City of Brotherly Animosity

The eating of your first cheese steak in Philadelphia, will not only give you hundreds of visualizations of the city and its history, but will transform you into a whole new person. You will never be the same. In a sense, you are eating Philadelphia and you will begin acting like someone who lives in the Delaware Valley.

You will start talking differently, like saying "yo" a lot, much like Sylvester Stallone did in the Rocky movies.

Your gait will change. You will have more swagger.

You will be a bit of a wise guy and perhaps curse or insult others or flip the bird when frustrated.

You might find yourself munching on soft pretzels that you bought from a street vendor in a brown paper bag.

You will stop talking about politics and philosophy and only have sports on your mind--the Flyers, Phillies, Eagles and Sixers.

You will start to gain more weight and limit your exercise to walking up the steps at Lincoln Financial Field.

Your skin tone will gradually turn kelly green and you might get a tattoo on your back of the great big silver Eagle wings.

You will develop an ear worm of the Eagles fight song, Fly Eagles Fly, and repeat it in the bowling alley, the Wa Wa Market and during church services.

Above all, you will feel like you are a part of the City of Brotherly Love and have animosity to everyone and boo Philly sports stars at every opportunity.

You will be proud.

An Old, Philadelphia Boo-Bird Target

Statue of Hall of fame baseball player, Mike Schmidt,
Statue of Hall of fame baseball player, Mike Schmidt, | Source

My First Philly Cheese Steak

I was nine when I had my first Philly cheese steak. I remember I arrived home from school and I was waiting for my dad to bring home dinner.

He had two bags in his arms. I remember him taking out the french fries first, then the steak sandwich, which were wrapped tightly in tin foil. The two steaks looked like slender, long torpedos. I remember asking my father what they were and he simply said, "cheese steaks. They're good." He cut one in half and handed to me. "Go ahead," he said, urging me to take a bite.

I remember how warm and soft the hoagie roll was. I took a bite and held it in my mouth for what seemed like an eternity. I remember the bread, steak and cheese and onions resting on my tongue; my tastebuds were in heaven. I remember how good it smelled and how delicious it tasted like it was yesterday. And the fact that my father was eating one with me made it extra special. I remember my eyes rolling into my head as if I were stoned or something and my father telling me to slow down and to take my time. "You have a whole half left," he said.

I slowed down and I had visions of Philadelphia rolling around in my head like Liberty Bells and baseball players and City Hall and Rittenhouse Square and Ben Franklin's grave and other things like the monkeys in the zoo and Roller Derby. I remember I was so exhausted that night after finishing off that big Philly cheese steak that I went to bed early. I just conked out on my twin-sized bed and I didn't even bother to take off my clothing and put on my pajamas.

My father said that I had slept with a smile on my face.


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