August 18, 2003

I don’t know how this story is playing outside Philadelphia. I took a quick look and found little, and I’ll say that if there’s any hope at all for the American media this “story” is receiving no attention whatsoever. But here in the Cradle of Liberty, it’s being overplayed to the Al and Tipper Gore/“Love Story” hilt. (The talk radio people, destined for lives on the lower end of AM dial, are the worst.)

Some background. Last week the Sheet Metal Workers Union hosted a forum, moderated by CNN’s Bill Press, that included seven of the declared and expected Democratic presidential contenders at the city’s new National Constitution Center on Independence Mall.

Among those attending was, of course, arguable frontrunner Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who also happens already to have received the endorsement of the event’s sponsoring union.

Political traditions being what they are, it was no big surprise when, while in Philadelphia, Sen. Kerry trekked to South Philly to pay a visit to Pat’s King of Steaks for the ritual ordering and eating of a cheesesteak, a Philadelphia gastronomic I-don’t-know-what that most reasonable people get a hankering for about two or three times a year.

Well, if you haven’t heard already, Sen. Kerry committed . . . a gaffe!

While placing his order at Pat’s, Sen. Kerry, who may or may not be Jewish and who certainly is neither Irish nor Italian, committed the egregious error of asking for Swiss cheese on his sandwich.

As the Swiss might say, or at least some of them anyway, Mon dieu!, but there being either no readily identifiable or locatable Swiss community in Philadelphia, the local reaction was more along the lines of “Dork.”

What was he thinking? the local media wise guys and gals are asking, jaws agape, and rushing to report that every Philadelphian is similarly shocked and appalled, and suitably embarrassed for the junior senator from Massachusetts.

After all, everyone knows that when you order a cheesesteak at Pat’s you can get it with or without cheese -- making the very name of the “delicacy” somewhat suspect from the start -- but at Pat’s they serve only one kind of cheese on their cheesesteaks, namely, Cheez Whiz, “a processed cheese food product” that I’m certain was never in my mother’s refrigerators and -- this is saying a lot -- has never been in mine either.

Keep in mind, this is how it works, this is how it’s done: If you visit Pat’s and you want cheese, meaning Cheez Whiz, on your cheesesteak, you say, “Whiz wit’.” Otherwise they laugh at you, mock you, send to the end of the line, post your photograph about their greasy grill, and so on and so forth. All in good fun; har-har-har. It’s considered high hilarity here. Actually, it’s another one of those silly things that either makes Philadelphia great or just plain sad.

Now, as far as socio-political faux pas go, this one probably ranks somewhere around that committed by Kennedy in-law (How else to identify him?) Sargeant Shriver during the 1976 presidential primaries, also in Pennsylvania, but in Pittsburgh, not Philadelphia.

After a day of campaigning in Pittsburgh, Shriver stopped in a bar at the end of the steelmakers’ day shift, paying a visit to some of the hardest working of the working classes (back when the working classes had things like real jobs, healthcare, and pensions), a beer and boilermaker crowd if ever there were one appropriately assembled, and ordered a Courvoisier.

“We ain’t got that,” the bartender reportedly responded to Shriver’s request. After which, I can only assume some nearly 30 years hence, that he quickly order an “I.C.” In a can. (Assuming, of course, there was a well-briefed handler nearby.)

On the topic of this more recent “gaffe,” Don Russell, writing in the Philadelphia Daily News (“Cheesesteak Bites Kerry: Prez Hopeful Asks for Swiss Cheese!”), goes so far as to say, possibly, but not definitely, tongue in cheek:

[W] e may have just witnessed the unraveling of the Democratic front-runner’s campaign for the White House right here in South Philadelphia, at 9th and Wharton [Streets]. […]

But this is more than just shaking hands and kissing babies. For a pol, eating a cheesesteak is like running the gauntlet -- past the surly counterman, through the variety of toppings, finishing it off without looking lame. […]

Kerry, you may have heard, failed miserably.

He ordered a cheesesteak with Swiss cheese.

Now I suppose in some corners of the world, Swiss is a perfectly acceptable sandwich ingredient. Switzerland, maybe.

But in Philadelphia, ordering Swiss on a cheesesteak is like rooting for Dallas at an Eagles game. It isn’t just politically incorrect; it could get you a poke in the nose. [Ed.: At least that. There’s a reason there’s a municipal judge on hand at every Philadelphia Eagles game.] […]

He got Cheez Whiz instead. The damage, though, was already done.

Worse, as Russell points out, Sen. Kerry not only ordered a cheesesteak, he ordered a cheesesteak hoagie, a monstrosity that typically includes lettuce (shredded iceberg, natch) and tomatoes (at Pat’s, I’m told, usually on the white/yellow side in terms of color, the nearby Campbell Soup Co., of Camden, N.J., apparently getting the first crack at South Jersey’s finest), and sometimes hot or sweet peppers.

Don’t ask. Don’t ask, because I don’t know the answer.

Still worse, according Russell, Sen. Kerry didn’t eat the damned thing right! Says Russell, “So the man who would be president of the people was photographed delicately gripping the sandwich with his fingertips like he’s some kind of Boston blue blood playing the piccolo. You half expected him to ask for a silk napkin, Jeeves.” (A “disparaging” photo of Sen. Kerry holding the hoagie accompanies the article at the PDN’s web site.

By the way, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s coverage of this purported political meltdown, “Democrats Join Town Meeting,” was slightly less laden with hysterics.

I have to admit to being a little confused about the whole “controversy.” I don’t think I’ve ever had a cheesesteak from Pat’s. I think I had one at Jeno’s about 10 years ago, and, if memory serves, that sandwich was laden with Cheez Whiz. But on those increasingly rare occasions when I head out for a cheesesteak, I’m not asked to specify my choice of cheese -- I’d like to see the reaction at Pat’s if I asked for Brie or Gouda, but that’s a story for another day. -- and what I usually get on my cheesesteak, without specifying or being asked to specify, is something white, I’m guessing provolone, definitely not the distinctive yellow-orange color we all recognize as Cheez Whiz at its heavily processed finest.

So what the hell is the big deal?

Nothing, I suppose. Just a local story run rampant, locally, I hope.

But I can’t help but conjure up images of idiotic harpie Margaret Carlson -- latest ranking for Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House: 81,401 -- picking up selected bits and pieces of this pedestrian incident, blowing it completely out of proportion, and repeatedly screeching, groundlessly, recklessly, and cluelessly, “He doesn’t know who he is! He doesn’t know who he is!”

[Note: This post was published earlier today at The Rittenhouse Review.]


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