Remembrances of sustenance past

Jun 3, 2003 6:47 AM

I have suffered, along with other readers, when I have picked up this newspaper before lunchtime and had to undergo the tortures inflicted by the proprietor, Mr. Di Rocco, informing the rest of us of the savory and delicious dishes served up by his grandmother in the old days in Philadelphia. The aromatic essences of her kitchen seem to waft off the pages, like one of those scratch-off perfume ads in Vogue or W.

Her sumptuous Italian recipes and special delicacies, which Chuck understandably persists in recalling, should not be read on an empty stomach. Neither should his reviews of the culinary treats of Vegas.

For those reasons I try not to read Di Rocco when hungry.

What I cannot control, and do not try to, are the delights of the New York Times with breakfast. When the trusty Times bounces off the driveway, I know it is time to brew the tea, squeeze the orange juice, pop in the English muffin and start the day.

So it came as a jolt last week when I turned to the Dining section of the Times and there, staring me in the face, was a garish, four-color, full page spread of Geno’s Steaks, neon blaring out "Hoagies" and "Cheese Fries" and the caption informing me that "At Geno’s in Philadelphia, an order of ”˜Whiz, with’ brings a sandwich sprinkled with grilled onions and melted orange Cheez Whiz."

I know, I know.

I didn’t need the distinguished journalist R. W. Apple Jr., who wrote the piece, to tell me that "Some Philly Phoods remain resolutely local, like scrapple and water ice. Others, like cheese steaks and hoagies, have spread across the country, though often in ersatz form. Here on their home turf you and I can sample the genuine articles in their unpretentious, calorific, often sloppy splendor."

Apple went on to explain that "Italian Americans from South Philadelphia and German-Americans who settled in and west of the city, misleadingly known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, have contributed the most to making Philadelphia a street food showcase, a kind of Middle Atlantic Singapore."

Chuck Di Rocco and I knew that without the Times telling us.

As a kid, the greatest treat for me was not Christmas or a birthday, but a trip to Philly with my mother and father to the 110-year-old Reading Terminal Market in Center City.

In that huge and cavernous structure were ”” and according to reporter Apple still are today ”” all of the food delicacies known to the western world, and all from everywhere else as well.

Nostalgia welled up at mention of Bassett’s Ice Cream, of a cheese steak loaded with onions at Jim’s on South Street, of scrapple for breakfast, of an Italian hoagie at Sarcone’s Deli, of Fisher’s soft pretzels.

Soft pretzels! They were the ice cream sundaes of my youth, a treat like no other, worth behaving for, worth waiting for.

Reading on, I encountered one full page, with nine ”” count ’em, nine ”” color pictures and thousands of words of text with the headline, "Hoagieland Accepts No Substitutes."

Apple wrote about pepper pot soup, virtually unknown today, but according to myth, invented by George Washington’s chef at Valley Forge. He recalled the rousing cry of the street hawkers:

"All hot! All hot!

Pepper pot! Pepper pot!

Makes backs strong

Makes lives long.

All hot! Pepper pot!"

Apple invoked the sacred name of Old Original Bookbinders, perhaps the most famous seafood restaurant in America before its demise last year, and of Philadelphia food emporiums still there, still strong a century after their founding. Bassett’s Ice Cream began in 1861, Termini brothers pastry in 1921, Pat’s King of Steaks in 1930. Amazing in a day when restaurants come and go with each gust of wind.

What is the point of remniscing about food in Philadelphia remembered as a boy?

Simply that in the raucous and callow and shallow world we live in, it is refreshing for the soul to pause a second, recall with sadness and affection days of love and care and treats and wonders long past, and bask in the glow of knowing that, although left behind, some of those childhood delights still exist.