I was ready to say, “One Provolone With”, which means give me one Pat’s cheesesteak with provolone cheese and fried onions. But I choked.
Since the lines at Pat’s King of Steak often stretch out onto Passyunk Avenue, you have to order quickly or risk the disdain of the cashier, not to mention the withering stares of South Philly cheese steak veterans who order with the swagger of Peyton Manning calling an audible while shouting “Omaha.”
“I guess I’ll have a…umm…a cheese steak. Oh, and provolone cheese with it also. And I forgot the onions, can you do those fried? I like them fried. I really hate cheese whiz, glad you have the provolone. Ya know, I’m from Oklahoma. We have license plates on the front of our vehicles that say, “Eat more beef…it’s what’s for dinner…or something like that, I can’t quite remember how that goes, but it’s really catchy and steak-like…”
And then I noticed a guy who looked like Salvatore Tessio in The Godfather (Abe Vigoda of Barney Miller fame). He was staring at me with a steak spatula leveled in his right hand as cheese and beef painted his white apron in Philadelphia earth tones. I threw a twenty-dollar bill on the counter and slid down the sidewalk outside the order window. “Keep the change,” I mumbled, which was a 100% tip, but you are more grateful when you have felt the death stare of the steak man and lived to tell the story.
Karen and I love to eat when we travel and our rule is simple. If we can get it back home, we are not eating there. I went to the doctor recently and my cholesterol was 208 and I’m sure it was from the cheese steak I had in Philly. That’s why we only travel occasionally because the cheese steaks, lobster rolls, and cannoli kill me faster than going for a drive in the New York countryside with Rocco and Clemenza (Clemenza stops to take a leak and Paulie gets three bullets to the back of the head and all Clemenza can think of is the cannoli…”leave the gun, take the cannoli”).
Eating makes me happy, which also makes eating dangerous. If it really tastes good, I make soft but audible yummy noises, while Karen likes to sing and dance, which makes me sometimes uncomfortable in fancy restaurants. We are all different, and just like we have geographical linguistic differences, we have geographical food differences.
While a student in the foothills of the Ozarks at Harding University, Karen tried to order cream of wheat and the lady in the hairnet corrected her. “Honey, dem is grits.” Grits are well named. They are terrible unless smothered with cream and butter and gravy (and perhaps a little Cheese Whiz).
I was reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” recently and a passage reminded me of regional food differences when Fitzgerald writes of his wife singing about biscuits.
“Zelda was up. This was obvious, for in a moment she came into my room singing aloud. Now when Zelda sings soft I like to listen, but when she sings loud I sing loud too in self-protection. So we began to sing a song about biscuits. The song related how down in Alabama all the good people ate biscuits for breakfast, which made them very beautiful and pleasant and happy, while up in Connecticut all the people ate bacon and eggs and toast, which made them very cross and bored and miserable–especially if they happened to have been brought up on biscuits.” F. Scott Fitzgerald The Cruise of the Rolling Junk
Zelda was from Alabama and Scott from the North. I’m an Okie and Karen was raised in New Jersey. Although Karen and I are thirty years happily married, we are not soul mates. At least not in the usual way of knowing what the other is thinking and finishing sentences for each other. But there are moments when we are the same spiritual soul.
Like Zelda and Scott, we travel for biscuits and cheese steaks, but also to hear music. Music takes us places. And if it’s Saturday, we time travel using Sirius satellite radio with an assist from Casey Kasem and replays of his American Top 40. Now, you can Google the top-selling song in the land, but in the Seventies, a gradual building of anticipation developed in living rooms, cars, and bowling alleys, from 40 down to 1. And if you had an FM radio, you had cutting-edge technology, although I preferred the AM crackle which seemed more urgent and authentic to me like Walter Cronkite was more believable than Dan Rather.
Now Karen and I try to eat well, by leaving the gun and the cannoli behind. We shop for groceries together, Whole Foods, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, local farmer’s markets, and try to make up for all that cheese steak, tiramisu, and fettucine alfredo from the Seventies. It seems like the food is getting better these days, healthier, less added stuff, but the music, ah the music. The music from our formative days will always be our music. Springsteen, Eagles, JT, Three Dog Night, Stevie Wonder, Boston, Billie Joel, and yes Karen, even Barry Manilow.
That music was heavy, like our food, full of saturated fat and sugar, sentiment by the glow of the dashboard radio. I’m glad I only have to listen to Casey Kasem while traveling on Saturdays, and that we only eat cheesesteaks when we are in NJ or Philly. Otherwise, it would be too much, like eating dessert for breakfast and pancakes for dinner.
But it’s good for the soul to stroll up to a Pat’s King of Steak every now and then and say, “One provolone with,” and know that you ordered well and that the spatula wasn’t pointed at you and you can glance back at your linemates and nod in acknowledgement that you did your job well. Because after ordering well, all that’s left is to sit down and sink your mouth into the wonder. To eat in another world across cultural differences, like the time we enjoyed Indie food in Wittenberg, Germany, or Johnson’s Caramel Popcorn on the boardwalk in Ocean City, or Bar-B-Que at Fat Belly’s in White Springs, Florida.
We travel a lot like Zelda and F. Scott. We are the Cruise of the Rolling Junk. And we travel backwards on Saturday with Casey Kasem. We travel back to days when our hearts were full and our arteries were clear and the number one song could only be found on the radio. It makes me hungry thinking about it, our next road trip. Think we’ll head out on a Saturday. Until then, we’ll be happy with keeping our feet on the ground, and reaching for the health food stars.