Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Home, sweet, greasy, home

I started this blog thinking I would write about transcendent food. I'm finding myself writing about comfort. About history. About the meaning of what I eat. And so often what is meaningful seems to be what isn't quite healthy. What that says about me may be transparent but I'll choose not to investigate it.

I was in Philadelphia this past weekend, helping out a friend. I grew up in Philly, though I left 20 years ago. It's a city with a distinct cuisine, one I miss even though I have certainly embraced the cuisines I've moved to.

Steak sandwiches. Soft pretzels. Hoagies (no, not subs or grinders or heroes. Hoagies). This is the local food of my hometown.

Sure, you can get a steak or a hoagie anywhere. But it's not the same. Maybe it's the air, the water, the accent of the cook. I don't know. But local foods - should I say regional foods instead? - need local flavor to taste right. A steak anywhere else just isn't as good.

When I moved to Boston so many years ago I went looking for a hoagie. I was given a grinder, which is similar, but not identical to a hoagie. I looked for a Philly cheesesteak and it just wasn't right. The soft pretzels in Boston have (get this) sesame seeds instead of salt.

This weekend I ate the foods of my youth with relish. Okay, no relish. But the hoagie had hots and mayo and oil and oregano. The steak had whiz (as in cheez whiz) and was drowning in ketchup, pretty much the only time I really like ketchup. And the pretzels were warm, then rapidly stale, but full of salt and carbs and the taste of the ancient oven. Heaven.

I ate my hoagie one day and my steak the next, the pretzels throughout. I remembered who I have been.

I was 8 years old and sharing the biggest steak in the world with my dad on a day he kept me out of school so we could play hookie together.
I was 11 and sitting in the backyard listening to a ball game with my mom while we ate an easy summer dinner from the local steak place.
I was 16 and trying to not get grease all over my face while I flirted with my first boyfriend.
I was 18 and home from college for the first time, eating a pretzel slathered with mustard while I wondered just who the hell I was becoming.

And I was me, now, enjoying all of those tastes and textures, visiting a place I have been away from for longer than I called it home. My mouth knew the truth. In those tastes was my whole life. There are other, newer, healthier loves. It's our first loves, our first groan inducing bites that first tell us who we are. If we're lucky, when we revisit them, they still fill us with deep, tasty satisfaction.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

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