The cheesesteak as shibboleth

I was introduced to the cheesesteak by a woman from Rhode Island (forgive me, Phillyites), who ran a little hole in the wall in the neighbourhood, where I’d perch on the bench outside and look at the ocean in the afternoon sometimes while I did my homework. She informed me that I was being initiated into a sacred tradition, that it was key for me to observe the Mandates of the Cheesesteak. You didn’t order this particular off-menu item: She made it for you if she determined that you were the kind of person who needed a cheesesteak at that particular point in time. If she didn’t think you were worthy, you had lots of other menu items to choose from.

I have to confess that while her cheesesteak was a perfectly delicious thing, loads of beef aren’t really my jam, and I’m not besotted with the cheesesteak as an entity, though I respect its place in the food pantheon of US culture — because it is an important traditional food of our people, if you will. It’s also become an iconic working class food, the sort of thing that many associate with an honest person trying to make a fair living in a world where the deck is very much stacked against people trying to do just that.

This very status is what’s led to an interesting situation: The cheesesteak as campaign shibboleth. Just as candidates in The West Wing are forced to visit a recycling centre, so too are candidates required to make a stop in Philadelphia, which is more like a minefield. Not showing up would be a grave misstep in the delicate dance that is US politics: You have to go to Philly. And you have to eat a cheesesteak. And you have to eat it at the right establishment. And you have to eat the right kind of cheesesteak, ordering the correct thing — if ever there was a time to listen to your aides, now is the time — and you have to finish it, or you will be judged.

Just this year, Scott Walker failed the cheesesteak test. For starters, he cut in line, which is perhaps not surprising for a Republican governor who’s made it his life’s mission to make everyone in his state miserable — why not spread his high-handed attitude across the country? A little taste of what lies ahead. He also committed the cardinal sin of ordering without onions, which even I know is a rookie move, and he ordered American cheese — American cheese — on a food that we all know should contain nothing but the holy Cheez Whiz, which perfectly complements the delicately balanced elements of the proper cheesesteak. Then he left half his food behind and abandoned his trash on the table, which is just a dick move in any setting.

In 2003, Kerry likewise flubbed the cheesesteak, descending upon the iconic Pat’s to sully the cheesesteak with Swiss cheese and proceed to eat it with the dainty, restrained bites of a frightened deer, nibbling at it like a bunny instead of going for it like a shark (okay, I’m running out of animals here). Perhaps not entirely a surprise, as it surely went against all of his dietary beliefs — but the move betrayed a fundamental lack of connection with a pretty basic cultural rite, and with working class people in the US.

Obama, on the other hand, clearly came briefed, evidence that he was prepared from the start to be a smooth political operator. His deft skill at appealing to working class voters while simultaneously gladhanding the elite and reassuring the middle classes really ought to win him some sort of award, though one supposes the White House is pretty sufficient in that department. His ability to identify an important campaign moment and roll with it was evidence of his drive to win, but also of the flexibility of his administration; given Michelle Obama’s hyperfocus on ‘healthy eating,’ and the fact that the two frequently share meals and realistically don’t cook separately, he doesn’t spend a lot of time cooking and eating food like cheesesteaks, but he took it like a champ.

The idea of judging prospective candidates on the basis of a sandwich might seem beyond bizarre, but it’s a telling sandwich, one that looms larger than life, and the way it is or isn’t eaten reveals a great deal about the consumer.

Kerry lost, Obama won, and we’re all fervently hoping that Walker takes a hike. But their three different experiences with the cheesesteak reveal the strange hidden pitfalls of US politics, the things that are often really difficult to explain to outsiders; outside Philadelphia alone, the symbolism of the cheesesteak might be somewhat obscure, and outside the US, it must seem even more bizarre. Who cares if someone eats a sandwich, and how it’s prepared, right? But in a country with very real class tensions that it won’t openly admit to, that sandwich is a symbol of something much, much larger, and there’s a reason the media’s obsessed with it. Sure, it makes for an interesting story before elections really get cooking, but also, it reveals something about the candidates, and ourselves.

A sandwich, in many ways, means more to some of us than campaign speeches and promises and even proposals, because it shows us what politicians actually do and whether they listen to their constituents. A candidate can claim to care about working class people, but the willingness to sit down, eat a regional food, bother to order it correctly, and treat the cook with respect indicates that the candidate is prepared to put that promise to real, concrete, actual use.

Image: aprilzosia, Flickr