Philly Cheesesteak: “In Search of Lost Time”

I was a young twenty-one when my daughter was born. Her dad, an Airman Second Class, and I lived in Dover, Delaware near the Dover Air Force Base. Dick drove a cab during his off-base hours as the military discouraged enlisted men from bringing along a family by paying poverty level wages. I worked as a card punch operator at Coty Cosmetics but was fired as soon as it became evident that I was pregnant. Anyways, money was scarce. I saved the tips Dick shared with me for an occasional Philly cheesesteak or Italian sub at the corner grocery store.

Bridget and I would wheel down the gravel road in a rickety borrowed stroller, stopping along the way to lay in the grass, pick up a rock, sing a song, or pet a dog. (In today’s if-you-see-something-say-something world, I’d be chastised for child endangerment, but then we were free as birds.) When we reached the counter at the deli, we knew exactly what we wanted: “one whiz with.” 

Note the lack of safety features and beverage holders. It did fold up like an umbrella, however.

Thinly slices of rib-eye are browned on a flattop grill and scrambled into smaller pieces with a flat spatula. Cheesewhiz, sliced American or Provolone is placed over the meat, letting it melt, and the mixture is then scooped up and pressed into a long, soft roll. The quality of a cheesesteak lies in the balance of flavors, textures and the “drip” factor. Toppings may include fried onions, sautéed mushrooms, and hot or sweet peppers.

One whiz with

The cheesesteak made its official debut in 1930 when Pat Olivieri, a South Philadelphia hot dog vendor, put some beef from his butcher on the grill. A cab driver noticed the aroma and asked for his own steak sandwich. Word of the new sandwich spread, and soon cabbies from around the city came to Olivieri demanding steak sandwiches. Soon after, A rival shop across the street added cheese and it became the cheesesteak.

When ordering at an east coast shop, you place your order with the counterman. East coast counter men don’t have much patience, so have your money ready and be quick, or you may be sent to the back of the queue to practice up. You eventually become so precise with your order that you use three words: “One whiz with” means one sandwich, with Cheez Whiz, and fried onions; “One provolone without” will get you a single cheesesteak, with provolone and no fried onions.

I haven’t been back to Dover for fifty years but am always on the lookout for a cheesesteak opportunity. Imagine my delight when I saw Philly Bilmos just down the road from our hotel in Vancouver.

Don’t know what the Bilmos part means.

My new cheesesteak experience was underwhelming. The sandwich was good enough but didn’t come close to the memory. Maybe the taste was dependent on the context, maybe I hadn’t scrimped enough, maybe I missed my little friend Bridgie, maybe a cheesesteak has to come after a long walk. Anyways, I’ll always have Delaware. 

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