I was born and raised just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When I was 15 I got a job at the snackbar in a college down the street from where I lived with my mom, sister, and two little doggies. For three years I spent my nights and weekends working on the grill, pumping out food for countless hungry college students. This provided me with much of my basic knowledge of cooking. It may not have been fine dining but by the time I left I could cook a mean omelet. Hell I could cook ten mean omelets all at the same time without mixing up the orders. I could make the best hoagie you've had (with all the proper hoagie meats), a club worthy of a picture frame, and a cheesesteak that I would put up against ANYBODY'S.
Ever since those days I've had a soft spot for cheesesteaks. I love eating them, and I love making them. Everybody knows that cheesesteaks are a Philadelphia specialty, but it wasn't until I moved away to college in Boston that I began to realize the extent of this iconic food's reach. Every sandwich shop has their version of the "Philly Cheesesteak". Even here in Bermuda at the Pickled Onion, a restaurant we frequent for lunch, they offer a "Philly Cheesesteak Pizza". I've always prided myself as a bit of a cheesesteak connoisseur (if such a thing actually exists); as if being from Philly somehow qualifies me to make a better cheesesteak, or even just to better judge someone else's cheesesteak. I mean really, meat, cheese, bread... although there are indeed a few factors that make a cheesesteak truly great, and a couple variations of preference, couldn't anyone, anywhere theoretically produce the same end result? But since it can apparently be so difficult to meet my criteria, I tend to have my friends over and make them myself! Sometimes I think it might also be that I miss the metallic whack of the spatulas against the grill... Regardless, it has always amazed me how the cheesesteak has become such a symbol to me and to so many others which says so much about where we are from.
The cheesesteak isn't the only symbolic food, by any means. The other day while making them for some friends I started thinking about all the different foods that other people from other cities hold so close to their hearts and identities. New England Clam Chowder, New Orleans Jambalaya, Maryland Crab, New York Pizza, Texas Chili... and these are just the first that pop into my head... the list goes on and on! So how does this happen? How does a food become so imbedded in an area's cuisine that it becomes a defining piece of its culture?
There are two things that come to my mind in regard to how culture is impacted by cuisine; the heritage of an area's people and the surrounding terrain. The people of New Orleans are a result of an integration of French, Spanish, Italian, African, Native American, and Cajun peoples. I am no food historian but from my understanding Jambalaya was created from a merging of the French cuisine with the Spanish peoples' paella. Because all these old world countries were starting fresh in a new land there were different meats, vegetables, and spices available than what they were accustom to in their traditional dishes. This is before a time where we have readily available foods from all over the world through modern transportation. I think Jambalaya is a beautiful way to see a merging of cultures and a hodge-podge of the fruits of the surrounding land and waters. Over time as New Orleans became a place in-and-of itself, people began to identify themselves using these new dishes (along with a newly emerging, exciting musical culture). The people that I have met from New Orleans are proud of where they are from. They are proud of the music and the food that they bring to their country and to the world.
Food becomes a way to set an area apart from the rest of the country. It becomes a way to show the beauty of your land and the ethnicity of its people. If you look deep into the history of each iconic dish you can see the culture that brought it to us, passed down lovingly through the generations. In a world where people are traveling more and more and constantly moving around, it becomes a way to bring a piece of our home to others. I share my cheesesteaks with my friends with pride in my birthplace and they share their foods with me. It's a system that I think everyone can learn from and lets face it... it sure is yummy!