ahhh, home...

 

Spiderman’s uncle once noted that “with great wisdom comes great responsibility.”

It can also rightly be said that with great age comes great girth.

I’ve put on some pounds. If I’m mowing my lawn, you can spot me on Google Earth. Even my wife, who is the kindest and most gentle person I have ever met said, “Wow Craig, you sure can put on weight fast.”

I don’t believe it was a compliment.

In show business I have my picture taken often, so I’d prefer to be less conscious of getting caught in the candid shot, where I am not doing the suck-in belly pose. I am surely smiling in the photos, but you will often notice my teeth are actually being used to seal in air. If I opened my mouth slightly, you would hear a sound resembling air rushing out of a tire.

I think part of this sudden protrusion has to do with my recent winter sugar cravings. I’ve had them in the past, but this is to a whole new level.

Syrup. "Vegetable" in Philly

At the prodding of our seven year old, I visited a local candy/soda store called “Rocket Fizz” and blew through it as if someone told me I had won a 30-minute shopping spree.

An old school store like this takes me nostalgically back to Gever’s Pharmacy or Buckley’s General Store in hometown Philadelphia, where my neighborhood buddies and I would spend all the money we made shoveling snow on penny candy. Eventually the price went to 6 cents, traumatizing to a boy on a fixed income. I organized a protest of Mr. Gever for raising his prices and adding tax, and I actually believed we could sting his wallet enough to bring down the cost of Good N Plenty to a reasonable sum. Our boycott probably cost him about a buck fifty a month. No idea how he made it through the summer of ‘76.

So, now that I don’t have the same financial concerns I did as a child, I attacked Rocket Fizz, stockpiling taffies, gummies and cherry flavored chewables. I capped it all off with downing a Birch Beer soda, something not normally found on the West Coast, acting as if I was a Jason and the Argonauts and had found the Golden Fleece.

With every bite or gulp I took, I silently reminisced about hanging with the gang from my area, still my friends today, when we didn’t have a care or cavity in the world.

beer and balls, all you need for a perfect night!

I think I’d better find some alternative methods of strolling down memory lane if I don’t want to be relegated exclusively to stretchy-pants. Anyone know where I can get a Pogo Stick?

Losing pounds in Hollywood is certainly easier than if I had stayed in the City Of Brotherly Love Handles. Actually, if I am around my old ‘hood, they consider my 6’2,” 206 pounds to be on the anorexic side, and needle me into putting something on to my skin and bones.

That way of thinking is so engrained in my psyche it prevents me from leaping into a health program without cynicism, doubt or a punch line for my trainer. A food plan where I’m from is telling your pals where to meet up at the stadium for a dog.

These guys question my manhood if I even peek at the calorie count. No matter how old I get, I am still in fear of being thrown out of the club. I’ve been a Los Angeles resident for 24 years, but I think my formative years spent in Philadelphia will stay with me for a lifetime. I could live in a monastery, and still sneak Herr’s snacks under my robe.

I’m going back there next month with my family, and it will be a great dietary challenge. Not only was it named America’s “fattest city” a few years ago, but add to that the fact that I am looking forward to putting a few favorite restaurants, delis and food stands on my historical tour. “Hey kids, here’s where Betsy Ross ate Stromboli when she sewed the American flag.” 

Wing Bowl 2012. Serious business where I come from

As with most cities, there is much pride attached to the customs and culture. When the city was voted to be the heaviest, they practically held a parade down Broad Street.

Philly is not known for producing alternative eating delicacies. It is mostly a town of tradition and repetition, and this is especially the case at mealtime. Recipes have been passed down for centuries, without so much as a blink to change an ingredient. They don’t wander outside the normal patterns of meat & potatoes mealtime, followed by sitting around the boob tube watching Channel Six Action News with a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon can smelling like raw onions, since the beer shares fridge space with the hoagie ingredients at the local bar down the block.

There is not much awareness outside a 20-block radius, except for the Jersey Shore trips that fill every summer, where salt-water taffy, fudge and funnel cake are added to the daily food fare, and a trip to the family owned market is replaced by a stroll down the Boardwalk for a slice of pie.

And pie to us is not a Lemon Meringue. It’s pizza; made by a guy in a white tee shirt, pants and apron, who spins and tosses his matching white sphere of flour with the skill of a performer from Cirque Du Soleil.

If you announced you were trying a Vegan lifestyle, most would think you were just talking about vegging out on the couch for a while. Ketchup is considered an essential vitamin source there. Don’t tell them a tomato is not a vegetable, or prepare to have your sprout eatin’ ass kicked! If I go off track they say, “oh, look at Joe California over here.”

Always over “here,” and never over there…

There are local foods most of our country has never heard of, let alone tasted. I use the term “taste” loosely, because most grub in these parts are consumed without thought o touch of a taste bud. It is “wolfed,” “rifled” and “piled in,” but rarely eaten for its succulent culinary delight. Sometimes teeth are more of an impediment to the rush to the stomach than an essential tool in digestion.

Conscientious eating in the city of the cracked bell is practically non-existent. One of the most celebrated events is the “Wing Bowl,” where 20 thousand rabid fans gather to watch dozens of gluttons down as many chicken wings as possible before passing out.

I guess you could say it’s “unconscious” eating??

This is a competition where grown men end up horizontally strewn about a stadium boxing ring, wishing for a ring girl to give them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and relieve them of their self induced misery.

The Wing Bowl Girls. Perhaps not appropriately representative of thier sport

The moment I land at the Philly airport, I forget all thoughts of what I have learned about watching what I eat. I revert to being a teen, without the acne issue or , usually, having to steal money from my mom’s purse.

When I wake up in my hometown, I begin with eggs and a breakfast “meat” called Scrapple. I put meat in quotes because I’m not quite clear whether any actual meat is contained in this slab. My best guess is that Scrapple is one vowel away from what it probably is – a scrap pile. Yes, it is what’s left over AFTER they make sausage, which is oh-so-good for you!

I picture the sausage being made at a factory in rural Pennsylvania, and then a guy with a broom sweeps the leftover snouts, guts and hooves into a mold. Perhaps there is some congealing fluid added (or glue), to form it into a 3 by 2 by 4-inch rectangular block and put into a hermetically sealed plastic wrapper. You cut the mound into little flat squares and fry ‘em up in a buttered pan.

Hungry?

A helpful hint I picked up a long time ago when I have a hard time with offensive food – “just put Catch-up on it. It’ll put hair on your chest.”

Thanks for the health tip, Sasquatch.

Or, place any protein product on an Amaroso role and make a sandwich out of it, masking the texture and flavor by dominating it with bulky but fluffy Italian bread in the shape of a bloated carp.

taking in the sites with my boys

One thing I miss since moving away are the best dough products on earth. I literally turn down the basket of breads offered by waiters throughout the world. And forget that damn dipping oil they now drizzle on my dish. Oil goes on a hoagie with sweet red peppers, not on bread with the texture of a crouton.

Gimme butter! And gobs, not spread thin…

They say the reason the east coast has the best rolls, bagels and soft pretzels is due to the water. It is shocking to me that some chemist, who creates per year about 10,000 new prescription drugs with 9000 harmful side effects, cannot come up with a replica h2o to be used nationwide for baked products, so I can cancel my 24 year pizza search in Los Angeles.

A few months ago, I took my California raised sons to South Philly, where we indulged in some of the local foods. A stop for a slice of pepperoni did not solicit the rave from the kids I was expecting. I think they are content with a mall Sharro plain piece and that is what they are accustomed to. What a shame.

I also took them for an official Cheese Steak at my friend Suzzane’s Deli in Wyndmoor, Pa. Now, her sandwiches will never be in the same conversations most have when talking Philly cuisine, but that’s not because they are not delicious.

Usually most out-of-towners will ask, when inquiring about my favorite – “Pat’s or Geno’s?,” referring to the popular South Philly spots where you can consume a Cheese Wiz gut bomb 24/7. They are located right across the street from one another in typical competitive fashion for our town.

These joints have good food, but I think some of the lore is based on the attitude that comes with your window order, which you better have down, or prepare yourself for a sweaty neighborhood guy serving up some annoyed sarcasm along with his grilled special.

"Kitchen" if you're from Philly

“I’ll have one wiz wit.” It means Cheese Wiz with marinara sauce and onions on your steak sandwich, and will get you a good, meaty meal without the eye roll and headshake of shame. But go in tentative or ask questions and you will suffer the consequences.

Suzanne has a small place on Willow Grove Avenue in a village-like town of Wyndmoor, cooking for a steady clientele, half of who just walk in and say, “the usual.”

One thing our host/owner/chef does have in common with all the famous grilles is the cocky confidence. Everywhere in the area, there is a claim that their hoagie or steak sandwich is the best in the Delaware Valley, accompanied by a brief reasoning as to why. “Dellasandro’s chops the steak too much” might be something you hear in an argument over the best place for a Kaiser Roll of thinly sliced beef.

I fed my kids some local fare, and typical for the territory, as if he has been living there his entire 13 years, my son Justin says, “it’s really good, dad, but it’s not the same as Delesandro’s. I like their rolls better.”

Like the water is different 7 miles away in Roxborough than in Wyndmoor??!! Justin also blends in nicely with his adopted hometown accent when he asks for a cherry “Wooder Ice” for his dessert.

Tailgate Sandwiches. This is just a starter...

It’s hard to believe that I’m even thinking about losing pounds. Nostradomus would not have predicted this if he knew me as a boy.

I had four major food groups in my youth – candy, hot dogs, peanut butter and soft pretzels (with mustard). Condiments were dumped on things with great volume, and were as essential as pouring motor oil into a car. I always had to have Charles or Wise Potato Chips and Tasty Kakes with every meal too. It’s the law…

I turned down so many foods. My mom had to cook on the down-low, so she could hide certain ingredients. If I found a speck of onion in something, that was the end of the meal right there on the spot! I turned into Ghandi on a hunger strike. Only my cause was not so noble.

Being a picky eater as a child resulted in a body Sally Struthers would raise money for. I recall thinking, when I’d see the commercials with the starving kids by Gloria Bunker-Stivic’s side; “come on, even those kids wouldn’t eat Lima Beans!” One time I took my vegetables and put them in an envelope and challenged my mom to send them to the “starving kids across the sea,” as she called them.

My grandmother teased me about “seeing my ribs,” but nothing could get me to eat better. I was skinny to the point where I swallowed weight gain pills by the crate. In 9th grade, I was the only wrestler who had to GAIN weight. I was my own class, below the minimum to be in a division. While the rest of the team was running in rubber suits to get down, I would be gobbling ice cream cones with sprinkles, we in Philly called “jimmies.”

No matter where you hail from, there are certain comfort foods, which we eat to bring us back to a time in our lives of innocence and simplicity.

For me, there is nothing like good ole Northern Comfort.

10 Responses on “Northern Comfort

  1. Reading this as i’m scarfing left-over smoked salmon boxty and home fries. You’re freakin hysterical, after we left your show in Phoenixville, my face hurt til the next day from laughing. Love reading your stuff, keep it up. Next time you’re Home, let;s hook you up with some shepherds pie and Guinness !

  2. I can not agree with you more…. great writing Craig and thanks for making me smile / laugh as always! BTW I have not been able to eat Scrapple since I was 18 when while living and working at the shore(Avalon) for the summer I actually looked at the ingredients! I hope you have a nice visit back to the east.

  3. So true, Craig! West coast people don’t get Philly, for that matter, not many people do. Suzanne is a friend of mine as well. I love her chicken salad!
    Why don’t you mention Flourtown?

    Marybeth

  4. Spent many a day at Buckleys and Gevers myself. The only thing you forgot to mention was licking the icing off the old style Tastycake wax paper wrapping.

  5. Spent many a day at Buckleys and Gevers. The only thing you forget was licking the icing off the old style wax paper Tastykake wrapping.

  6. So funny!! Those meals are terrible but you just make them sound so good, it’s excusable!

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