Friday, June 09, 2006

If These Cheesesteaks Could Talk....

Leaving things church for a moment, a national brouhaha has been occasioned involving one of the temples of Philadelphia life.

As a primer, if you don't know what a cheesesteak is, just stop reading now. For those who do, you know it's a staple element of the local culture, so much of which revolves around food.... Water ice, soft pretzels, scrapple (blech), Tastykakes, etc. etc. etc. And those of you who read the first of my four days of babble have come to learn -- in Bill McGarvey's immortal phrasing -- that "if cheese steaks, soft pretzels and scrapple could talk they’d sound just like" your unworthy scribe.

Well, in this little corner of God's green earth, you're either a Pat's or Geno's person. The two cheesesteak houses, which stand at opposite corners of the intersection of 9th and Passyunk ("PAH-shunk") have had a rivalry for going on five decades. I've gotten into fights over this major question of human existence on certain late evenings while on Wawa runs. (Wawa, for the uninitiated, is the local chain of one-stop, 24-hour convenience stores/gas stations. Like new monsignors in East Coast dioceses, Wawas are precious signs of God's love for us. May you all be so blessed as to have a Wawa experience at some point in your lives.)

You see, I'm a Geno's person. That's the way I was raised, and I have no regrets. Almost every key moment of my life involves a trip to Geno's, and one day, I'll be writing about some of these in The Book. I've worn a cassock while eating a Geno's steak (it was Halloween, it scared the bejesus out of everyone -- and rightfully so), I've worn a Santa suit while eating a Geno's steak (it was Christmas, it scared the bejesus out of everyone -- and rightfully so), and, well, you get the idea.

So Geno's -- the no-frills, neon-licious culinary mecca where the french fries are still known as "Freedom Fries" and the house holds an annual fundraiser for the kids of our fallen heroes, cops killed in the line of duty -- is embroiled in a controversy over the sign you see below.

In case you can't see it, the sign at issue reads: "This is America -- When ordering, speak English."

The traditionally Italian community near Geno's has become more diverse over the decades. Immigrants from Asia and Latin America have moved in, joining longtime residents and young professionals seeking reasonably priced rowhouses. In the past 10 years, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Mexican immigrants — many of them here illegally, community leaders say — have settled in South Philly.

Vento said his staff is glad to help non-native speakers order in English and has never turned someone away because of a language barrier.

But the policy has "really upset a lot of a people," said Brad Baldia of Day Without An Immigrant, a coalition of immigrant groups. "For some people, I think we're just going to say, `Le gusta Pat's.'"

Juntos, a Hispanic neighborhood organization, said it plans to send people to Geno's to try to order in Spanish and may pursue court action, depending on what happens.

"His grandparents encountered the same racism and the same xenophobia," said Peter Bloom, the group's director. "Why would he begin that process over again?"

Vento said he has gotten plenty of criticism and threats. One person told him they hoped one his many neon signs flames out and burns the place down, he said. But he said he plans to hold his ground.

Customers placing orders on a recent morning seemed unfazed.

Er, ditto. The left flank is all flipped out over this. But the sign's been there for a good while now and, well, it ain't gonna keep me away from my steak.

Do I agree with the principle? Well, it doesn't take all that much gumption to say "Wiz wit'" (which is what you say when you want a steak with Cheeze Wiz and fried onions) or to get my "American wit'out" (American cheese, no onions) fix.

That's just my opinion. I could be wrong. And my mouth is watering.

AP/Matt Rourke