Q&A With Carolyn Wyman, Spam Biographer And Author of The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book


BY SYDNEY SCOTT Junk foodie author Carolyn Wyman specializes in books that tell you everything you wanted to know (and then some) about foods of dubious edibility. Her previous books include Spam: A Biography and Jello: A Biography. Her latest book, The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book, tackles the Rocky Balboa of dead cow sammiches. She will be speaking tomorrow night at the Free Library. 

PHAWKER: First things first, Pat’s or Geno’s?

CAROLYN WYMAN: My book is more of a celebration and comprehensive guidebook to the cheesesteak and cheesesteak stands. I do not rate them. So the question to me really should be “Pat’s AND Geno’s — why?” Because whatever people think about the steaks made at Ninth and Wharton, anyone interested in cheesesteak culture should no more skip Pat’s than a person visiting the Holy Land should skip Bethlehem: It’s the originator that set the standard for what a cheesesteak and a cheesesteak shop should be (that is, an outdoor stand with celebrity snaps). Pat’s and Geno’s “cheesesteak junction” is also one of Philly’s most happening scenes: with the old men sitting on the nearby rowhouse stoops talking Italian, the kids playing basketball across the street and the steady stream of muscle cars, motorcycles and limousines, it’s a people watcher’s dream.

PHAWKER: What makes a great cheesesteak great?

CAROLYN WYMAN: After trying cheesesteaks at the 40 local stands profiled in my book it’s hard not to have an opinion about this. To me, the best cheesesteak has bread that is fresh and neither flabby nor too hard, meat that has the chew of steak without being gristly, greasy or tough, cheese that is noticeably creamy but not overwhelming, and onions that are neither raw nor so sweet as to resemble ketchup. And, ideally, no one of these ingredients should dominate: They should come together in a perfect balance to create that taste that is distinctively cheesesteak.

PHAWKER: Can man live on cheesesteaks alone?

CAROLYN WYMAN: I don’t know about man but this woman almost lived on cheesesteaks alone for the intensive 6 month period last year when I was researching the book. And far than making me sick of cheesesteaks it made me appreciate them even more. Before I had just eaten them casually at any old place: Getting the chance to eat cheesesteaks at some of the area’s most respected steakeries made me realize just how good cheesesteaks can be.

PHAWKER: Best cheesesteak joint in town nobody knows about?

CAROLYN WYMAN: Like Joe Biden, I am a big fan of Claymont Steak Shop right off the interstate in Claymont, Delaware. Their chopped steak is incredibly tender, probably because the place doubles as a meat wholesaler. Philip’s — a five or 10-minute drive west on Passyunk from Pat’s and Geno’s — is one of my favorites for slab style steak. Johnny’s Hots in Fishtown, Talk of the Town on Broad and Donkey’s Place in Camden are also lesser-known places serving superior steaks.

PHAWKER: What is the go-to place for vegetarian cheesesteaks?

CAROLYN WYMAN: I could not write definitive tomes on Spam and cheesesteaks and be a vegetarian. But I did consult several vegetarians in writing the veggie cheesesteak sidebar in my book. They said Gianna Grille produces a faux cheesesteak that is closest to the finely chopped big and sloppy real thing. Joey Vento once described veggie steaks as “sex without the organism.” I appreciate vegetarian steaks mainly as proof of how deeply the cheesesteak has infected the local culture — that is, so deeply that even people who have sworn off meat have to get their faux fix.

PHAWKER: What will you tackle for your next book?

CAROLYN WYMAN: Still to be determined — cheesesteaks are a tough act to follow!

Carolyn Wyman will be speaking at the Philadelphia Free Library Wednesday, July 22, at 7:30PM

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