Sunday, August 17, 2003

Beef Kerry

John Kerry is a serious man. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a U.S. senator who is vying to represent the Democrats on the 2004 presidential ballot. No one has every questioned Kerry's smarts, conviction, or patriotism; you can disagree with his politics all you want, but it's impossible to say he's unqualified to lead the country.

Unless, that is, you pay attention to what happens at a corner in South Philly, where mayoral, gubernatorial, and presidential candidates annually traipse through for the ritual tasting of a cheesesteak from Pat's or Geno's.

(Never mind that each of these establishments qualifies as a tourist trap, and nothing more; if you want a real cheesesteak, you're better off at Jim's on South Street or Larry's on 54th Street or any of the scores of great neighborhood pizza and steak joints that dot the Philadelphia landscape as bagel shops do New York's.)

At Pat's last Monday, Kerry had the temerity to order his steak with Swiss cheese -- the horror! -- and then to ask that photographers refrain from snapping his picture while he attempted to eat it. A proper cheesesteak experience, as any Philadelphian knows, involves lots and lots of napkins, and if you're a Boston blueblood looking to increase your appeal to the common man, it can be a daunting challenge.

In fact, it was a challenge Kerry failed to master. He tentatively nibbled at his cheesesteak the way Survivor castaways delve into whatever stomach-churning creatures comprise the native cuisine of the land they're inhabiting. The senator was hit by a balled-up, greasy paper napkin from the Inquirer in a Tuesday sidebar to the paper's main story reporting on the Democrats' town meeting the previous day. The Daily News's Don Russell and the Washington Post's Dana Milbank(!) piled on in Wednesday's editions, and Inky restaurant critic Craig Laban, who was quoted in Milbank's piece, weighed in with his thoughts on the matter Saturday. Laban noted that he had been contacted by Good Morning America, and while I'm not a regular viewer of the show, I have to think his Herculean efforts to conceal his identity from Philadelphia's restaurateurs compelled him to turn down the invitation.

On one level, the amount of attention devoted to what the DN termed "Kerry's Mis-Steak" is patently ridiculous. This wasn't Michael Dukakis in a tank or George Bush the elder marveling at supermarket scanners. This was a forgettable photo op way early in the campaign, and one with absolutely no policy implications whatsoever. Had Kerry chowed down later in the week, the moment would have been lost among the countless broadcast hours and column inches logged by coverage of the Northeast power outage.

But on another level -- admittedly, a policy wonk kind of level -- the incident speaks in a small way to the senator's preparedness. The Pat's/Geno's voyage is a standard by now, and surely someone on Kerry's campaign staff would have discovered, through even a minimal amount of research, that Philadelphians may be quirky as hell, but we take our cheesesteaks seriously. (Too seriously, sometimes.) Pennsylvania's Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, a Penn alumnus and the city's former mayor, could have told Kerry that there is no dainty way to eat a cheesesteak, that in fact the sandwich tastes better the messier it gets.

After all, some would say, if we can't trust a guy with a cheesesteak, how can we trust him to safeguard the Republic?

UPDATE/8.19.2003/12:55 p.m.: Shallow Center's Washington correspondent e-mailed a reminder about a cheesesteak faux-pas committed by then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential campaign.

On a stop in Philadelphia, Governor Dukakis, in rolled-up shirtsleeves, was giving his standard rally-the-troops stump speech. He tailored it to fit the location whose citizens he was addressing, and here in the City of Brotherly Love, he was attempting to get in good with us by referencing our delicious, legendary sandwich of choice.

The problem, though, is that he mixed up the pronunciation. The standard line was that when he won the presidency, he'd return to town to celebrate with whatever food marked the region's cuisine. So Governor Dukakis told the assembled throng that he was going to win, and then he'd come back to Philadelphia "and celebrate with a bottle of beer, and a cheesesteak!"

Yes, with the emphasis on the second syllable. As with John Kerry's Swiss cheese gaffe, even a minimal amount of research would have revealed that you pronounce it "cheesesteak," not "cheesesteak." More importantly, an alumnus of Swarthmore College shouldn't have needed to be told how to pronounce it.

Of course, then-Vice President George Bush went on to hammer Governor Dukakis in the November election. Coincidence?


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