BY JOEY SWEENEY
Your friends in New York, as you know, are horrible people and right now, they’re doing something horrible as usual: They’re Columbus-ing the Chopped Cheese. What is a Chopped Cheese, you may ask. It is the delightful assemblage of:
A) Chopped up hambuger patty with orange cheese, done up on a griddle
B) A long roll (preferably seeded), sort of like a hoagie roll, but flatter and lighter
C) With shredded lettuce and something in the Big Mac/Mayo/Sunset family of sauces
And after the sandwich being around for however many years — a staple of NYC bodega culture, a totem in hip-hop lore — it’s now part of that thing, that moment we’re in: the banality of gentrifier dumplings, the silly co-opting of tribal favorites, the dread of white people ruining everything edible that they touch. (Raises hand. We’re doing it right now, in fact.)
The fact that the Chopped Cheese is now up to bat is not in and of itself surprising; the Halls of Authenticity are now being raided on a daily basis. And while the bell has tolled for so many foods previously known only along lines of ethnicity or class, the Cheesesteak — the Chopped Cheese’s nearest cousin, and, true, a sandwich nonetheless loaded with its own geo-sociological baggage — has, by contrast, thankfully never had quite this same problem. Sure, every couple of years, some jackanapes opens a restaurant that has a $100 cheesesteak on the menu, or puts up a xenophobic sign, but no one takes this seriously. It is not seen as Columbus-ing. It is seen for what it is: Someone just being a dick. And those dudes inevitably die or go out of business or re-brand or whatever. But the sandwich remains intact. The Cheesesteak, ultimately, always prevails.
These were the thoughts that were whizzing by the other night, as we tucked into the nearest Chopped Cheese we could find — this one at American Sardine Bar. At $12, it’s more than twice what the average corner bodega version would cost (Columbus by way of Philadelphia! Imagine it!) but guess what: It was delicious. And while our own initial curiosity was a provincial one — has it got anything on the Cheesesteak? — we got what the fuss was instantly: The way the patty meat mingled with the cheese, up against the lettuce, which in turn mingled with, what is that, is that Thousand Island Dressing? Oh God. Here is a sandwich that does things the Cheesesteak cannot really do. On the other hand, it’s also true that the Cheesesteak does things a Chopped Cheese cannot do.
And one of those things that the Cheesesteak cannot do, God bless it, is be gentrified, Columbus’d, co-opted or cribbed in any way. Travel the country, and you will find bad Cheesesteaks, and things that are called Cheesesteaks but which most definitely are not. But you won’t find a Cheesesteak that’s being pushed around. It is this inspiring example — for we, too, as Philadelphians, can’t be pushed around, either — that we offer to our friends/frienemies in the greater New York City area. See the Cheesesteak? Be like the Cheesesteak. It may have started here, but it belongs to the world now. In time, New York City, your sandwich too will tell you who it’s for — hint: everyone — but at the same time, in the corner joints that created it, it will one day soon go back to being always what it was. Often, it will be even better.