Transcript / LoLT: The Great Philly Cheesesteak Debate and Two New Books — 01 September 2023

Transcript / LoLT: The Great Philly Cheesesteak Debate and Two New Books — 01 September 2023

Friday, 1 September, 2023

This is a transcription of The Great Philly Cheesesteak Debate and Two New Books — 01 September 2023’


[cheerful music]

Melissa: Coming up, a family saga set in Costa Rica.

David: A story about racism and hope.

Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.

David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.

Melissa: When we did our episode about Costa Rica back in Season 3, I recommended a lighthearted romantic adventure novel, the modern classic Jurassic Park, and a short story collection that includes a magical story I still think about at random moments. I enjoyed all of those books but I was disappointed at the time that I couldn’t find a juicy family saga set in Costa Rica. That problem has been solved with the new novel Where There Was Fire by John Manuel Arias.

Melissa: Here’s the setup: The book opens with the memory of a devastatingly hot night in Costa Rica in 1968. Here are the first few lines: ‘Some still talk about how how that night was. Old women whisper it over coffee, their just-as-old-husbands debating over checkers outside. Even a tow truck driver named Luis, born that night, has been told about the malignancy of the heat. Its teeth.’

Melissa: On that memorably hot night, two terrible things happen: the American Fruit Company’s largest banana plantation burns to the ground, and a man named José María murders his mother-in-law in front of his wife Teresa.

Melissa: Almost three decades later, Teresa is still living in the family home with only her mother’s ghost for company. Her daughter wants nothing to do with her, but she’s also painfully curious about her family tragedies. This is the story of how these surviving family members try to reconcile the events of that terrible night.

Melissa: The author John Manuel Arias layers his family story with Costa Rican culture and the real-life history of exploitative plantations and the use of toxic pesticides at the American Fruit Company. Publisher’s Weekly called the book ‘a rewarding outing from an exciting new voice with a prowess for lyricism’ It’s Where There Was Fire by John Manuel Arias.

Melissa: And if you haven’t listened to our Costa Rica episode yet, please treat yourself. It’s a good mix of the real Costa Rica and the vacation Costa Rica.

David: James McBride is an author and a musician. He won the National Book Award for fiction in 2013 with his book ‘The Good Lord Bird.’ He also wrote, ‘The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.’ That was released in 1995. That book spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list and found its way into many high school and college reading lists.

David: All of that may make it sound like McBride is some kind of “do your homework and eat your vegetables” kind of writer. He is not. He is just as interested in telling a good story as he is in helping his readers see other people’s lives.

David: He’s got a new book out. It’s called ‘The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store.’ It starts with a murder mystery. Chapter One. It’s 1972 and the Pennsylvania state police have found a skeleton at the bottom of an old well. The well is in a neighborhood called Chicken Hill in a town in Pennsylvania.

David: The police approach a man, Malachi, who’s described as an old Jew with a single yellow tooth. And they ask him some questions. He doesn’t seem overly eager to work with them.

David: The end of that first chapter is amazing. For starters, the writing sings. I was very tempted to just read the whole thing to you. That first chapter describes an act of God that destroys the crime scene — a storm comes and floods the whole area. And it tells you the end of the story. Here’s what happened to these characters you’re about to read about. We are told that injustices have been done, but, by the end, the story tilts towards the good and the just, even if only slightly.

David: And then the book jumps back to 1925. And we meet two of the characters we just heard about – a Jewish theater manageutOr and his wife. She runs the grocery store of the title. And the story slowly winds its way back to how the skeleton got in the well.

David: This is a book with a big cast. And the narrative is passed from one character to another. It’s more of a story about a neighborhood than any one single person. I’m very much looking forward to reading it. It’s ‘The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store.’ by James McBride.

David: And now, our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]

Melissa: A few weeks ago, Dave and I went to the United States to see family and friends that we hadn’t seen since 2019. We landed in Philadelphia around 1:00 in the afternoon and by 3:00, we did the only reasonable thing: We went to South Philly to do a taste test of Philadelphia cheesesteaks.

Melissa: So first, let’s define a cheesesteak. It’s a long, crusty Italian roll filled with thinly sliced ribeye beef and melted cheese. If you order it with fried onions, it’s called getting it With, which is pronounced WIT, as if it starts with a capital W and the ending H doesn’t exist. I’ll take a cheesesteak WIT. You can also add peppers and mushrooms.

Melissa: There are tons of places in Philadelphia to get cheesesteaks, but the most famous — or notorious — are Pat’s and Geno’s. They’re both found in South Philly, that’s the area around the Italian Market. Pat’s and Geno’s are right across the street from each other, at the corner of 9th and Passyunk Avenue.

Melissa: Pat’s was first. In 1930, Pat Olivieri had a hot dog stand on that very corner. One day, he got sick of eating hot dogs and sent his brother to the butcher for meat. Then he cooked a ribeye steak on his hot dog grill, chopped it up, and stuffed it into a roll with some onions. As the legend goes, a cab driver friend of his swung by for a chat, saw the sandwich, and asked for one. ‘I don’t have any more,’ Pat told him. ‘But you can have half of this one.’ The cab driver took a bite and said, ‘Forget hot dogs. You should make these.’

Melissa: Then came Geno’s. In 1966, a neighborhood fella named Joe Vento decided to get into the cheesesteak business himself. He set up shop across the street with just a box of steaks and $6 to his name. When his son Geno was born 5 years later, he renamed his restaurant for his kiddo — and that Geno still runs the shop today.

Melissa: Both Pat’s and Geno’s have the same menu: cheesesteaks, fries, and sodas with a condiment bar where you can add hot cherry peppers to your sandwich and grab ketchup for your fries. They both have picnic tables on the sidewalk, and the prices are the same at each place. In the name of research, we visited both.

Melissa: Both shops use the same meat and cheese with the option for American, provolone, and cheese whiz. They get their breads from different bakeries. Pat’s uses thinner slices of beef that sort of break down on the grill. That means the meat and cheese melt into each other. Geno’s uses thicker slices of beef that are chopped into chunks on the grill. We got both of our sandwiches With onions, and I picked provolone as our cheese, and our friend Ellen added a Pat’s sandwich with Cheez Whiz to the mix.

Melissa: I gotta be honest, I felt like Cheez Whiz would be a travesty. I was wrong. I preferred the Pat’s with Cheez Whiz. It’s Gloppy in a very satisyfing way that I will crave on Friday nights for a long time. I also preferred the roll at Pat’s, and I gotta say, you’re not eating a cheesesteak for nutrition, so… Pat’s was slightly fattier and that gave it a lot more flavor.

Melissa: So that’s our take. The prevailing wisdom is that locals don’t go to either. When we posted on Instagram about our taste test, we got recommendations that included Jim’s on 4th and South Street, Tony Luke’s, McNally’s Tavern in Chestnut Hill for a chicken cheesesteak, and one vote to skip the cheesesteaks and eat the roast pork sandwich at Paesano’s instead.

Melissa: Important note: Many of these places ship nationwide, so if you’re in the US and have a cheesesteak emergency, you can get long-distance delivery.

Melissa: Visit for links to all of the cheesesteak goodness and for more on the books we discussed. You can also use the handy links in the podcast description.

David: Thanks for joining us in the Libary of Lost Time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent book store to lose some time yourself.

Melissa: Stay curious! We’ll talk to you soon.

[cheerful music]


Top image courtesy of Alan Budman/Shutterstock.

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