I travel quite a lot, for both my day job and my writing careers. No matter what the primary reason is for my travel, I seek out good food and tasty experiences bring me joy. I spent a significant portion of my childhood and early adult years in the Philadelphia / New Jersey / NYC area, so I have a whole list of foods I must get, if at all possible. Really, there are 5 iconic foods imperative to Piper’s Happiness when visiting the Tri-State area (meaning, to me, PA/NJ/NY).

Iconic foods #1: Philly Cheesesteak

Perhaps the easiest iconic food for me to get is the Philly cheesesteak. Why? Both Geno’s and Tony Luke’s are obtainable right in the Philadelphia International Airport (as of the time of this post).

My favorite childhood location used to be Jim’s on South Street, but I heard Jimmy’s recently suffered a fire and I’ve no idea how the cheesesteaks taste post-fire recovery or even whether the location has managed to open again yet.

I’m not going into a deep dive into the differences between the various places that serve a good Philly cheesesteak in the city of brotherly love. Instead, I’ll tell you the way I like mine:

Cheesesteak with provolone, mushrooms, and fried onions.

Occasionally, usually when the Eagles are being celebrated, I like my cheesesteaks wit Whiz. (generally dyed green)

I love a cheesesteak that starts on good, fresh bread – the kind you really can only get in the Philly / NJ / NYC area. I prefer my steak chopped into tiny pieces on the grill, as opposed to the slices remaining intact. I like my cheese melted right into my chopped steak. Give me a LOT of cheese. No dry cheesesteak bite, please.

A truly good Philly cheesesteak means I don’t ever feel the desire for ketchup or hot peppers or anything but my hot, messy, melty goodness.

If you’ve read my True Heroes series, you might have noticed a few references to my love for good Philly cheesesteak in Extreme Honor, Ultimate Courage, or Absolute Trust.

Philadelphia cheese steak

Iconic foods #2: Pastrami Reuben

classic Reuben Sandwich

Some of the best classic reubens I’ve ever had have been served to me in either a Jersey or NY diner. Give me perfectly grilled marbled rye cut just thin enough to maintain the structural integrity of massive layers of pastrami topped with tangy sauerkraut, melty Swiss cheese, and generous dollops of Thousand Island dressing.

I prefer my reuben as a sandwich I can pick up with my hands and attempt to get my mouth around for a big bite. Open-faced sandwich melts have their place, but I don’t generally go for my reubens in this format.

Give me a crunchy, refreshing dill pickly spear on the side.

Some of the best pastrami or corned beef comes out of NYC (and upstate NY or out of certain parts of PA) and do I need to mention the bread quality again?

Iconic foods #3: New York Egg Cream

It’s a lightly fizzy chocolate milk, honestly.

The key to understanding the NY Egg Cream, in my mind, is very similar to understanding the difference between a Black & White and a chocolate milkshake. You could make an egg cream drink with chocolate milk the way you could make a shake with chocolate ice cream, but there’s a distinct difference when starting with milk and adding chocolate syrup.

There’s something incredibly nostalgic about taking my first sip through a straw of a New York Egg Cream and my mouth filling with chocolate syrup first, followed by refreshing cool milk and seltzer.

Iconic foods #4: Italian Sub

Call it a sub (submarine) or a hoagie and I’m not going to be the person to argue with you. What I will tell you is that I can’t get an Italian sub anywhere as good as I’ve enjoyed in South Jersey. Part of that could be because my teen years were spent within a few minute bike ride of Aversa’s Italian Bakery for the freshest breads and excellent deli meats. I have literally made the exact same order at Jersey Mike’s in Seattle and in New Jersey and the same exact sandwich was better in New Jersey.

Most recently, though, I popped by White House Sub Shop in Atlantic City, and oh wow did this place fulfill my craving for a good Italian sub. It was everything I remember an Italian sub being: layers of good quality thin-sliced capicola, salami, pepperoni, and ham, piled so high the girth of the sub is almost the size of my face drenched in good vinegar, crisp shredded lettuce, fresh tomatoes, sliced onions, and hot peppers chopped up and spread thick enough to be almost like a tapenade. I know my romance readers didn’t miss the note on girth, but my dears, the regular sub from White House has a length that is proportionately impressive at just about three feet long.

I kid you not.

Iconic foods #5: Scrapple

This last one is really for the foodies who don’t flinch at consuming all the various bits of a beast, because truly there’s no reason to ask what’s in scrapple. It’s a nondescript loaf of mostly pork scraps chopped so fine, it’s a pressed mush. Cooked properly, it’s glorious. Scrapple is another diner food and I have opinions on how it is served best. Your mileage may vary, based on your own personal preferences.

I like my scrapple sliced thin and lightly coated in flour, then fried so each slice is delicately crisp on the outside and just a touch soft in the middle. This is the way Piper Mommy used to make it at home and the way it was served at my favorite local diners growing up. I’d enjoy scrapple with eggs over easy and crisp hash browns.

I honestly haven’t tried scrapple anywhere else, because I haven’t really encountered it anywhere else. But if you decide to give it a try, beware the scrapple sliced thick like meat loaf. That’s a completely different experience and I cannot vouch for the taste.

What does this have to do with your writing, Piper?

Maybe nothing, maybe everything. I teach an entire class on using Food in Characterization on occasion, exploring how a character’s reactions to food can be a part of character arc. Perhaps I’ll teach this class again in the near future. Check in at Writing the Other or Clarion West, as I teach most often for these two non-profit organizations.