This article was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Aug. 16, 2003.
It used to be the New Hampshire primary that augured the chances of a candidate. But now - at last - the cheesesteak has got its due as the true ring of fire any Oval Office hopeful must survive.
Just ask Sen. John F. Kerry, who's going to have to do some fancy chewing if he hopes to recover his front-runner image after stumbling this week through his first try at Pat's King of Steaks.
He ordered a steak with Swiss cheese.
Swiss cheese, as any local knows, is not an option. The Massachusetts Democrat may as well have asked for cave-aged Appenzeller. But even when Kerry was given a proper cheesesteak hoagie, he made matters worse by delicately nibbling at it as if it were tea toast.
Not a cool move for the Boston Brahmin trying to prove he can hang with youse guys down at Ninth and Wharton.
News of Kerry 's gaffe, first reported by the Inquirer's Nancy Phillips, then gleefully retold by the Washington Post, spread like a can of Cheez Whiz spilled on a hot day - across the country, then the world.
Calls asking what I thought of Kerry's fumbled cheesesteak etiquette came from radio stations in New York and Boston. ABC's Good Morning America put in a request. Soon, the BBC's World News was calling from London.
An employee sweeping around the tables at Pat's on Thursday couldn't fathom all the uproar: "All this over a sandwich?"
He was young. But the rest of us know it matters - and not because we require our president to be a gourmet. A candidate who's really in the know would drive to John's Roast Pork or Tony Luke's in deep South Philadelphia, where he could park his caravan smack on the median of Oregon Avenue and slurp a steak Italian (with greens and sharp provolone) in the shade of the I-95 overpass.
But eating a campaign steak is much more about symbolism, and as political photo ops go, that first voracious bite in front of Pat's has more impact than any distinguished portrait beside the Liberty Bell. This is, after all, the crossroads where people of all ilks convene to set aside their quibbles and indulge in the universal act of stuffing their faces with grease and atty-tude.
Even the bluest blood can suddenly become more human to the masses if he emerges from this two-fisted trial of appetite with a swagger and some juice on his loafers. If not, well ...
"I was a Kerry fan before this," a friend wrote me. "Now that support is in grave danger."
Soon, I also began to hear from Philadelphia-bred workers for the campaign of Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and Kerry rival, whom they claim to have properly tutored down to the Yo! in the minutiae of our local ways. They've even studied the Hoover of steak inhalation himself - Gov. Rendell - for the fine points of gastronomic technique.
"Hey, what's Ed Rendell call his style of eating the cheesesteak?" asked Eric Schmeltzer, a Dean spokesman and Elkins Park native. "You know, when he flips the tie over his shoulder? We're having a debate on that. Is it the 'Philly Flip' or something?"
Meanwhile, back at Pat's, the "Vote for Kerry " sticker affixed to the order window is already looking frayed. But the good-humored counterman taking steak orders promised that a Swiss-cheese special would, in fact, be introduced - "if Kerry wins."
The ill-humored counterman taking drink orders, however, has had his fill of the Swiss-cheese wisecrackers who have swarmed there in Kerry's wake: "This isn't funny anymore. Somebody's gonna get hit."
Kerry, for his part, might take some advice from Rule No. 4 of the "How to order a cheesesteak" commandments posted outside Pat's: "If you make a mistake, don't panic, just go to the back of the line and start over."
Order it Whiz wit and repent! Because the New Hampshire primary won't offer a second chance.