"Welcome to Camp Cosby!" said my old friend Manuel Roig-Franzia, leading me through the phalanx of TV news trucks, photographers, and reporters who had gathered on the front steps of the Montgomery County Courthouse awaiting a verdict in Bill Cosby's sexual assault trial. It was entering hour 45 of jury deliberations when I showed up late last week, and the mood was decidedly tense. But I had come with a gift of local sustenance for my media colleagues: two giant bags of zeps.
"What's a zep?" asked Roig-Franzia, an old work pal from my New Orleans days who was covering the trial for the Washington Post.
"A zep is like a hoagie, but it's not. It's sort of like the South Philly hoagie's Norristown cousin," I said, unwrapping a half-dozen variations from the two primary remaining zep competitors, Eve's Lunch and Lou's, as reporters from Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, the U.K.'s Daily Mail, and (of course) the Inquirer gathered around.
Origin stories about the zep and its name abound. Was it named after 1930s deli owner Jimmy Zep? Was it called a zep because its Conshohocken Bakery roll, a little wider and longer than a typical hoagie roll, evokes a zeppelin?
"No one really knows," says Anthony Mashett, whose mother Eve (Scirica) Mashett, bought their sandwich shop in 1965. But a few things about the zep are certain. You don't mix meats on a sandwich (cooked Hatfield salami is standard, though the tuna fish salad is a sleeper hit). The onion and tomato are cut extra thick. There's a nice zesty smear of hot pepper relish. And there's absolutely never, ever any lettuce: "Not allowed on the premises," Mashett says, "because then you're getting into hoagie territory."
If you're lucky, though, the real secret to Eve's (our slight favorite from the tasting) is to have Josephine Wieber make it. With half a century behind Eve's counter, there may be no more experienced sandwich master in the region, which is why I take as gospel her explanation for hand-slicing every onion and tomato to order: "You want all the vegetables' juices to go straight into that sandwich."
It worked for me, as that hand-cut onion tasted extra sweet and crunchy (who needs iceberg, anyway?), with a juicy tomato boost and a directness of flavors elevated by a finishing touch of dusky dried oregano that gave this zep's flavor a powerfully satisfying resonance.
As the afternoon in the courthouse spiraled on toward its inevitable frustrating conclusion — a mistrial — Joseph Ax of Reuters delivered a more favorable verdict on our zep lunch: "It was the best part of the entire two weeks."
– Craig LaBan