Prunes and Prism

RULES FOR YOUNG LADIES: Some arch advice on snagging a husband. Exercising the mouth into a pretty shape through repetition of certain words seems to have been an indoor sport for young nineteenth-century girls; in Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens' overly bred girl repeats, "papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism." (

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Philadelphia Story

I'm sorry for having fallen halfway off the face of the earth again. Remember the sinus malady that got replaced by the epizoodie? Well, the epizoodie has given way to some mysterious ailment characterized by exhaustion, headaches, and periodic bouts of nausea. A hasty Googling revealed that I must have carbon-monoxide poisoning. Yesterday I napped on the office couch with a shawl over my head.

I could just be allergic to 36, which is what I turned on Friday. If 33 was significant because it was Christ's age at crucifixion, 36 is significant because it's the first age I can remember my mother being; that is, when I first became aware that she had an age just like I did, and got older every year just like I did, and had been 9 once, as I was. Once the Comrade went to the zoo with co-worker Vronsky and his 4-year-old son, Little Vronsky, who on the subway became enraptured by a baby in a stroller. He turned to the Comrade and said wistfully, "Dva goda nazad, ya bila babechka." ("Two years ago, I was a baby.") I know the feeling!

The Comrade and I celebrated by spending the weekend in Philadelphia, which has the twin virtues of being (1) there, and close, and (2) accessible via the $12 Chinatown bus. I'd hoped the bus would be full of old Chinese people on holiday, but alas, everyone was just cheap like us. There was Chinese-restaurant music piped in, only barely audible when we slowed for a toll booth.

  • The Liberty Bell is smaller than you think it is.
  • The entire time I was there I could not stop thinking about thirtysomething, heretofore my main cultural reference point for the city of Philadelphia.
  • We ate three Philly cheese steaks apiece in three days*.
While we were planning the trip I was giving the Comrade the run-down on the Philly cheese steak and what I had theretofore considered the gold standard of non-Philly Philly cheese steaks; id est, the one from In the Park Grill at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Most of the UT cafeteria food would drive you straight to the soft-serve machine, but this cheese steak was sublime, a real diamond in the rough. The grill guys (who in my mind I have conflated with those garage attendants who steal the car in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) used to keep a kitchen sponge on a handle in a big vat of melted butter that they would use to first thwack and then sop your hoagie bun before filling it with fried meat, peppers, and onions and then (Readers, I want no secrets from you) squirting mayonnaise on top. By the time I moved off campus I was so fat I needed to be airlifted to my hilltop classes.

We first went to Jim's on South Street, supposedly the nexus of the cheese-steak universe, and after waiting in line for half an hour, sat upstairs underneath Sinbad's autograph and bit in. And friends, it was good. Jim's cheese steaks are more deliciously steaky and less satisfyingly squishy than the ones at the "New York Deli," and both were edged out by the ones at Rick's in Reading Terminal Market, which gets even more bonus points because you can take it to the beer garden in the back.

But you know what? In a cheese-steak death match, I would put any one of them up against In the Park Grill, and I'd bet my money on the latter. This was an epiphany worthy of Dorothy Gale. Full of Yeungling-induced goodwill, I was in the ladies' room trying to wash the onion smell off my hands and thinking of that buttered sponge. Gosh, what kind of sponge was that? I wondered dreamily. What kind of sponge has a handle as long as a man's forearm?

With age, wisdom: As I scrub-scrub-scrubbed I realized the butter sponge must have been originally intended for toilets. This didn't leaven my nostalgia nearly as much as you might imagine.

The Comrade, who's never eaten butter from a toilet sponge, didn't understand why I wanted to go to the Mutter Museum to see the world's largest colon and thought we should go to the Philadelphia Flower Show instead. Guess who won. It'll be even more fun next year when we can get the AARP discount.

*Could this be the source of my "carbon monoxide poisoning"?


Anonymous ashok said...

Happy birthday - yours is March 3rd?

Wow. So is mine (freaky coincidence music plays now).

2:05 PM  
Blogger Recovering Baptist said...

Happy birthday from your family who sucks but loves you nonetheless. I went to Philadelphia once, and you'll love this, on a mission trip with church. Godless heathen home of democracy!! At Union University, the cafeteria ladies were all African-American and yelled one of two phrases as you approached: "WHITE OR WHEAT?" and "YOU CA' ONLY HA' ONE ENTREE!" And everything had pimentos in it. I would eat anything slathered in butter. The only thing that would have made that story better is if the sponge were sludging on melted cheese. Mmmmmm. Melted cheese.

3:06 PM  
Blogger frostine99 said...

Ashok, how crazy is that? We also share a birthday with Jean Harlow and Ivan Denisovich, my shoe-repair guy.

Recovering Baptist, I am actually LingOL about "YOU CA' ONLY HA' ONE ENTREE!" That seems pretty stingy for a Baptist college -- wasn't there somebody in the back turning loaves into fishes? My favorite UT cafeteria lady had a speech impediment: "MAY AH SAAAAHRVE YOU, PLAYZ?"

5:33 PM  
Blogger frostine99 said...

Oh, also on March 3: the birth of Alexander Graham Bell, the debut of Carmen, and the signing of the Treaty of Brest Litovsk.

5:42 PM  
Anonymous ashok said...

Carmen is my favorite opera. That treaty sounds like the thing that ended Russian participation in the First World War, not sure.

12:58 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

So how did you order your cheesteak? With/With/Without?

I can't remember what they mean now but I remember there was a certain protocol that needed to be followed otherwise you'd end up with something completely different.

There is a "Phillys Best" Cheesesteak place here in Chicago, it's supposed to be good, but I can't eat one because I know it can't be AS GOOD. But they do have Tastykakes there.....oh great, now I'm gonna have to go down to Belmont and get me some Butterscotch Krimpets! Thanks a lot!

3:12 PM  
Blogger Recovering Baptist said...

I had a friend in California who had an huge addiction to butterscotch krimpets, which are hard to find out there. I used to send him a box of 50 every christmas. Because I'm an ennabler. Any alcoholics out there? Drug addicts? I live to serve.

5:00 PM  
Blogger frostine99 said...

Well, I'd read in the guidebooks that one orders a "cheesesteak wit" if one wants with onions and mushrooms, but when I got there I didn't hear anybody else doing that and got too embarrassed so I spelled it all out. I had mine with onions, mushrooms, and provolone, though at Rick's the Comrade had one with pepper jack and it ruled. The pepper jack is softer and gets real runny!

But more important -- what's a Butterscotch Krimpet? Clearly this is something I've missed, and now I bet I'll NEVER be able to eat one because you probably can't get them in New York.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Recovering Baptist said...

It's a butterscotch flavored cupcake. You know those packaged chocolate cupcakes with the icing on top that you can peel off into one lovely shelf of icing and eat separately? It's like that, only butterscoth. Apparently they have a cult following. And now for some reason I would really love to have a twinkie. And I can't remember the last time I ate one.

1:52 PM  
Blogger frostine99 said...

Have you ever heard of deep-fried Twinkies? Such a perversion of nature, and yet if I knew where I could get one I'd run over there so fast I'd kick my own fat little ass!

4:15 PM  
Blogger thirty-year-old secretary said...

Apropos speech impediments. (Note: book ticket to hell)Dave does a wicked impression of the woman who worked at Butterballs (a waterfront fried fish place he was taken to as a child.) The poor woman would say, "Would y'all like slaw on yer thrimp burger?"

8:38 PM  
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