With most of America rooting for the Eagles in the Super Bowl, cheesesteaks are are having a moment. They’re being mentioned in national news articles, being pitched by PR firms, cresting a five-year peak on Google Trends and showing up on menus across the country.
But most people are getting them wrong.
For some reason, when out-of-towners create variations on the classic Philly sandwich, they always add bell peppers.
Which, as just about any true Philadelphian will tell you, is not canon. A cheesesteak is meat, cheese, bread and sometimes onions — and that’s it.
There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to the banishment of green peppers from the cheesesteak ingredient list. Local purveyors also hold this belief. Asked whether those strips of vegetable belong on a classic cheesesteak, most shop owners Billy Penn contacted were firmly in the negative camp.
“NO,” was the definitive answer from Frank Olivieri, third-generation owner of Pat’s King of Steaks, the tourist destination considered the sandwich’s birthplace.
Olivieri’s sentiment was echoed by Steve Iliescu, founder of Steve’s Prince of Steaks, whose daughter Abbe Arno relayed the message via email. “He does have an opinion,” she wrote. “They do not.”
So followed Barry McGuinn, owner of Barry’s Steaks (winner of Billy Penn’s 2016 Ultimate Cheesesteak Bracket). “I do not believe green peppers should automatically go on a cheesesteak,” he said.
“Tradition is Kraft Cheez whiz and sauteed onion,” offered Ethel, matriarch at Chubby’s Steaks, sounding a bit like a broken record.
So where’d the idea that peppers have a place on a cheesesteak come from? Unclear.
No doubt that the internet has helped the misconception spread. This image of green-pepper-ified meat and cheese has proliferated on Twitter food porn accounts for years.
A Tasty recipe video for cheesesteak skewers spiked with bell peppers went viral (BuzzFeed then apologized for getting it wrong). A pepper-filled ESPN recipe published just a few months ago generated lots of backlash.
But the truth is that green peppers are actually pretty popular on cheesesteaks — right here in Philadelphia.
Yes, most local cheesesteak spots do offer the topping. Even Geno’s, which was a holdout when stubborn founder Joey Vento was running it, has softened under second-gen owner Geno Vento. The neon-lit East Passyunk destination now offers the option to toss peppers in the roll.
Peppers have been available across the street at Pat’s for decades, said Olivieri, who estimates probably 40 percent of sandwich orders at the 88-year-old stand include peppers.
At Chubby’s the number of green-peppered cheesesteaks ordered is around 25 percent, and at Barry’s, around one fifth of people ask for them. The Center City outpost of Steve’s sees so many out-of-town customers that approximately 60 percent opt for peppers, said Arno, who added that “most locals do not” get them.
Ken Silver, president of Jim’s South Street, is more lenient than his compatriots.
“We sell peppers on roughly 25 percent of the sandwiches sold,” Silver said, “and wouldn’t begin to question the authenticity of getting them on a sandwich.”
His shop has offered peppers since what he called “the early days.” They used to be cooked by hand, when a good day of business meant a couple hundred sandwiches went flying out the door. Now that it’s thousands served daily, he buys high-grade canned peppers from Mexico — “a nice variety of red, green and yellow cut thin.”
Silver compared Philadelphians’ dogmatic insistence that peppers are wrong to the idea that the only proper way to order a cheesesteak is with Whiz.
“Whiz wasn’t around for the first 20 years of the cheesesteak’s existence!” he noted.
McGuinn, of Barry’s Steaks, prefers a plain steak with fried onions, but admitted even he sometimes opts for peppers to change things up.
“Something like that is a matter of taste. [Peppers] are very good on a cheesesteak,” he said. “I personally have them on occasion.”