One could say that Jon Waxman was destined to become a Head Hoagie Honcho in the Philadelphia area, growing up within walking distance from what many experts believe to be the finest Hoagie joint in the Delaware Valley, the original Lee’s Hoagie House in the historic Mt. Airy section of the city. Self-described as “never being much of a brown-bagger,” a Lee’s Hoagie was always a stone’s throw away and thus, Waxman’s “go-to” sandwich for school lunches and field trips. (Rumor has it that the mere presence of a Lee’s Hoagie could make the school cafeteria’s Salisbury Steak turn green with envy) Lee’s Hoagie House has since grown to a chain of 17 restaurants, winning several “Best of Philly” awards along the way. And guess who is now the proud owner of two of those 17 franchises…… Jon Waxman. But more on him in a bit.
First, for our non-Philly readers, let’s have a quick crash course on Hoagies 101.
It was made the official sandwich of Philadelphia back in 1992, on Wawa Hoagie Day, by the Mayor at that time, Ed Rendell. However it’s full history goes back to the turn of the 20th century.
Formal definition…. a sandwich made on a soft , long Italian roll, filled with cold cuts, reportedly derived from a term for Italian immigrants who worked at the Hog Island ship yards (a.k.a. hoggies) in the Delaware River during World War I, who packed such sandwiches for lunch.
There is no mention of mayo in any of the Hoagie’s original descriptions. Also, as the sandwich traveled beyond Philly borders, the term began to vary. If you hail from New York, think “Hero,” kickin it in New England or the Midwest, picture a “Grinder.” (which by the way, tends to be hot) You would order a “Bomber” if you get the munchies in Buffalo, Sub or Submarine if you live in Connecticut, (based on proximity to a famous shipbuilding yard) and finally, it you’re keeping it real out on the left coast, you might refer to this most meaty of all sandwiches as a “Torpedo.” Since each regional sandwich model consistently came from areas with large Italian immigrant populations, Italian seasoned oil made perfect sense to top things off. Now I can see a dark opening for mayonnaise onto subs since those can sometimes be improvised with FRENCH bread but you would at least think the Italian roll would be safe from the slime-fest. Think not! Somewhere along the way, Big Mayo got their greedy fingers beneath the deli meat, muscling their way into equal billing with the oil during the order process.
Even prior to their move onto the hoagie, Big Mayo had a sordid history with Philly cuisine. You see, it secretly teamed up with ketchup back in the 50’s, creating something called a Corned Beef Special. This insane “Thousand Island chemistry experiment gone bad,” was first introduced at the R & W deli in the Rittenhouse Square section of Philadelphia. The exact year was 1957 and up to that point, mustard was always the no-brainer for corned beef. But thanks to some clever marketing and a misleading name, this “special” got some legs. It quickly spread to other major urban areas, proving to be another avenue for Mayonnaise, the most “foreign” of all condiments, to sneak its way into American culinary culture. It was a smart strategy as well for its partner in crime, Ketchup. You see, even though Ketchup and Mayo were rivals and did not like each other, both were acutely aware they could not compete directly with mustard as a solo act in a cold corned beef environment. And it really breaks my heart that my hometown of Philadelphia was responsible for the first ever soiling of a corned beef sandwich! (This complicated relationship between Mayo and Ketchup is explored much more deeply in the feature film, The Mayo Conspiracy.)
But getting back to the topic at hand, whether oil or mayonnaise can lay rightful claim to sacred hoagie territory, we first decided to let some local experts weigh in. Philadelphia sports-radio talk show host and proud Italian American, Mike Missanelli, told HoldThatMayo.com, “It’s a VIOLATION to put mayo on an Italian hoagie!” And continuing with the sports-talk theme (since hoagies are consumed by the tens of thousands on Football Sundays in the Philly area), another sports-radio talk show host, Glen Macnow, judged a “Hoagie Hunt Finals” back in 2009, sampling more than 50 stores and exclaimed at the time “Mayo on an Italian hoagie is a sin!” Mike Aruanno, VP of Primo Hoagie franchising, told us in a very confident manner “Our Italian hoagies are served with Olive Oil, not mayo, unless the customer specifically asks for it. The twist to this would be our stores in North Jersey. In New York and North Jersey many customers grew up with oil and vinegar, mostly a red wine vinegar.”
Chef Aaron McCargo, who hails from neighboring Camden, NJ and was winner of the fourth season of the Food Network’s reality television series, The Next Food Network Star, gave HoldThatMayo.com an unexpected pro-mayo rebuttal:
“I wouldn’t put oil on a sandwich but I do get the concept of having the oil to go with the meats, cheeses, and fresh vegetables, as a practical way of eating a traditional hoagie. As for me, I believe having a thin layer of mayo brings the cheese and bread together in perfect harmony. This, to me, adds that chewy, stick to the roof of your mouth, great texture that oil just can’t do. Also, mayo, unlike oil, doesn’t drip on my clothes or leak through the bag while taking from one destination to another. Lets be real. It’s really how you were bought up that makes a hoagie a true delightful experience to the individual . My Mom is and will always be an oil girl. On the other hand, my Dad likes that thin layer of mayo as I do. That’s my thought and that’s the way I roll with my hoagie, with hot peppers, oregano,black pepper, and yes, MAYO! Thanks for the opportunity to speak on, what I consider, to be the sandwich that’s been swept under the rug because of the cheesesteak! ”
So with that unexpected fueling of this great condimental divide, we now turn to Jon Waxman, the owner of Lee’s Abington and Lee’s Horsham, for the final say. Clearly the most educated on this topic, not only does Waxman make a great hoagie, he has lived the hard-core Hoagie lifestyle since childhood. Therefore, he was not afraid to jump right into all the hot-button hoagie issues while sitting down to speak with us at HoldThatMayo.com:
How long have you been serving Hoagies to your constituents in the Philadelphia suburbs?
Wow you must have served a gazillion hoagies over the course of 24 years. So let’s get right down to it. The choice of sandwich dressing is important. Since Lee’s is a “pro-choice” sandwich op, meaning you automatically ask for perfectly seasoned OIL or slimy MAYO at the end of each order, your sample size is significant. From a democratic point of view, who wins?
Oil definitely wins, but not as much as you think.
Ever get any crazy requests for a third option?
Believe it or not, tomato sauce…blows my mind but it does happen
And in your opinion, the appropriate hoagie moisturizer is?????
Oh without a doubt, oil!
Hallelujah! Can hoagie leftovers spoil more quickly when mayo is introduced?
Well, the general rule for both the lunch meat and the mayo is to never let it sit at room temperature for more than four hours. So if you are not able to finish a hoagie in one sitting, make sure you get it in the fridge right away.
On a lighter and healthier note, is Turkey catching up to Italian in hoagie popularity?
Italian always was and always will be first. Turkey is in second place for sure but Turkey will never catch up. Remember, Italian is the original.
In my opinion, the upper topping of onions and seasonings solidifies that awesome aroma of a true Philly style hoagie, which you can pick up on the second you open the door. Some people actually ask for no onions. Is that in essence taking out the soul of the Hoagie? Should we really even allow such an out??
We have to as a good 30% do not get the onion but you are right in that it is a key component for that distinctive smell of a hoagie. The minute you unwrap, the onions carry the aroma really far
What makes a great hoagie?
Fresh produce, good quality meat but the roll is most important.
Why is that?
Being the biggest component, a good roll completes the sandwich
So what make a good roll?
Crispy on outside, soft on the inside.
Since you also serve another Philadelphia Phavorite, cheesesteaks, please clarify something for our mayo-hating readers. I’ve heard stories about people requesting mayo on a steak sandwich? Fortunately, I never actually witnessed such a gruesome debacle and I am still hoping these horror tales can be chalked off to some sort of urban legend, like the one where people get abducted, and placed in a bathtub, only to have their healthy kidneys surgically removed for the black market. Apparently, this was originally made up to scare off tourists in New Orleans, but I can totally see how a “mayo steak” would do the same for those entering into Philadelphia’s city limits
On a cheesesteak…….. believe it or not, it actually happens and much more than you think! I don’t get it. In the beginning I was like really, are you sure?? Now, I’ve been around the block long enough to be used to it.
Horrifying and definitely not the image of Philadelphia we want to represent. By the way, I believe fear of a dry sandwich is the main reason why people get tempted by the evil, gooey mayo.(even though there are safer mayo substitutes now that can help) But in this scenario, the melted cheese and steak juices should take the dryness concern completely out of the equation, no?
Absolutely! Our cheesesteaks are never dry. Only reason I can think of is some inherent desire to clog your arteries.
Any celebrities ever come into your store?
Absolutely. Bradley Cooper, who hails from neighboring Jenkintown, comes in yearly. He always orders a tray for a family gathering. Former Philadelphia Eagle and New Jersey Congressman, John Runyan was just in here a couple weeks ago. We even named a sandwich after him. And staying on a football theme, Eagles play-by-play announcer, Merrill Reese eats in our restaurant as well.
So Lee’s Hoagie House is currently holding a cool contest called “I Ate the Whole Thing” where if you completely finish one of their super-sized Hoagies or Steak Sandwiches, you get your picture posted on their Wall of Fame. Even better, you are automatically qualified for their Hoagie Bowl to win a BIG Screen TV! Usually tempting those with the biggest of appetites, the contest boasts a “90% successful completion rate” from Lee’s sandwich-loving clientele. (and fortunately, there is no Hall of Shame for the 10% who throw in the white towel) Well, I have some advice for all future applicants. To avoid getting egg on your face, first rule of “I Ate the Whole Thing” is Hold That Mayo. Second rule of “I Ate the Whole Thing” (or for that matter, any competitive eating contest) Hold That Mayo!
So now it’s time for our readers to weigh in . Oil or Mayonnaise? We’d love to hear from you!