As a sociology student at Temple University, Howard Robboy became intrigued by the idea that if a man from Cincinnati goes to San Diego and asks for a rocket he will receive a torpedo, and if a man from Norristown, Pa., goes to Madison, Wis., and asks for a zeppelin he will receive a garibaldi, and if a man from Buffalo goes to Las Vegas and asks for a bomber he will receiver nothing other than a befuddled look - or, perhaps, a buxom chorus girl.
For they are all requesting and receiving (except in the case of the chorus girl) virtually the same thing - a sandwich, known most commonly as "submarine," locally as "hoagie," consisting of Italian meats and cheeses, tomatoes and onions, oregano or red peppers, sprinkled with olive oil and served on an Italian roll.
It is a venerable sandwich, spilling forth its ingredients more appetizingly than a cornucopia, strands of onion and slices of cappicola peeking out from under an uncloseable crust. An almost unfathomable foodstuff, awesome in size and weight, it has forced restaurant chains, propagated rivalrous competitions between cities, incited magazine staffs to fatuous searches for "the best," fed millions and been labeled throughout the country with over 15 different names.
It was not during the eating of a hoagie that Robboy, now a professor at Trenton State College, became fascinated.
It was rather as an undergraduate at Temple, taking a course in culture change. He needed a subject for his term paper.
"I knew just from experience," he says, "that in Philadelphia it is called a hoagie, and in Atlantic City it is called a submarine, in New York a hero, and in the South, a poor boy. So I decided to go to the library and read everything there was on it.Well, I didn't find anything."
This absence of hoagie literature was, more than anything a stimulus to Robboy. He would begin his own.
He did this by first going to the university library and looking in the phone books of 44 major American cities under pizzerias and restaurants. By this method he found out where the hoagies were, and by what names they were sold.
This was 10 years ago and there were three major areas where the hoagie was not found: the Northwest (Seattle, portland, Boise, Helena), the Midwest (Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, Tulsa) and the Southeast (Augusta, Charleston, Charlotte). Most were to be found in the Boston-Washington corridor, but Buffalo had more hoagie shops per capita than anyother city.
Submarine, he found, is the most popular name for the sandwich, followed by hoagie, poor boy and grinder. In some cities they go by more than one name, such as in Philadelphia, where one finds both hoagies and submarines. Other names are torpedo (Reno, San Antonio, San Diego), Italian sandwich (Louisville, Reading, Allentown), hero (New York City and Newark(, rocket (Cheyenne and Cincinnati), bomber in Buffalo, mufalatta in New Orleans, Cuban sandwich in Miami, wedige in Westchester County N.Y. and slame in Berkeley. Norristown is the only place it is referred to as a zeppelin, and Madison the one place one finds it as a garibaldi.
Robboy, at this point, was like a hungry man who has taken a bite of a hoagie and, tasting the fringe of tomato, smells the salami and provolone inside. Armed with the names, he went looking for their origins. He read books on food and Philadelphia folklore, and histories of Italian immigration. He perused newspapers. He interviewed the established grocery clerks and food service people, listening attentively to their tales, and tasting religiously their wares.
In reading about the Italian immigrants he found that, on arrival in the United States, they changed from country peasants, who would eat their meals with their families, to urban laborers, who ate them on the job. Retaining their preference for Italian meats, cheeses and seasonings, and needing now an inexpensive yet substantial meal that they could eat away from home, they created the hoagie.
When and where the first hoagie was made, Robboy has never discovered. Because the immigrants tended to settle in the same port cities at which they arrived, it is believed that either New York or New Orleans, in the late 1880s, saw the first hoagie. In 1891, C.O. Baily reported buying one for five cents in New Orleans, though other sources say Clovis and Benjamin Martin in 1921, in the French Market Cafe, invented the poor boy, taking a long loaf instead of the round, and filling it with cheese, ham and tomatoes.
Likewise, New York claims tht in 1885 Ernest Petrucci and the Manganaroas, who had emigrated from Naples earlier that year, sold hoagies in their Greenwich Village grocery store.
Falling somewhat later is the claim that South Philadelphia dock workers during World War I were the first to eat the sandwich. And not to be forgotten is Catherine DiCostanza, who boasts of her city of Chester, Pa., as "The Hoagie Capital of the World," and insists that the sandwich was born in her grocery store by hungry card players who, finding nothing else handy, split open an Italian loaf and stuffed it with meats and cheeses. It became an instant success.
But no matter where it was invented, it soon spread in popularity to ethnic groups other than Italians. Its largest acceptance at this time was during periods of economic instability, specifically the 1930s and '40s. And though it is attributed to southern Italians, who comprised most of this country's immigrants, there is no record of it in Italy.
Hoagie, which was not found in Philadelphia directories until 1945, is an etymologist's nightmare. As a term, it carries more possible origins than, as a sandwich, it does ingredients.
When Robboy appeared on a talk show in Philadelphia soon after the publication of his first article, "The Socio-Cultural Context of an Italian-American Dietary Item," he received a call from as interested listener claiming to be the inventor of the word boagie. His name was Alphonso DePalma and he told this story:
One Sunday afternoon in 1928 he was walking with a friend down Broad Street when they passed two Italians eating the large sandwiches. DePalma remarked to his friend, "You have to be a hog to eat one of those."
When, a few years later, he found himself unemployed, DePalma opened a store on South 21st Street selling these same sandwiches. Nearby was a store selling submarines so, to be different, DePalma called his "hoggies," remembering his earlier remark. Due to the haughty accent of Philadelphians, he insisted, and their inability to pronounce "hoggies," the term "hoagie" developed. His is just one of a thousand stories in the hoagie city.
Some other names offer interesting, if less disputed, origins. Poor boy, which is generally considered merely a description of the consumer, might well derive from the French word "pourboire" - meaning literally "to drink," but also the word for "tip." Nuns in New Orleans convents would slice loaves of French bread and fill them with whatever was handy in the larder. They would then give them to waifs when they come knocking at the door calling "pourboire."
The grinder, which was put in an oven and served warm by a Greek in New England, has come solely to mean, in many places, a warm hoagie. The Cuban sandwich, coined in Southern Florida due to the large Cuban population, has become known in Central Florida, where there are relatively few Cubans. Blimpie is the name of a chain of hoagie restaurants, and Robboy is interested to see if it will gradually work its way into the vulgate as another term for hoagie.