It's no surprise that a city obsessed with the past loathes change. But Philadelphia bakers' arguing a constitutional right to shorten lives with trans fat really takes the cake.
It's the bad stuff that makes treats so good, some of the city's most beloved neighborhood confectioners insisted at a City Council hearing last week. The topic? Whether mom-and-pop bakeries should be excused from the new citywide ban on cooking with evil trans fat, which causes an estimated 50,000 fatal heart attacks a year.
The Isgro cannoli. The Stock's pound cake. The Szypula chrusciki. All will be ruined - and livelihoods lost! - if bakers are barred from using the magic, if artificial, ingredient partially hydrogenated oil.
Never mind that none of these cherished family recipes included trans fat in the old country. In Philly, history is a prop in the play of life. Tweak as necessary.
Dressed in his kitchen whites, South Philly baker Gus Sarno acknowledged that his forefathers used butter to build the Isgro cannoli empire, whose motto is "Times change, tradition remains."
"But back then," he testified, customers "bought it and ate it" the same day.
Now Sarno fries mega-batches of his cannoli shells in trans fat six weeks in advance just to keep up with modern holiday demand for his old-world desserts.
Sarno said a healthier version spoiled after a short time in storage. Plus, it tastes disgusting.
The irony is rich, if you stop chewing long enough to think about it.
Laying it on thick
In interviews and at the hearing, the bakers made a passionate pitch for doing things the way they've always done it - even though for them, time apparently began when Crisco was introduced in 1911.
A sucker for sweets, normally I'd join them in telling government to stay out of our diet.
Council members can't stop people from blowing each other away with guns every day. So they're trying to keep kids alive by forcing them to eat better?
The citywide trans-fat ban became law after a unanimous vote this year. Council members weren't afraid of McDonald's, but apparently they're terrified of taking on Termini's.
Councilman Brian O'Neill said neighborhood bakers deserved to break the rules because they made special-occasion food: "I know not to eat pound cake every day."
Councilman Frank DiCicco told a city health official that trans fat in moderation was no biggie.
"If I eat one cannoli a week as compared to six pieces of buttered toast . . .," he hypothesized.
"That's a false comparison," Dr. Kenneth Smith responded, dryly.
The bakers swore they had tried, but they just couldn't make the dough rise.
Vincent Termini Jr. said his cannoli shells tasted like "liquid grease" from a trans-fat-free alternative.
Connie Jesiolowska said her chrusciki went from light and delightful to "bland and heavy" when she substituted peanut or canola oil for the Super Fry shortening she normally uses.
Frank Stock pointed to two pound cakes. "Look at the oil coming out of that one," he said derisively. "It's seeping."
Taste the difference
I took a bag of treats back to the office to conduct a taste test with The Inquirer's food experts - who don't feel much sympathy for bakers relying on harmful artificial goop to boost shelf life and profits.
"Oh, how terrible to think we'd be forced to eat truly fresh cannoli," quipped my food columnist colleague, Rick Nichols.
The trans-fat-free cannoli shell from Isgro was lacking. "There's no snap," restaurant critic Craig LaBan declared. "It's not as tasty."
No one gagged or spit out either of the Stock's pound cakes we sampled, though the trans fat-wid version was "significantly moister," in LaBan's expert opinion.
But couldn't the dry, trans-fat-free cake be cured by adjusting cooking times and temperature? Baking is chemistry, after all. Science requires experimentation.
"When you change an ingredient," LaBan explained, "you have to change the recipe."
Except in Philly, where bakers would rather put their heads in the oven than mess with success. The right to be stubborn was hard fought and long won - as evidenced by the bakers-exemption amendment's 5-1 victory in the Public Health Committee. (The full Council could vote on the fatty matter within two weeks.)
To bakers like Mark Stock, pastry and patriotism go hand in hand.
"Is that the American flag they have flying over City Hall or the Russian flag?" Stock asked.
"We have people fighting in Iraq to give those people the right to choose. But what about our own people?"