Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new documentary about New York’s chopped cheese sandwich digs in to what happens when pricey restaurants adapt bodega fare.
The chopped cheese sandwich is usually prepared on a sizzling bodega griddle. Hamburger patties are cleaved into ground beef, tossed with onions, and blanketed with plastic-y cheese. The whole melted mixture is heaped onto a toasted hero. Next come assorted toppings—shredded lettuce, a smattering of sliced tomatoes—and squiggles of ketchup and mayo.
“The best description, I would say, is a wonderful, magical sandwich,” says the rapper Bodega Bamz, a native of Spanish Harlem, in Hometown Hero: The Legend of New York’s Chopped Cheese, a new documentary from First We Feast.
The documentary tracks the sandwich to delis across Harlem, the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn—and to pricier butchers and restaurants that have remixed its fixings—in pursuit of questions about the stickiness of cultural exchange: Who does cuisine belong to? What’s the difference between homage and pandering?
Until recently, the chopped cheese enjoyed “a below-the-radar kind of renown, savored by those who grew up eating it at bodegas across the city, unknown to many others—and fetishized by a few,” the New York Times wrote last month. It’s been shouted out by homegrown rappers, but unlike the bacon-egg-and-cheese, for instance, it hasn’t inspired duels on annual best-of lists.
Then, the sandwich had a cameo in an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, and, last summer, the butcher-shop-cum-restaurant White Gold announced plans to debut a $15 riff on it. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Alamonte, a writer and YouTuber who knows his way around a chopped cheese, uploaded a video in which he diagnosed an outbreak of “Columbus syndrome”—that habit of “discovering” something that is already deeply rooted. (So far, the video has racked up 5.3 million views.)
Food is often a product of a neighborhood, and the people who shaped that place. Our CityEats series testified to that: Baltimore’s beef stew reflects a wave of German immigration; Portuguese denizens of Montreal established a hub for charred rotisserie chicken bathed in piri-piri sauce. If you take a dish out of context, it might taste similar, but would likely mean something different. In the film, members of the Ghetto Gastro test kitchen wonder if the chopped cheese’s spread is one example of gentrification’s wide reverberations. They caution against “poverty tourism” and “hood foraging.” At bodegas, the chopped cheese runs around $4, a price that many write-ups of the sandwich have drooled over. In comparison to a boozy, bottomless brunch, yes, it’s a good deal—but "it's not $4 because it's some shopping sale. It's $4 because that's our standard of living,” Alamonte told Mic.
The relationship between cuisine and gentrification is a complicated one. Homes in underserved neighborhoods may appreciate in value when a gourmet grocery store pops up nearby; then again, there’s likely to be an uneasy relationship between newcomers and long-term eateries at risk of being nudged out. Richard Florida has noted that Yelp reviews of restaurants are a litmus test for diners’ perceptions of food in changing neighborhoods, and sometimes particular outposts become a nexus for simmering resentments about gentrification and displacement to come to a boil. Such was the case in London last year, where protestors took aim at the Cereal Killer Café. To some, the $6 bowls of cereal encapsulated the epitome of Shoreditchification, which Feargus O’Sullivan described as a neighborhood transforming from a struggling enclave to a “cascade of bars, beards, and real estate bubbles.”
That theme appears in the film, when a group of guys chowing down in front of Hollis Deli in Queens joke that a Williamsburg version of the sandwich might be dressed “with quinoa and kale instead of lettuce.” This cracks them up.
“There’s a fine line between complete copying and complete pirating of ideas, and tributing, referencing, and honoring,” says Gil Calderon, the chef de cuisine at the Meat Hook, in the film. The restaurant serves a rendition that starts with grass-fed beef. The meat is loaded with banana peppers, a swath of mustard, and marrow butter. “I’m here to spread the gospel,” Calderon continues. “I think we need more versions.”
When other chefs adapt the bodega fare, what do they owe the originators and devotees? The film offers a number of solutions: Maybe a menu could call out the tradition to which it’s paying homage; maybe some of the profits could be funneled into urban gardens and school farms that work to close the nutrition gap between high-income neighborhoods and struggling ones.
Bamz, for one, isn’t sweating the spread of the chopped cheese. “I’m not mad at it,” he says at the end of the film. Adapting a dish can diminish a culture, or celebrate it. Maybe, he says, there could be “a bit of Spanish Harlem in Kentucky.”
You can watch the full documentary here.