There are many signature sandwiches in New York City, from Katz’s Deli pastrami to the bacon, egg, and cheese offerings in the five boroughs. Another bodega staple that’s making headlines right now? shredded cheese.
For the uninitiated, a sliced cheese or “chop cheese” is a sandwich consisting of ground beef, melted cheese, onions, lettuce, tomato, and relish on a hero roll. It is often compared (somewhat controversially) to a cheeseburger, sloppy joe, or cheesesteak.
While people outside of New York were previously unfamiliar, the sandwich has spread beyond the Big Apple on menus and social media in recent years.
But how exactly did shredded cheese come about? And what is the reason for the rapid rise in cultural consciousness? HuffPost spoke with some experts to break down the history and allure of the beloved sandwich.
Shredded Cheese History
So where did shredded cheese come from? Accounts vary, but the leading legend points to a bodega in Harlem. Haji’sAlso known as Blue Sky Daily.
Shop credit carlos sotowho worked there for more than 20 years before passing away in 2014. Some employees say they invented the sandwich after cutting a cheeseburger so it would fit a hero roll because they were out of traditional buns.
Others say that he developed the idea with Yemeni workers who wanted to adopt Dagha Yamnia, an Arabic specialty consisting of chopped meat and vegetables. Another suggestion is that Soto was suffering from dental problems and wanted to create a more chewable burger substitute.
The exact year shredded cheese came on the scene is unclear, though most tend to date it back to the early or mid-1990s. And residents of other neighborhoods have also tried to claim its history.
“I’ve talked to OGs – ‘old gentlemen’ – who say they’ve been slicing cheese since the early ’80s in Queens and Mount Vernon, but honestly I’ve always seen it as a Harlem cheese,” Philip said Williams, co-owner of the shredded cheese-centric sandwich vendor shmakevich in Chelsea.
Whatever the truth, the uncertainty surrounding the origin of the shredded cheese gives the sandwich a certain mythical status that adds to its cultural significance.
“I remember eating my first sliced cheese at age 14. It always hits the spot, and you can’t beat the price,” said Anthony Arias, a Harlem native who owns the food truck New York Shredded Cheese in Los Angeles. He reminisced about his time growing up and ordering sandwiches from the local bodega.
“You can never beat the classic New York shredded cheese – seasoned beef, seasoned grilled onions, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, ketchup and mayonnaise, and of course, Arizona ice tea as a bev!” she added.
Chef Harold Villarosa, who attended high school in East Harlem, recalled frequently eating sliced cheese for lunch. Although many bodegas have raised their prices over time, the sandwich usually costs around $4.
“From 1999 to 2003 it was my staple lunch,” Villarosa said. “Everyone would be running to the sliced cheese place, coming back with four or five of them, and people putting down money.”
How Shredded Cheese Spread Across the Country
For decades, sliced cheese was a purely New York offering—and even then, the sandwich was limited to the culture of certain neighborhoods. But in recent years, more people in and outside the city have become aware of this delicious dish.
The sandwich made a brief appearance in 2014 in the Bronx-themed episode “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown”. And in 2016, the food culture website released a documentary called First We Feast. “Hometown Hero: The Legend of New York’s Chopped Cheese.”
Today, you can find countless videos about the sandwich on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, as well as shredded cheese recipes and reviews.
The popularity of social media helped propel Brooklyn native Williams’ shredded cheese business to new heights.
“during [COVID-19] Pandemic, restaurants were closed. So the bodega was the only place to get food,” he told HuffPost. “We’d order cheese on cacao bread,” he said, referring to the Caribbean favorite. “We started thinking, ‘What if we made our own? made an improved version of – Wagyu Chopped Cheese on fancy bread?”
After perfecting the recipe, Williams and two business partners debuted their creation: Schmackwich. Just two years later, they opened their first permanent location in the new Manhattan food hall Oli Oli Market,
Williams recalled, “I posted a video on my Instagram, and it basically just blew up.” “Fifty orders the first week, 100 orders the next week, and [it] Just kept growing.
Williams said, “We did a tour in Britain last summer and served hundreds of people … who had never heard of cheese.” “A true New York story is a hip-hop sandwich that’s now going mainstream, and we love it.”
For Arias, opening a shredded cheese food truck was the solution to a problem. After moving from New York to Los Angeles during the pandemic, he went out with friends one evening and craved sliced cheese late at night on his way home. Frustrated by the lack of options in her new city, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Thus, New York Shredded Cheese was born.
“There is no spin on a classic. We strive to bring a true New York experience when it comes to this sandwich,” Arias told HuffPost. “Our goal has always been to remind people of home and serve food far and wide. Shredded cheese has been about spreading the gospel!”
As the business has grown, it has decided to cater to “la palate” a bit by offering additional options—from spices and flavorings such as picante to variations such as Impossible Shredded Cheese.
After relocating to San Francisco, Villarosa bought a deli griddle that he has used to make New York favorites like bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches and, of course, shredded cheese.
“I’m very much a traditionalist,” he said. “I do sliced onions on a roll, lots of American cheese, shredded lettuce and tomato, and lots of mayo and ketchup. I try to make it big — $10 worth of shredded cheese.”
Cultural Significance of Shredded Cheese
Many Harlem and Bronx natives feel incredibly protective of the sandwich. A 2016 Shredded Cheese-themed video from the insider That said “most New Yorkers don’t even know it exists” sparked an outcry, especially from locals. YouTuber Jeffrey Almonte replied with my own video Railing against “Columbus Syndrome” on display.
The passionate response underscores the strong cultural significance of the shredded cheese for countless New Yorkers.
“Growing up in New York is such a character builder,” Villarosa said. “And that character comes with pride — pride for your borough, like whether shredded cheese is better in Harlem or the Bronx, and taking great pride in shredded cheese as part of our culture as New Yorkers.” Is.”
For Williams, that kind of pride compelled him to take ownership on spreading the sandwich beyond local bodegas.
“We are a Black-owned business, and for years the Black community has enriched brands and companies and not been able to benefit financially from our own influence,” he said. “When you think about Harlem and Chop cheese, it is the Black and urban culture that buys it and makes it a New York staple. So it’s time we started benefiting economically from our cultures and not just putting money in other people’s pockets.
Arias is excited to bring a sense of nostalgia and a taste of New York to her new community. He believes there’s a simple reason the sandwich has attracted new fans in recent years: It’s delicious!
Arias said, “What was once an exclusive product you could only find in a few bodegas in NYC has now made its way to celebrities, YouTube chefs and content creators who are sharing this beloved bodega classic Is.”
“It can stand on its own. It’s had such a profound effect on New York culture that you can’t separate the two. If you’re talking about New York culture, you can also talk about shredded cheese.” are talking.
“If you know, you know. We’re happy to be a part of the legacy of this sandwich. Our goal is to bring it to every place in the country and the world.”
No matter how far the shredded cheese has spread, though, Villarosa believes nothing compares to New York’s original offering.
“Bodega has a vibe,” he said. “Shredded cheese is a vibe. Just a feel-good factor. People want to be part of the culture. But you need to feel like a New Yorker, the local water, the meat and buns, the bodega cat, the guy who puts that struggle in the seasonings.” Giving in. People can always try to imitate shredded cheese, but they can never get the real deal.
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