The Chopped Cheese sandwich—the iconic bodega sandwich made by spots like Hajji's in Spanish Harlem—has had an interesting year in the spotlight.
In February, Insider published a video about the sandwich that was roundly criticized for being tone deaf and Columbusing (a reaction video responding to the original video has nearly six times as many views).
Though she wasn't the first, April Bloomfield drew some controversy for announcing plans to sell a "guilt-free" $15 chopped cheese at her new Upper West Side restaurant (the restaurant's name—White Gold—didn't win it any favors). Then, the Times weighed in.
In light of all this, First We Feast—which has been a champion of the chopped cheese before it attained this new attention—made a documentary on the sandwich, which premiered today.
We spoke with First We Feast Features Editor and the film's Executive Producer Justin Bolois briefly via email about the film:
There's been so much recent media coverage of the Chopped Cheese (for better and for worse). Do you think it's positive (illuminating an important piece of NYC food culture) or negative (the Columbusing you address in the documentary or even over-exposure)? I think the doc's aim is to explore that very question by putting a spotlight on the different boroughs, and hearing directly from New Yorkers who have real connections to the chopped cheese.
The interesting thing is that if you watch the doc, there's no consensus; the reactions vary widely. If you're Jeffrey Almonte, the surge of attention brought to the chopped cheese is indicative of a larger problem—that Harlem is viewed as "exotic," a sort of tourist destination where people can buy "cheap things" and then dip. The replication of chopped cheese doesn't bother him so much as the prospect that $11 chopped cheeses will start to be sold in his neighborhood; this idea of selling a piece of Harlem culture back to Harlem.
Meanwhile, someone like Bodega Bamz, a Spanish Harlem native, says, for him, it's important to see the chopped cheese in a restaurant in Kentucky. That's a way of celebrating his roots, and making sure the legacy of his neighborhood lives on. In Speedy's words, it needs to "stay in the hood." He's more protective of it. There are multiple truths to this story.
Were you inspired the make this documentary after seeing the strong reactions to recent articles? Yes, although we had been in the process of making it when the April Bloomfield news broke out, so it was a matter of racing to get it done. Watching Jeffrey's video was definitely a turning point. It opened up bigger questions about the chopped cheese—gentrification, culinary ownership. We new we had an opportunity to dig deeply into this, especially because we had done a lot of prior research.
Why do you think the Chopped Cheese doesn't enjoy the pizza/hot dog/bagel status as an iconic NYC food? As Jan Warren pointed out, the chopped cheese doesn't have the legacy of those other foods you mention because it's a relatively new phenomenon. I think there's also the gray area of when chefs mine bodegas for inspiration. One question I wanted to explore was that when it comes to referencing cultures and ideas in the kitchen, are there any things that are off limits? If not, how can one do it respectfully to honor the source?
This is why Ghetto Gastro's perspective is so valuable—here are chefs who are from the Bronx who grew up eating chopped cheeses. They offer two solutions. 1. referencing the source and, what I think is very important 2. a challenge for chefs to keep the chopped cheese at its original price point, citing Superiority Burger as an example of a place that's serving very affordable, quality food.
You do a good job of balancing varying opinions on this subject, but where do you fall on the "gourmet" Chopped Cheese? It's problematic for the very reasons I mention above. On the one hand, you have someone like Gil from The Meat Hook, whose philosophy about sustainability and beef informs his opinion that meat should be a luxury. That's a noble cause, but not one that's realistic for everyone. Then there's someone like Giuseppe Gonzalez, the Bronx-born bartender, who believes that once you create something and put it out to the world, it's no longer yours. People are free to remix and reference however they see fit, which can be a painful process. But what's important about what he says is that in doing so, it opens you up to criticism. That needs to be kept in mind. The White Gold version, objectively speaking, is a good sandwich. But I wouldn't call it a chopped cheese either.