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Susquehanna Life

Just for Fun: Sunbury Sandwich Stroll

By Glen Retief

Paris has macarons: cloud-light, sweet confections made from egg whites and baker’s sugar. New York has chewy, delicious bagels, brought there by Polish Jews who, in the 13th century, began boiling the bread they sold to Christians to defuse anti-Semitic accusations about Jews being carriers of contagions.

And Sunbury, Pennsylvania? Which food tradition encapsulates the spirit of this gritty and faded, but beautiful mill town at the confluence of the great Susquehanna’s West and North branches?

A Response to Fear

Little Addy’s Spicy Chicken Mango sandwich won the Judge's Choice Award in 2019

This question was at the forefront of the mind of actor, playwright and Bible scholar Peterson Toscano, on the afternoon of September 12, 2017.

That morning, Toscano had strolled down Market Street in Sunbury and noticed posters stapled to telephone poles and trees. These signs, which he later learned had been printed out from an Alt-right web site, contained messages like, “White people will not be replaced,” and demands that Asian- and African-Americans should go back to “their” continents.

Toscano reported the bigotry to police, clergy and the local newspaper. The signs were, of course, not just hateful. They were also nonsensical. The only original inhabitants of Sunbury are the Susquehannock, who lived in wooden longhouses, wore bear and wolf skins, and grew corn, beans, and squash in the fertile flood plains.  Compared to them, everyone is a newcomer, an interloper.

But Toscano didn’t want to react to the posters in what had become a familiar pattern of goading by white supremacists, followed by protests by progressives.  He wanted to address the fear that seemed to underlie the posters—of a culture feeling displaced.

That was how he found himself, just over a week later, in the offices of Sunbury Revitalization Inc. (SRI), talking about sandwiches.

The Backstory

Sunbury, population 9,500, has more than 20 downtown sub shops, all of them, at the time of writing, still serving up sandwiches in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic.  As a point of comparison, the town doesn’t have a single bookstore, bike shop or sushi counter.  

Subs, though, are serious business here.  Forget the Eagles versus the Steelers, Democrats against Republicans.  In Sunbury, your heroes are as likely as not to be, well, heroes: say, Marlin’s turkey footlong, piled with iceberg lettuce and sliced tomato.  Or Sunbury Sub’s Meatball Cosmo, with thick tomato gravy and sprinkled parmesan cheese.

So, then, voilá: the annual Sunbury Sandwich Stroll was adopted that September by SRI, as a positive celebration of the city’s heritage, to help take the focus off fear, narrowness and bigotry.  

The idea was simple: let visitors buy 10 tickets, for $10, then let them exchange each ticket for a mini-sandwich at one of 15 or more businesses, all within walking distance of the town’s main thoroughfare.

Something completely different 

Cameron Park, in downtown Sunbury

At first local businesses invited to join in were somewhat skeptical.

“It just seemed a bit strange to them,” Toscano remembers today.  “A whole event dedicated purely to sandwiches?  But in the end they saw a chance to bring downtown to life again.”  

On a sweltering Saturday in June 2018, many dozens of people descended on the historic city center.  SRI quickly sold out of its hundred tickets.  A lighthearted camaraderie filled the streets.  When people got too full to eat any more, they gave away their tickets to local teenagers hanging out under the maple trees, in Cameron Park. 

Tammy Koonsman, owner of Little Addy's Café, and Derek Wolfgang, chair of Sunbury Revitalization Inc.’s Business & Economic Development Committee

The consensus among town leaders was that the event had been wildly successful.  Participating sandwich shops ran the gamut from an ice cream sandwich at the Dip Inn to the eventual winner of both the popular and the critics’ vote, Pop Snyder’s pulled pork special, with fried bread, Swiss cheese and sautéed onions.

In 2019, the celebration attracted new participants like Big Mambo’s Latin Bistro, which provided the stroll’s first sandwich hailing from the developing world—a fat, juicy Cuban, with ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. The Judge’s Choice Award that year was Little Addy’s Spicy Chicken Mango sandwich.

Where do we stand?

In 2020, of course, the shadow of the coronavirus epidemic hangs over any event scheduled for the summer.

Tokyo just postponed the Olympics. The Kentucky Derby remains stuck, until September, in the starting gate.  The Cannes Film Festival has been wound forward until July.

But, for now, the Sunbury Sandwich Stroll remains scheduled for June 27.  SRI is hopeful that this summer will allow the city to once more celebrate its favorite, working-class lunchtime snack—a morsel that arguably mirrors the structure of our state.

 There’s an old joke, after all, that the commonwealth of Pennsylvania is shaped like a sandwich. At the top, you have a slice of urban Pittsburgh.  At the bottom, a crust of sophisticated Philadelphia.

And in the middle?  They call it Pennsyltucky, as if the middle of the state was all about bluegrass music, hunting and moonshine.

But as those of us who live here know, it’s often the filler that makes the hoagie. And our own region, as readers of Susquehanna Life will know, is full of tasty and surprising delights.

Glen Retief, recipient of the 2011 Lambda Literary Award for his book, The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood, teaches Creative Nonfiction at Susquehanna University.

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