Sky Full of Bacon

Urban foragers are people who eat what grows naturally from a very unnatural place— a city. In this all-vegetarian Sky Full of Bacon podcast, urban foragers show us how they find food all around them, and we nibble our way through a remarkable wilderness literally in the shadow of Chicago’s skyscrapers.

Sky Full of Bacon 07: Eat This City from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Feeling a little cabin feverish this winter?  This Sky Full of Bacon podcast (shot in September and October) will take you back to a sunnier, somewhat greener time as we explore the city looking for growing things to eat— from fruits to herbs to medicines.  First, chef-blogger Art Jackson shows us what he forages for his own use around his home in Pilsen. Then Art and I are led on a fascinating tour of a stretch of mostly undeveloped (for now) land on the near South side, which turns out to be an amazingly biodiverse landscape as it’s revealed to us by Nance Klehm, artist and urban foraging expert.  Along the way, we discuss many of the issues around foraging and the use of land and food in the city.

If you’d like to see more— and Nance showed us much more than I could include in this podcast— her foraging tours and classes in everything from canning to cheesemaking will start up again in March; watch closer to that time for more details.  As urban foraging became a hot topic last year, Nance started turning up more and more in the media; there’s more in this piece from NPR’s Weekend America, this audio podcast from Chicago’s Little Green People Show, and this audio podcast from a magazine called Arthur.

Art Jackson, chef at Chicago’s Bijan’s Bistro, and his wife Chel blog about food at; here’s a recipe they posted that uses one of the most easily foraged fruits in the Chicago area, mulberry muffins.  (We found mulberries but they wound up on the cutting room floor, digitally speaking.) It’s worth noting that I met Art because he commented on my very first podcast, so if you have an idea about something that would be interesting to do a podcast about, let me know and it could happen!

Here’s a Time Out article that came out last fall on another group of Chicago foragers. And finally, remember that the very first Sky Full of Bacon was about local food and growing your own, so if you never saw it, check it out.

Nance’s recipe for the dandelion-burdock tea that she brought along for our forage:

dandelion-burdock coffee

this rooty brew is highly benefical for the liver, “the great absorber” of stress, alcohol and other unhealthy things. we need to support it in its work and this is a delicious way to do it!

dig dandelion and burdock roots in early spring or late fall. if spring, wash and use greens for salads, soups or stirfries, if fall, compost the tops or use them to mulch a perennial in your yard. wash roots and cut into small pieces. spread on a cookie sheet and roast for two hours in a 175 degree oven – occasionally stirring to roast evenly. you will need a lot of them, and there are a lot of them out there, so digdigdig.

to brew: put one 1/4 cup of roasted root in a one quart jar and pour boiling water over the top, cap and wait 4 hours or overnight. roots take a long time to extract their beneficial minerals. in contrast, a shorter brew is only colored water and carries none of the rich flavor or medicinal benefits. you can drink this at room temperature, iced or gently reheat it if you prefer it warm.

nance klehm will post her ‘living kitchen’ classes and monthly ‘urbanforage’ walks for 2009 on in late march.

About Sky Full of Bacon
Sky Full of Bacon #6: There Will Be Pork (pt. 2)
Sky Full of Bacon #5: There Will Be Pork (pt. 1)
Sky Full of Bacon #4: A Head’s Tale
Sky Full of Bacon #3: The Last Brisket Show
Sky Full of Bacon #2: Duck School
Sky Full of Bacon #1: How Local Can You Go?

Please feel free to comment here or to email me here.

The phrase “farm to table” is used a lot in foodie circles. In the second half of this Sky Full of Bacon two-part podcast, I’ll complete the picture of what that really means with visits to restaurant kitchens… and to a slaughterhouse.

Sky Full of Bacon 06: There Will Be Pork (pt. 2) from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Mike Sula of the Chicago Reader has been writing about the rare mulefoot pig for the last year and a half (see here). Now the Reader has enlisted award-winning chef Paul Kahan, of Chicago’s Blackbird, to plan an elaborate six-course dinner showcasing the meat of these pigs and the sustainable, humane way in which they’re raised, as a benefit for Slow Food.

In Part 2, Mike Sula and I watch as Kahan and chefs Jason Hammel (Lula Cafe), Justin Large (Avec), Mike Sheerin (Blackbird) and Tim Dahl (Blackbird) prepare for the big night and talk about why supporting and promoting good pork matters to them. And we go to the rural slaughterhouse with Jason Hammel to gain a better understanding of what really lies behind the meat we eat. (Warning: although we were not allowed to film the kill itself, the video does contain frank footage of everything else that goes on in a slaughterhouse.) (19:56)

Mike Sula’s account of the same events
Recipes from the dinner
The Chicago Reader’s complete “Whole Hog Project” archive
LTHforum posts on the dinner, and Chuck Sudo’s account at Chicagoist
Monica Eng of the Chi-Trib wrote a really great piece about her experiences at various slaughterhouses here

P.S. Originally I felt like this one needed some kind of summing-up at the end expressing how I felt after watching my dinner live and die. In the end, as I usually do, I preferred to let the subjects and the images speak, not listen to me yak. But here, if anyone’s curious, is what I wrote and recorded but left on the cutting room floor:

It was an amazing meal. Was it worth the price?

We all joked, before we went to Eickman’s, that we’d come out vegetarian converts.

But in the end, I found myself affected less by the moment of these animals’ deaths… than by the day I spent seeing their lives at Valerie’s farm, free and happy and living naturally.

And I was impressed by the thoughtfulness, even reverence with which all of the chefs approached the meat we brought them.

It’s easy to say meat is bad. It’s just as easy to buy industrial meat without thinking about where it comes from. The hard thing is raising, cooking and eating meat in a way that’s good for the land, pigs and people. That’s what I feel like I’ve seen on this journey… from farm to table.

About Sky Full of Bacon
Sky Full of Bacon #5: There Will Be Pork (pt. 1)
Sky Full of Bacon #4: A Head’s Tale
Sky Full of Bacon #3: The Last Brisket Show
Sky Full of Bacon #2: Duck School
Sky Full of Bacon #1: How Local Can You Go?

Please feel free to comment here or to email me here.

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This is how my life works now. I read about tarte tatin at one blogger’s site. So I go to Green City Market and wind up buying the apples for it from another blogger.

Ruhlman made it sound good and easy, so I found a recipe for it in (another blogger) Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Pie and Pastry Bible. I knew I was going to make an apple run Wednesday because I had made a terrific apple pie using Mutsu apples, so I wanted to stock up on a few of them and cut them up for pie and vacuum seal/freeze them.

Although I grant you that Honey Crisps are damned tasty apples, and it’s no mystery why they’re the apple of the moment, I also think of them as the tramps of apples, easy and obvious in their sugared-up appeal, their in-your-face 44DD flavor. Instead I looked over the other apples and two Charlie Brownish varieties (small, irregular, bumpy, a little sad-looking) caught my eye. Of course I can’t remember their names, now, but they were both old varieties. The goldish ones were especially pretty; I just ate one and it wasn’t complex but had a nice astringent apple-juiciness, like apples used to taste before that brazen hussy Honey Crisp came along.

The reddish ones screamed pie and were said to be good for that, by Fruit Slinger himself (who I had talked to many times, but never until yesterday actually talked about being a fellow food media outlet with). It was a gray drizzly day, nearly over for him, and he looked very ready for it to be over, but he did give me his imprimatur on my choices and purposes for apples, so I felt blog-approved in my purchases.

Anyway, so here’s the gist of tarte tatin. Make some caramel with butter and the juice that dripped off of your apple slices as they sat in sugar and lemon for half an hour. Arrange the slices as neatly as you can in rings.

Cook, basting frequently, till the caramel is nice and thick. Let cool a bit and fit a crust over it. Bake.

Flip like a Spanish tortilla (plate over pan, one firm decisive flip, listen for plop). Fix any egregious spots while still warm and wet. Let cool and harden.

Take another picture, it’s so pretty.

It was very good, accompanied by (instead of Ruhlman’s creme fraiche) Scooter’s custard, although as a dish I’d still rank it second to a first-rate American apple pie, or the apple tart with apricot marmalade and custard I make from this book.

Here’s yet another blogger, suggesting something else to do with apples from Green City in a nice little video she made. Who knows, I’ve probably seen her there, too.  Life’s like that.

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“Convey[s] the downright decency of all parties involved with a directness that’s difficult to achieve in prose. Listening to farmer Linda Derrickson talk from the heart about honoring and giving thanks for the happy lives of pigs is worth at least 100 pages of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” —Martha Bayne

The phrase “farm to table” is used a lot in foodie circles. In this Sky Full of Bacon two-part podcast, I’ll show you what it really means— from the farm to the slaughterhouse to the kitchens of five of Chicago’s top restaurants.

Sky Full of Bacon 05: There Will Be Pork (pt. 1) from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Mike Sula of the Chicago Reader has been writing about the rare mulefoot pig for the last year and a half. Now the Reader has enlisted award-winning chef Paul Kahan, of Chicago’s Blackbird, to plan an elaborate six-course dinner showcasing the meat of these pigs and the sustainable, humane way in which they’re raised. Kahan in turn recruited chefs Jason Hammel (Lula Cafe), Paul Virant (Vie), Brian Huston (the newly opened The Publican) and Justin Large (Avec), as well as Blackbird executive chef Mike Sheerin and dessert chef Tim Dahl, to each prepare a course utilizing different parts of the whole animal.

But no meal begins with the restaurant. In Part 1, Mike Sula and I visit the farmers who’ve raised these mulefoot pigs in southern Wisconsin, and consider the paradox of why eating an endangered pig breed could be the key to saving it. And as preparations for the meal get underway, we talk to Huston and Virant about why raising pork humanely from farmers you know and using the whole animal matters to them. (Warning: video does contain vivid footage of meatcutting.) It’s an epic tale with as much meat (pun unavoidable) as two or three Sky Full of Bacon podcasts, which is why it’s broken into two parts, the first of which runs 19:57.  Next week, in Part 2, we’ll complete the story.

Mike Sula’s account of the same events
Recipes from the dinner
The Chicago Reader’s complete “Whole Hog Project” archive
LTHforum posts on the dinner, and Chuck Sudo’s account at Chicagoist

About Sky Full of Bacon
Sky Full of Bacon #4: A Head’s Tale
Sky Full of Bacon #3: The Last Brisket Show
Sky Full of Bacon #2: Duck School
Sky Full of Bacon #1: How Local Can You Go?

Please feel free to comment here or to email me here.

With the 800-lb. gorilla of Chicago restaurant cookbooks just hitting stores and an exquisitely rarefied seafood tasting menu earning the title of best new restaurant in America, it’s easy to see ours as a restaurant scene dominated by artifice, weird science, and great-brain chefs. But I think last night’s mulefoot pig dinner, initiated by the Reader as part of Mike Sula’s writings about this heritage breed and planned by Paul Kahan at Blackbird with the aid of five other chefs, ought to stand as an equally momentous occasion— the moment when a movement devoted to cooking rooted in the flavors of midwestern products reached a critical mass and a level of comprehensive achievement that needs no excuses or significant ringers from outside to make a good meal. Obviously there have been restaurants cooking midwestern products for a long time, and given that four of the chefs came from within Kahan’s company and a fifth was a longtime employee who went off on his own, you could argue how widespread the movement is on our scene— but on the other hand, given that those restaurants represent a pretty significant chunk of the most-admired restaurants in town, if they have a movement, there’s a movement.

More significant to me, and on a practical basis, isn’t the names of the chefs involved but of the farmers whose names I kept hearing as Mike Sula and I followed the progress of the dinner.* Gunthorp, Green Acres, Rasmussen, Nichols— this is where the critical mass has been reached, that the chefs support the quality farmers enough to keep them going, and the quality farmers produce consistently enough to keep the chefs supplied and satisfied with the level of their product. What we saw last night was that given a great ingredient— the clean, lushly fatty meat of the mulefoot pig— as a focus for the meal, these six chefs (actually more across all six restaurants) could produce a coherent meal reflective of a similar approach to showcasing the inherent flavors of the midwest’s products at their most heightened and refined, without artifice or gilded pork-lilies, but with plenty of good midwestern stuff like bacon or pickled onions.

And by “coherent” I mean “spectacularly good.” Around me I heard comments like “I feel like I’ve never tasted pork before,” and that more than once in relation to different dishes. The chefs had divvied up the meat to give different chefs different opportunities and places to focus, and so each course brought us a different view of what pork, that “wonderful, magical animal,” could be, from the organy funk of Vie’s cotechino (not as organy-funky as hoped, thanks to the USDA inspector flunking most of the offal at the processor, alas), to the simple clean flavor of a ham chop from Blackbird’s Mike Sheerin. For me there were two particular standouts: Vie’s cotechino, salty and strong, but leavened by the sweet note of a pickled plum, and the headcheese ravioli in a pork consomme from Avec’s Justin Large, the broth a marvelous, slightly lemony shot of concentrated pork savoriness. But there was revelation throughout the meal— I heard others say they were blown away by Lula’s pork belly, amazed at how delectable a cube of almost pure fat could be, or by the snow-white pork rinds that made up part of Blackbird’s cheese course, or the deeply comfy rosemary-scented roast-pork satisfaction of The Publican’s porchetta.

There was one spectacular dud, not a course but a wine pairing— an Indian (!) sirah which, evoking comparisons like “burnt soup” and “V-8 juice,” did not suggest that India will be replacing Chile or Australia just yet. But otherwise wine pairings (and in The Publican’s case, Goose Island Harvest Ale) were well-chosen and enjoyable, service was impeccable at a level of crowding even beyond the likely norm for Blackbird, and all in all, it was a wonderful, magical dinner, basking in the waves of enjoyment which outstanding pork provided, and knowing that just a few seats away were, for once, the farmers who had made our exquisite cityfied pleasures possible. Tremendous thanks to them and to Paul Kahan and all his team for creating an occasion which showcased and honored them and their contributions in so spectacular a fashion (and not least of the heartening aspects of the meal was getting to watch such a bunch of heavyhitters in the kitchen working together side by side and without ego).

* He will post reports on the Reader’s Food Chain blog, and eventually have a lengthy piece in the Reader, while I’ll have a Sky Full of Bacon podcast about the event at the same time.

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A secret menu at Vie? What would that be, stuff they flew around the globe in the middle of winter to eat?

No, there’s no secret menu but there is one off-menu item that you might want to check out, available only in a very small quantity on Friday nights: a burger. Yeah, so? you ask. Well, it’s a burger that right now is being made from bits of the whole steer they dry-aged at Eickman’s in Seward, Illinois and butchered themselves.

Accompanied by fries fried in the tallow from the same or at least similar beasts, this is very much a Vie-style burger, the pure, dry-aged-beefy flavor of the meat front and center with only minimal accompaniments: some pickled onions and ramps and a ketchup made in house from some of the small sweetish tomatoes that were in the markets a few weeks ago. Frankly, given the sweetness of the ketchup, I’d have liked the meat more salted and seasoned for contrast, but that’s a minor cavil, the flavor of the high quality beef is what counts and it was terrific. The fries as dipped in that ketchup were mighty fine, too.

It was also my first time having the Vie salad, a simple but outstanding mix of greens with two kinds of hearts of palm— marinated chunks, like you remember from country club dining circa 1967, and shaved slices of fresh hearts of palm, nearly three inches across and more like daikon or something than canned HoP, all set off— or I should really say, all made— by shaved parmesan which just burst with bright and deep cheese flavor. Really, the best composed salad I’ve had in a restaurant in as long as I can remember, and I wasn’t surprised when Paul Virant told us that they keep trying to take it off the menu and replace it, but they can never seem to beat it, and so it’s lasted two years.

Finally, I talked for a bit with Nathan Sears, Vie’s sous and the charcuterie guy, about lardo, my own attempt at lardo-making having been somewhat less than satisfying. He brought out a few slices of theirs, which I found a little sweet— it comes from a pig called a Crawford Sweet, and they use sugar in the cure— but melted in the mouth giving off a complex mix of herbal and porky flavors. I am newly inspired, and may use the winter to attempt another go-round at lardoblogging myself.

4471 Lawn Ave.
Western Springs, IL 60558

David Tamarkin has an anti-locavorism piece up at Time Out, prompted by the current Green City locavore challenge, that very convincingly argues against… a type of person I have never met in real life. Maybe they exist, maybe there are doctrinaire locavores like there are militantly humorless vegetarians.  (No, I didn’t just say all vegetarians are militant and humorless, but I know those exist because they responded in the comments to this.)

As I say, maybe absolutist locavores exist. But I have yet to meet any.

Tamarkin’s argument is basically founded on this:

People who become localvores—whether for two weeks or 200—are likely well-intentioned, considerate citizens of the Earth. They choose to eat locally for two main reasons: (1) They believe it’s better for the local economy—the money spent on local food ostensibly goes to local farmers, thereby helping those farmers thrive and keeping the area flush with crops and money; and (2) They believe eating locally is better for the environment (in theory, local foods eliminate the need for long, gas-guzzling deliveries and high-emission plane rides). In short, localvores make sacrifices, severely limiting what they eat for the benefit of the land and the people around them.

Sorry, you lost me at your basic premise. Yes, locavores would like to do both of these things, and undoubtedly feel good (and sometimes smug) about it. But first and foremost, every high-profile locavore I know eats locally first because it tastes good. In-season fruit or vegetables grown a short distance away, as a class, taste 100 times better than stuff that’s been bred primarily to survive the flight from Chile in visually pristine condition. Farmer’s market eggs beat Jewel ones. Chicken tastes like chicken. Beef tastes like beef. Peaches taste like childhood. Grapes taste like wine. Without that, none of the locavores I know would follow it for two weeks. But the fact is, the principles underlying local eating are the principles that result in better-tasting produce. Far from being severely limited, locavorism seems fundamentally rooted in sensual pleasures.

That these principles do some good, kind of probably maybe, is a bonus. Tamarkin trots out some contrarian arguments suggesting that a peach that flies in on a 707 is better for the planet than one that drove down from Michigan. But even if that’s true, the peach will still suck. So put me on the record right now as someone who will still be buying local peaches even if each one kills a polar bear and melts a fjord.

But in fact, I find the contrarian arguments stoned-dorm-room-discussion sophomoric:

If the first goal of buying local produce is to help farmers in need, it would stand to reason that localvores should seek out the neediest farmers they can. If they did, they would not find them in an incredibly wealthy nation like ours. As philosopher Peter Singer and cowriter Jim Mason write in The Ethics of What We Eat (Rodale, $15.95), the profits a farmer in a developing country earns from selling his wares in America—even if it’s as little as two cents—will go further toward helping that farmer combat poverty than those profits would for a Midwestern farmer. “A decision to buy locally produced food,” Singer and Mason write, “is a decision not to buy food from countries that are significantly worse off than our own.”

And you know what? My son can already read pretty well, and it seems like he has a pretty decent moral sense for a 9-year-old. So it stands to reason that I should seek out the neediest housing project children I can, and raise them instead.

There’s a fine movie from the 1930s about Weimar Germany called Little Man, What Now?, in which one of the supporting characters is a socialist crank who supposedly loves humanity— but can’t be bothered to adequately care for his own wife, who eventually sickens and dies of neglect. It’s absurd to think that I have to scour the world for the peach from the absolute worst-off farmer— and help him a little and a shipping company a lot— or else admit I’m a hypocrite. That’s a real example of the kind of hypernarrow absolutism that no locavores I know actually practice. It is enough that I can help a farmer, and eat a better peach, and all in all it was a good thing, whether or not it was the best possible thing. Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

One of the sillier tendencies Baby Boomers have is to hyperdramatize every choice in life.  The reality is, the darkness will not descend if either McCain or Obama is elected or not elected, the oceans will not boil if you drive to the video store and will not be saved if you watch An Inconvenient Truth, etc. etc.  And eating a Michigan peach or a Chilean one is not a momentous decision for the planet.  That said, that real farmer at Green City puts your real money in his pocket, and keeps more of it than if he sold his product to a distributor.  So you and he can benefit directly from that act.  It can matter to the two of you, even if it doesn’t matter to the whole world.  And frankly, I’m fine with helping a human, over worrying about helping humanity.

What Tamarkin surely knows but isn’t going to admit in the midst of making the case for the prosecution is that the point of the two-week Green City challenge isn’t that everyone will keep it up forever and absolutely. That’s proven by the fact that it’s timed to exactly when the market is flooded with the most choices, and being a locavore is easiest and most appealing. But a two-week trial gives you a chance to try a lot of things and incorporate a few into your diet and be more likely to seek out superior-tasting market produce on a more regular basis. This is the kind of locavorism that is small-scale, individual, and makes your life and maybe, possibly, in some fraction of the Adam Smith invisible hand way, the world a tiny bit better place.

The more extreme kind of locavorism is not like that. And if I ever meet a person who actually believes in it, I’ll tell them that.

UPDATE: Although part of my point is that it’s NOT necessary to research every last consumer decision you make to death, that the act of buying good-tasting stuff from a real farmer is good enough, there’s a comment at Chicagoist that provides some solid facts about the Peter Singer notion of aiding the world’s poorest farmer or else don’t even bother. It’s here.

UPDATE 2: Tamarkin has some more comments on the TOC blog. He seems so keen on this notion of the absolute locavore that I guess we have to accept that he’s really met this mythical creature, but I haven’t and I just don’t take the whole notion seriously, maybe I’ve met enough people in my life who’ve found The Answer (whatever it is this week) and bore everybody to death with it. But again, the locavores I know aren’t like that, or this:

Localvores take the thinking out of their food choices in favor of being part of a movement; the only requirement for eating something is where it was produced, so not a lot of thought is required.

Again, couldn’t be more unlike the locavores I know, who think hard about what will be best and what to do with it for maximum flavor. Just read this LTHForum thread, for instance.

Eating locally is a principle, not a fatwa, which is to be followed for its obvious and direct benefits. And again, I find something sort of narcissistic about this boomer compulsion to make the best possible choice for the planet, or don’t even try. The local movement educates you to some major components of why things taste good when, and gives you a principle that leads you to putting money directly in farmers’ hands. The more people who do that, the better it is for farmers, health and maybe the environment. More good will come from more people partially following a good general principle than a few people rigidly following a dogma.

Maybe Tamarkin just needs to meet some different locavores….

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