Sky Full of Bacon


ghaseeta
The 2004 Chowhound Westernathon, some long-gone Indian restaurant where the last diehards assembled after 14 hours. How ancient is this history? We were taking food pictures on actual film, that’s how ancient.

Ten years ago, something beautiful was released to the world when, through careful planning and calm consensus, LTHForum…

no, that’s not how it happened. It was crazier and more haphazard than that. Let’s go back. To Chowhound. Chowhound c. 2002 was where a bunch of us, though we weren’t an “us” yet, first started talking about food and, more importantly, meeting about it with strangers. We would meet for lunch, at Spoon or La Quebrada or Kang Nam or “Little” Three Happiness or Los Mogotes or Vito & Nick’s or whatever the enthusiasm of the moment was, and order the weird things with no concern— as we would have had with normal people— that something might gross somebody out. I learned so much and experienced so much in such an intense short time. But more than that, I came to feel that the city was mine at last. A decade after moving here, I no longer felt like a Kansan temporarily working here but that I belonged to the city, I understood the city, it wasn’t something too big and alien to ever comprehend. You want to know where to get great tacos? Here. I read a post about it. I made a movie about Maxwell Street. I’m the guy that knows Chicago.

But Chowhound was an imperfect vessel for our aspirations. The management didn’t like us planning events on the board, they didn’t like us seeming like a clique (even though we tried to be as welcoming as possible). I didn’t think they were necessarily wrong by their lights— we were taking something public and impartial and making it our clubhouse, even if we’d welcome anyone into it. But at the same time, I didn’t feel obligated to spend the rest of my days answering the same questions from tourists over and over, either, as remains Chowhound’s primary purpose. We outgrew it, plain and simple.

IMG_2179
Me and the late Will Philpot, for whom the Will Special sandwich at Riviera was named, at TAC Quick, 2004. No idea who the mom and kid are, or who took this picture with my camera.

For a while we planned events on an email list, open to whoever wanted to be on it, but that was cumbersome, too; and there was an incident when Jim Leff (“Big Dog” of Chowhound) read some minor bitching about Chowhound on it and came unglued about its real purpose being ragging on him. It was time to declare independence from New York, and twelve of us became the core group behind it. I suggested that we launch our own discussion board and researched open source software we could use; Gary Wiviott got his hosting company, a bunch of Turkish guys, to install PhpBB (the fact that they also installed a Turkish character set would prove to be a problem years later), Seth Zurer put up the first logo which led me to design one that would be more distinctive (and easier to do on things like T-shirts), and through April and May of 2004 we slowly fiddled around with it, debating board organization, getting our feet wet with a few practice posts (here’s mine, a thread that was still active as of last August).

We were getting closer to going public when Rob Gardner mentioned it to somebody (Monica Eng, probably) in the press. Suddenly we were public before we meant to be. Hastily, we had to tell the email list what we were up to— and within about 24 hours, we suddenly had a board that had 125 or so members. In retrospect not at all a bad thing, to be off to a running start; and a very good thing to instantly not just be one homogenous group of friends but a large group with many varied interests, who from the start engaged in multiple conversations and revealed new sides of themselves that Chowhound’s more limited focus had not made room for.

We declared the date of that announcement, May 27, 2004, the official public launch date of LTHForum. Was this LTH’s golden age? You could argue it wasn’t, since unbeknownst to 97% of users, it kicked off with a big fight over who “owned” it, who would be the Big Dog, loudly argued on the sidewalk right in front of Little Three Happiness itself, as a legless beggar in a wheelchair, clueless about the argument but happy to join in the shouting, yelled something like “You tell it to The Man! The Man always be tryin’ to rob you!” (I kid you not— or at least so I was told, I was out of town that weekend.) The issue of ownership (of what was supposed to be a communal hobby), and egos more generally as we started to get media attention, would simmer for years behind the scenes and eventually split us apart three or so years later. When the issue became public I had people tell me we should have nailed ownership stuff down right at the beginning, to prevent the embarrassing situation that finally ended the old LTHForum. In which case, I said, none of it would have ever happened at all. It was never about (phantom, to this day) internet riches; there’s nothing ownership would have given any of us that was worth more than a few good years of collective creative ferment and shared enthusiasm and adventure. Certainly none of the things I’ve done since— Sky Full of Bacon, Beard award, writing for Grub Street and the Reader, whatever— would have happened without it. (You can get a sense of what we were like in this podcast I asked Michael Nagrant to do with us.)

IMG_1679
Road trip to Milwaukee: Jake’s Deli, 2004.

It had its few years, and life moved on (remarkably, this blog has been around almost twice as long as I helped manage the many unique personalities of LTHForum in their interactions; only one of those seems like an eternity). A version of LTHForum exists, and some people still use that in that generous, open-spirited way and discuss things in detail that nobody else is talking about, and bless them for it, while others use it in, well, ways that end in screaming in Thai restaurants. Which is pretty much 180 from the spirit in which it was founded, I’ll just say that. But some friendships from those early days have lasted the decade and more; and in any case it’s a very good thing that the comrades of those days have spread out across the world and infiltrated all kinds of things from media to local organizations and farmer’s markets.

For me the legacy of that time is everywhere that LTHers have spread the gospel that Thai and Mexican food matter, that great food is all over the city, that there’s so much that’s interesting out there to taste and do and it all should be talked about in many different ways and places. It’s Cathy at Culinary Historians, and Hammond at the Sun-Times, and Melissa Graham with Purple Asparagus and Rob Gardner with The Local Beet and Seth Zurer with Baconfest and on and on. It’s the next generation of food writers— apparently 10 years is long enough for a next generation— for whom Burt’s and Lao Sze Chuan and Cemitas Puebla and the Will Special (whoever Will was) and mother-in-laws and 30s style burgers (wherever that description comes from) are just part of the fabric of the city, places we all go and things we all eat, naturally, impossible to imagine a time when people didn’t. We all reap the benefits of that intensive, creative, crazily obsessed time, and take what we gained then with us to whatever we do now. That, it turns out, was the only part of LTHForum that anybody ever truly owned.

So I look back in fondness on this tenth anniversary, and thank all who were present at the creation or close enough, we happy few, we band of brothers (of both sexes). Let’s go grab a bite sometime.

IMG_0591
LTH kids in the doorway of Podhalanka, 2004.

In the last few years there have been several documentaries which sought to explore the world of food at its very highest level. Such films as Jiro Dreams of Sushi and El Bulli: Cooking in Progress show how working with food and seeking perfection can become a kind of spiritual quest.

After making so many shorter films about food, I wanted to find a similar subject which would allow me to explore food at the highest, most artistic and spiritual level. That’s why I am excited today to debut the trailer for my upcoming release, Edzo Dreams of Cheeseburgers:

So the Reader, where I’ve been foodblogging for the past few weeks, runs a thing in its print issue showing what the most-read blog posts— across all sections, not just Food & Drink— were during the previous week. Here’s how I did:
Week 1: The top two most-read blog posts for the whole site, #1 and #2.
Week 2: #2 and #4.
Week 3: #2 and #5.
Week 4: no ranking, not shown.
Week 5: #1.

reader most readreader most read2Reader rank 3Reader rank 5

Week 6: #1 again, third time in six weeks.
Week 7: #2 and #5.
Week 8: #4.
Week 9: no ranking, not shown.

Reader rank 6Reader rank 5dReader rank 5b

Grub Street shut down its blogs in cities outside New York today; I learned about it this morning and, not surprisingly, had no more than about 20 minutes before Twitter blabbed it to everybody. I can’t speak for others but I wasn’t shocked that the day came that a New York-based publication shut down operations outside New York; I’ve been in enough ad agencies expanding and then shrinking to be unsurprised by that happening eventually. We’re in an age when things grow fast and die fast, you have to make that work for you, or go work at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles.

I am very gratified by, but also slightly uncomfortable about, the kind words of sympathy that have flowed in because I don’t feel like someone who lost a job, mainly because I have at least two others at any given moment. At most I’m merely underemployed again. (Not to discourage your kind words, keep ‘em coming!) But I’ve long been the guy who worked to keep his own brand alive— Sky Full of Bacon came about initially because I figured it was too hard to stand out as a food writer named Mike or Michael in this town, and needed something more memorable— and developing and being known for a set of portable skills that were bigger than any given assignment (and reinforced each other). I am grateful to a year and a half and change at Grub Street and my editor Alan Sytsma for expanding my access to the restaurant scene immensely, giving me countless opportunities to devise my own opportunities without having to pitch them to anybody most of the time (easily the thing I’m worst at in this game, reading the minds of editors to figure out what they’ll want and haven’t assigned yet), and letting me do so many things just because they sounded cool to me, which by the way reminds me that I haven’t posted this video which ran at Grub Street yet:

Anyway, no hard feelings, at the very least the next Key Ingredient will appear in about ten days at the Reader, and I have no idea what I will do next with what I’ve learned and can do, no actually I have about 20 ideas at any given time but I have no idea which of them will pan out. But there is no danger of my disappearing, as long as there is self-promotional breath in my body.

And yes, really, thank you to everyone who emailed or tweeted kind words of support, for being readers then and friends now. For a decade now I have tried to cover food in a way that was personal, funny, thoughtful, and not just about grabbing bucks but about what food means to us on every level, and I will continue to do that, probably in several places at once, as usual.

A couple of months back I had the privilege of introducing a friend of mine and a well-known figure on the food scene, to another pair of friends of mine… also well-known figures on the food scene. They hit it off well and found many points of compatibility, and so I’m excited to be able to share their news with the world today.

BandL1

Chicago’s beloved butcher shop The Butcher & Larder is going in a new direction in the next few weeks with the addition of two new partners to the team of Rob and Allie Levitt. They are Jon and Andrew Landan, the twins who have become renowned for their tireless work promoting the Chicago social scene. The revamped shop, The Butcher & Landan, will continue its dedication to farm-sourced, naturally-raised meats, but at the same time will add features reflecting the increased popularity of whole-animal butchery on the social scene, such as an on-premise DJ, Ladies’ Nights, and bottle service in “Protein,” the shop’s new second-floor lounge.

Says Rob Levitt, “We are totally, one thousand percent devoted to giving you the most awesome meat service imaginable, including curated sausage flights and private roasted offal salons. At the same time, I’m tired of cutting meat all day and looking forward to being able to balance that with the all-night party that Alli and I dreamed of our shop being from the moment we opened it.”

As for the Landans, whose interest in nose-to-tail cooking and whole animal butchery has long been known on the club scene, they’re excited about adding meat to their portfolio of exciting nightlife activities. “We looked at how much we were spending on the gym,” said Andrew, or possibly Jon, “and said why do that when we can haul half carcasses from Q7 and Slagel back and forth in the store and get the same workout?”

bandl2

The newly revamped shop expects to kick off with a VIP party in late April. To learn more about the concept, watch for the upcoming Sky Full of Bacon video “The Fabulous Butcher Boys.”


Me in full Guy Fieri mode at a fundraiser for Share Our Strength, in which local food writers were challenged to identify ingredients blindfolded.

One year ago tomorrow I took over Grub Street Chicago. Actually, I started posting two weeks before that, but at that point I was filling in after Nick Kindelsperger’s departure (mainly because I had just done the same several weeks earlier when he went on vacation). It took two more weeks for me to officially become the guy.

At the time, I must admit, I wondered if I could do it; I had done it for one-week stints and usually overdid it so much (wanting to show off) that I was exhausted by week’s end. It was also a question for me if I wanted to continue on the path that had gone from being fervent advocate for small joints without publicists at LTHForum to covering mostly mid to high end chefs with Key Ingredient; I mean, I liked reading about Next and Graham Elliot and so on, I certainly liked eating at them, but writing about them for most of your day… it was a question worthy of some thought deeper than “What, you mean I can actually get paid for this?”

In the end I decided that writing for Grub Street offered the most important thing any job can— the opportunity to make my own opportunities out of it. So sure, I cover the sceney-scene, and some of it means covering total BS places, but it also means that when a glitzy place like Nellcôte comes along, I can focus on the side of it that’s more real and chef-geeky and interesting to me, and not just whether or not it’s hot enough to draw a Landan twin. In the end, I think that given a choice between seizing an opportunity to see what you can make of it and shying away from it, you should usually do the former and see where it goes. So I did, and have had many reasons to be glad I did. Any gig where covering Charlie Trotter merely proves to be the stepping stone to getting an inside look at a barbecue competition (they have the same publicist, as unlikely as that may seem) is offering something way more diverse than just the chance to eat on the cuff at fancy hotels.

Anyway, to mark the occasion, I thought I’d link ten of my favorite things I wrote during the past year there. (I left videos out of the equation, because they’re already linked to here on the masthead.) Most of it’s daily journalism, and as easily discarded, but a few were done with more care and bear rereading now. Here goes:

The taco slideshow (of several national slideshows where I contributed a Chicago section, this is the one I devoted the most love and care to, including shooting every single photo myself)
• Giving Michelin crap about ignoring Next
Occupy Next? The Economics of Privileged Dining
• Interview with Andrew Zimmerman (I’ve done several interviews I’m proud of, but this one probably has more solid, no-BS commentary on being a chef and training young people than any of them). Part one; part two.
• My sociological analysis of the Marilyn Hagerty-does-Olive Garden brouhaha
• My take on the Trib’s somewhat one-sided take on Charlie Trotter
• Is This The Worst New York Times Piece on Chicago’s Scene Ever?
• Edward Gorey at the Opening of RM Champagne Salon
• My Oral History of the 24-Hour Chowathon (part 1; part 2)
• Swedish Restaurant Owner, Leader of Vanished Community, Dies


Scouting tacos for the taco slideshow. Photo credit: Liam Gebert.

For the third time in four years, I’ve been nominated for a James Beard Award for my video work. And for the first time, it’s for a solo piece rather than a multimedia nomination for a piece done in conjunction with my friends at the Chicago Reader. It’s for A Barbecue History of Chicago, my story of how Chicago’s unique barbecue style reflects and was shaped by the African American experience in this city during the 20th century. Watch it here:

Here’s my account of winning last year.

There’s a new Sky Full of Bacon podcast coming in the next few weeks… after its premiere at a special dinner put on by FamilyFarmed.org at Uncommon Ground on Thursday, February 23. Here’s the link for the dinner, which is 3 courses including wine at Uncommon Ground in Chicago.


Library, The Public Hotel.

So Monday morning there will be an announcement which many have guessed, or simply assumed, to judge by the congratulations I’ve been getting since before it was official. I am taking the post of Chicago editor (which is to say, writer and editor of myself) for Grub Street Chicago. Which, if you don’t know, is a site which aggregates and creates foodie world news in several major foodie cities.

In doing so I’m going straight against what one of the best-known people on the Chicago food scene has just done:

A couple of weeks ago I went to an announcement party at Union Sushi & Barbeque Bar for Steve Dolinsky’s new site, SteveDolinsky.com. Dolinsky, who is mainly known for his food segments for ABC 7 in Chicago, had (among his other gigs) been the food blogger at Vocalo, the bloggy offshoot of WBEZ which has now simply become WBEZ.org. He gave that up, and my friend Louisa Chu took it up:

One of the reasons Dolinsky told me he had left WBEZ and spiffed up his own site (for which he plans to create an impressive amount of weekly content) was that frankly, he felt he should be building his own brand on the web, not somebody else’s. I agreed completely at the time, and still do in general— and the value of my own efforts at personal brandbuilding were quickly affirmed by the owner of the restaurant introducing himself and turning out to be a Twitter follower of mine. (Okay, he follows 2000 people, but he’d responded to me on occasion, and I recognized his Twitter name.)


Afterwards, Louisa and I checked out the renovated Pump Room…


and the Library, which is a very nice, quiet bar, not at all overrun as I assumed this highly-hyped opening would be.

So why am I doing the opposite? Well, one, they’re paying me, and I really want to be able to afford to do things like go cool foreign places with my kids while they’re still young enough to tolerate me. (Happy 13th birthday, Myles.) As Mr. Mom/advertising freelancer/food writer person, I don’t exactly have the cares of someone depending wholly on their food freelance income, but I could certainly use an income. Two, although I have good access to the food scene and its notable figures, I’m sure just the needs of covering the scene will expose me to many more things much more rapidly. Three, I like the idea of being compelled to produce on a regular basis. To be forced to think up story ideas, day after day, to follow up leads right then. This is my training for the marathon, my fighting middle age contentment by taking on something new and demanding. Better to burn out than to fade away, and all that. So, I’ll be doing the grunt work of aggregating news from all over every day, but I’ll also be trying to produce original content just about every day, interviews and videos and slideshows and commentary. Bookmark it, if you haven’t already!


Marcus Jernmark and Chandra Ram at Plate Cooks.

Not that Dolinsky’s event is the only thing I’ve been to lately, but most of the others quickly got repurposed into material for Grub Street’s insatiable appetite. One was the industry how-to conference Plate Cooks, put on by Plate, a trade magazine based in Chicago whose editor Chandra Ram I’ve met on several occasions. Two different publicists invited me to events, one with Marcus Jernmark, of New York’s Aquavit, which used to be Marcus Samuelsson’s place. To be honest, I had never heard of him and barely of Aquavit, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with that here, but I had nothing else that morning and I figured, hey, I can attend a chef’s demo at Kendall, why not? Little did I know how grateful I’d be for this material the next week when I started filling in at Grub Street; you can see what I made of that here.

Another was a butchering demo with Rob Levitt and Michael Paley of Louisville’s Proof on Main; I’ve never made it to one of Rob’s butchering demos so it was a great chance to see one and share it, finishing the demo off with Paley’s coppa and fried pig tails:

After that one I stuck around for the next, a panel about sustainability, which included Randy Zweiban and Ari Weinzweig, the co-founder of Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which I had visited for the first time a few months back. I especially wanted to meet him… because I was already planning to have dinner with him that night. Anyway, Plate Cooks was a great industry event, strong on the technical side which I found fascinating, light on the showbizy-commercialized side even though it did have sponsored interludes (but even those, like Tony Priolo demoing risotto with potatoes in it, were perfectly respectable and worth attending). I’m definitely going to try to get invited again next year.

But wait, you were about to ask, how was I planning on having dinner with the co-founder of Zingerman’s again? Well, some months back the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, who invited Hammond and me on this, invited me to a bacon dinner at L’Etoile in Madison, part of the push around Weinzweig’s new book, Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon.

And I’m not just repaying their hospitality when I say this was a fantastic dinner, worth the 3 hours each way. I was a little apprehensive about having salt/baconfat overload, but I should have know that L’Etoile’s Troy Miller would have a delicate touch with bacon, bringing out the flavor of numerous different bacons in delicate, surprising ways:

But the other great part of it was that I had the chance to talk with Weinzweig about the prospect of doing a Sky Full of Bacon video at some future date. As I said to him, “Think of some part of your business that you’re fascinated by but no one else seems to be interested in. I’ll be interested in it.” And he was receptive. (In the meantime, this short clip ran on Grub Street.)

So wait, you say, does that mean Sky Full of Bacon is still going? Hell yeh, it’s still going and Key Ingredient comes back this week, too. SFOB is certainly going to be quieter, I’ve tried to do a post a week no matter what, and that won’t happen now. But I’m going to make the next two promised videos on schedule, and there will be something here from time to time.

In the meantime I had a couple of suggestions to check out in Madison before I headed home the next day. One was suggested by one of the Milk Board folks, a very tidy and friendly German sausage place, Bavaria Sausage, where I picked up a bunch of really well-made sausages that went happily into a choucroute garnie that very night when I got home. The other was an old-school Italian deli, Fraboni’s, suggested by Matthew, who comments here from time to time. It’s not as impressive as Tenuta’s in Kenosha or Glorioso’s in Milwaukee, but you certainly wouldn’t be sorry you had it nearby, either, and I grabbed a nice sub (could have had better bread, but what was inside was just fine) for the road home.

Check me out at my new home, Grub Street Chicago, from now on, and my personal home here, too, at least once in a while when I have something to say or show here.

…the video part, that is. Not that I haven’t been busy on Key Ingredient videos, so you’ve had hours (literally) of video of mostly high end chefs to watch. But I’ve wanted to get back to subjects other than chefs, there is more to food than them, as interesting and creative and talkative as they are. And I’ve been shooting stuff during the past year, I just haven’t been finishing it. But here, with all due caveats about how you never know what life will bring you, is a preview of what I have planned for Sky Full of Bacon over the next several months:

(It seemed kind of pompous with that music when I first finished it, so I added a line that really seemed to say what Sky Full of Bacon is about…)

The South Side BBQ piece grew out of some initial interviews I conducted on behalf of Time Out Chicago, which led to this and this. But there was a lot more than I could use in those pieces, and I’ve steadily added to it over time, digging more into the history of Chicago’s own indigenous barbecue style. In the process it turned into what I’ve tried to keep Sky Full of Bacon videos from being— a great big comprehensive study of a subject which keeps growing and getting too long and complex to finish. (That’s what happened to the second Gorilla Gourmet video, and why it was never completed, and why I conceived of Sky Full of Bacon as being smaller, one-subject pieces which wouldn’t grow out of control. Hey, it worked till now…) Nevertheless, I have the bulk of it cut into what I think is pretty watchable fighting weight, and I hope to have it complete within a few weeks.

The farm one is shot as well; the butcher one, only in part. So things may change. But I feel good that even with Key Ingredient continuing for however long it continues (at some point it will get old, but as you’ll see this week, there’s always a new wrinkle to how chefs approach the challenges), I’ll also be able to complete at least a few pieces of my own on longer and quirkier subjects. So, as always, thanks for your interest and, on occasion, your patience, and watch this space for more news soon.