Sky Full of Bacon

1. is a fascinating site devoted to old photographs (mostly 1900-1930) reproduced in extremely large scans so you can pore over every detail of ancient scenes. There’s all kinds of stuff, but I love studying food ones for quotidian details of ancient life; check out a 1910 square meal; a 1916 box lunch joint (shot by Lewis Hine) frequented by two 15-year-old factory workers, and a railworker lunch break from 1943; the Happy News Cafe; a 1950 bar with lunch menuboard visible; a 1939 country store (by Dorothea Lange); a black cook shack—in the middle of 1916 D.C.; Blue Bell Hamburgers, 1948; groceries in 1900, 1910, and 1950 (oh man, that’s the world I want to live in), and so much more.
2. You can get food for $10.80, but food plus sex for that price? Food+Sex is the name of an arty 20-page magazine published by one of those new magazine-printing-on-demand sites; you can preview it, sort of, here, and there’s a blog post here that tells you a little more about it and its accompanying art exhibit. And who should turn up but Nance Klehm (star of SFOB #7) contributing an article on… urm… “Human-Incubated Yogurt.”
3. I really don’t know what the hell this is. It’s a vaguely food-related song from some British musical about an antique store, apparently making fun of the cozy-little-50s-drama genre, since it’s filthy. The energetic star is Julie Walters, who you may recall from Educating Rita 20 years ago:

4. Martha Bayne has a nice piece on the Pacific Garden Mission, whose gardening program for folks in rehab was designed by… who else, Nance Klehm. You should check Martha’s blog once a month; she doesn’t post a lot but it’s always good. I loved this bit:

I’ve been volunteering here since January, but haven’t written much about it because a) I wanted to respect the privacy of the residents who work with us in the greenhouse program and b) you try writing about working with the homeless without sounding like some smug, self-righteous jerk. Everytime I tried I hated myself.

Yep, that’s why I make videos instead sometimes.
5. Tasting Table, the email newsletter you should go sign up for, found ground cherries at one of the markets—they might still be in season!
6. A weird summer was over before it started. For me, there’s only one thing to do in response to fall’s arrival: make pretty soups, like the author of When I’m Bored I Make Soup. (Ironically, he’s in New Zealand, so it’s not fall there.)
7. Not safe for work (unless you worked anywhere I ever worked in my life): Yes, this Chicago news anchor sure seems to have said on the air what it sounds like he said (h/t Chicagoist):

The co-anchor’s expression when they cut back to both of them is hilarious. They’re claiming he said “flucking.” Riiiiight. A commenter at Chicagoist suggests that this may explain the reference (apparently sampled on a Beastie Boys song).

About a year ago, I decided to see if I could review 50 restaurants that had never been reviewed on LTHForum.  (A tangential mention didn’t count.)  This was largely in response to what I saw as LTHForum having grown a bit moribund as a discoverer of new things on the culinary scene.  It seemed like all anybody wanted to talk about was hamburger franchises like Five Guys and Sonic and the phone-answering deficiencies of Schwa; even the old pros seemed to be bringing us the latest breathless dispatch from their 900th visit to Salam or Patty’s Diner or Myron and Phil’s rather than trying anything new.

Since then, I have to say things have improved somewhat.  The burger chain threads haven’t totally vanished (and Schwa’s telephone habits just flared up again) but there have been good, wide-ranging and new-ground-breaking threads on things like carne asada tacos; and people have actually tried new restaurants like Taxim and Nightwood and Fianco and so on.  You’re just about ready to think it’s getting lively again when, suddenly, there’s a thread like this.

Brief recap: Mike Sula wrote about an illegal taqueria operating out of a garage on weekends.  Gary Wiviott posted about trying it.  Both concealed the address (though made it fairly easy to see how you could get it).  And then… LTHers got all hinky about somebody writing about a place and not telling you how to go there and try it for yourself!

Well, in the words of Brian…

The point isn’t that there’s one taco stand somewhere in somebody’s garage, that G Wiv found out about from Sula who found out about it from Rob Lopata, and now you can find out about it from him. The point is, there’s stuff like this all over if you go looking for it, and any of us can do that if we just make the effort. But you have to make the effort; complaining that a leading LTHer hasn’t spoonfed it to you is, well, as bad as talking about chain hamburgers. Get off your duff, roll down your windows, and start driving around Mexican neighborhoods till you smell something good! Then get out of your car, be friendly, eat something, take some pictures and post about it. It all starts with somebody going out and finding something that nobody had any idea was there until they went out and looked for it. Go out and find something that nobody’s seen before!

Or, like me, you finally could go try a place you’ve been driving by for 15 years.

* * *

Mr. V’s Pizza is in a strip mall on Elston, up in the far-northwest Forest Glen neighborhood.  It was the strip mall, I guess, that kept me from following Mike G’s Rule of Pizza (“Always try a pizza that dates back to the 1950s. There is always a small possibility that in the intervening 35+ years, they have NOT screwed it up by trying to make it more like Domino’s or something.”)  It looked like a lame slice place sticking generic toppings on premade crusts.  But somehow, my curiosity was finally piqued, and I went in.

There were a lot of good signs once I went inside.  It may not seem like a good sign that the menu has everything from Italian beef to ice cream, but it suggested to me that there was an old school Italian family restaurant concealed behind a pizza facade.  It was a good sign, too, that the menu mainly offered cheese and sausage pizza— there was a list of alternative toppings, but this was all about the Chicago classics, cheese and sausage.  It was a good sign that the slice rewarmer seemed to not be in use.

I ordered one of each, thin, and was told 20 minutes.  I went to walk around the immediate area, which was nondescript but suggested a thriving family neighborhood.  In the park next door, a family ate pizza while the kids played on the swings, and a little ways over I saw these guys:

There’s a funeral chapel with a 60s mansard roof next door; I peaked inside and saw, inexplicably, a merry-go-round goat:

And what’s up with this?  I started to feel like I was wandering the village in a Lovecraft story, and had stumbled on the portraits of the ancestors the locals don’t like to talk about:

20 minutes were up and I drove home.  I tore the paper cover open and:

Classic Chicago thin crust, not the best I ever had, but not bad at all— the crust is almost certainly prefab, which is a bummer but hardly unusual; but the cheese and sausage were of good quality, the tomato sauce had a little sweetness and a little tang, the whole thing was not too greasy, well-cooked.  A pizza to make you happy on a Friday night, and not make you regret it the next morning.  If I lived in Forest Glen and this was my local pizza, I’d have it on my speed dial.

And so the pace of discovery continues…

Mr. V’s Pizza
5285 N Elston Ave
(at Forest Glen Ave)
Chicago, IL 60630
(773) 736-9434

When my kids were small, we ate at a lot of hamburger joints. It’s not that I wasn’t trying to introduce my kids to new things, but you’re always running errands with little kids and so you find yourself out by some mall, and suddenly your kid has to eat right now, and you can try to convince him that falafel are the yummy yummy good answer to that, or he can eat another damn hot dog. And so, back in the day, I tried a lot of hamburger joints I haven’t been to since. This post is about returning to two of them, for the first time in a long time.

A few weeks ago, I was running around, coming back from around Skokie on Lincoln, and I just wanted a quick bite, and I remembered Hub’s, one of those Greek burger places I’ve railed against, but I figured, it should meet minimal acceptability standards, I went in and ordered a burger and fries…

It was a limp, careless desecration of everything a burger should be. Flavorless frozen patty, then the grilled onions proved to be a sodden mass of cold jellyfish which had immediately soaked the heel of the bun into pulp. It was like eating grilled pasteboard between two wet rags, and the fries were the coated kind like Burger King has now, the fries covered with a crunchy fried-snot crust. It is not often I wish I had gone to McDonald’s or Wendy’s, but both were in my path home and either would have been an infinitely more honorable choice than this crapburger.

Hub’s has some fame due to a series of Saturday Night Live sketches it appeared in, attempting to make the lightning of Billy Goat and “Cheez-borger! No fries, cheeps!” strike again.  The Greek staff leers “You like-a da sauce, ehhh?” over and over, in sketches that last forever. I could find one on Hulu and embed it, I suppose, but they suck so badly, you should just find it for yourself if you really care.  Anyway, as I say the sketch is a lame, unpleasant and shoddy imitation of something that was good once, so it fits Hub’s to a T.

5540 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60625
(773) 784-4228

To demonstrate my point (and, further, to demonstrate that I’m not simply in a scorched-earth mood), I found myself in a similar situation yesterday, at the intersection of Lack of Time and Lack of Imagination, somewhere around Golf and Milwaukee, and popped into another Greek-burger joint, the improbably named Booby’s (who have on the menu, believe it or not, a double-patty burger called the… wait for it… Big Boob).  I’m not saying this was anything great, and it has one oddity— they put cole slaw on their burgers— but you know, at least they knew how to do right the first ten things Hub’s does wrong.  I could actually taste char-grilled meat, the cole slaw was okay and didn’t soak the burger (at least within the normal eating timespan; it was starting to get that way toward the end), the fries were anonymous but acceptable crinkle-cut fries with no goo encrusted upon them.  I still wouldn’t put it anywhere near this top ten, but it’ll do in a pinch, and did.

All in all, though, I’m glad to not have kids so young that I find myself constantly at the Stride Rite store in Golf Mill, and then hunting for somewhere to feed them a hot dog and fries afterwards…

(847) 966-4733
8161 N Milwaukee Ave
Niles, IL 60714

I made a pastrami. More here.

At least, we’ll see if we can earn that title today.  First up: I have a blog post at the Reader, with an outtake of the most entertaining character in my most recent podcast: 75 Years of Gefilte Fish. Please read it!

Some milestones that make me happy: #11/A Better Fish has passed 1000 views at Vimeo (between its two versions— there’s a bleeped version I made for the Shedd, too); and both #10/Prosciutto di Iowa and #1/How Local Can You Go? have passed 2000 views each.  On the other hand, the new one, #12/In The Land of Whitefish, is just sort of sitting there, so if you like it, tell somebody, Tweet it, pass it along, pass somebody famous in the hallway and tell them about it, whatever!

If you liked my Charlie and the Chocolate Factory parody, check this out.

In a move I expect to affect absolutely no one, I’m turning off comments on old posts because the only people who post new comments on anything more than a couple of weeks old are spammers, and they tend to glom onto a few posts and totally assault them with keerap month after month. If you actually want to comment on something old, email me or something.

Actual content to come soon…

Notice posted at Crucial Detail website:

On October 19th chef Grant Achatz, in collaboration with Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail and the Alinea staff, will host an experimental dinner testing concepts, dishes, service methods, and techniques deemed too avante garde for Alinea.
• Seating will be limited to 30 guests.
• Tickets available by lottery only through this website.
• Tickets are non-transferrable and cannot be sold or traded.
• Due to the nature of the event, we regret that we cannot accommodate vegetarian or any other dietary requests.
• There is no charge for the event.

Chapter One

Charlie Bloggert was a boy who had a food blog. Having a food blog did not pay very much, and so he had to live in an old, old house with his Grandpa Jacques and his Grandma Julia and his Grandpa Ferran and his Grandma Alice and his iMac G5 with Snow Leopard. They lived on large pots of chilled beet soup and old episodes of $40 a Day With Rachael Ray, and dreamed of someday getting to eat at famous restaurants like Charlie Prodnose’s and Fickelgruber Laundry and Per Slugworth. But the finest restaurant of all, the one Charlie most dreamed of eating at someday, was Chef Grant Wonkatz’ Alinea.

“Tell me about Alinea, Grandpa Jacques,” Charlie would say, for he was always in desperate need of material for his food blog.

“Why, it’s the most marvelous place on earth!” Grandpa Jacques exclaimed. “And Chef Wonkatz is the most marvelous wizard with food that you’ve ever seen! Why, he has a kind of griddle that, instead of making food hot, fries it up cold! He has drinks that are hot at one end and cold at the other end as you drink them—”

“But how does he do that, Grandpa Jacques?” Charlie asked, furiously pressing “Save” on WordPress.

“Nobody knows! That’s what so wangdoodleficating amazing about it! And most amazing of all, he has a ravioli—oh, you’ve never seen such a ravioli in all your life—you bite into it and it explodes in your mouth with all the most amazing flavors that just go on and on until you feel like you’ll never be able to eat anything again! It’s called Wonkatz’ Everlasting Gobslopper and nobody knows how he does it—oh, wouldn’t old Thomas Ficklegruber or Jöel Slugworth give their right eye to know how he does it!”

“But someone must know how he does it,” Charlie said. “Can’t someone bribe his sous chefs or something? Hasn’t he written a big expensive coffee table book?”

“That’s just it,” Grandpa Jacques said, his voice growing low. “Nobody knows who his sous chefs or cooks are. Nobody’s ever been inside his kitchen. All they see are the waiters bringing dishes out. And the busboys taking dishes back in. But what happens in that kitchen, nobody knows…”

flip the pages…

Chapter Nine

The next day Charlie turned on the internet to find that a girl named Violet Beauregarde in New York had won the second Golden Ticket. Her father, a round little man with his hair combed over his head, was talking to the camera.

“Soon as I saw that ticket, I called this here Alinear up,” Mr. Beauregarde said. “I said you listen here, my girl Violet is a verrah famous food blogger, as you no doubt know, and runs a very important survey of very fine dining. And I said, my Violet expects the chef to cook for her. And the clown at the other end says, sir, the chef cooks for everybody, we don’t send the food out raw. No, no, you nitwit, I said, you listen to me, my girl Violet has been in the finest restaurants in all the world, Paris, Vegas, you name it, and maybe this news hasn’t reached the cornfield town you live in but when a customer says they want the chef to cook for them, it means they expect the chef to prepare a special menu just for them, of the chef’s best, not that junk he serves the hoi pa-low-ee. And they expect the chef to come out and talk to them, see? My Violet has some very specific ideas on cuisine and I think it would do your Chef Wonkatz a lot of good to get the benefits of her insights…”

flip the pages…

Chapter Seventeen

As the golden gate shut behind him with a loud clang, Chef Wonkatz began to speak. “You five lucky children—and your charming parents—are the first people to—”

FLASH! went the bulb on Mike Teevee’s pocket camera.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that right in my eyes as I’m speaking,” Chef Wonkatz said.

“Hold on a second Chef,” Mike said, furiously typing on tiny keys the size of mouse teeth. “There! I’ve just uploaded that picture to YFrog.”

“As I was saying—”

“Hang on there Chef,” Mike said. “My Flip camera isn’t picking up the audio very well. Do you think you could turn off some of those machines?”

“I know just the thing to show you,” Chef Wonkatz said. “You know how people send Tweets during their meal?”

“Do I know—listen, Chef, you’re talking to the first kid ever to live-Tweet from the bathrooms at Ducasse!”

“Well,” continued Chef Wonkatz, “I have found a way to Tweet… food.” And he opened the doors to reveal a gleaming white complex of cubicles and computers, at which dozens of casually-dressed Oompa-Loompas sat, furiously typing and then pressing “Send.” At the front of the room stood a plexiglass booth, and inside it was a plate of food neatly threaded onto a metal skewer, and a computer with a large camera-like device attached to it.

“Watch this,” he said, and suddenly the booth was filled with a brilliant white light. When it faded, the food was gone.

“Where’d it go?” asked Charlie.

Suddenly one of the Oompa-Loompas began jumping up and down in his seat. “There!” cried Chef Wonkatz as the five kids and their parents moved forward to see. “There, on his screen! That’s the food!”

“It’s tiny,” Mrs. Beauregarde said.

“It only has 140 characters to capture everything about the dish,” Chef Wonkatz said.

As they squinted at the tiny skewer with its minuscule food threaded through it, no one noticed that Mike Teevee had slipped out of the group and was now running toward the plexiglass booth at the front of the room…

flip the pages…

Chapter Twenty-Eight

“And this one is an oyster topped with yuzu—” Chef Wonkatz said.

“I don’t eat shellfish,” Veruca Salt said. “Contains too many pollutants.”

“What an adorable rhinoceros your child is,” Chef Wonkatz said. “And over here, is a slice of braised Berkshire pork belly with uni flakes and a salt caramel—”

“I don’t eat salt,” Veruca said. “Ironic, I know. Or pork either. And to tell you the truth, Wonky, I’m not wild about uni. Haven’t you got some food a person could eat in this place, like tofu or seitan?”

“I must admit, at the moment I’m not so sure,” said Chef Wonkatz.

“Well, there’s your pantry,” Veruca said. “I’ll just hop over and take a look-see—”

And in a flash Veruca had bounded the barrier and popped into the kitchen. “Stop, you’re not clean enough to be in the kitchen,” Chef Wonkatz shouted.

“Who are you saying isn’t clean?” Mrs. Salt, offended, shouted back.

Veruca hunted through the large steel refrigerator for something to her liking.  “Kangaroo meat… filet of snozzcumberous… Wonky, don’t you know you’re killing yourself with all this stuff?” As she went on, tossing packages over her head, Veruca didn’t notice that a group of Oompa-Loompas was sneaking up behind her with a large plastic bag.

“Say, what are those Oompa-Loompas doing?” Mr. Salt said.

“They’re making sure the meat in the kitchen isn’t contaminated,” Chef Wonkatz said.

“Veruca!” screamed Mrs. Salt, but a moment later the bag was over Veruca’s head and six of the Oompa-Loompas were inserting one end into a large silver machine.  A kind of rumbling noise came from the machine, and then suddenly the plastic seemed to stretch tight over Veruca, following her shape perfectly.

“What have they done?” screamed Mrs. Salt.

“They’ve vacuum-sealed her to keep her fresh,” Chef Wonkatz said resignedly.

And then, carrying the plastic-sealed over her head, the Oompa-Loompas began to sing:

For those who eat most heartily
An occasional blocked artery
Is not so high a price to pay
For enjoying pleasures while you may.
But then there are the crabby sort
Who’d never take a glass of port
A good cigar, a hambone joint
Or paté foie. For them the point
Is bringing to a prompt fruition
The optimum in good nutrition
Devoid of butter, fat or lard
Just whole grain bread turned granite-hard
Broccoli, lentils, bitter kale
Brown rice that tastes like last week’s mail.
One of this kind was Veruca Salt
Present her with a chocolate malt
And you’d be greeted with a look
As if you’d deep-fried a phone book
Tofu, seitan, these were her meats
Served raw upon the greens of beets
Which she would chew with jaw askance
(And soon make noises with her pants).
So long poor V. eschewed her treat
Not us! For us, she’s just fresh meat
She suffers now a fate to heed—
We’re cooking this young Salt sous vide.

EXTRA! Before we get to the business at hand… check out and sign up for The Local Beet farm dinner next weekend (but you have to sign up by this weekend). It couldn’t be a more perfect time to eat stuff straight off the farm, on the farm. Check out the details here.

Got a nice fan email from a fellow named Kevin Speck in Japan:

Just a quick note to say I get your podcasts religiously here in Japan and although I watch many food podcasts, in English and local things in Japanese, most of them seem to `miss the point of food as I would like to see it` and that point being,  I really love it when people have that ability to take us back to the origin of the food morsel that we put into our mouths and make us think about that.

Although I work in the metals industry I really love food and although I did a 6 month culinary school night class I don`t have the dedication to detail or the ability to stand on my feet for 15 hours a day non-stop to be a professional in the food industry. So I content myself with night-time baking and bento box preparation and watching your show.

P.S : My partner here in Japan (she is Japanese), doesn`t understand why Westerners would be interested in a show about pigs or fruit farmers. But we live in a country where people order their meals out of tanks of live fish and beef packets in supermarkets have a cartoon image of a smiling cow showing you the part of him/her that you are about to eat. hehe.

O.K … longer than a quick note I know. But thanks for the podcasts. There are people all over the world who appreciate them.


Thanks for the nice words, glad you enjoy them!  But you know, Japan isn’t the only place where cartoon animals happily give themselves for food.  Well, not entirely happily in this case (from Carnitas Uruapan; photo by Gary Wiviott from the long ago Short-Notice-a-Thon):

* * *

Meanwhile… more than a year ago, when I had no idea what I was doing and I was shooting my second podcast in a Chinese restaurant, the woman who was planning to take over the restaurant with her siblings, Kelly Cheng, told me about their plans for moving into a bigger, better space around the corner.

It seemed as far off as, well, 12 completed podcasts, but that eventually happened and now Sun Wah is about to make that move. Their last day in the old space will be the 15th (Tuesday); they should reopen around the end of the month. Then the only place the old Sun Wah will exist will be… in Sky Full of Bacon #2:

Sky Full of Bacon 02: Duck School from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

1. Okay, it goes on forever because it’s on a discussion site, but this is the most fascinating, thoughtful and sometimes hilarious LTHForum thread in a long time. A foodie blogger bigshot (at least he considers himself so) and some friends went to Chicago’s hoity Asian-fusion place L2O and were disappointed with the service… or, as populist LTHers saw it, were disappointed that they didn’t get their heinies kissed sufficiently after attempting to throw their weight around. The result contains a lot of good discussion of blogger ethics, diner tactics, the cult of chefs and how much personal attention you could or should expect, and many other fascinating topics… along with some absolutely killing snark. Two prominent Chicago chefs turn up to weigh in along the way. Start here on page 6 and read at least through page 12, and don’t miss this hilarious parody in another thread.
2. Sky Full of Bacon pal Helen Rosner charmingly asks chefs what they pack in their kids’ lunches. Grant Achatz’ kids arrive at school with sushi.
3. David Hammond’s radio pieces about food have always been good, but his new series— about how sound works in cooking— is exceptional, getting chefs to think and say really interesting things about how the sense of hearing helps them know what’s going on. They air every Wednesday, with three so far (another one by the time you read this, probably); go here.
4. This is a 5-minute video about Oregon’s 70-year-old artisanal cheesemaker Rogue Creamery, which was rescued from the brink of closing by new owners; it seems to be mainly a kind of inspirational piece about following your dreams more than a food piece, but has some cool shots of the cheesemaking process and so on.

5. Monica Kass Rogers tries to hit half a dozen Chicago-area farmer’s markets in one day, at The Local Beet.
6. The journal Foreign Policy is not normally a place I look for food stories, but I happened to spot an interesting, and also (warning) graphic, story on Japan’s unsavory hunger for whale and dolphin meat.
7. For a slice of baby boomers born in the 1960s, as soon as you see what this is for… you’ll smell that indelible artificial grape flavor. The rest of you will just be freaked out by the clown.

I’ve been sort of down on Chicago street festivals, whether it’s Koreanfest or Finnfest you somehow wind up seeing the same pork skewer vendors and insurance company booths at them, but I had a great time earlier this summer at Pierogifest and so that inspired me to finally take David Hammond’s advice and go to Taste of Melrose Park.

Meet famous Italian celebrities at Taste of Melrose Park.

I don’t know a lot about Melrose Park, but having bought a couch there once 15 years ago (since sent to my alley where couches often go to die), it’s definitely an old school Italian-American suburb, the New Joisey of Chicago. Taste of Melrose Park is full of families and church organizations running booths making their family specialty to sell at $2/serving, maybe $3 at most, and though a lot of them are old school pasta and red sauce type dishes (perfectly likable, nothing special), more than a few are much better than that, and the whole event is packed, lively and full of boisterous Chi-town energy.

We hooked up with Hammond and his wife Carolyn Berg, surprised that no other LTHers had taken him up on his posted offer, and he led us to several of the best choices— there were some hearty, enormous arancini (rice balls), and I really liked Melrose Park Peppers, apparently an old local specialty but hard to find now, basically Italian sausage and sauteed green pepper in a bun with marinara sauce.

Others, even if I wasn’t 100% wild about them, where else are you going to go to a street fest and find artichoke casserole in a styrofoam cup?  Try to get that on the north shore. I certainly liked it better than the bread bowl with pasti e fagioli, which threatened to take up way too much valuable stomach space for its fairly ordinary Italian restaurant flavor.

Hammond had more of an adventurous palate than myself, he tried both the clams:

and a stand offering, curiously, soul food-style neckbones, which were pretty rank, he couldn’t get anybody else to try a bite.

We tried other stuff— one kid nursed a pizza slice for about a half hour until a fried Twinkie came his way— but the two things we were really out to try were the famous sfingi, eggy donuts made by an order of nuns, which had at least an hour’s worth of line waiting for the sisters to get each batch out of the fryer:

And the famous fried bologna sandwiches, showcased in Hammond’s article linked above.  He and I stopped by their stand as the others waited for sfingi and he was embraced as a celebrity for having driven traffic to their booth from as far as Glenview.  They also said they wanted to meet his wife (read the article, you’ll see why) and so we relayed that news as we took bologna sandwiches back to our line-bound compatriots.  I was really surprised how good the bologna sandwich was— the combination of fried, slightly blackened and crispy bologna, mustard and sweet caramelized onion, and white bread was great, like a minimalist Chicago hot dog flattened out.

Once we had our sfingi— likewise wonderful, the egginess making them like something between a donut and French toast—

—we made our way back to the bologna booth and Carolyn was embraced as a long lost sister.  In gratitude to Hammond for the article, they invited all of us into the back of their booth for a slice of homemade cheesecake.

As much fun as the fest itself is, as true as it is to the warmly outgoing Italian-American spirit, it quickly became clear that the real fun, the real neighborliness, the real spirit of the fest is in what goes on in the back alleys of the booth rows, where the different stands— mostly amateurs— trade food and recipes and goodnatured jokes back and forth.  And that cheesecake!  It might not have been the best one I ever had in my life, maybe only in the last 20 years, light and creamy and made with love.  I couldn’t have been prouder of my younger son when she asked him how he liked it and his eyes rolled back in his head and he just said, “Soooo gooooood.”  Right answer, Liam, if you want to be invited back next year.  Seriously, I don’t know how you swing an invitation into the vendors’ social lives, but Hammond did so on our behalf, and it was one of the highlights of my summer.

Better photos than mine of much of the food can be found in this LTHForum post.

Note: This is a customer dissatisfaction rant, if you want food stuff, go to my latest video podcast, In the Land of Whitefish. Or click Video Podcasts at right.

Like a lot of folks in creative pursuits, I’m an Apple partisan going back to the dark days when it seemed to be hanging on by the skin of its beige plastic teeth in the face of imminent annilhation. And like a lot of Apple fans, I may have enjoyed seeing The Dictatorship of Steve fire missiles at the lumbering Microsaurus, but I also knew that if Apple ever had me by the short hairs, it was unlikely to be a fun experience. Though Apple vs. Microsoft may be a duopoly, it’s one made of, basically, two individual monopolies; they’re competitors the way Christendom and Islam were competitors during the Crusades, not a lot of free flowing traffic between the two sides to make a real marketplace.

Surprisingly, the place where Steve has applied the iThumbscrews to me is the one that ought to be one of the shiny happy places where they convert you to the cult: the Apple Store. (Woodfield mall in the Chicago suburbs, specifically, if you want to know where.) Apple software I mostly revere, Final Cut Express for $99 is like getting a BMW for $150, but the much-admired Apple Store is actually a pretty poor user experience, beautiful… but dumb. Because Apple’s too cool for things like nametags with job titles and clear directional signage, you have to go in and find someone with an orange shirt who finds you someone with a blue shirt to tell your troubles to who then has to get you someone with a yellow shirt who’s not already helping three other people, to actually get anything done. All I can say is, I’m sure glad I don’t have to go through that to get corned beef at Paulina Meat Market on Saturday morning.

Oh, but I found a user experience within the Apple empire that is even dumber than that— maddeningly so. And in the process it revealed other, deeper dumbnesses in the Apple experience that had me thinking, for the first time in a quarter century and probably $20,000 of Apple purchases (not counting what ad agencies have purchased for me to use), what alternatives might possibly exist.

It’s the process of getting to the Apple Store— that is, of getting an appointment with one of the geniuses or, as non-pretentious human beings call them, repair guys. You go to, you click a few choices to narrow it down to your area and your equipment, and then you select times. Because it’s a widely-held opinion that Apple build quality has slipped as the prices have gone down, they’re very busy and you’re always at least a day (if not two or three) out from an appointment. Apple can get away with that in a way Best Buy could only dream of.

And here’s where Apple’s website team made an absolutely staggering, shoot your own foot and kill your customer when it ricochets bungle. Let’s assume you’re on your laptop, since it’s your desktop computer that up and died, like mine did. You’ve picked your time and location, and—this is very important—you’ve clicked a button called Confirm. Sounds very final, doesn’t it? Here’s what you see next:

What do you conclude from this? That you have an appointment for this time, right? After all, you Confirmed, no? You are “scheduled,” no? No and no, as a matter of fact. Scroll down, past the border of the box that seems to be the bottom of the meaningful content, past the border of the box it’s within, to an area beyond both of them:

You don’t have an appointment until you’ve both Confirmed, and clicked Done. Confirm was, in fact, Hmm I Don’t Know, Maybe, Let Me Think About It Some More.

And lest you think I’m the only person who would miss that button, realize that this was on a bestselling size of Apple laptop using Apple’s default browser. Probably 40% of all people who ever go to the page see it the way I did. How many never scroll down on that final looking page and thus miss that final crucial step the way I did? All of them, or just nearly all? It’s an amazingly lunkheaded bit of misthought-out user experience for a supposedly in-tune, online-leader company like Apple. 10 years ago Amazon put up a prominent message that says “Stop! Your order is not placed until you press ‘Place order.” But Apple thinks you’ll happily poke around for more buttons to press all night long. Everyone will.

But it can always get worse! So like me, you go to the Apple Store and find an orange shirt. And you discover that you don’t have an appointment like you thought, and the default response to that is the latest upgrade of Apple’s iDon’tGiveaShit ’09. Their only product at that point is 31 flavors of Start Over And Click the Right Invisible Button This Time, Dumbass. You might as well be asking the TSA if you can carry your timebomb collection on a 747 as to try to get any information about your screwed up Apple product from the Apple Store at this point, or to get moved up in any way from their next availability, which is Christmas morning at 6 am. You have qualified for a free upgrade to iHaveNoMouthandIMustScream.

The irony is, customer satisfaction in my case was amazingly close at hand, and yet Apple has deliberately designed their system to frustrate it. I pretty much knew my problem— a crash had farbungled my OS, and my question was, could I run Disk Utility etc. and try to repair it if the computer had the old operating system (Mountain Goat, I think) and I used the new one (Blue-Assed Baboon, I believe) to do it, since I couldn’t find my old Mountain Goat discs. In a restaurant, in a clothing store, even in freakin’ Best Buy, I suspect, the system could have worked like this:

Customer has no appointment, is turning purple with rage —>
Say “We’re really booked, but let me see if I can get someone to see if we can do something”
=Blue shirt comes out, answers my one question, sends me away happy

Instead it was:
Citizen has no appointment —>
=Say: “No appointment, comrade! Back to end of line!”

Apple makes a big deal out of training these geniuses in Cupertino but it’s clear that much of the training is, in reality, focused on making sure none of them ever deviate from the scripts to perform real problem solving on their own initiative. Your local geniuses are no more free to act to keep you happy than a call center in Mumbai. It is, in its own way, an oddly inhuman, binary-thinking kind of approach to customer service— if I fit the needs of Apple’s system perfectly, I will get service, but the slightest deviation and I’m ejected as a bad cog in the machine. It is an experience that not only belies the hippy-trippy atmosphere so carefully created in the Apple Store, but more crucially, the brand promise of Apple as a computer for creative individuals thinking outside the box. Not if you’re trapped in this box:

The biggest “premiere” I ever had for one of my videos was when I showed Raccoon Stories to a dozen guests at one of my Southern parties.  Monday night, the venue was a little bigger than that:

But let me back up.  So as you could either tell or guess from my last two, fish-oriented videos, A Better Fish and In the Land of Whitefish, my involvement with fish came about, first, because Carl Galvan of Supreme Lobster invited me to poke around their place, and second, because during the making of the first one, he said “Hey, you wanna go on a whitefish boat?” and set it up for me to go out with one of their suppliers, Susie Q Fish Co.

Supreme is certainly the biggest company I’ve dealt with in any of these, many times larger than La Quercia, for instance, and initially I wondered if there might be some hesitation or sensitivity about a guy running around with a camera in their company.  I wondered, in fact, if they’d demand some sort of editorial control.  (Which on a formal level I wouldn’t agree to, though I’d certainly listen to any comments, just as I gave La Quercia an opportunity to watch the final cut and tell me if there was anything proprietary they didn’t want shown, which as it turned out there wasn’t.)

But his bosses trusted Carl and he trusted me not to do some kind of hatchet job, and I think I honestly portrayed what they are— a big, efficient and busy company where sustainability is on their radar, and they’re moving things in that direction where they can, but change doesn’t happen overnight either, and so much of it depends on the consciousness of their customers and their customers’ customers as well.  That’s a realistic picture of how progress happens, each piece in the supply chain— fishermen, brokers like Cleanfish, distributors like Supreme, restaurants like Vie and Chaise Lounge, diners like me— helping nudge the others along, making it economically possible to do what’s better.  That’s especially why I was so happy to be able to include Cleanfish, who are really committed to market rather than governmental solutions, protecting non-sustainable fish by driving the market toward other more sustainable fish; and I think it’s obvious that their commitment has had a pretty rapid and direct ripple effect through to distributors and then to chefs and diners (as shown in my Reader piece on their Nunavut arctic char).

Anyway, after they saw the first one and felt it was a good picture of their operation (even if it did reveal that their sales reps sometimes use bad words!), they had the idea of planning an event to raise awareness of the quality and versatility of Great Lakes fish and sustainability more generally, built around a screening of the first video and the (at that point, unfinished) one about whitefish.  And, well it was quite an event— they got the Shedd on board as a venue (and it doesn’t get much snazzier than that):

and Paul Virant of Vie and Troy Graves of Eve, plus the Shedd’s own in house team, cooking with fresh and smoked whitefish and smelts, alongside Goose Island beer.  The invite list included over 200 chefs and media folks, and I talked to many of them, Paul and Troy of course, Jean Joho, Todd Stein, Cary Taylor, Radhika Desai, etc., though they were just as many I missed (I never did catch Geno Bahena, who was there with the madonna of moles, Clementina Flores; or Michael McDonald of One Sixty Blue, Bruno Abate of Follia/Tocco, etc.).

I think that one’s going to be an ad for Goose Island, or maybe Colt .45 Malt Liquor.  (Photos, by the way, are by Supreme’s Reed Shallenberger if they’re any good, and were taken with my camera if they’re not.)  Here’s Carl working on the playlist for the party at the Shedd’s loading dock:

The food really showed the versatility that Great Lakes fish can have, with the biggest eyeopener being Troy’s surprisingly flavorful whitefish cake, which didn’t miss crab a bit.  Here’s Paul bringing in some escabeche:

After about an hour of mingling (and me running around checking on the AV) we gathered in one of the  exhibit rooms as a repurposed screening room.  The president of Supreme and a couple of folks from the Shedd talked about the fish biz and how Shedd works to promote sustainability (including as a big buyer of seafood for its own animals to eat), and then, this guy got up there:

Since I try not to yak-yak in my movies, I tried not to do so before them for too long, either.

Paul Virant, Mike Sheerin (Blackbird) and Jean Joho watching the videos.  I have to say, it was a real gift to finally get to see some of my work with an audience, like a real movie, not just because of the ego boost (though that was certainly gratifying) but also because, I think I know where the laughs are, where the “Hmm, never thought about that”s are, and so on, but you don’t really know until you can hear and feel a whole audience reacting.  It was really great to hear that everybody else found Robert Schuffler as delightful a character as I did, or roared at why lawyer fish are called that.

Afterwards Carl, who had really made everything possible, was thanked by his boss for his dedication and passion to the business of selling fish, and got a big round of applause, well-deserved, for making the event happen.  I really hope that some of our city’s best chefs came away thinking of new ways to make use of Great Lakes fish, and sustainable fish generally, in a way that’s better for the oceans and lakes and for all of us.