Sky Full of Bacon

Flub-A-Dub Chub.

Suddenly everybody is talking cheeseburgers, and making lists of them.  Okay, as with the bacon fad (which I’ve already been told is over), part of that is the media making a game of pretending to discover… that which was never gone in the first place.  “America’s Love Affair With Ice Water,” that sort of thing.  But people like cheeseburgers, Kevin Pang has said that his whole Cheeseburger Show thing is rooted in the fact that if he posted about fancy food, it drew a snooze, but if he posted about burgers, he immediately got 250 comments.  So it is cheeseburger season— Helen Rosner did this roundup of local burgers (note: a few photos in there are mine), then Jeff Ruby at Chicago mag did this one, Pang is back with a fresh discovery from the wilds of… Oakbrook’s plastic Butterfield Road shopping and dining strip?  And there’s the ur-list, at least among recent burgerology, Time Out’s 55 Best Burgers issue from a couple of years ago.

Rosebud Steakhouse.

This is all well and good, and there is undoubtedly much happy eating to be had on this list, but I have an issue, which is why I feel I can make another goddam burger post and not merely be wasting your reading time, much.  My issue, as I said on the occasion of Time Out’s issue at LTHForum, is that I actually don’t think Chicago is a great burger town:

That we aren’t may surprise some, especially coming off Time Out’s 55 Best Burgers issue, which indeed found many fine burgers in Chicago’s hipper precincts. That is, it found many fine burgers in the vicinity of $8.95 or higher…

But lop $7 off that price and it becomes much harder to find a burger that’s more than serviceable. The cheap burger in this town is mainly what I’ve come to call the Greek joint burger, even though they’re as likely to be run by Koreans or even Indians (beef taboo aside) these days. It’s a frozen patty, grilled on a gas grill or griddled, and then stuck in a bun with (like the Chicago hot dog) a full meal’s worth of condiments– thick slices of pickle, tomato, lettuce, and onion. To be honest, it’s not a bad burger, but it tastes mainly of char-grilling, first, and then of pickle and salad.

I was a bit too kind; it often is a bad burger, in the sense that it’s put together carelessly in ways that make the ingredients work against each other, as in this example. I have an historical theory why this might be:

It’s that lack of fresh beef (and the restraint in condimentation that it all but mandates) that keeps so many Chicago burgers from achieving greatness… Perhaps it was our place as the final processing point for cattle that facilitated the rise of an industrial product— the frozen hockey puck of beef— over the handformed patty of freshly ground chuck popular in farm country.

Kuma’s.  The patty is even bigger now.

Whatever the reason, we have the situation that there are lots of bars and restaurants making very good upscale burgers out of fresh, good quality meat, and then there are lots and lots of burger joints, or generic burger-hot dog-gyros joints, making mediocre burgers out of frozen hamburger pucks.  Which is the problem I have with so many of these lists; they’re comparing a big fat $10 bar burger and a skinny little $2 clamshell burger as if they were the same thing, when they’re certainly as different as thin crust and deep dish pizza.  Like the pizzas, they may start from the same ingredients, but the effect is totally different.

Not surprisingly, all these lists are heavy on the big bar burgers, and logically, they should be— better ingredients, better preparation.  The only problem is… I don’t like that style better.  Okay, I must like it because I’ve eaten entirely too many of them, but my real fondness is for an old-fashionedly proletarian burger of the sort I’ve dubbed “30s-style.”  As I described it long ago (you can tell I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a while):

The focus with such a burger is the harmonious blending of multiple elements— a soft white bun, mustard, pickle slices, and onion (raw dice or grilled rings), cheese optional. They are then wrapped inside a sheet or sleeve of white paper, where the heat of the meat patty will warm up the other ingredients and give off steam which will blend the whole into more than the sum of its parts. The impression given by such a burger is not of a thick slab of beef slightly restrained by a wimpy, quickly juice-dissolved bun, or worse yet made into a kind of beef salad with lettuce and tomato— it’s of a kind of meat pastry, sweet white bun and savory mustard and pickles and meat all at once.

Bill’s, Evanston.

That description is nothing like the burger at the top of this post, Flub-A-Dub Chub, one of Jeff Ruby’s discoveries, a little subterranean joint on Broadway presided over by an efficiently friendly grandma and turning out, well, a pretty damn good imitation of the Kuma’s burger.  They have the pretzel roll, the egg on top (though it was cooked hard, which somewhat spoiled the effect) and a big slab of pretty good quality beef.  I should be impressed (although the fact that it was cooked well was another drawback)… but after having consumed that huge thing for lunch, I felt like a man who’d swallowed an entire gopher.  It was just too, too much.

So it may be quixotic to do so, the sentiment is clearly on the side of the bar burger, the monster burger, and there’s no denying that the average of that style is much, much higher than the average of the burger stand burger.  Nevertheless, I am going to offer my list of what I think are the best burger stand burgers, the best modest burgers, the best burgers that evoke the constraints of the 1930s rather than the caloric excess of today.  It’s not that hard to make a pretty good burger when you have $10 to play with; I want to pay tribute to the proletarian burgers that can impress at $2.25 and with just a thin 6-to-the-pound patty having to harmonize with all its fellows, rather than a Sherman tank of meat to mow down your palate with the beefy beefiness of overwhelming beefpower.  Not all of them use fresh meat, but they’re all true in some way to the 30s style paradigm and better than your average “Greek joint” puckburger.

1. Schoop’s. Thin, fresh meat patties are hard to find in Chicago but suddenly reappear right near the Chicago-Indiana border; this mini-chain mostly in Indiana does a beautiful job of frying them to a lacy crispness.  It’s what Steak and Shake ought to be.

2. Top-Notch Beefburger. Fresh meat is ground everyday for this Beverly/Oak Lawn institution, though rather than fried to a crispy edge, these burgers stew in lots of juice, picking up even more flavor; the fries (fried in beef tallow) and shakes are great too.

3. Johnsen’s Blue Top. Another Indiana joint (Highland), in a way over the top Googie-style drive-in building.  Here’s more.

4. Superdawg. It’s an open secret among foodies that the iconic dog place actually makes a pretty mean burger, with a crispy exterior and lots of diced onions.

5. Handburgers. South side (Roseland) spot puts the good word right on the sign, baby.

6. Bill’s. The frozen meat patties are nothing special, but otherwise, this place offers a more authentic version of the classic 30s style burger than almost anywhere around.  Order two if you’re at all hungry.  (See photo above.)

7. Man-Jo-Vin’s. The good quality patty is wider and probably frozen, but the proportions and the use of grilled onions give this burger a classic taste, and the fresh-cut fries are excellent too.

8. Muskies. I’m pretty sure they use a frozen patty, too, but grilled over gas fire, and moderately proportioned, it’s quite good.

9. Diner Grill. To be honest I kind of think diner burgers are pretty much the same, and if Two Way or Johnnie’s or Kevin’s is closer to you, go have that, but there are few things that make you feel more American than eating a burger and fries on a stool with your fellow diner denizens reading the Sun-Times and soaking up a hangover.

10. The Choo-Choo. Okay, the fact that this is a kid-themed burger place in Des Plaines with birthday music blaring like FAO Schwarz on a speed jag will knock it out of consideration for many people, but damn, they actually turn out a first rate burger.

…she’d have earned her money this week. Big thanks to two local publications which gave big shoutouts to Sky Full of Bacon this week. The first being Mike Doyle on his blog about Chicago blogs, Chicagosphere, at the Trib’s Chicago Now:

Chicago’s best multimedia food blog is Michael Gebert’s Sky Full of Bacon and I’m late to the party in saying so. His long-form video podcasts and essays tell the interesting stories behind the food that hits Chicago tables–and the people committed to getting it there. Foodies with attention spans will go away hungry for more.

There’s more, go read it. Then today Tasting Table, a daily email thing devoted to cool food stuff, praised SFOB in today’s Chicago edition:

Tired of TV’s penchant for glossy studio kitchen shots? Then the Sky Full of Bacon videos will be like manna from gritty, real-life food heaven.

Thanks to them both, and if you’re new here and found your way here from one of them, the easiest way to see the videos is to click Video Podcasts under Categories at right.

Some people get up early to eat Sunday breakfast out.  Okay, that’s us most weeks.  This week, we got up early to harvest it.  And I don’t mean corn for cornmeal muffins.

You would never guess, walking by the old convent next to a Catholic church in Rogers Park, that the roof was doubling as an apiary.  The building (incongruously Art Deco for a convent) is now the Marjorie Kovler Center of the Heartland Alliance, once better known as the Travelers & Immigrant Aid Society and helping immigrants to Chicago since 1888.  One of the staffers, Mary Black, who works with refugees and torture victims as an occupational therapist, had been interested in beekeeping and found that it was often a skill that turned up among immigrants in their programs.  A grant from Heifer International for livestock enabled her to start hives on the roof, with an Eastern European man named something like Mirostat (I never quite heard it right) as the master beekeeper. [EDIT: my wife heard, I didn’t, that he’s a teacher at Roosevelt High School named Mirsad and one set of hives are his school project bees.]

In addition to the Kovler center’s own bees, there are a couple of other groups keeping hives on the roof; we were there at the invitation of one of the teachers from our kids’ school.

A man from Cameroon named Goodwin (left) helped us with the bees today.  He told us about beekeeping in Cameroon, where they lacked the protective gear we used today.  In Cameroon, the way you avoid getting stung is, when they come after you, you run and jump in the river.

I wondered if we’d still have a visceral reaction to bees swarming around us but you soon feel quite invulnerable in your protective gear (even though you’re not, really).  The bees are very good at sealing up where they live and work with goo of their own making, so you first use a “hive tool” to pry the hives open, smoking them to calm them down and chase them away:

Some of the combs were neat like this one, some almost overgrown with bee-stalactites of wax:

You want the ones that are “capped,” which means each individual cell in the comb is full and closed off.  We took about half the honey, and left the other half for them to live on over the winter.  Goodwin asked how they get out to feed if there’s lots of snow covering up their entrance to the hive.  We explained that, well, they don’t, because there’s nothing to feed on in the winter.  Another difference between beekeeping in Chicago and in Cameroon.

Goodwin brushed the bees off the comb…

and Myles and Liam, unphased by bees all around them, opened the box where the combs, as bee-free as we could get them, were kept to carry downstairs.

Sometimes if a comb was covered with bees, they’d just knock it on the ground, and the slightly dazed bees would just sit there, wondering what the heck just happened.

The white blobs are drones; unfortunately the black spots are signs of an infestation, mites that prey on bee colonies, so treatment will have to be applied in the next couple of weeks.

Under the watchful eye of the teacher, Mrs. Holdrege, both kids went to work uncapping the combs, which basically means using a thing sort of like a pet comb to neatly scrape the top layer of wax to open the cells without scraping up too much honey.  They did surprisingly well with this delicate operation.

Then into the centrifuges, which the kids loved cranking.  Me, I soon remembered the nice motor-powered centifuges Peter Fonda had in the movie Ulee’s Gold.

I expected we’d get a couple of good-sized jars.  We filled two 5-gallon buckets most of the way… after more than an hour of cranking.

Some are freaked out by the bits of comb, stray bee legs, etc. that speckle the honey in the buckets, and so they filter it before eating it.  We ate the raw honey on bread and apples undaunted, and it was wonderful. I’ve had plenty of really great honey in recent years but this stuff fresh from the combs was in its own class, floral and incredibly fresh tasting.  We came home with a beautiful jar, the foreign matter has already pretty much floated to the top.

I think biscuits will be on the menu for dinner.

Update: Here’s a link to a video about Heartland Alliance.

I have a piece about Nunavut Arctic Char at the Reader’s blog here, complete with an outtake from the current Sky Full of Bacon video podcast, A Better Fish.  Check it out, it’s the story of why a certain fish suddenly turned up on menus all over town (and all over the internet).

Speaking of podcasts, while I was in Wyoming saying nasty things about Julia Child, the La Quercia podcast passed 2000 views at Vimeo to become the third-most-watched to date, which is cool, to me anyway (hey, I like to know that it’s not all downhill from somewhere).

Also, one of those blogs that cleverly asks the right questions to lure other writers into writing the blog for them asked me an irresistible question; here’s my answer.

When I first saw that Michael Pollan had written a ten-zillion-page opus on the state of cooking, eating, the Food Network, Julie and Julia, and other such weighty topics, my first thought was that this was way, way too much to read onscreen; Pollan has written a piece about how our lives are too busy for cooking, at a length that our lives are too busy to read.

My second thought was, I’m about to spend ten zillion hours in the car going to and from Wyoming, so I’ll print it out.

And so I wound up reading a foodie manifesto during perhaps the least foodie week of my year, in the least foodie place I can remember going to in just about my entire life. I mean, Wyoming is a marvelous and beguiling place to visit in many ways, a state where they bother to put up population signs for towns with two-digit populations (if only someone in Emblem had died right before they put the sign up, I might have seen a one-digit one) and then follow it with a sign announcing the local cattle rustling heritage museum (every town seems to have a museum of something that happened between 1870 and 1900).

But as far as food culture goes… in terms of restaurants, it’s pretty much, where do you want to eat a preformed hamburger patty and frozen fries today? Apart from a smattering of Mexican and Chinese (no part of America is bereft of those), that’s pretty much it; when a shopkeeper in Cody asked my wife where she was from, the name “Chicago” immediately prompted a five-minute lament on the state of what little Italian food there is in Wyoming, which basically concluded with the axiom that Italian food gets steadily worse from the Rockies on. (To judge by the Jersey-in-1957-amber menu of the place down the street from him, he knows whereof he speaks.)

This made Wyoming an interesting context for considering Pollan’s points, which are roughly these: We may celebrate Julia Child as the progenitor of food TV and our foodie culture, but actually our modern food TV is her antithesis, great at encouraging us to watch more and more hyped up food-sports shows, but largely discouraging our own venturing into the kitchen to do anything more than assemble processed junk a la Sandra Lee—and her advertisers. We have the food TV we have because it suits the world of processed foods we live in, where no one has time to really cook and the habit itself is rapidly being lost.

As a market researcher sums it up (in the best quote in the piece), “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.”

So cooking has become a niche pastime, like quilting or radio controlled aircraft. Yet niches can occupy pretty big territory sometimes, and after a week in Wyoming I came away convinced that they can even cover entire states.

It’s not that processed foods weren’t all over Wyoming— in restaurants, as I said. But restaurants are scarce enough outside major tourist stops that it’s clear this is one state where people don’t eat out every night. Meanwhile, go into a grocery store and, sure, amid the frozen dinners and Lunchables and Kleenex-brand sandwich bread, there’s a surprising amount of natural, organic and just old-fashioned real stuff being sold even in very small towns. (A lot more than I’d bet you could find in towns five times as large in Illinois.) Somebody in Wyoming is certainly cooking better than you can eat out in all but the largest and wealthiest tourist-oriented towns like Jackson.

And the proof of that for me was certainly that several of my better meals were in little cafes which seemed to be no more than an extension of the proprietor’s home— not that they were objectively great, but that they were usually the most real, the least prefab, the ones that seemed the most rooted in a local housewifely sense of how to make things as opposed to drones following the instructions on the Sysco box.

In short, Wyoming seems to be one of the last outposts of the old food culture— before the processing that Pollan decries, but also, before the heroine whose legacy he celebrates.  Maybe those two events are not as opposed as we assume.

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The standard narrative, which Pollan seems to assent to, casts Julia Child as the great liberator of the American home cook— even as American cooking began declining right as she appeared on the scene.

True, she gave status to the act of cooking at a crucial moment for American women— but look at how she did it: by encouraging us to abandon American cookery for French technique. Far from championing American cooking (like her fellow West Coasters James Beard or Alice Waters), by the time she really turned to her life’s work she was a classic eastern establishment WASP trying to lead the masses toward European tastes and sophistication.

And to be honest, can you really say she succeeded? She tried to teach us French; we all learned Italian instead. Part of the reason Julie Powell’s blog project was such a novelty is precisely because so many people own Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking… and so few ever crack it open now.

What’s more, to the extent she has had an influence, hers was a pivotal step in turning cooking from something you did well for the sake of others at your table, to something you do for self-expression.  And the problem with turning cooking into a Me Decade pursuit, like jogging or meditation, is that it’s no longer necessary— it’s just something to be done when you feel like it.

It’s telling that the only woman in 21st century America who actually cooks every night is doing it for her blog, not her husband— and that she’s therefore remarkable enough to warrant a movie about her strange lifestyle.  Child set out to teach America how to cook a better cuisine, but on a certain level the message America took away was that its native cookery was inferior—and thus not worth the effort being put into it. Or the effort it would take to pass it to the next generation.

Partly as a result, preparing food became a self-conscious act, and American cookery ceased being our indigenous cuisine and became just one more concept. It’s easier to accept the artifice in processed foods when it’s all an act anyway; in a true beef culture, Wyoming hamburger stands would pride themselves on handformed fresh beef as a matter of principle. But when hamburger stands are about fitting the concept of a hamburger stand, all that matters is that you carry off the concept convincingly. If the meat’s a little worse, play the oldies a little louder; it will average out.

Now, I don’t mean to lay every box of T.G.I. Friday’s Frozen Jalapeno Cheese Poppers at Child’s feet. Obviously the main reason Americans stopped cooking is because both sexes are working now, and working more, and the time just isn’t there. But that lifestyle change also owes something to the feminist movement telling housewives to throw off their chains and find their real meaning at a desk rather than a stove.  The chain of American cooking passed from mother to daughter broke in the 1960s, and if the most influential food personality of the decade didn’t have something to do with it, who did?

Ironically, it’s precisely the meaninglessness of her boring desk job that drives Julie Powell to find meaning by taking up cooking, discovering in it all the things that corporate bureaucracy lacks— tactile pleasures, finality followed by a fresh start the next day, instant feedback, real appreciation.  She turns to Julia Child to help rescue her from a less satisfying life without realizing the irony that Child is part of how she got stuck there in the first place.

I have actually been gone for the last week— posts scheduled to pop up in my absence— and so remote (as you’ll soon learn) that I didn’t have any Internet since last Monday. But a quick word to alert you that there’s a very nice plug on today’s Worldview on WBEZ, or so David Hammond claims (he’ll be on, talking fish). More soon…

Update: here’s the Worldview piece. Not sure if it promo’d my podcast or not.

1. I started by linking to this (rather dry) website about “famine foods,” but found this more interesting piece rebutting the notion that there even are such things.
2. Feasting on Pixels takes a trip (with lots of pics) to one of my favorite slices of real Chicago, Calumet Fisheries.
3. David Hammond annoyed the entire canning world (I can testify to this personally) with a piece on canning a while back; here he does a nice job of making amends at The Local Beet.
4. Homaro Cantu, last seen in Sky Full of Bacon 09: Raccoon Stories, offers what sure as heck looks like a TV pilot (or at least video pitch) for what could be a way cool sort of Mythbusters Meets Food kind of show:

5. A farmer attacks The Omnivore’s Dilemma and other “agri-intellectuals.” Okay, so this is published at the American Enterprise Institute, so it’s pretty strongly pro-big business, and even I can spot the problem with his talking about small farmers choosing to farm a certain way when so many are pushed into farming that way by the practices of Big Ag. But still, I don’t know that I know enough to easily refute a passage like this:

The biggest environmental harm I have done as a farmer is the topsoil (and nutrients) I used to send down the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico before we began to practice no-till farming, made possible only by the use of herbicides. The combination of herbicides and genetically modified seed has made my farm more sustainable, not less, and actually reduces the pollution I send down the river.

So it’s worth reading if you believe it’s always worth knowing the other side’s arguments, seems to me.
6. Hugh Amano starts talking ethics, and ends with a bunch of food pics.
7. It’s like a Julie & Julia flashmob! Whisk rounds up links to hundreds of blog posts in which different people cooked something out of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Kind of frightening, but undoubtedly will prove useful. (Hat tip to Emily Nunn, who tweeted it.)

One of the amusingly fluky things that happened right after I started doing all this was that I got caught in an internet-wide sweep of freelance writers by Maxim magazine, looking for people to nominate things for the 2008 Maxim Food Awards. I suggested 14 possible candidates, of which they used precisely one (Khan BBQ). Whether or not I made good money at this depends on whether you judge it by the dollars per word published (pretty damn nice) or the hours spent generating the other 13 unused ideas (suddenly not so hot).

They asked again in 2009, and I offered suggestions in two categories they said they were looking for. One was, “Places you should eat before you die,” which I took to mean extraordinary culinary experiences. The other was, “Places to eat before they die,” which means places full of history and culture and flavor. I suggested five of each. Their cover touts 77 total. They used… zero of mine. (Actually at least one is mentioned in the magazine; some guy named Achatz writes about Schwa.)

Since they’re not using them, I thought you might be interested to see what I submitted. If you want, you can compare to what they actually published, and see if you think they really did give their readers the hyper-edgy, super-authentic culinary insight promised.

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Places to eat at before you die:

1) Schwa, Chicago

Like an indie band that refuses to sell out to a big label, Schwa serves some of the most fearsomely accomplished haute cuisine in Chicago from a fixed-up storefront where the cooks not only serve as waitstaff but the chef himself answers the phone (when you can get through). Also like an indie band, they broke up in a drug-fueled haze once, but back together and apparently cleaned up, they’re dishing up their greatest hits like the blatantly sexual quail egg ravioli alongside new material like pad thai made with velvety slivers of jellyfish.

2) Hot Doug’s, Chicago

There are ten million average hot dog stands in Chicago and then there is one and only one Hot Doug’s, the “encased-meat emporium” where whatever sausage Doug Sohn can get his hands is done up however he feels like it. The standard Vienna Beef char dog stands side by side with the likes of wild boar, alligator and elk sausage topped with truffle creme fraiche, bleu cheese, or even foie gras– Doug was the only actual perp busted under Chicago’s short-lived foie gras ban. Some are great, others not so great, but it’s always worth checking to see what he’s concocted this week (and you can always fall back on the thuringer with caramelized onion and brown mustard, which cognoscenti know is one of the best things to eat in Chicago).

3) Apple fritter at Old-Fashioned Donuts, Chicago

A hundred blocks south of the Michigan Avenue tourists see, in the black Roseland neighborhood, a donut shop that looks like nothing turns out catcher’s-mitt-sized fritters so unspeakably indulgent, so addictive in their perfect fried sugariness, that they can only be the product of the same CIA plot that created crack cocaine.

4) Cemitas Atomica at Cemitas Puebla, Chicago

Mexican sandwiches are mostly gutbombs, and God knows the fact that this one contains ham, pork, AND fried breaded steak suggests that the name Atomica was chosen with its fallout in mind. But El Dios is in the details and the specially baked cemitas roll, the Pueblan cheese imported by the owners from their hometown, the hand-roasted chipotle, the schmear of avocado and the medicinal hint of the papalo herb make this one a superbly balanced sandwich that will light your lunch up without a prolonged half-life.

5) Arnold’s, Nashville

Southern “meat and threes” cafeterias are often more about meat and dessert than the soggy vegetables served alongside. But the meats at Arnold’s, even the ham and the garlic-studded roast beef, take second place to the Bordeaux-like profundity of the pot likker in which the turnip greens stew, which proves that vegetables can be great art.

Places to eat at before THEY die:

1) Burt’s Place, Morton Grove, Illinois

Imagine a pizza place tucked on a side street in an obscure suburb, which nevertheless is so busy that you have to call ahead to reserve your dough and find out what time you’ll be expected to be there. Oh and by the way, the phone number is unlisted. But Burt’s isn’t some insane too-hip-for-you joint, it’s just that Burt has started and sold half a dozen pizza places, and now he’s 70+, and in his place he does it his way, and if you don’t like it, or if he gets any more customers, he may just up and retire. The reward for doing it his way, besides basking in his stoner-grandpa presence, is an impeccably balanced and brightly-flavored pan pizza, not thin but not the phone-book-thick deep dish you find all over Chicago either.

2) Klas, Cicero, Illinois

Al Capone’s name is to Chicago joints what “George Washington Slept Here” used to be to New England country inns. And most of the time, well, the connection is probably exaggerated at best. One of the few surviving places that really can claim a Capone connection is this Czech cuckoo-clock of a restaurant in what was long a Mob-run suburb, though the decor suggests Castle Dracula as much as Roaring Twenties. All the same, go upstairs and you can still see the back room where Al would play gin rummy with owner Adolph Klas while “hostesses” entertained the boys in the private alcoves.

3) Hollyhock Hill, Indianapolis

“Like eating at Grandma’s” is not necessarily the compliment that people think it is. But this place, which started in the 1920s as a country inn and is now well within the suburbs of Indy, shows just what simple but spot-on cooking chops midwestern grandmas had back in the 20s– perfectly crisp and golden pan-fried chicken, flaky hot rolls, iceberg lettuce with old school vinegary-sweet dressing, and ice cream with your choice of toppings to end every meal. There’s no irony to the retro here, just pure rib-sticking midwestern hospitality.

4) Calumet Fisheries, Chicago

When steel mills dotted the south side of Chicago, every bend in the river had a shrimp joint to serve working men a fried lunch that went well with a beer or three. The mills are gone and so are most of the fish shacks, but one of the few survivors sits in the shadow of the bridge the Blues Brothers jumped, frying shrimp and smelts and best of all, smoking chubs and other fish in its riverside smokehouse.

5) Taylor Cafe, Taylor, Texas

When Bobby Mueller of the legendary Louie Mueller’s passed away last year, it made his rival in this tiny town with more great barbecue joints than people, Vencil Mares, that much more of a living legend. At 83, Vencil still wrestles his briskets into his smoker himself, though most of his day is spent holding court in his bar/cafe, telling anybody who stops by about the cottonpickers’ brawls he used to break up with his fists or how he integrated his place by taking out one of the two jukeboxes and forcing blacks and whites to listen to each others’ music. The barbecue’s pretty darn good, but an afternoon listening to Vencil’s stories as the trains go by is the real treat.

Years ago, when LTHForum was new and time was infinite and I had nothing better to do than go on for 1500 words bringing up Georges Bernanos in a pizza review, I posted something about a thin crust pizza place way up in Mundelein:

Every once in a while I think of what must be, without doubt, the most obscure book I have ever read. I found it in the library of my Catholic high school, was perversely attracted to it by the fact that it had not been checked out since 1958 or something, and read it– or more likely only part of it– for a religion class book report.

Alas, I don’t remember the precise name, and I’m sure it’s unretrievable by the usual means. The title was something like “Unknown Saints of Rural France,” by Father Somebody or other, S.J. And basically it was an effort in ecclesiastical expense account justifying; shortly after WWII this priest had had a bicycling vacation in France, and to make more than a holiday out of what he was doing, he spent part of it going from village to village, tracking down tales of especially pious people who had been mentioned to him by someone else a village or two over.

Most of them were farmwives, the long-suffering women who are the mainstay of every church, and there was little enough remarkable in the story of any of them– no unsuspected Bernadette Soubirouses or Therese Martins having visions among them, just hardworking peasant mothers. Had the good father been more of an artist, he might have made something of his theme, that in the devotions of these unremarkable women, often half-ignored even by their families, was to be found the truest sainthood and love. This was, after all, the time and countryside of Bernanos’ Journal d’un Cure de Campagne (and Bresson’s masterful film of it), about saintly grace going unnoticed and even despised by the world. But he wasn’t an artist, and I was a high school punk amused by the book’s flimsiness as a vacation document rather than touched by the artistic portrayal of grace, and so here we are, 25 years later, probably more of us reading this now than ever read the book in the first place, using it merely as a device for a review of a pizza place in Mundelein.

* * *

What made me think of Father whoever and his forgotten book was the fact that I had had to go up to Gurnee Mills, of all ultra-worldly places (though the Bass Pro Shop is certainly worth a visit), and then decided to take some meandering old-school road back rather than zip back on boring 94, the idea being– like Father bicycling from village to village– to see what unknown historic or culinary curiosities might be revealed along the former highways now shoved aside by the giant expressways and the chains they draw like magnets. I wound up on Route 45, whose supply of old road houses and such things was none too plentiful except perhaps around Gages Lake– but I only needed one, and at Diamond Lake Road and 45, I found it. A handsome vintage neon sign announcing a little hot dog and pizza stand called Bill’s, next to which sat a larger, hunting-lodge-like establishment called Bill’s Pub.

The Pub was not open but in the window of Bill’s the stand, they promised “Fabulous Hot Dogs.” I was prepared to try them but secretly I had my heart set on pizza, because I saw a box which said “Since 1957,” and one of my rules is, 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.

I asked the young lady behind the counter which I should have, the hot dog or the pizza. At first she answered with the answer that always shows a lack of imagination, “They’re both good,” but then, warming to her theme, she said that she has gladly come in on her days off to have the hot dogs, and she has gladly come in on her days off to have the pizza, and that I couldn’t go wrong either way. And so, bowing to her enthusiasm, I ordered a small thin pizza.

Fifteen minutes later the box was perched on the hood of my car. The verdict? This pizza, unknown and unheralded in Mundelein, was worthy of the same devotion given to any cracker-crust thin pizza to be had in Chicago– not better, perhaps, than Vito & Nick’s, Candlelite, Zaffiro’s, etc., but undoubtedly comparable in its paper-thin crackliness, its foldability, its boldly spicy tomato sauce and thin layer of quality mozzarella. Given its location off the beaten path in a far northern suburb, it is unlikely ever to be known to the greater world; it is unlikely pilgrimages will be made to it from Chicago; but I can only say that I hope it is appreciated by its family and friends, that they are grateful to have its example among them, providing warmth and sustenance night after night, and that I have been encouraged to continue my quest by the fact of having found this example of pizza grace toiling in obscurity.

Bill’s Pizza & Pub
Diamond Lake Road and Route 45
Mundelein, IL 60060

I revive this ancient palimpsest mainly because attending the Lake County Fair in its new fairgrounds gave me my first chance to try Bill’s again, indeed, to dine inside. And you know what? I really do think this is one of the best thin crust pizzas in Chicagoland, right up there with Vito & Nick’s, Marie’s, Pat’s, Candlelite as it was a few years ago, D’Agostino’s or Zaffiro’s of Milwaukee for that matter. The crust is cracker-thin, yet it doesn’t just soak up grease like Pat’s does; there’s a little more kick to the sauce and sausage than at D’Agostino’s, though it’s still definitely on the mild side; really, this is an admirable old school thin crust in every way that deserves to be better known. And as for the place itself— oh man, it is a trip. Northwoods hunting lodge on acid, with goofy stuffed animal displays, peanuts on the floor, and gaudy stained glass images of Disneyesque deer. It must be seen to be beyond belief.

Oddly enough, when I wrote my original review it enraged a northwest suburban LTHer who thought I was mocking his part of the world with city condescension. So make no mistake: I am sincere when I say this is one of the best pizzas in Chicagoland and you should make a considerable drive to go have it. Maybe not all the way from home, but certainly worth a 15 mile detour in the northern reaches.

Michael Ruhlman had a heartfelt post the other day about taking his 10-year-old son to see Food Inc. You should read the whole thing; go there, I’ll be here when you’re done.

Okay, so as it happens I read that right as we were in the middle of the Lake County Fair, where my 10-year-old son Myles was showing his lamb Arachnophobia (they took second in the weight class). And I thought as a result of raising his own lamb Myles had a pretty different perspective from the average kid about his food, or even the above-average kid who’s just been to see Food Inc. So I asked him on camera if he had anything to say to Michael Ruhlman’s son about that experience. Here’s Myles on raising a 4-H lamb (this was shot on my little point and shoot camera, so it’s not as big and fancy as a Sky Full of Bacon video):

My 10-Year-Old Talks About Raising His 4-H Lamb from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.