Sky Full of Bacon

I have a cold and I have a bunch of shooting to do and Hammond and I are giving a presentation at Mensa’s confab this Thursday on sustainable fish and I have to carve pumpkins with the kids and oh, it’s a busy week and I have no inspiration to write something. So if anyone does happen to visit this week, I’m going to dig way back in the archives to find something for you, here’s something I posted at Chowhound many years ago when my tall, self-assured 8-year-old was a mere baby traveling the city with his food-obsessed dad. This place is still around but I have never been back, sad to say.

Entering the Pharoah’s Chamber

Someone posted on Luxor a few weeks ago and that sent me out to explore further reaches of Lawrence where I evidently hadn’t been for a while– long enough to allow a new middle Eastern restaurant to pop up, at least.

In fact, it seems to have been long enough for an entire Egyptian enclave to have popped up in Albany Park; just driving along Lawrence I counted no less than three places bearing three of the most stereotypically Egyptian names possible– no, nothing named King Tut, but Luxor, Nefertiti Cafe and, simply enough, The Pharoah’s.

Entering The Pharoah’s takes you back to the days when all Chinese restaurants were named The Great Wall. Not only is the name stereotypical, but the room has been done in the style of a pharoah’s tomb (at least a pharoah whose preparations for the afterlife included a big screen TV), with off-the-shelf bas relief tiles of the most cliched Egyptian scenes. Ten years from now, it will be that taqueria that mystifies everyone with its Egyptian motifs.

So am I mocking The Pharoah’s? On the contrary. I am saluting the entrepreneurial spirit of the immigrant, who seeks to offer the customers of the new country exactly the stereotypical experience of the owners’ native land they expect. In fact, The Pharoah’s proved to be a totally welcoming and friendly environment that checked off every single one of my signs of an authentic immigrant restaurant experience (see below). How welcoming was it? Well, one of my party not only got to dance with one of the female proprietors, he wound up being kissed by her– and then being fed by her by hand! Of course, he’s 17 months old, so that might have had something to do with his special treatment.

Having the baby along gave me the excuse to order way too much food so I could try several things. The baba ghanouj (which I noticed they pronounced with an actual j sound, ganoodge, not ganoosh) had a good smokey flavor. The baby and I both liked it a lot. The beans in the foul likewise seemed to have been hand-roasted over a flame and bore visible grill marks; I missed the little hint of a liquory flavor (presumably not actually alcohol) that these have at Tut Oasis, but the freshness was inarguable and I certainly liked them better than Al-Khaimyeh’s (or whatever the place is on the opposite side of Kedzie from Noon-O-Kebab). We had no problem finishing most of that, too, both of us. The chicken schwarma sandwich was a disappointment only in that at the low price of $2.95, it was pretty thin and thus the chicken tended to be a little lost amid other things; I would have paid a dollar or two more for a fatter sandwich (like Tutunji’s), not that I strictly needed more today, anyway the chicken eaten by itself was very flavorful and moist, I might well order a dinner choice instead of a sandwich next time and see how that comes out. (Though the front of the menu was pretty much the usual stuff, there were some more unusual items on the back worth future exploration.)

Last but not least, I think The Pharoah’s might well be an interim step, at least, in Vital Info’s search for the perfect middle eastern place, since they brought us a plate of pickled peppers and such, and also a plate of extra tomato and cucumber, alongside our meal. (She also got a yogurt from the fridge and fed it to my son while bouncing along to the Egyptian music videos, but you can’t expect the same treatment.)

Oh, and they also have hookahs, like Luxor. Though at lunch time they seemed to be just cleaning them, at least they didn’t offer either me or the baby one.
* * *

Mike G’s Signs of An Authentic Immigrant Restaurant Experience
with The Pharoah’s score

1. Large screen TV showing native programming [Y]
2. Male proprietor walks through non-smoking area with lit cigarette [Y]
3. Male proprietor walks through entire restaurant talking on cell phone (can be combined with #2) [Y]
4. Female proprietor fails to understand item you are pronouncing (“fool… fowl… fole?”) until you point to it, at which time she says “Ah, fool!” pronouncing it exactly the way you thought you said it the first time [Y]
5. Multiple family members at work, more than would be needed if employing the whole family was not the point of restaurant [Y]
6. Presence of older man, not an owner but with undefined other role in the running of the restaurant, with extravagant mustache in style of the village they came from [Y]
7. Everyone in extended family/staff comes out to at some point to say hi to the baby (optional if no baby available) [Y]

Pharaohs Cafe
(773) 478-8400
Albany Park/North Park
3949 W Lawrence Ave
Chicago, IL 60625

I feel like I’ve launched a food video renaissance here in Chicago! Okay, the availability of inexpensive Flip video cameras probably has far more to do with it than anything I did, but still, I take some pioneer pride when I see food video popping out all over like it is.

First, Seth Zurer— who I’ve known via LTHForum and Chowhound for a shockingly long time now, considering that he hasn’t gotten any older in all that time and I have— and the other chaps behind Baconfest have a bunch of short little videos with the chefs involved in the upcoming (and sold out) Baconfest cookoff competition at the Publican. Here are a couple I especially liked:

More videos here; more about Baconfestchi here.

Meanwhile, some folks have also launched a venture called ChicagoEatsTV, which consists mainly of little Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives-style portraits of food spots around town; I wouldn’t exactly say they’ve broken major new ground so far with Fredhots, the Wicker Park bar Cans and a piece on buffalo wings, but the pieces are slickly produced and I’ll be interested to see where they go from here. Here’s the Fredhots one: fRedhots & Fries in Glenview, IL from ChicagoEatsTV on Vimeo.

More here. And hey, if you know somebody making food videos in Chicago, let me know and I’ll post them here.

I could take this moment to salute the record time in which a restaurant went from being one of 50 Places Not Mentioned on LTHForum to an LTHForum Great Neighborhood Restaurant… but the work of a food adventurer is not to rest on laurels, but to press ever onward, ceaselessly expanding the world of food knowledge.

These are three neighborhood places (not necessarily in my neighborhood, but at least on routes I travel fairly frequently, so they feel like neighborhood places to me). How far should you travel to try them? Not very, I’d say. Find their equivalent in your neighborhood, I’d say. Still, I don’t dismiss them, either, and in fact I’ve already been back to one.

Paradise Sauna

I’m surprised that this place never got an LTH review, as its sushi-sauna combo is not only unique but has had its fans over the years, as I noted a couple of years back. Chefs are always being asked where they go to eat besides their own places, and being competitive, they rarely name a competitor. Typically, they either go regular-guy (Grant Achatz’s love for Potbelly), or… they say sushi. Sushi seems to be the neutral ground, the Switzerland cuisine for chefs.

And one place I noticed that they named often was Paradise Sauna; the sybaritic appeal for chefs of raw fish, sake and gettin’ nekkid and steamy (plus late, chef-friendly hours to facilitate the above) is obvious enough.

For that same reason, Michael Morowitz informed me that he had never been able to convince his wife of the virtues of fish being sliced a few feet from people getting rubdowns. So he and I went and sampled… only the restaurant side. What may be going on in the other part of the place, we have no idea, but what’s going on on the sushi side is an okay, fairly plain sushi restaurant. We had some sashimi which was pretty good, a nicely hot and somewhat too large spider roll and a pretty mediocre roll with drab, lifeless white fish draped across the top, which we didn’t finish. Prices were reasonable, the atmosphere was exactly what you’d expect. A neighborhood place, nothing more— at least on this side of the door.

Paradise Sauna
2910 W Montrose Ave
Chicago, IL 60618-1404
(773) 588-3304

Mio Bento

A tiny Japanese (or Korean-Japanese) cafe hidden in a generic-monster condo building on a strip of Irving Park near Western that no one walks… hard to imagine the commercial prospects for that, and it’s been pretty empty at lunch, so I’m hoping they do more takeout business in the evening from their deli cases. This is pretty standard stuff— udon with the taste of a commercial broth, small inexpensive sushi rolls with too much ponzu sauce squirted over them— but hey, if I was in Japan, there’d be 15 places like this on my block, no better* and no worse, so I’m happy to have one, get my healthy seaweed salad or my udon with some fresh tempura vegetables in it. Welcome to the neighborhood Mio Bento.

* Of course, objectively they’d be better because they’d be in Japan where they could get better stuff to start with, but relatively speaking, there’d be a pack they’d all be in the middle of, where Mio Bento is in the middle of a pack of one.

Mio Bento
2245 W Irving Park Rd
Chicago, IL 60618-3840
(773) 539-2500

La Cabana de Don Luis

Normally, this has the kind of Mexican compound name that says “stay away” to me, see my rules and “Los Dos Sombreros de Señor Guacamole,” and the window saying “Authentic Mexican Food” was another warning: authentic Mexican restaurants don’t say “Authentic Mexican Restaurant,” they say “Menudo Fines de Semana.”

But I gave it a shot. It’s a friendly family-run place. I wasn’t wild about the red and the lettuce-based green salsa, but you can at least say they were hot, and bringing out a plate of beans to dip in was a hit with the boys. One son had a steak burrito, and the steak seemed pretty decent. I had cochinita pibil, just because I was surprised to see it on the menu. I don’t think it was slow-roasted in banana leaves in the ground, but at least it was stewed in a pot with achiote paste and orange, and was plenty hot. It won’t give Xoco a run for its money, but it wasn’t a bad rendition. Maybe they make something else that’s not merely better than you expect, but better than you’ve had elsewhere.

I could wish the TV wasn’t blaring (and they changed it to English-language news for us, meaning my kids got a full dose of swine flu hysteria and Fenger High beating deaths), but all in all, a decent family run Mexican place. A neighborhood place.

La Cabana de Don Luis
5157 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60625-2520
(773) 271-5176

I gave it away on LTHForum this weekend, so I might as well announce the subject of the next Sky Full of Bacon video podcast: pie, specifically as prepared by Paula Haney at her wildly popular Hoosier Mama pie shop. Paula and several of her bakers are interested in pie not just as a popular indulgence (see the cupcake craze) but as a food with deep historical roots in the midwest.  I’m pretty darn interested in that too (see this ancient and long-running LTHForum thread) so we’ve had some good discussions about, Why Pie?

If you haven’t been to Hoosier Mama, go there tomorrow (they’re closed Monday) and go have the oatmeal pie, a traditional pie they just added to the menu which is downright wonderful.

(So what was with my clue a week or so ago?  The old can of leaf lard is actually from Edzo’s, Eddie Lakin’s burger shop previously mentioned here, and I photographed it right after coming from Hoosier Mama and talking to Paula about leaf lard crusts.  She uses all-butter but is interested in trying leaf lard sometime, if she can find a reliable source— and customers who don’t freak out at the prospect; she has had people ask, clearly interested in trying pie with a leaf lard crust or, as I make it, about half and half with butter.)

The podcast will be ready sometime in November.  In the meantime, go have the pie now!

1. LTHForum poster Aschie30 contributes an account of dinner at Napa’s French Laundry that makes the forbiddingly hard-to-get-into restaurant seem… downright cuddly.
2. Crimes Against Food is a great name for a food podcast by two slightly dotty and giggly British women; this kind of unstructured, whatever-pops-into-our-heads podcast usually irritates me, but maybe it’s the accents that make it kind of like spending the afternoon with a couple of fun birds getting tipsy. The one on food in film is a good example.
3. A great story about the craziness of the restaurant-PR game in Hong Kong at a blog called Chef’s Tales.
4. Here’s a post to make you question why you live in Chicago in winter: serving up fresh clams on a beach in Greece, at a blog called Kalofagas.
5. There are so many baking blogs, and most of them are not that exciting— same old muffins and gooshy text. Here’s one called Kuidaore from a woman in Singapore where the stuff looks really beautiful and the writing, though a bit rich, is pretty engaging.
6. When I was in Spain two years ago, the second language seemed to have become Romanian (our hotelier in Catalonia was taking classes to be able to better communicate with the guys restoring his ancient buildings). Poppy Planet is a blog by a Romanian living and cooking in Sweden; if you’ve seen Bridgestone’s posts about cooking and eating in Sweden, this offers more of the same—very fresh, very white food, like Flying Jakob, a dish which somehow involves chicken, bananas and bacon.
7. Borderline stupid idea made borderline brilliant thanks to dead-on characterizations and straightfaced playing: John Candy as the owner of Roy’s Food Repair, from a post-SCTV show called The New Show:

Mike G’s Rules for Better Dining from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Like many food explorers, I have certain rules or guidelines that I use to help steer toward the good stuff and avoid the lame. One or two of them have attained some currency on LTHForum, such as Mike G’s Rule (“If there’s a reason to eat somewhere besides the food, the food’s no good,” an iron law which is as true of corn dogs at amusement parks as it is of fine dining restaurants with spectacular views). After seeing Michael Pollan’s rules for solving the omnivore’s dilemma, I decided to borrow his format and offer up my own rules. They’re unlikely to save the planet, but they may save your lunch. It runs 1:43, enjoy!

Here’s a little tease of what the next Sky Full of Bacon will be about.  Oddly enough, this picture was NOT taken somewhere that has anything to do with the next podcast, it just happened to be part of the decor at the next place I visited after going to where this podcast is being shot; but it’s relevant to the subject.  (There, that should confuse everyone.)

Click here to go to part 1.

Now it was time to get to work, recreating my childhood memories— in the kitchen.

Before Cathy arrived to show me the ropes of canning, I did as much prep as I could. I started with the beets. Beets will benefit from almost any logical thing you do to give them a little savory flavor to soak up as you roast them; in this case I vaguely followed this Alton Brown recipe (though the time is never enough; mine roasted for a full hour), coating them in a little oil and tossing them with shallots and a little rosemary I plucked from a plant that never really grew in this weird summer’s weather. But any herb and oniony flavor will be good, enhance their roasted beetiness.

Then I began peeling the tomatoes. Boil water, drop in till the skins start to split, toss into cold water in sink. Considering the half a bushel or whatever I had, it was fast work.

Then the beets went into their bath of vinegary solution. Cathy has a canning kit from Ball which is full of neat little plastic gizmos. The funnel is perfect for not spilling your precious farmstand goodies as you fill the jars…

And this device lets you stir air pockets out, then reverses to show you the height of the air space in your filled jar.

And into the steaming inferno they go, to emerge as shelf-stable, pickled beets.

How do you know how much to do some of these things, like the amount of vinegar, the time to boil, the height of air to leave in the jar? Take off your shoes, your Government has it all figured out for you! Just go here, a site actually maintained by the University of Georgia but paid for by your USDA tax dollars, and a few clicks will take you to instructions for the appropriate foodstuff.  For instance, beets in a quart jar will take 35 minutes of boiling to be safely canned.

* * *

While the beets boil, I turn to the piccalilli.  I puree 8 good sized tomatoes, then add 3 sweet red peppers, a yellow and two green peppers.

Add some onions and at this point what I have is a pretty nice salsa.  I add some cinnamon sticks and allspice in a tea strainer, then half the final vinegar, and begin stewing it all. For the moment, it’s as red as ajvar.

Meanwhile, the beets come out of the canning pot and next go in the Roma tomatoes.  Even with lemon juice, they will take 85 minutes, which gives us plenty of time to fiddle with the piccalilli as it stews.

All along, I’m tasting and testing.  The cinnamon and allspice begin to appear in the background, making it less like a bowl of stewed tomatoes and more like a sauce.  Too much vinegar, but some sugar mellows it a bit, and salt balances the sugar.  Slowly, addition by addition, taste by taste and test by test, I get closer to my grandmother’s piccalilli, like a Polaroid slowly developing, revealing long-gone faces as familiar as if you’d seen them yesterday.

That’s Lilly and her mother, who lived into the early 80s, almost to 100. Did the piccalilli recipe come from her? Or was it just something Lilly clipped from a magazine decades ago that she never thought of as a family tradition, and only became one to me because I associated it with her? I’ll never know. (Well, unless I find the recipe card and it turns out to have the clipping stapled to it, I guess.)

Finally, after maybe two hours of stewing and adjusting, it tastes something like my childhood memories—the vinegar too strong still, but it will have a month or more in the jar to mellow.  The color isn’t an exact match; maybe she did have green tomatoes, after all, what I remember was definitely a mix of red, green and brown.  Growing up, I never even knew there were such things as green tomatoes (that is, as an edible foodstuff) until I was 20 or so, but that doesn’t mean Lilly didn’t.

But the flavor is close, it excites neurons that haven’t tasted this memory in 25 years.  It’s not exactly like being in her house again (for that, I’d have to light up a few Winstons), but it’s like a surprisingly sharp picture of one part of it, reminding me of things I haven’t thought of in years.  (Of course, to really taste my piccalilli in all its Wichita-1978 glory, I’ll need Wonder bread and Cure 81 ham.)

Just five minutes’ boiling for piccalilli, surprisingly.  Then a month or so to mellow.

Not at all a long wait, to have something again for the first time in 25 years.  And to pass a little bit of the great-grandmother who died before they were born, to my two boys.

Lilly, my grandfather Al Gebert, my dad and my uncle, c. 1935.

Lilly’s Piccalilli, Version 10.09
8 large ripe tomatoes or equivalent
3 sweet red peppers
3 bell peppers, green or yellow or orange
2 large onions or equivalent
1-3/4 cups sugar
3 cups cider vinegar
3-4 Tbsp salt, to taste
3 cinnamon sticks
1 dozen allspice berries, in cheesecloth bag or tea strainer
1/4 cup mustard seed
1/3 Tbsp celery seed

Peel and core tomatoes, chop coarsely in food processor, and partially drain mixture in a strainer. Chop peppers and onions in food processor to approximate size of pickle relish. Place all in stockpot with cinnamon and allspice and 1-1/2 cups of the vinegar. Bring to a boil and simmer vigorously, reducing liquid considerably, for 1 hour to 1-1/2 hours.

Remove cinnamon and allspice. Add remaining vinegar, sugar, salt, celery seed and mustard seed, as well as powdered cinnamon and allspice to taste. Simmer for 10 minutes. Pour into hot sterilized jars, allowing 1/2 inch headroom in jars. Boil in canner for 5 minutes.

The closing of Gourmet has led to a number of articles noting the irony that the healthiest food magazine out there is the one that was bought by Gourmet’s owner two decades ago, promptly killed in part to help protect Gourmet, and then resurrected on a business model 180 degrees from Gourmet’s: Cook’s Illustrated. If Gourmet was the New Yorker of food, Cook’s Illustrated has long been the Chilton’s— a no-gloss how to guide low on romance, high on practicality. Their editorial approaches were manifestly opposite, but more significantly now, so were their business models: Gourmet existed to sell glossy ads to food companies wanting to reach old money, Cook’s Illustrated sells subscriptions directly to people who want solid information and will fork over their own money for it.

So you might expect Christopher Kimball, editor-publisher of CI, to make that point when asked why his magazine flourishes in the face of Gourmet’s demise. You might expect pretty much his whole life to be built on that difference, in fact. But you would be wrong. Kimball’s response, in a NY Times op-ed, basically is… “Gourmet would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you pesky bloggers!” Not only did free writing on the internet hurt paid writing at Gourmet (that much seems true at least to a certain point), but in the process, Kimball claims, it killed a culture of quality food writing, only to replace it with democratized dumbth (as Steve Allen called it when he would rant about how pop culture had sunk since his day of… bringing Mexican dialect comedians to America).

This is an odd argument for Kimball of all people to be making, since his magazine is built on the assumption that you can democratize any dish by finding the optimum way to prepare it. But it gets even odder with an account of the history of food publishing that contradicts and refutes itself as he goes:

The precursor to Gourmet, and the first truly successful American food publication, was founded in the 1890s and titled The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics. It eventually changed its name to American Cookery and then died in 1947, forced under, in part, by the founding of Gourmet… It was the end of domestic science and food economy and the beginning of the era of the gourmet

The end of domestic science… except for the literally thousands of practical recipes that continue to be published not only in the major women’s magazines that existed then (McCalls, Better Homes and Gardens, etc.) and have come into existence since (Martha Stewart, O, etc.) but in the many cooking magazines that have sprung up, everything from Cooking Light to Rachael Ray magazine. That is a home ec iceberg that has always been larger than the gourmet tip, if largely unnoticed by the food elite. But keep in mind that exaggerated report of a death when considering the other death Kimball is here to announce.

Next, he poses a scary question:

Now, 68 years after its founding, Gourmet has followed American Cookery… Is American magazine publishing on the verge of being devoured by the democratic economics of the Internet?

but then immediately demonstrates that it’s based on a false premise. He admires the vanished charms of an old school billionaire, Conde Nast’s S.I. Newhouse:

He poured his fortune into his magazine properties and his editors, even when the prospect of return seemed dim. His was a world of philanthropic publishing.

So did Gourmet never actually make money, even in the boom times recently ended? Was it basically The New Republic of food, a moneyloser supported by a rich guy in search of influence? That seems hard to credit, but it does suggest that its high-flying ways were especially vulnerable to any downturn. I’ve read that pages in Gourmet went for a base rate of $90,000, where Bon Appetit, which actually had a larger (if far less elite) subscriber base, charges about a third of that. Is it really any wonder that such a magazine would prove too rich for any advertiser’s blood in any economic downturn? (And will you really be surprised if, having cut Gourmet’s enormous overhead by shutting it down and clearing it out, Conde Nast revives the brand in a much more cost-effective guise?) It wouldn’t take bloggers to kill a magazine under circumstances like that.

The shuttering of Gourmet reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up. They can no longer be coronated; their voices have to be deemed essential to the lives of their customers. That leaves, I think, little room for the thoughtful, considered editorial with which Gourmet delighted its readers for almost seven decades.

I find this too incoherent to entirely follow (and it goes on for another couple of grafs, without getting clearer) but to the extent I see arguments here, they seem mostly backwards. Articles in magazines may be written by experts, but they’re more often written by freelancers who’ve interviewed experts on the phone, and often in the process simplify and dumb down and just plain screw the expert’s insights up; the internet has brought us the voices of ten million non-experts, it’s true, but one thing it’s also done is cut out that middleman freelancer and given experts a way to talk to us directly. At the same time, by removing another mediator— the editor— the vast variety available online gives us the ability to find for ourselves the voice we trust most on a subject.

Okay, so at its best, Reichl finding and editing Laurie Colwin, say, you have that vaunted magazine experience of the editor shaping the reader’s experience. But 95% of magazine writing isn’t about that, it’s about 5 Hot Tips for the subject of the minute that every other magazine is about this minute. In a bulletpointed, tip-driven freelance market, the reason so many writers blog is because it is their chance to write the thoughtful, considered piece, and not just 7 Great Cheeses To Pair With Giving Him the Best Sex He’s Ever Had.

But Kimball’s committed to the cult of the expert and the editors who love them, so he ends it with an analogy that he thinks closes the sale, but actually sends him down in flames:

Julia Child, one of my Boston neighbors, epitomized this old-school notion of apprenticeship… Her first question upon meeting a young chef was always, “And where did you train, dear?”

That’s right, Julia Child, who wanted us all to cook French at home, is trotted out as the advocate of only eating from certified chefs. If anyone stood for the idea that self-education was possible, it was Child— true, she might have expected expertise in a high-priced restaurant, we all would, but it was an expertise that she herself did not really have (yes, she attended Cordon Bleu, but a housewife going to cooking classes hardly constituted an “old-school notion of apprenticeship” in the feudal kitchens of 1950s France) and plainly did not consider it essential to the act of writing about food. Child may not have thought much of the best-known blog specifically about her, but I very much doubt that if she were alive now, she would so presumptively dismiss, as Kimball does, the explosion of interest in and, yes, expertise shown about food on the internet today.

I know lots of people who can foods around this time of year, but I had never done it myself before last Sunday. I’m pretty game for tackling new culinary techniques, even ones with a risk of botulism attached to them, but this was one thing I wanted somebody to hold my hand on the first time I did it. It’s one thing to inspect a piece of coppa to see what’s growing on it, sniffing and poking it yourself, but another to peer into a sealed jar wondering what life and death might be growing inside it.

The estimable Cathy Lambrecht, LTHForum co-founder and whirling dervish of the culinary-historical scene (if you don’t know her from any of those activities, you saw her helping prep raccoon in Sky Full of Bacon #9), is a hardcore canner and, frankly, someone who takes the Jack Webb approach to canning, the rules exist to be followed exactly, just the USDA regs ma’am. So there could have been no better guide for my first foray into canning.

So what got me canning this year? Well, that’s a little bit of a family historical tale.

I’ve posted and even given talks based on the cooking of one side of my family, my mom’s German Mennonite side. I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned the other side, my dad’s— and at first glance there’d seem to be a reason for that. They were Irish Catholics, not a group noted for fine cuisine, and they were in Kansas in the middle of the 20th century. Steak, meatloaf, hamloaf— that’s pretty much what I remember them eating, and they ate it out as often as they did at home. They had an active social life right up until most of their friends had died, and my dad summed it up with a story he liked to tell about when he was first in the Marine Corps and the recruits were getting a little maudlin about their silver-haired mamas slavin’ over a hot stove. My dad replied that he could see his silver-haired mama slaving over… a hot game of bridge.

Yet Lillian Gebert (nee Davison) was a very good cook for her day, and my mom made sure to save her recipe box when we cleaned out her house (she died in 1990). And surprisingly, though her side didn’t come from a farming background within living memory (her dad was an executive with a department store), she was the one who occasionally made things to can. If she ever canned fruit or vegetables, I don’t remember it, but there were two condiments she made every year as long as she could: honey mustard and piccalilli sauce.

I’ve never felt a need to make the honey mustard— commercial products like East Shore taste exactly like I remember it— but the piccalilli has long been a mystery, tantalizing me. What is piccalilli, you ask? Well, that’s part of the problem: it’s a lot of things. Search for “piccalilli recipe” and you will find quite a range of preserved condiments seemingly with little beyond the idea of pickling in common. At one end it’s a British pickle with a distinct Indian influence, much like chow chows and chutneys; here’s a good example of this kind of British piccalilli, cauliflower and cucumber in a pickle turned bright yellow with turmeric.

Since the name is almost certainly British, that’s probably where it began, but it came to mean something rather different in the American South. Basically, in America it’s a green tomato relish, and became something of a traditional way to use up any green tomatoes still clinging to the vine when winter hit. You might find things like cabbage in it still (as in this recipe), but basically it was a sweet-sour relish made of green tomatoes and green and red peppers, with notes of spices like cinnamon and allspice or cloves.

As the cloves suggest, it goes well on ham, and in fact that’s pretty much all I ever did with it as a kid, put it on ham sandwiches. I’m sort of curious now what else you might do with it. Yet even if my use of it was not terribly sophisticated, it was a pretty bold taste for an 8 or 10 year old to develop a love for, and was probably one of the first genuinely complex things I really appreciated.

So I opened Lilly’s old recipe box, found the recipe, and… nope. It didn’t work that way. The one recipe I wanted was, of course, the one that wasn’t in there. (I have to wonder if, stupidly, I didn’t pull it from the box some years ago, and put it somewhere that it will never be found.) Instead, I had to do some detective work, trying to piece together what was Lilly’s likely recipe based on the tastes and recipes of the time.

I made some suppositions based on memory. It definitely had cinnamon, and I remembered her spending some hours stewing it, so that suggested cinnamon sticks; this was the 60s and 70s, so it probably didn’t have any heat to it, no more than ketchup does. I doubted that she used green tomatoes, that’s a Southern thing we really didn’t know in Kansas much, and she might not have even had red peppers— the color of hers was probably a mix of red tomatoes and the ubiquitous green bell pepper. Clearly it was vinegar-based, both by what I remembered of the taste and because it would need it for preserving, and that obviously implied a lot of sugar and some salt to balance.

Online and in one of Cathy’s many, many vintage midwestern cookbooks, I found a couple of recipes I felt looked right, close enough that I could wing something of my own and make adjustments during the cooking process. Cathy and I picked Sunday to do the canning, and so I set out Saturday with one son driving toward DeKalb, looking for farmstands (I was using enough that it was worth driving out into the country versus paying city farmer’s market prices).

* * *

I chose that direction because I knew another place in the area I wanted to try: Ream’s Market, in Elburn. Elburn is a small town about 15 minutes beyond the edge of Chicago suburbia, and Ream’s is a great little old school butcher shop that answers the question what you do for fun in Elburn: you make sausage all day long. They have an amazing number of different kinds of sausage, most of the bratwurst variety (I picked up a South African style called Boerewors) but including some dry cured salamis (I bought some little finocchino, which are excellent). Not suprisingly, Ream’s is the hub of activity on a Saturday afternoon in Elburn and luckily for me and a hungry boy, there’s a guy with a hot dog cart selling Ream’s incredibly flavorful and smoothly-ground brats and housemade hot dogs.

We continued on Rt. 38 toward DeKalb and saw two farms with farmstands. I drove past the first one to one called Yaeger’s, which had seemed appealing since it also claimed to have Halloween amusements (a corn maze, an inflatable jumping and climbing something or other). Fact was, though, it was pretty small and on a drizzly day, fun looked minimal. So we stuck to acquiring some tomatoes and some corn, plus one pumpkin. Doubling back, we hit the other stand (I don’t remember the name but, hey, it’s the other stand on Rt. 38 between Elburn and DeKalb) and found a much better range of produce. I bought a big box of Roma tomatoes for $12, and some beets as well (I’ve done refrigerator pickles of beets before, but I figured the Romas and the beets would give us something to can while the piccalilli was still stewing). That was all I really saw, this late in the season, that looked like the kinds of thing I’d like to have in my pantry. Relatively cheap produce acquired, we headed back to Chicago to await canning the next day.

Would my piccalilli match up to my memories of Lilly’s?  Stay tuned for part 2.

Ream’s Elburn Market
128 N Main St
Elburn, IL 60119-9167
(630) 365-6461