Sky Full of Bacon

I took down my sopressata today and tasted it again. A month ago when I tried it, it really didn’t seem like it was working at all. There was a kind of unpleasant tang and none of the pleasant funkiness that means a sausage has achieved the balance of flavors that curing is aiming for. Not spoiled, just unpleasurable.

Today, it’s certainly better. It tastes like sausage. The reactions I’ve been waiting for must have happened. That said, it’s far from a success. For one thing, I begin to wonder if we got the proportions of spices off. Because it’s very salty and very spicy and very clovey. I wonder if it didn’t get a double dose of everything.

The leg meat it comes from also doesn’t cut as neatly as the shoulder meat that went into the other. It doesn’t have the unified sausageyness that the saucisson sec has.

All that said, it’s undoubtedly better than it was. I just wouldn’t call it a success I’m in a hurry to apply the remaining several pounds of ground leg and fat to.

I also weighed the coppa again, it’s down to 620 grams, over a 40% loss. No funny things growing on it, smells great. I put it back up to hang while I try to find some form of consensus as to how long it should hang— two months so far, but I’m happy to keep it going for more if the flavors will continue to develop.

1. Apropos of Chaise Lounge reconcepting as The Southern, I was going to mention chef Cary Taylor’s new blog, but then there was this whole list of links to Chicago chefs who blog, from Ellen Malloy, so check ’em all out.
2. Jonathan Gold gives some smart tips on how to find good authentic ethnic food starting about 15 minutes into this Good Food episode:

There’s also an interesting bit on home charcuterie around 50 minutes in.
3. Department of Pushing the Envelope #1: Kennyz (headcheese taster in SFOB #4) contributes a quease-inducing post on frying up a big batch of bull testicles for dinner…
4. Department of Pushing the Envelope #2: Saucisson Mac tries to make andouillete, the French sausage made of intestines stuffed in intestine (I had it once in France; tasted fine till it cooled to the consistency of surgical tubing) and, well, he won’t be making that again.
5. You’ve probably run across this (parody) video on how to make a perfect cup of coffee, which has some laugh-out-loud moments, but just in case you haven’t…

How to Brew a Good Cup of Coffee from Ben Helfen on Vimeo.

6. Lots of macaron porn at the blog Paris Breakfasts, just keep scrolling till you see yet another geometric arrangement of brightly-colored cookies.  The post on the Paris flood of 1910 is pretty cool, too.
7. CHOW chows xiao long bao— without spilling. It’s amazing watching how fast this guy can seal them up by hand:

If you’re looking for something to do this Saturday night… it’s time for the annual Delafield, Wisconsin raccoon feed, chronicled in Sky Full of Bacon #9.  My friend Cathy Lambrecht, who has been the Coon Feed’s leading Chicago booster and publicist, has a piece about how it all started in the north shore editions of the Tribune today; you can read it here. And here’s the video, if you haven’t seen it:

Sky Full of Bacon 09: Raccoon Stories from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

HC Monterrey, Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

The tourist district of Playa del Carmen was just a few blocks behind me, but already I was in a different Mexico, dusty and built out of crumbling plaster. I couldn’t see it ahead, the place I’d heard about, but suddenly I could smell it, sizzling beef on the air. I walked into the butcher shop and there was a counter where they sold the goods— but mainly there was a grill, the size of a double bed, smoke rising from it as a couple of guys with tongs threw long, jagged pieces of meat onto the grill. The smell of arrachera, skirt steak, was manly and primal, and a few dollars’ worth of pesos bought me a hunk of still sizzling meat with the barest of accompaniments— a baked potato and some limes. It was maybe the greatest beef experience of my life.

*  *  *

Los Potrillos, Chicago.

Lots of grocery stores have a place to grab a bite in them, whether it’s slice pizza at Dominick’s or the full-fledged food court at the Kingsbury Whole Foods. But there’s a unique character to the taquerias inside Mexican markets— partly it’s that you can tell they want to show off the meat counter’s goods in the best light to encourage sales, like that butcher shop in Mexico did; partly it’s the social side, the fact that a market is something of a community gathering place, like a Mexican town square, especially on weekends when they expand their menus to include specials like birria and menudo.  Whatever the reason, they’re only about a million times livelier than their wan equivalents in American groceries, and they make for an immersive experience in Chicago’s Mexican culture.  In some ways they’re about the most authentic Mexican eating experiences in town, at least in the sense that they’re making the fewest concessions to the gringo trade in terms of menu items or English on the signage.

Taqueria Ricardo.

Which is not to say they’re all the same— in fact, they have many different characters and feels.  Some are big bustling cafeterias with lines of guisados (stews) or gorditas frying; others are like corner diners, a few stools lined up in front of a grillman as he works in a cloud of meat smoke.  Although tacos de carne asada, steak tacos, are the universally standard menu item and seem to account for half the business at any taqueria, beyond that there are plenty of regional variations which seem to suggest that Chicago’s Latino neighborhoods are in turn reflecting Mexican regional differences.  For instance, on the northwest side (which besides Mexicans includes many South Americans) rotisserie or grilled chicken is an important item, and a cafeteria line of guisados is often found.  While on the south side, handpatted tortillas (tortillas heche a mano) and skilled tortilla-makers visibly at work on the line are the center of attention.

Los Potrillos.

For the last few months, I’ve been scouting out and sampling supermercado taquerias around town whenever lunchtime presented me with the desire for Mexican food.  To be honest, I felt like I had fallen into a bit of a rut in my Mexican dining, eating at the same few places, a not uncommon ailment even among foodies, and this gave me an entire new subcategory, largely uncharted, to use to compel myself to try new places.  Only one Mexican supermercado taqueria is widely known in the Chicago foodosphere: Wicker Park’s Tierra Caliente, formerly Carniceria Leon, famous for some of the best tacos al pastor (the real kind, on the gyros-style cone) in town.  My initial thought was, here was an opportunity to find a place that might even surpass Tierra Caliente at the thing it’s famous for.  Ironically, that’s the one thing I didn’t really do; as it turns out, only one of the other supermercado taquerias I found actually serves pastor on a cone at all, and though it’s every bit as good as Tierra Caliente’s, I’m still happy to say that if you want pastor, Tierra Caliente is the logical place to try first.

Pastor spit at Taqueria Ricardo.

But I found so many other interesting things that it hardly mattered.  What follows below is my notes on more than a dozen supermercado taquerias all around town.  Typically, I tried carne asada tacos on the first visit, because that seemed an easy standard for comparison between places that cared enough to try harder and places that didn’t; but if there was any reason to think they emphasized something else, I tried that instead, and aimed in general to sample the various restaurants’ strengths.  (As has been noted on LTHForum, one of the challenges for these places is that since they’re cranking out food in quantity rather than to order, you have to time your visit well for the peak experience— for instance, steak tacos are best at lunch rush, when turnover is high and you have the best odds for getting steak fresh off the fire; but tacos al pastor are better a little off peak hour, when your meat has time to really crisp up in the gyros machine.  And of course, if there isn’t a gyros machine, take a pass on pastor— fried in a pan is common, but nowhere near as good.)

Carne asada tacos, Los Potrillos.

*  *  *

After I had compiled a list of about a dozen places or so, I arranged an LTHForum event at three of the best, which took place this past Saturday.  Besides wanting to introduce my finds to more people, I was eager to visit some of them in a larger party that would allow me to explore their menus in greater detail.  So if you’re interested in checking some of these taquerias out, I’d recommend these three first as not only three of the best but offering a good cross-section of the scene and what’s to be had at different places.  Our first stop was Los Potrillos:

This is a small taco grill that really does first-rate steak tacos, cecina tacos, etc., thanks to an excellent grillman who serves good quality meat hot and juicy off the grill in big, tender chunks.  We also ordered the consomme de chivo which had impressed me on an earlier visit, though it was kind of watery and not as exciting this time— maybe it would have been better after cooking down for another hour or two.  (The pot on which Consomme de Chivo is painted in big letters was curiously missing as well.)

Next was Taqueria Ricardo. Besides the best atmosphere (you wouldn’t necessarily know you were in a supermercado at all, as it’s pretty separate), a ramshackle riot of tile that suggests the over-the-top exuberance of Mexico, this has such an extensive menu that we wound up really having a full (very full) lunch here.  Chicken grilled over live fire was a star here, but so were pastor tacos served at the peak of grilled crispiness, an excellent green salsa-poblano tamale, a lively caldo de siete mares (soup of the seven seas) with a big langoustine plopped right in it, a weekend special of barbacoa de res, and more.  (Though one I wouldn’t recommend was David Hammond’s choice of pickled pig’s feet, which proved that there is a lot of fat and not much meat on a pig’s foot.)  This is really a great Mexican restaurant in both food and atmosphere, which deserves wider attention and discovery.

Taqueria Ricardo; above: chicken over heater, below: caldo de siete mares, pickled pigs’ feet.

Finally we headed down to La Villita to Carniceria Aguascalientes, which has a large cafeteria-style area built on the handmade gorditas that are its star attraction.  Pork in red and green salsas and a poblano-cheese filling all proved to be worthy fillings for the wonderfully warm and nurturing freshly-fried gorditas.

Thanks to all who came along with me on Saturday and I hope many more will follow in our footsteps, discovering one of the last frontiers of ethnic food experience in Chicago.  Now here’s my list:


Chapala Taqueria
7117 N. Clark

An attractive modern grocery whose taqueria stresses pollo asado al carbon, char-grilled chicken. It was indeed first-rate, with a subtly seasoned outside (not just Goya Sazon) and cooked well; carne asada was fine if not first-tier. Weekend specials, including carnitas and menudo, would be worth checking out.

Chapala Taqueria.

Supermercado Carreta
6906 N. Clark

If you have an elderly aunt who wants to try a supermercado taqueria, this one is easily the spiffiest and most friendly to the hygiene-obsessed in its area, and the menu pictures on the wall looked promising. But a gordita with carne asada was fatally bland, flavorless masa and the meat smothered in lettuce, chese and crema. Deserves another try from another part of the menu, but disappointing.

Supermercado Almita
5957 N. Clark

This little grocery with a tin ceiling and wooden shelves has a 1927-in-amber decrepitude that will either charm you or creep you out; I was charmed by the two ladies running it, watching Mexican soaps as one of them made me a homey, but perfectly decent, steak taco.


Taqueria Ricardo
4429 W. Diversey

Easily my favorite find to date; I can’t think of another Mexican restaurant in Chicago that so captures the ramshackle charm of Mexico itself, from the over the top tilework to the grill haphazardly stacked on top of its burning wood. The menu is wildly diverse, ranging from seafood to grilled chicken adobo and rabbit. Carne asada is good and the pastor is flavorful with lots of pineapple dripping down. Wood smoke means the chicken is outstandingly flavorful, and the presentation of a whole chicken on a metal stand is impressive. A milanesa torta was freshly fried and the bread was toasted, both good signs. Though the guisados were hit (chicken in green salsa) and miss (chicharron), a weekend special of barbacoa de res was excellent, and so was a tamale of poblano and cheese. Among the seafood items, the caldo de siete mares was very nice, impressively decked with a whole langoustine, but a shrimp cocktail, though the shrimp were of nice quality, was way too sweet. In summer I’ve also seen them grilling in the parking lot.

Los Potrillos
3624 W. Belmont

With religious iconography on the walls, this tiny taqueria has a real step-out-of-Chicago feel.  Good quality beef, cooked to be tender and juicy by an expert grillman, makes the carne asada tacos and cecina tacos some of the best in the city.  But my favorite find on my first visit was the weekend special of consomme de chivo, goat soup, which had big chunks of goat in a great ancho broth.

Carniceria Jimenez
3840 W. Fullerton/others

I can’t speak to other outposts of this grocery chain, but with its decor of old radios and vintage Mexican movie stars like Pedro Infante, this taqueria bizarrely comes off like the Burt’s Pizza of supermercado taquerias. For some odd reason I ordered a torta milanesa, which looked textbook-correct but was kind of less than the sum of its parts; the better looking things are the guisados.

Guisados at Carniceria Jimenez.

El Gigante
2500 N. Laramie

Not gigante at all, but this small market with a new taqueria has neon in the window to announce Barbacoa and Carnitas on weekends, which is promising. A weekday steak taco had good, tender beef, but was undercut by rubbery tortillas…

Carniceria y Taqueria La Loma
2535 N. Laramie

…while infinitely better tortillas were a strong point across the street; the steak seemed slightly cheaper (and cut to tiny bits) but it was greasy and salty in all the right ways. Pastor was given pride of place on the menu, so even though no cone was visible, I fell for it, and was reminded once again: If you don’t see a cone, leave the pastor alone!

El Gigante.


Carniceria Guanajuato
Multiple locations

This grocery chain is one of the easiest supermercado taquerias to find, but I’ve never had anything at the taqueria I thought was better than okay, though I’m sure quality varies by location. Still, in the case of the 1436 N. Ashland location, it would be a shame to come here over Tierra Caliente.

Tierra Caliente
1402 N. Ashland

The former Carniceria Leon is the one supermercado taqueria widely known to gringo foodies, complete with Dolinsky icon.  It also has the highest ratio of taqueria to grocery, suggesting where their attention really lies.  The star attraction is unquestionably the pastor, which if you get it at the right moment (a little after lunch rush) is a perfect blend of crispiness and juiciness, and a contender for best in the city.  But LTHers have identified other notable items such as the gordita de chivo and weekend carnitas.

Danny’s Fresh Market
2140 N. Western

You’d think proximity to possibly the best steak tacos in the city, Las Asadas, would step up your game, but everything about Danny’s was dingy and tired; a pork guisado had the taste of seasonings that expired in 2005, and a steak taco came with purple (!) onion, lettuce tomato and mayo, giving it an unmistakable eau de Whopper.

Huarache at Laura.

Carniceria y Taqueria Laura
1051 N. Ashland

The enormous huarache I got, piled high with lettuce, starchy winter tomato, avocado and crema, looked like a monstrosity, and the fact that both meat and huarache were reheated seemed a second strike. Then I bit into it— and was surprised how good it was.  The steak was full of flavor and the huarache toothsome and comforting.  This place is surely overlooked due to the three La Pasaditas being just up the street (though Vital Info praised it in a long-ago Pasaditathon on Chowhound), but it deserves more attention and a return from me.


Carniceria Aguascalientes
3132 W. 26th St.

This meat market located near the La Villita gate has a large open dining and cooking area in 50s diner white tile, which serves to point attention to the main attraction: a woman hand-patting gordita shells and laying them out in neat rows.  Everything benefits from the toothsome, comfort-foody appeal of the piping hot masa shell, but that’s not to slight well-grilled steak or the complex spiciness of a pork guisado, only two of many choices.

La Chiquita
3555 W. 26th St./2637 S. Pulaski/others

Big, bustling supermarkets on the south side and in suburbs like Cicero and Aurora, these have functional-looking taquerias inside whose main attraction is handmade gorditas, sopas, etc. (Pulaski’s is much nicer, but seemed deader, than 26th St.’s 70s throwback.) Fresh masa made for a very good gordita with pork in red sauce at the 26th street location, though I’d still choose Carniceria Aguascalientes for that first.

Jerry’s Certified
4524 S. Ashland

I came here at off-peak hours, so it was kind of dead like a coffeeshop at three in the afternoon, but I have a feeling that at prime time on weekends, this is an exciting place. There are lots of good signs (literally), with weekend specials like chile rellenos and caldo de siete mares (seafood soup). The emphasis of the everyday menu seems to be on the tortas, and the torta milanesa I had was exemplary; on the other hand, it was one of the only places where I got gringo’d on a steak taco and it arrived with lettuce, tomato and cheese.

Carniceria y Taqueria La Loma.

The spat between Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan and the Empress of Organic Food, legendary chef Alice Waters, came to an end pretty quickly with all sorts of people running to the defense of Waters and declaring Flanagan anathema.  Not since Christopher Hitchens attacked Mother Teresa has the civilized literary world reacted with such a unanimous cry of “Oooh, who farted?”

I think Flanagan raises, snarkily (it’s undoubtedly a fun read), some issues worth thinking about apart from the near-universal adulation that Waters enjoys, and I think Corby Kummer and others refute them to a considerable extent.  But I think there’s an issue beyond that that no one has quite touched on— which, in the end, puts Waters in some very surprising company for an old Berkeley lefty.

Flanagan’s argument basically comes down to a single incredulous observation: So a rich white lady is telling Mexican kids they need to spend less time in the classroom and more time harvesting crops?  And people think this is progress for them? She portrays Waters’ Edible Schoolyards project as a crackpot idea out of Rousseau, an anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution which is cutting into the class time they really need and wasting it on hippie notions of getting back to nature:

What evidence do we have that participation in one of these programs—so enthusiastically supported, so uncritically championed—improves a child’s chances of doing well on the state tests that will determine his or her future (especially the all-important high-school exit exam) and passing Algebra I, which is becoming the make-or-break class for California high-school students?

Now, as it happens my kids go to a so-called “hippie school” (Chicago Waldorf School), which indeed has a garden.  And where they also learn things like knitting, painting, music, all that non-book stuff that there’s no room for in modern public schools.  Do I send my kids there because I want them to be macrame-making airheads who don’t know which century the Civil War took place in?  No, I send them there because despite spending a good portion of the day on non-academic subjects, I see that these kids, my own and their classmates, are far more engaged with the world, interested in history and politics, passionate about reading, curious about science and math, than the typical Chicago public school student.  In a very real sense, they get more out of four hours of that a day than most kids get out of seven in a public school.  (Kummer points out how the whole program comes out of Waters’ long-ago experience as a Montessori teacher; Montessori and Waldorf are, if not twins, certainly cousins.)

Knitting, what the school calls handwork, is the one that’s inevitably the hardest sell for parents considering Waldorf.  It seems like the school day is being wasted on occupational therapy.  But as the teachers patiently explain, it has all kinds of value for the rest of the curriculum, developing hand-eye coordination, inculcating self-discipline, nurturing a sense of accomplishment (people are blown away when they tell a second-grader “Nice hat” and the kid nonchalantly replies “Yeah, I made it”), even teaching math (you have to count rows and so on).

Likewise, gardening isn’t taking time from science class, it is biology.  And so on.  The focus and ability to concentrate and think things through and follow through till they’re done— all these things are crucial to academic subjects, and they’re developed in these non-academic pursuits.  The unchallenged assumptions in Flanagan’s piece are that more and more class time in algebra would get everybody through the tests on algebra— and that the tests on algebra have real meaning in terms of future achievement, indeed, they’re the only way you’ll get there.  Only if you think that the only place learning happens is a lecture hall, can you believe that it’s that simple.

Flanagan’s argument comes down attempting to paint Waters’ solution as run-amok 60s big government liberalism, what you might expect from a Berkeley free-speech lefty type:

Waters calls for a new federal program based on an old one [the Presidents’ Council on Physical Fitness], but the new one is necessary only because the old one has obviously failed: American kids are fatter and sicker than ever…

The suicidal dietary choices of so many poor people are the result of a problem, not the problem itself. The solution lies in an education that will propel students into a higher economic class, where they will live better and therefore eat better.

But if Waters is applying the Wahington-money-fits-all-problems approach, Flanagan is hardly a Hayekian herself; she simply wants a different federal program with different classroom priorities to make good middle class taxpayers out of all those kids.  And is there any evidence her kinds of government programs are working in inner city schools at a notably higher rate of success than gardening is?

At the same time I was reading this, I read a piece on minority Chicago schools by Heather MacDonald in City Journal, which is published by a conservative think tank; okay, I know many people checked out right there, but there’s some solid, if grim, reporting in the piece that will leave you better informed about how something like the Derrion Albert beating death happened.  (There’s also, admittedly, quite a lot of use of it to bludgeon the record of the area’s most famous ex-community organizer.)  The argument here is that Chicago social programs are very much focused on defeating social pathologies by raising the kids economically to the middle class with government spending.  Their (decidedly conservative) argument is that this has it backwards— middle-class responsibility will be achieved not when it’s handed to those unprepared for it, but when they have it inside themselves and raise themselves to the middle class:

Now, perhaps if [school superintendant Ron] Huberman’s proposed youth “advocates” provided their charges with opportunities to learn self-discipline and perseverance, fired their imaginations with manly virtues, and spoke to them about honesty, courtesy, and right and wrong—if they functioned, in other words, like Scoutmasters—they might make some progress in reversing the South Side’s social breakdown. But the outfit that Huberman has picked to provide “advocacy” to the teens, at a reported cost of $5 million a year, couldn’t be more mired in the assiduously nonjudgmental ethic of contemporary social work.

Talking about Boy Scouts in the context of schools run by gangs may seem like a joke— but it’s no moreso than talking about gardening, surely.  Gad!  Does this mean Alice Waters is a closet conservative, using gardening to infiltrate her sneaky rightwing ideas (like honesty and perseverance) into the school system?

Well, no, not exactly.  But it might mean that Waters’ idea of liberalism is a broader and more thoughtful thing than Flanagan’s big-government-by-experts version.  The hippie left of the 60s is usually portrayed as impractical and druggy, but it also had powerful strains of libertarian self-reliance within it— certainly within Waters’ world, it meant back-to-the-land types who ate or starved based on their own willingness to work, and who became her suppliers by assiduously seeking to produce the best possible produce for her restaurant.

And that’s what Flanagan just doesn’t get— gardening isn’t menial labor to Waters, it’s the pursuit of excellence.  Waters wants kids to learn the self-reliance and discipline that farming teaches— and if that’s conservative, well then so is my kids’ hippie school and so are Thoreau and Jefferson, and liberalism has just given up some very important home ground for bad reasons, it seems to me.  Flanagan is ultimately on the side of tests and credentialism and knowledge being dispensed from on high; Waters is ultimately on the side of developing the individual so they can achieve, and will want to.  And that’s why Waters is more right than Flanagan about the value of getting the kids out of the classroom for an hour a day and cultivating their own gardens.

I’ve never really bought into the whole Mad Max/Matrix/The Road view of apocalyptic awfulness after technology breaks down.  Maybe my view is shaped more by 70s science fiction movies like A Boy and His Dog, but I don’t see people instantly becoming punked-out Visigoths in drag racers.  My feeling is, they’d open a lot of flea markets in crumbling old buildings.

That’s pretty much the feel you get from the Logan Square’s Farmer’s Market in the winter.  Even in the summer it’s more ragtag than tony Green City, but in the winter… it feels like a lot of nice folks getting by as best they can.  Making music, sharpening knives, selling honey, whatever it takes.

There’s hardly any produce, other than mushrooms; I picked up some grass-fed beef and some eggs, that was about it.  I did buy some honey from a farmer near Elgin, and younger son told him about our adventure in honey-harvesting, so he gave him a beeswax candle of a fish for free:

A woman had a bread business called Crumb, “Earthenware Baked Bread,” which by the look of them, I think means she’s using the no-knead method, they had the sharp edges from sticking to the pots they rise in that those breads seem to have.  I tried some, they were all cold so it was hard to tell if they had much flavor, but I bought a loaf of wheat to eat tonight, we’ll see how it is.

Floriole was there, younger son had a cherry turnover thing from them, but I was most excited to see that the macaron lady was there:

After having tried making them once myself, I was eager for a taste of a more experienced baker’s macaron.  The orange one with chocolate cream inside was pretty great in the sample I tried.  Still not a cheap treat, but half the price per macaron of Nomi’s.

A little luxury to break the long winter, and keep us all from going Visigoth.

1. Video from the Seoul, Korea fish market I found on Vimeo. The same guy has one entitled “Hagfish, God’s Grossest Creatures,” but I’ll let you find your own way to that one (if you read the sequel to Gorky Park, you will have vivid memories you may not want to reactivate).

Jagalchi Fish Market: Best of Reel from Seoulful Adventures on Vimeo.

2. Edible Geography is one of those blogs that’s so learned that you just wonder, where the hell did these people come from?  Can they really have been writing “5 Wines to Match With Chili Dogs” until this blog opened up and they started cranking out sociological treatises on New York’s bodegas and on-the-scene reports on Algeria’s efforts to stave off a dust bowl?  (My favorite for sheer weirdness is the one on efforts to spot insect infestation in grain silos by sound using hypersensitive listening devices that can tell one bug scratch from another— it’s like something made up for the Museum of Jurassic Technology.) H/t Sharon Bautista.
3. LTHer Michelle Hays figures prominently in Monica Eng’s latest account of the culinary black hole that is school lunch. (Foodies mourned the loss of Eng as a food section writer when she moved out of that department, but in fact we’ve gained someone treating food seriously as a social/political/public policy area.  To the food media discussion with Michael Nagrant last week, this is exactly what something like the Trib should be doing, reacting to a changing environment for its existing food section content like reviews by branching into new territory that it’s suited to doing better than almost anybody else.)
4. Cool photos and video of mochi-making (a New Year’s Day tradition) at Arlington Heights’ Mitsuwa Market, on a Chicago blog called She Simmers.  The best part starts close to the minute mark:

5. Serious Eats recently revived memories of this 2007 post, which had me laughing at my desk, in which Robyn Lee investigates the dark and exclamation-point-ridden world of products imitating not just butter, but the perkiest imitation butter, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!” The comments also point to this, from the British TV comedy The Vicar of Dibley:

6. As you’ve probably heard all over, Fruitslinger, that great read about what the guy who sells you an apple at Green City Market is really thinking, is no more, and from its ashes rises… Waffleizer? Well, it’s a fun idea, anyway, to create a place for people to experiment and have fun with perhaps the least threatening of all foods.  (“Mr. President, the threat level is… Waffle.”)  I may know more about what’s ahead here than I’m letting on.
7. Here’s a warm-feeling trailer for a movie about a community garden/farm project in Detroit.  You can probably pretty much get the whole movie from this trailer, but it’s nicely done.

Trailer ‘Grown in Detroit’ from Mascha Poppenk on Vimeo.

I must be coming up in the world of meat-oriented blogging, because I recently got three offers of meat samples. One was from a very well-known brand; I thought about this one, and finally decided that even if it represented their attempt to make a little higher-quality product, a laudable goal, it’s a type of meat I make myself, so what am I going to say? “This is better than their usual stuff, and still not a patch on my homemade”? I just decided I didn’t need to get into grading big time products in categories where I have a strong bias for the little guy and all he stands for. Especially when the little guy is me.

Another one, though, even though it’s clearly a marketing-driven product, was just so damned bizarre I had to try it. It’s Perky Jerky… caffeinated beef jerky. Yes, that’s right, it’s the first Red Bull rival made from actual bulls:

Look at it this way— you’re on the highway, you stop, you need a snack and some caffeine, so… why not get them in the same delicious, easy to eat package, and not have to pee again in 20 miles?  Now you see the genius of Perky Jerky, right?  Right?  Okay, it’s one of those things that either makes sense to you, or never will; you either drive down the road munching greasy salty meats, or you don’t. (I mostly don’t, although I’ve been known to pack Paulina Market landjaegers for a trip.)

Okay, bizarre as the concept is, it’s actually pretty good as jerky goes (and my son had just bought some jerky at Trader Joe’s, so I had a reasonable standard of comparison).  Tender, reasonably good quality beef with a teriyaki flavor to it; certainly by the standards of gas station cuisine, it was of a much higher quality than Slim Jims or the like.  The only hitch for me was, there’s no dosage information on the bag; I had no way of knowing if a whole bag was the caffeine equivalent of drinking a Coke, or if one little triangle would have my kids bouncing off the walls at 2 am.  And it’d be all too easy to scarf a bag down, and then find yourself feeling ready to drive to Patagonia without sleeping.

* * *

But the most intriguing meat I was offered, the most serious one, came from a guy in Milwaukee who has started an artisanal meat business like La Quercia. La Quercia isn’t big— Herb Eckhouse said their prosciuttificio is about a third the size of a small one in Italy— but Bolzano Artisan Meats is smaller yet, an employee and a half, says owner Scott Buer. All the same, they’re doing what you’d hope they’d be doing— buying quality pork (he started with Jude Becker’s Berkshire hogs, but plans to transition to mostly Wisconsin naturally-raised meat, including what must be Valerie Weihman-Rock’s mulefoot pigs, as seen in Sky Full of Bacon 5 and 6), and curing it by the old school simple means, salt and herbs and time. (Thyme and time, really.)

Buer sent me two meats, guanciale (cured hog jowl) and pancetta (cured belly, same meat as bacon, but without the sweetness and smoke of American bacon). Here’s how the pancetta looked, the ruby red color and thick fat striping of the Berkshire hog:

I would have guessed Berkshire by the look of it and I would have guessed the simple cure by the fact that it smelled exactly like the things I’ve cured following traditional cures, like guanciale and lardo— a musty salt smell leavened by a pine-forest note of the dried herbs.

I was making pizzas the day it came, so I decided to use the pancetta on a tarte flambee:

Looks like peppermint candy, tastes like pork.  What could be prettier?  The base is creme fraiche, liberally sprinkled with pepper and dotted with partly caramelized onions.  Here’s how it looked when it came out:

I often find commercial pancetta bland next to bacon, but this had a full pork flavor sharpened and transmuted by the curing process, denser with flavor (and certainly chewier) than the often limp product you buy.  Unfortunately I’ve never had the La Quercia pancetta, so I don’t have a really stellar comparison, but it seemed to have all the virtues of its origins using superior pork, and of its handling with no modern shortcuts.

For the guanciale, well, there’s one classic dish that this cured meat figures in, bucatini all’Amatriciana.  Hog jowl is an incredibly lush fatty meat— sadly, it’s a cut that’s often ruined during the inspection process (they slice through the jaw to inspect the glands) and discarded or sent for rendering.  But barbecue places in the south will put it in beans, resulting in incredibly silky, fatty beans, and just handling it, it was like pork meat made with the best hand cream you ever owned.

The last time I saw a pattern like that, little pink archipelagoes of meat in a sea of fat, was on a kobe beef brisket.

I vaguely follow a recipe in Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian*, although it’s a dish almost too simple to need a recipe.  Interestingly, they say (copyright 2001) that guanciale is impossible to find in the U.S., and suggest various substitutes.  How quickly things change: I’ve had access to no fewer than four different American guanciales lately.  Admittedly, two of them were homemade (my own and Chuck Sudo’s).  One key thing about the recipe is that, even though it still says guanciale, they clearly adjusted the quantity of meat upwards to produce the desired amount of cooking fat, because when I used 6 oz. of actual guanciale, I had a swimming pool of fat in my pan.  3 oz. will do you just fine.

So you dice the guanciale, fry it, scoop it out with a slotted spoon and let rest on a towel.  Add some red pepper flakes, then fry a 28 oz. can of tomatoes in the oil, chopping them as you go (I used my own canned tomatoes from this summer) for about ten minutes while the pasta (bucatini or, if you can’t find it, spaghetti; I don’t know what difference the hole in the center of a bucatini noodle makes) cooks.  Add a couple of tablespoons of good parmigiano-reggiano, mix till melted.  Toss all that with the pasta, place in bowls, sprinkle the guanciale on top and grate some peccorino romano as desired:

It’s a wonderful comforting dish and Bolzano’s guanciale brought it lots of lushness (in the sauce) and crunchy porkiness on top.

So I liked both of the meats they sent me a lot— though it has to be admitted, these are fairly easy as cured meats go, hard to screw up at least once you’ve made the crucial decisions to spend the money on the best pork you can get and to cure it with no funny business.  The real test, which I’m looking forward to immensely, is the speck prosciutto, which will be ready in April.  Speck prosciutto is a particular style, smoked with rosemary and juniper— you may remember I linked to these photos of a speck plant high in the hills of Italy— and while it won’t be directly comparable to the La Quercia prosciutto (or their speck, for that matter), because it is a different style, it should have many of the same virtues of the longer curing time breaking down more of the proteins and making it all just that much more complex and umami-riffic.  It will be a wonderful thing if these first meats from Bolzano prove to be the beginning of a serious artisanal cured meats movement in Wisconsin, comparable to the improvements in Wisconsin cheeses in recent years.

In the meantime, you can get Bolzano guanciale and pancetta at several places in Milwaukee, including the Wisconsin Cheese Mart and Glorioso Brothers, as well as at farmer’s markets in several Wisconsin cities.  (CORRECTED: At this point, it’s only Wisconsin-inspected, so he can sell it via the internet to individuals, but not to retailers or restaurants who will resell it.)  And Perky Jerky, I’m sure you can get that at several gas stations on the way up there.

* Search inside the book for bucatini and you’ll find the recipe.

“Good morning,” the hostess said.

A second later, “Good morning,” a waiter said.

I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve gotten two good mornings at a breakfast place.  The hostess should say “good morning,” that’s her job, but the other one was a completely unbidden freebie.  It’s almost as if they wanted my business!  Were happy to be serving food and see customers!

Things were off to a good start at Nana, the newish breakfast place in Bridgeport (just down the street from the newly-closed Healthy Food, of whom more in the not too distant future).  The place had an attractive combination of blond wood, white paint and sunlight.  It was not crowded at 8:30.  They were friendly.  These are not small things, in the world of Sunday breakfast.

Nana is a modern Ameri-yuppie breakfast place with a Mexican slant to the menu— chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, etc.  My wife had their take on eggs benedict (pictured above), eggs on housemade chorizo on top of a cheese pupusa, with a poblano cream.  This would have been great if the pupusa weren’t cooked hard enough to have to saw through it.  I really liked the flavors of the bite I had, the earthiness of the masa crossed with the creaminess of eggs benedict; but the texture would benefit from a dialing up on the Fluffiometer.  I had something named Benicio, a potato fritter with housemade pancetta on it.  (So if in-house charcuterie is reaching breakfast places, does that mean it’s over as a trend?  Because I’d be just fine with it lasting another century or two as one.)  This had a chipotle cream with a lot of heat, and it was fine, but not as interesting as the Nanadict.  The kids had sweet stuff, and one of them had buttermilk pancakes with spiced apples on it, which was pretty simple and pretty great.

Nana is a long ways from me, and it’s probably a long ways from you, but it’s about 10 minutes on 90/94 from me on a Sunday morning, which is no more than a lot of other breakfast places.  Anyway, I’ll happily drive it for this warm welcome with no waiting.

3267 South Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60608-6618
(773) 929-2486

* * *

Post about Lockwood deleted. See here for details (Facebook registration required).

Our conversation (see parts one, two, three and four) concludes:

MICHAEL GEBERT: One of the things that was interesting to me back when I ran LTHForum was that people, given a chance to talk about whatever they wanted to talk about, tended not to want to talk about the things that were hot in food media.  Sure, there was some degree of interest in the hot new restaurants, and TV shows, and so on, but there was twice as much interest in how to make good fried chicken, or some old place that everybody loves, or whatever.  And we too have mostly ignored the obvious year-end subjects in favor of more personal reflections on the state of food-dom in 2009 and beyond.

Well, enough of that!  Let’s conclude with a bout of sheer hackdom, talking about the same things everybody else is talking about in year-end pieces.  I’ll throw out three (one of which is clearly more interesting to me than the others), and through the magic of cut-and-paste, juxtapose your takes after mine. Batter up:

Gourmet Magazine Closing. My feeling is it’s a mistake to view Gourmet as the business.  The business is Conde Nast’s food magazine business, and Gourmet was one tactic for capturing a chunk of the available dollars in that space, Bon Appetit is another.  And as soon as any tactic stops paying out, you kill it, unsentimentally.  Personally, I will be amazed if Gourmet is not revived at some future date in some form, because I strongly suspect that killing it was a way of getting rid of a bloated, boom-year-sized payroll, but they’ll find a use for the brand after a suitable interval.  In any case, although I’m certainly sorry to see a good-paying outlet vanish, it wasn’t a magazine that meant that much to me today, or seemed that different from all the other food magazines all offering the same tips over and over (10 Aussie wines to pair with quick and easy frazzablazzit) in a way that, frankly, makes it hard for me to read anything in any of them without feeling I must have read it before.  If Saveur closed, then I’d cry a little.

MICHAEL NAGRANT: I agree with you regarding the reasons why Gourmet closed.  It was a pure Bob’s from Office Space consultant killing of a redundancy.  Or if you want to be really nefarious, I suspect that maybe there was some serious entitled bloat going on at high editorial levels that pissed someone off.  Then again, as long as Ann Wintour reigns supreme at Vogue and Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair, Conde Nast seems to love paying for spendthrift behavior.

I don’t agree however about the magazine degenerating to a retail pamphlet edited by starfucking editors who dream about designer cupcakes and spritzers while subsisting on a starvation diet 90 percent of the year.  I think Gourmet was one of the last bastions (Saveur of course still lives) of good storytelling in food writing.  Francis Lam’s stories where he’d go hang out with some old school Chinese chef for a few weeks were some of my favorite pieces published anywhere in the last few years.  Interestingly his tenure shepherding the new Salon, save for a piece here and there has not featured his strength, but rather focused on more newsy short bloggy stuff.  I’m guessing that’s a function of resources as much as anything, i.e. he doesn’t have the budget or the luxury to go disappear wherever he wants for weeks at a time to get a story, rather he needs to stay behind and feed the daily internet monster, lest Salon disappear like the old Victorian and French intellectual gathering spots for which the site is named.

GEBERT: Top Chef. Okay, it’s television and therefore hypey and hokey.  We concede that point, your honor.  But you know, the world has a lot of astrophysicists who got interested in space because of Star Wars, and to me it’s pretty amazing that there’s a pop culture phenomenon bringing the most avant-garde cooking of our time into a lot of homes.  I made the comparison with music earlier and said that people who think everyone should know Barenboim should know Achatz, too; but classical music would kill to be getting that kind of exposure right now, and I have to think that’s going to produce some long-running effects, that kids in a small town where the best restaurant is a Village Inn are seeing Thomas Keller on TV and thinking, I could be him when I grow up!

NAGRANT: As is already the case now, those kids are more likely getting hoodwinked in to spending $30,000 for a generally worthless vocational education at culinary school all in the pursuit of rare and elusive celebrity. That being said, Top Chef is good. Tom Colicchio protects the integrity of the culinary profession as much as he can and Gail Simmons completes me. So that’s good enough for me. However, what I find is that the last five weeks are always the most compelling part of the show. The first 10 weeks are so are always populated with a bunch of vaudevillian jokers and racial stereotypes who don’t know how to salt properly. I know casting is tough, but the show would be that much better if they insisted on only casting say 10 really talented folks.

GEBERT: Twitter. Both bigger and smaller than the hype machine has portrayed it this year.  Smaller in itself, but as one popular tool, it’s one very good example of where I think the media as a whole have to go.

There was a telling moment in one of those back-and-forths on Twitter this year where people (I name no names) were ragging on Phil Vettel, why doesn’t he get with it, tune in turn on and tweet out, and Kevin Pang said “Phil’s plenty big without Twitter.”  Which, despite its vague echo of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (“I am big, it’s the tweets that got cut to 140 characters!”), is surely true— but only a tiny handful of people at any given paper have that level of brand identity.  And if you’re at all smart and have initiative— like Mr. Pang— you’re looking for ways to extend your brand beyond the corners of your newspaper, which for all you know may not be here tomorrow (or at least you may not be at it tomorrow).

And Twitter is one way you can do that, though far, far from the only one (you might, for instance, do a show about cheeseburgers), or even maybe a typical one.  But the fundamental change in how we should view media is that we’re no longer pretending that a million people read every single word in the paper every day.  We now have clicks and meters to tell us that the numbers for any given piece are far smaller— but they’re the ones who are hyper-interested, who take the paper or seek you out online precisely because they really are interested.  And your future lies in, on some level, engaging those people, the ones who really care.  Cluing them into the process, into what you just ate, making your life a bit of a public spectacle, is a natural way to inculcate their loyalty, make them feel a little bit like insiders which is always seductive.  And Twitter has proven to be a great tool for that.  (If you’re in the media and you feel like you’re clueless about how to do this, here’s simple advice: do whatever Roger Ebert does.  Nobody has been savvier, by like a factor of 10, about building a personal brand over the last 40 years, to the point where I’m convinced his brand is worth substantially more than his paper’s is.)

Now Twitter’s weird status between two worlds— it’s not quite media, but it’s a lot more public than instant messaging your actual, real-world friends— has been a source of controversy.  You went after Steve Dolinsky for tweeting opening night impressions of Big Star, in violation of the reviewer’s gentleman’s agreement not to review until a month has passed.  I mostly came down on the side that an opening tweet is not a review, but that’s not because I don’t think that Dolinsky was breaking that agreement by sending out an opinion, however brief, to basically the whole world.  I think he was, and I think he was perfectly fine to do so, because it’s passe.  The food media world is now about ongoing impressions, not one impressively final review, for all those reasons I talked about the other day.  But I understand that not everyone agrees that they got that memo.

Even more interesting to ponder is the recent dustup where the publicist Ellen Malloy sent out a tweet about one of the restaurants she reps (The Bristol) being named a top restaurant of the year by GQ magazine.  The only thing was, a bunch of places promptly announced that The Bristol had won this honor… without realizing that The Bristol wasn’t the only one in Chicago honored in that issue.  It was merely the only one that was a client of Ellen’s.  And some people suggested she had violated journalistic ethics in omitting the others— as if Ellen Malloy’s Twitter account, with a couple of thousand followers, was now a fully accredited media news source alongside the Tribune and CBS and obligated to follow certain rules (which, needless to say, conflict flagrantly with her intended career).  That would come as news to a lot of teenagers using Twitter to moon over the guy who plays Edward in Twilight, I suspect.  So it’s dubious to go that far, but can you absolutely say that someone sending out news to four digits of people clearly is not a news source?  She is… just a new kind, who cut out the press middleman, which is something people aren’t entirely used to, yet.

So there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on, and Twitter was at the heart of a good amount of it.  Something else may be next year, and Twitter may soon be as dead as the big media food blogs which now frequently go silent for a week at a time.  But it’s this year’s example of a phenomenon that’s far-reaching and transformative.

NAGRANT: I didn’t take issue with Dolinsky for reviewing on opening day. In fact, at one point, I expressed my admiration that he was using the medium so well. What I took issue with was how he pretended like he was surprised that what he Tweeted would have any influence. He knew full well that it would, and that’s why he was doing it in the first place. I just wanted him to own it.

As for branding, etc. I can appreciate business people like Ellen who make it it an important part of what they do. She’s in it to grow her business, and that’s what she’s doing. But, she’s not a journalist. She’s a promoter of the people who pay her to promote. She happens to be paid by some of the most interesting, talented, and high quality people around, and thus you won’t go terribly wrong by following her lead, nor does she need to be Don King and fluff up the facts as some PR folks do. However, you should understand you also won’t always get the full picture.

As for journalists focused on “branding”, I’m a little more suspect. I’m not sure Ebert was focused on branding as much as he organically grew his reputation based on the quality of his work. As his following grew in relation to his talent, he took advantage of the opportunities that afforded, i.e. a broader television platform and a branded website, and was savvy enough to explore those opportunities. My sense is that he came to Twitter because he is first and foremost a rabid writer. It’s his drug, and Twitter is just one more fix, especially for the short form thought, which he has no lack of.

I know I came to Twitter not as a means of branding as much as another place to share and explore my passions and also for the community. As a freelancer whose only daily colleague is my blue couch, I appreciate the ability to talk to my fellow writers and food enthusiasts as if I were at the water cooler, albiet a much more engaging one where I can drink the occasional whiskey if I choose. I don’t discount the value of being able to send a link out to followers and have a way of sharing my work. I appreciate and use that. However I’m not sitting around tracking Twitter keyword searches for my name, or “chicago food” or whatever and engaging people to build my follower base as I’m sure many are and as I would if I was really worried about branding.

Furthermore, once you start worrying about branding too much, I think you’re tempted once again to compromise your integrity. I mean if I was really interested in my brand, I wouldn’t have spent three or four days tracking what I was interested and inspired by i.e. following Rob and Allison Levitt as they opened Mado or dining at the tiny Senegalese joint on the north side that maybe two people will eat at when they read my piece. I’d be focused on only covering guys like Bayless, Kahan, and Izard more often because they have the ability to move eyeballs.

That being said if I worked for an organization like the Trib and I thought my valuable institution as well as my health care and living wage and those of my friends around me were in jeopardy, I would like Ebert has with the Sun Times try to lift all ships, even if that meant being agressive about branding. If I were an editor or manager I’d compel competition and creative social media approaches like using Twitter as a measurement of the quality of job you were doing no matter who you were.

GEBERT: Well, like a lot of things it comes down to a matter of taste; Ebert knows the value of having his name and mugshot big and bold on his book covers, but he also knows the value of not diluting the brand by taking easy money and doing commercials for microwave popcorn or whatever.  It takes vigilance to become a pop culture figure without becoming a walking joke, and some cartoonization of yourself is probably inevitable.  But more to the point, given that he’s been interactive with his readers online since the world was connected by Compuserve, that’s why I see him as a model for engagement with your core audience.  (I once made an offhand crack about his readers writing one of his books— the movie cliches one— for him, in a freakin’ Usenet group, about as obscure a spot as you could get, and within three days he was in my email inbox, letting me know in no uncertain terms that he was the hardest workin’ man in show business.  Impressive, in a mildly alarming way.)

As for the thing about publicists, I still feel you’re talking like there was something mildly shifty going on there.  I guess the way I see it, ultimately, is— there’s news and there are journalists.  Journalists used to be where news mainly came from (although there’s always been a category of news that everyone knew despite no journalist ever reporting it).  Now news can come from people who aren’t journalists.  It can come from people connected to the biz professionally.  It can come from protesters in the streets of Tehran.  It can come from somebody who served a famous food critic and can’t believe what a douchebag he was.  And none of those people have a responsibility for meeting the ethical rules of a profession they never joined; we have that responsibility if we turn news into journalism, and readers, all readers, have the responsibility of evaluating what they read for themselves.  But more news, from all directions, is a great thing.

NAGRANT: I don’t think anything shifty is going on.  I trust Ellen Malloy.  That being said, maybe it’s semantical or whatever, but I would call what she does information sharing or news sharing, but not necessarily journalism.  Also, I totally agree, folks can operate on any level they want in terms of ethics and they’re not bound by some institutional rules.  However, what I do believe is there are basic laws, unwritten, of course, about how we act as humans, the social contract if you will.  Certainly that contract is fluid, however, I think when we’re brutally honest with ourselves and think about what really feels right and how we should be operating, we generally all come to very similar conclusions about what that contract looks like.

Mostly I’m arguing that instead of throwing out red herrings or constructing exceptions that justify behaviors as is the current state of affairs, I would wish for people to think more about how they really should act as journalists, citizen or otherwise, when they’re sharing news or gathering it.  At the end of the day, if you operate under that level of thinking and are dilligent about your actions and you still say: I need to take that trip to Italy paid for by the Reggiano Parmagiano distributors Association and I know I can tell a good story and it’s a worthwhile story, then I can respect that.

GEBERT: All right, since we got off on media again, let’s end on a food note.  Tell me something I should go out and eat right now.

NAGRANT: Despite my earlier suspicion about Dale Levitski not getting his stuff together for three years, I had a chance to try Sprout this week, and while it wasn’t perfect, that dude has some serious chops. Don’t know if you can score his “grilled cheese” which is basicaly a frico kinda thing stuffed with granny smith apples, caramelized onion, and served with a side of mustard, a la carte, but if so, you should. I gotta say after my meal, it’s too bad Henry Adaniya (former owner Trio) fled to Hawaii, because that dude had the golden palate having picked Tramonto/Gand, Shawn McClain, Grant Achatz, and Levitski to head up his kitchens back in the day.

Also, because I can never just say one thing, the carbonara at Kith and Kin made with housemade spaghetti a la chittara, house cured guanciale, and parsley topped with a raw (or very slightly cooked – no fact check on this) yolk will have you yellin’ bada bing faster than a mob hit.

GEBERT: Well, for me there’s no better response to the cold and snow than some hearty Mexican soul food.  Go have a big bowl of consomme de chivo, goat consomme, weekends only, at the taqueria inside the Los Potrillos grocery, 3624 W. Belmont.

With that, we’ll call it a week.  Thank you, Michael N., for joining me all week, and thanks to everyone who found our bloviating worth a visit.  Eat early and often, it’s Chicago.