Chicago’s Healthy Food was the oldest Lithuanian restaurant in the world when it closed in late 2009. I was on hand for the last days of this legendary South Side restaurant, one of the last survivors of a once-flourishing ethnic group in Chicago, to talk to the owner, staff and customers as they said Goodbye, Kugelis.
The history of Lithuanians in Chicago is the history of the twentieth century— from immigration and work in the Chicago stockyards in the early years of the century, to the racial tensions of the 1960s and, ultimately, assimilation in the suburbs. One of the last examples of Lithuanian Chicago closed in late 2009: Healthy Food, a 71-year-old restaurant serving good hearty Eastern European food in the Bridgeport neighborhood. I was at Healthy Food during its last few days, talking to owner Gina Santoski about her life in the restaurant (which her parents bought in 1960) and to the staff and customers who made it one of Chicago’s classic old neighborhood spots. And, for the first and only time, I captured on video the complete making of Healthy Food’s signature dish, kugelis— according to Gina, she never let other journalists shoot the full process, because she was concerned that the traditional ways of making it would attract unwanted Health Department attention; but since she was closing anyway, she let me shoot it all. The video runs 15 and a half minutes.
I reviewed a visit to what is now the city of Chicago’s only remaining Lithuanian restaurant here.
Here and here are some LTHForum posts about the decline of the Marquette Park Lithuanian neighborhood in the past decade, and mentions of surviving Lithuanian stores and restaurants in the suburbs. (Probably the newest and most accommodating to visitors is Grand Duke’s, near Toyota Park in Summit.)
Another Lithuanian enclave that has disappeared in the last few years was around 47th St.; I visited Baltic Bakery during this LTHForum event in 2006, and Julia’s Lithuanian during the Chowhound Westernathon in 2003. (Both are now gone.) The map showing where Chicago ethnic enclaves were around the time Healthy Food Lithuanian opened can be seen here; it actually predates Healthy Food by more than a decade (1926), so compare it to this one from 1940, which shows Marquette Park as the new destination for Lithuanians seeking to own their own homes. Interestingly, though, there’s no mention of Lithuanian food at all in John Drury’s 1931 Dining in Chicago, the primary source for information on Chicago ethnic dining of that era.
One of the things I’m happiest about in this video is that I was able to use authentic Lithuanian music of extremely high quality in it. I found the Lithuanian folk ensemble Sutaras online and contacted their music director, Antanas Fokas, and told him about my intention to help educate Chicago about our Lithuanian heritage. He gave me permission to use several cuts by Sutaras; I highly recommend checking out their recordings at their site.
About Sky Full of Bacon
Sky Full of Bacon Short: Making Illegal Cheese
Sky Full of Bacon #13: Pie As a Lifestyle
Sky Full of Bacon Short: Edzo’s Burger Shop
Sky Full of Bacon #12: In the Land of Whitefish
Sky Full of Bacon #11: A Better Fish
Sky Full of Bacon #10: Prosciutto di Iowa
Sky Full of Bacon #9: Raccoon Stories
Sky Full of Bacon #8: Pear-Shaped World
Sky Full of Bacon #7: Eat This City
Sky Full of Bacon #6: There Will Be Pork (pt. 2)
Sky Full of Bacon #5: There Will Be Pork (pt. 1)
Sky Full of Bacon #4: A Head’s Tale
Sky Full of Bacon #3: The Last Brisket Show
Sky Full of Bacon #2: Duck School
Sky Full of Bacon #1: How Local Can You Go?
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