Sky Full of Bacon


Sky Full of Bacon 14: The Last Days of Kugelis

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.

Sky Full of Bacon 14: The Last Days of Kugelis from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

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.

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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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12 Responses to “Sky Full of Bacon 14: The Last Days of Kugelis”

  1. The Local Beet: Chicago » Weekly Harvest of Links Says:

    […] MikeG gets the full kugelis tray. […]

  2. kickpleat Says:

    I loved this documentary and post! I’m half Lithuanian and have eaten kugelis all my life and when I went to Chicago a few years ago I saw many remnants of the Lithuanian community. I wish I would have gone to this restaurant (but my brother has been and did buy a kugelis t-shirt), so I’m sad that I won’t be able to visit next time I make the cross-country trek.

  3. Restaurant Menu Design Says:

    excellent article. I always love when Chicago food gets its due!

  4. Sky Full of Bacon » Blog Archive » I’ve Been Waffleized! Says:

    […] Day at my dot-com job in the late 90s by going here. (He has some awfully nice things to say about the new video, […]

  5. kilian Says:

    great job. thanks for documenting HF. great food and colorful folks to boot.

  6. Laura Says:

    NOOOOO!!!! Oh man, I remember that restaurant from when I was a very small child in the 60’s and it looked exactly the same when I went back a couple years ago. My dad proudly sports the famed t-shirt and, luckily, knows how to make a very fine kugelis or I don’t know what I’d do. I’m just so so sorry to see it come to an end. Thanks for the video. It’s fabulous and a great connection for those of us who grew up on this stuff.

  7. Ava Says:

    Thank you!
    I enjoyed this report and sad to see our unique cultures disappearing.
    Keep up the great work!

  8. Paskutin?s kugelio dienos ?ikagoje Says:

    […] PRADŽIA  RSS Paskutin?s kugelio dienos ?ikagoje paskelbta: 2010-03-24 Trumpas dokumentinis filmukas apie paskutines   Pla?iau: Sky Full of Bacon 14: The Last Days of Kugelis […]

  9. Wednesday Links: Fajitas, Food in Film, and the Fragility of Restaurants Says:

    […] The Last Days of Kugelis The worlds oldest Lithuanian restaurant just closed on the South Side. Sky Full of Bacon was there to record the last days. […]

  10. Jeb Blount Says:

    What a wonderful film. The only thing negative I have to say is that in all the years I grated potatoes with my Grandma, Great Aunt, Aunt, Mother, Sisters, Cousins etc. to make Kugelis, I never had one of those fantastic power potato grinders, just one of those little skillet like grids that took a lot of skin off my knuckles too! My Gran said it adds to the flavor.

    You really captured the spirit, and time and place. You caught the trials of Jurgis from the Jungle, the enclaves of the huddled masses, the growth of pride when Lithuania became a country after the First World War right as the Lugenhoppers were starting to make it in America, the difficult and complex motives, stories and choices made by the displaced persons and post Second World War immigrants, the struggles in Chicago inthe 1960s, the fear, the racism, the justified concern of loss. Geeze. You caught it all for me, a 1/2 Lugen, 4th generation, suburban raised (but Bridgeport, Cicero, Marquette Park descended), non-Lithuanian speaking Chicago-loving Brazilian Resident Kugelis maker. Damn. I wanna’ shake your hand.

  11. Sarah@chicago web company Says:

    Thanks for sharing this history of Lithuanians in Chicago. It was an informative post and a thoughtful one too.

  12. Sky Full of Bacon » Blog Archive » Sky Full of Bacon 15: Big Chef Small Farmer Says:

    […] Sky Full of Bacon #14: The Last Days of Kugelis 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? […]