Sky Full of Bacon


Saturday I took my kids to the newly-paved Green City Market (oh, they paved Green City and put up a lot of arugula). There’s a tamale stand this year which I’ve wanted to try, but it’s usually had a long line attached to it.  For once, though, it was almost clear— probably because it wasn’t even 10:00 yet and it didn’t really seem the hour for a spicy pork or brisket tamale. But scanning the menu, there was a strawberry-mint tamale at the bottom. Especially for my youngest son, I knew this would go over well, as he’s been known to eat them at the best traditional tamale spot I know of, Tamales Lo Mejor de Guerrero in Rogers Park.

There was also something else of note on the sign: a six with a dollar sign in front of it. Could these really be six bucks apiece? The woman in front of us was getting a whole bundle of them, and it seemed unlikely she was buying a good $48 or more worth of tamales. Tamales are plebeian food, sold in batches of 50 at Christmastime— and not for $300. I placed my order— and sure enough, got a single pink tamale for $6.

Okay, so it’s a really good tamale. Less so for the basic ingredients of the tamale, corn masa and lard, than the freshness of real strawberry and mint worked into it. Setting price aside, it was an absolute pleasure to eat. But even someone like me, who walks into Green City scattering $20 bills to the wind for his weekly green vegetables, cannot entirely set price aside. Late that night, I tweeted what had been floating around the verge of my consciousness all day:

140 characters is no place to expect subtleties to come through, but I don’t think this was entirely condemnatory. It was, instead, the honest admission that there were two voices in my head, one of which said, “Mmm, what a nice organic artisanal sustainable tamale” and the other of which said “Six dollars for one tamale?!? You foodies are freakin’ nuts!”

I very quickly got back some responses— mainly from other vendors at the market— defending the price of the tamale as justified by what goes into it:

@skyfullofbacon fortunately not everything is mass produced- investigate making fresh masa with great local ingredients. $6 is a bargain.

Hey, I didn’t just fall off the organic turnip truck, I know how the market is and I believe that that $6 is a proportional reflection of ingredient cost like any other food item. (Admittedly, using the term “sucker” would tend to belie that.) But still, $6 for a tamale… I sent this response:

is there any price at which you wouldn’t feel a little silly buying a tamale?

and got this back:

@skyfullofbacon id feel silly thinking I got a bargain on a $1 tamale that was made with crap ingredients and crisco.

A fair answer but not a direct one, and one that points to another problem I have, which is that if you get too doctrinaire about only eating artisanal/organic/whatever, you’re not even going to know what a tamale is, because you’ll never explore our ethnic scene where authentic recipes and industrial products are inextricably entwined.  In other words, nobody’s going to appreciate a $6 tamale without getting there via a $1.50 one, is my belief.

So who’s right here?  I honestly am confused about what I think, and value.  I’m all for upgrading ingredients and patronizing the good stuff, but maybe it’s just that I don’t value tamales as much as I do BBQ or pie or whatever, so the price difference sticks out to me more.  (To judge by the lines, other people do value them, so they don’t really need to worry about me.)  What do you think?  Would you pay $6 for this tamale— and even consider it cheap given the quality?  Or does it seem preposterous to pay that for such peasant food?  I would love to hear your responses in the comments below.

*  *  *

So on my way out I stopped by T.J.’s, who sell poultry and meats.  There was a question I couldn’t resist asking Tim, the farmer, after having eaten at NoMi a couple of weeks ago.  “Do you know about the $75 T.J.’s chicken at NoMi?”

He did not know about it, and at first didn’t even realize that NoMi was buying from him (aha! Scandal!) until he realized that it was the same account as the Park Hyatt, to whom he sells a number of things, whole chickens included.  “Have you had it? Was it good?” he asked.  I explained that it was sous-vide cooked to a velvety tenderness that was, indeed, pretty wonderful, and that given the price of the other entrees in the $30-40 range, the chicken for two was not wildly out of line pricewise.  That said, he told me his favorite way to cook a chicken was to grill it, dusted with Lawry’s seasoned salt and basted with garlic butter.

“Well, I guess I better get myself one of those $75 chickens and try it out,” I said.  He pulled out a massive, almost five-pounder, and told me the price.  I gave him $16.75.

“I’m not charging enough,” he said.

Read the followup to this saga here.

*  *  *


$3 doughnut.

$75 chickens and $6 tamales, it’s time to round up this quarter’s list of the best things I’ve eaten at any price, while you still have time to try them for yourself.  To see previous installments, click on “Best Things I’ve Eaten Lately” under Categories at right.  (And as before, Key Ingredient dishes don’t count.)

• Grilled meats from Assayad, Dearborn MI
• Twig Farm Fuzzy Wheel, and La Quercia Acorn Edition prosciutto, from Zingerman’s
• The soups at Mike’s Famous Ham Place, Detroit
• Pasta with bottarga, and snap peas with mint at Lupa, NYC
• Doughnut from Doughnut Plant
• Dumplings from Prosperity Dumpling
• All kinds of things lost in alcoholic haze at Yakitori Totto
• Grilled short ribs, Bento Box
• Ojinguh bokkum (stir fried squid), Hal Mae Bo Ssam (Morton Grove)
• Ramen at Chizakaya
• Any soup they make at Butcher & Larder
• $75 chicken at NoMi
• Sweet potato pie, Jimmy Jamm’s
• Northeastern strawberries from Nichols Farms
• A nice tortellini or ravioli something or other I can’t remember exactly now from Owen & Engine
• Goat biryani, Ghareeb Nawaz
• Spinach and kale and Chicken balti pies at Pleasant House Bakery
• Riccio di Mare e Granchio at Davanti Enoteca
• Oysters and clam chowder at GT Fish & Oyster Bar
• $6 strawberry tamale at Green City Market

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I knew Hot Doug’s would be a hilarious shoot. I didn’t know what Schwa would turn out to be… but it was pretty damn funny too. A kitchen table at Schwa would be the best show in town.

Note the new credit style on this one, to match the redesign of the print Reader a few weeks back. I swear to God, that took longer that cutting the video did. I’m not kidding when I say this is handmade, one-person video production here…

* * *

Meanwhile, this being episode #30, time to run a recap of the last ten dishes, as I did after #10 and #20. You can refresh your memory about the past episodes by clicking on the “Key Ingredient” link under categories at right:

Bill Kim/aloe vera— this looked like a mess while he was making it (soggy tortilla chips and soba noodles?), but came together surprisingly well, and the Jello-like aloe vera was texturally very interesting
• Carlos Gaytan/dried shrimp— one of my favorites because he took an oddball ingredient and made something that was robustly flavored, reflective of his culture and yet innovative in its own way. I’d love to go have it for breakfast for real sometime.
Doug Sohn/chicken feet— chicken feet could be the new bacon, fried up like Doug did them. Lifted a chicken dog (not my favorite thing at Hot Doug’s) to a decadent new level.
• Barry Sorkin/Vienna Beef hot dog— I’ve made fun of dragon turds for years, but let’s face it, you’re never going to go wrong with bacon, gooey hot cheese, and smoke (or Smoque). I actually made this one for a party shortly after, and they were devoured with wide eyes of amazement.
Cleetus Freedman/Bourbon— baked ham in a bourbon glaze, tasted exactly like what you think it’s going to taste like, just not much of a challenge challenge…
Marianne Sundquist/pork cheek— and the same is somewhat true of a pork ragu. It was nicely done, but not a groundbreaker for the series
Abra Berens/silver needle tea— another one I really liked, even though the tea salt thing didn’t really work— both it and the tea granita were too salty. But it was so clean and refreshing and showed such interesting thinking about how to use these things, and I actually made the salad later and really enjoyed how simple it was
Sandra Holl/apricot kernels— the bitter apricot kernel flavored did kind of disappear into a standard custard, as she observers in the video. But I really liked the extra bite of bitterness that the kernels brought to the brittle
Paula Haney/millet— The millet tabouleh was surprisingly likable, and the meat pie was great (mainly tasting of their bright ras-al-hanout seasoning). The parfait was very pleasant and I liked the rice puddingy millet in the dish, and the puffed millet in the chocolate, but the crispy millet thing was like eating tiny ball bearings. Millet’s just not pleasant in quantity
Michael Carlson/Malort— the first dish, with the Malort gelatins, was very striking. I didn’t taste it so much in the second dish, and I’m not a fan of that style of plating (the meat always gets cold) but the cocoa nib-infused consomme with Malort was maybe the best and most Malorty thing of them all; unfortunately it doesn’t really get explained in the video for time reasons.

* * *

Finally: while I’m not happy about how LTHForum got into the situation that ended this week with its sale to three of its members, that’s water far past the bridge by now and out of the imaginable outcomes, this is surely the most promising for its future and deserves to be looked at as a fresh start.

When I left over three years ago, we were wrestling with how to take something that was state of the art for 2004— if that— and adapt it to a world in which blogs had displaced message boards as the hot user experience. Now it’s several years later yet, and LTHForum is as far behind the contemporary Twitter-Facebook-Foursquare social media world as the old BBS-style Chowhound seemed behind the times in 2004. So there’s a lot of room to improve the LTHForum experience to adapt to the way the world works now, and in the process open up a site that has gotten a bit hermetic at times and make it social not only inwardly but with the outside world. And I’m as curious as anybody to see what can be made of it for 2011.

So I wish them luck, and urge them not to be afraid to shake it up— it’s been very much the same for much longer than it should have been, which is less a criticism than a recognition that just as there was on BBS-style Chowhound, there’s a lot of creativity there waiting to be given new forms in which to explode.


Possibly the first picture of a plate of food I ever took, from the long-gone Julia’s Lithuanian on the Westernathon, March 8, 2003. I’m not even sure why I took pictures, since you couldn’t post them on Chowhound— and still can’t.


This is an extremely deep metaphor for what happens here.

It’s the 3rd anniversary of my first video, and that makes it time for my annual State of the Bacon address, on how things have worked out and what might lie ahead. Needless to say, I feel pretty good about a year that brought a Beard award, and getting national press as one of Saveur’s Sites We Love, and just this week, this in the Reader’s Best of Chicago:

In some ways that’s the coolest of all, though it doesn’t frame as nicely as a Beard award. But there were no nominees in these categories; this is, as we say in the ad biz, unaided recall, top of mind awareness, people who, asked to name a top food blog, said Sky Full of Bacon with no prodding. To come in third behind a well-publicized arm of a national publication and a site with hundreds of users of its own, as one of the sites people think of first in this category, is a pretty great testament to the fact that my work here has gotten through and made a splash on the local food scene. That people actually watch and read this stuff.

When I started writing for publications about food, one of the things I knew I would need to do, as a dad with kids and thus much less free time than the many young people checking out new restaurants and bars every night, was find ways to stand out beyond simply doing every assignment I could land. I knew I needed a project that would help me be seen as having a particular point of view and the capabilities to bring it to readers and viewers. I chose doing videos about food because I felt it was something I could do that few others were doing and that would get attention— and I thought I could do it well.  Two of my particular ambitions for it when I started were getting an ongoing gig of some kind (or more than one) using video, and winning a James Beard Foundation award for it, which in turn would hopefully serve to open other doors when I could call myself a Beard Award winner.

So this is a big year in that both of those ambitions were realized. The phone finally rang with an editor at the other end, wanting to talk about the prospect of a series of chef challenges— Key Ingredient for the Chicago Reader. And literally our very first work— the first three videos/print pieces in the series, from last November and December— won a Beard. Add to that other notable work (such as the Eater videos about Next and Aviary, which have now had over 10,000 views) and milestones (such as getting published by probably the magazine that I most dreamed of writing for when I started all this) and I believe that I have sort of completed the first stage of this process, graduated from one level of food writerdom.

Now I just have to take those accomplishments and figure out how I use them to go to the next level. Whatever that is.


The next level.

Alas, there is a melancholy part to this anniversary, which is that the other Reader-cited “blog” (not exactly) that I helped start, LTHForum, is at an unfortunate crossroads in its own existence. In a few days it will be sold as an asset in the bankruptcy of just one of several founders— possibly to a group of LTH insiders (who also have some responsibility for LTH being in this mess, but nevertheless, are presumably its best hope for continuing). Or possibly to… who knows?  Will it exist a week or two from now?  No one can say for sure.

I haven’t told the story of how that happened, and don’t intend to start now (though I’ll answer questions), but if this next week brings down the curtain on LTHForum as that community’s outlet, I will still be proud of the impact our community had going back to Chowhound days in awakening Chicagoans to the real diversity of ethnic cuisine all over the region. As I am also proud that in the end, when I felt I needed to walk away, I didn’t just sit there and nurse a grudge but took what I had learned there and raised it to the next level with my own new creative pursuits.  (And with a URL people could actually remember.)

Thank you, if you read this far, for going along on that journey with me for these past three years, and for reading and watching. The best is yet to come, I promise.


A poster mentioned on LTHForum the other day the clever logos that “someone” used to do a few years back, repurposing various forms of food-related vintage art. Needless to say, that someone was me, at least for the first few years; here’s one that I never got around to running before I left, and thus has never appeared at LTHForum.

No new Key Ingredient this week as it’s the Reader’s Best of Chicago issue, but I have a few items in the best of— read them here, here and here. And— I had no idea until I saw it— I was nominated (but didn’t win) here. Actually, if you look at it, I started fully half the nominees, and have done work for the winner— hey, Audarshia, if you’re taking a vacation any time, I got ya covered…

Food trucks may be all the rage, but I’d like to put in a word for someone putting down food roots: Art Jackson, his wife Chelsea, her brother Morgan Kalberloh, his brother (Michael, I think), and the various other folks involved in the operation whose front face is Pleasant House Bakery. (They’re the subject of one of the best-of items mentioned above.) There’s a lot more to their whole operation than this modest cafe, but it’s the entry point, and one of my favorite new places to eat lunch, though it took me till yesterday to actually get there with a camera that had a battery in it (oops).

I first heard of Art when he commented on my very first video (here). We emailed back and forth about a subject that I had in mind for a video, urban foraging, and he wound up appearing in my 7th video, Eat This City, opposite forager extraordinaire Nance Klehm:

It was obvious that foraging wasn’t a stunt for Art, a way of punking the city, as it can be, but reflected a deep-felt belief that he should be growing and eating the fruits of his own neighborhood, even if that neighborhood was a gritty urban one like Pilsen. Fast-forward a couple of years, and that’s exactly what Art is doing:

This is Pleasant House the cafe, at 934 W. 31st St. The menu at the moment is short. There are three or four pot pies like the one above, maybe one pasty, some sides like mashed potatoes or, at the moment, English peas with mint, and some housemade sodas (the ginger is pretty great). There are also some English style meat products for sale most days, like bangers or back bacon, made by Darren who writes one of my favorite charcuterie blogs, Low on the Hog. (Bizarrely, he’s been in one of my videos too, albeit briefly— he was working at Leopold when it opened.) Bangers aren’t my favorite as a style, but I really liked the back bacon, if you see that, grab it.

There’s more to Pleasant House than this cafe— indeed, Pleasant House seems to be less a storefront than a state of mind. The name comes from Art’s grandfather’s farm in Yorkshire, but besides serving as the name of Art and Chel’s blog, it’s also come to stand for his parents’ farm west of Chicago, and the rapidly growing networks of vegetable plots on which they grow some of the vegetables they use (which was two when I wrote the Reader piece, but was already up to four by the time I had lunch there yesterday). It’s also their homemade soaps and beauty products, and will grow to include desserts one of these days, and… who knows what’s all in Art’s head, but he clearly has a vision, which he’s pursuing full time, of a sustainable life in which you grow what you use and you use the heck out of what you grow and try to be as self-sustaining with good and beautiful things as possible.

But how’s the food you ask? I’ve tried three of the savory pies. A steak and ale one is fine, but it’s what you expect, nice braised beef and vegetables. I say zip past that conservative choice and try the “chicken balti,” so bright with curry (and the coriander chutney that comes on the side) that just breaking it open released wafts of enticing aroma. But my favorite, indeed probably my favorite vegetarian thing in the city at the moment, is the kale and mushroom, as robust and comfy as a meat pie, but with all the self-congratulatory virtues of leafy green vegetables. A dish like this, and the vision and support system behind it, is what lifts Pleasant House’s savory pies way above the trend du jour (meat loaf, cupcakes) and makes it one of the great things in the city that is changing the way we eat. Eat this city at Pleasant House.

Pleasant House Bakery
934 West 31st Street
(773) 523-7437

http://pleasanthousebakery.com/

Two return visits:

I liked some of the things I had at Chizakaya, but was pretty sure one dinner there would do me. For one thing, it was a “small plates” place where the plates were so small that I had to eat most of the menu to be full, so there were few surprises left for a return visit. For another, I basically came out of that meal feeling that it wasn’t a serious way to eat— that I had noshed all evening on silly stuff (the scraps of chicken skin for $3 silliest of all) and had never eaten what a grownup would recognize as food.

But Mike, you say, you ate things on sticks at that yakitori place in New York and you loved it. What’s the difference? Good question, and I’m not sure why I can rave about one and feel so dubious about the other. I guess part of it is context— Yakitori Totto feels like a real Japanese bar, and we ate things real Japanese barflies ate, while Chizakaya feels like another Lakeview concept, and at some point I just wanted them to quit goofing on Japanese junk food and make a real plate of something. One dish that really felt like Japan in a bowl would have done the trick, maybe, but instead it was just greasy stuff on sticks all night. Tasty, some of it, but I didn’t respect it, or me, in the morning.

Then Michael Nagrant invited me to go try lunch there, lunch being focused on ramen and other soups or so the email from Tasting Table suggested (actually, it appears that they’ll pretty much make you anything on their menu at lunch, and the soups are just as available at dinner). We ordered two. One is based on oden, which is a broth with lots of things like fish balls to pick up and eat; this was sort of oden turned into a soba noodle soup, more noodles and broth, fewer things to pick up:

Mostly, this tasted like your typical udon soup, but there was a woodsy-buckwheaty note to it that was a little deeper and more evocative than the sweet, soy-broth flavor you usually get. For a few bucks more than, say, the udon at Mio Bento, it’s an upgrade, if not a radically better one.

The ramen was another story. Unlike some of my friends, I haven’t been to any of the hyperauthentic ramen places in L.A. or anywhere that have been scouted out by ramen bloggers, so if I say that this is the best ramen I’ve ever had, that’s not an opinion with a depth of experience behind it. But it was the best ramen I’ve ever had, the first ramen with the porky funk and the largeness of soul to make me understand why people wax so poetic about a noodle soup— why this is a dish capable of profundity. The organ-meaty funkiness of the broth and the velvety smoothness of the noodles, not to mention the sweet-salty porkiness of the slab of pork belly or two hidden in it, all made this a richer experience than I’d ever expected ramen to be. So Chizakaya, written off as lightly likable some months back, turns out to have more to it after all.

* * *

Nagrant had just been to the recently refurbished NoMi in the Park Hyatt, now under Chef Ryan LaRoche (who had been in the kitchen for a couple of years under longtime chef Christophe David), and I was going that night (with my wife, as guests of the restaurant <–disclosure), so I was eager to hear about his experience. He was impressed with LaRoche’s menu, which within the constraints of hotel dining (after the fancy exotic stuff, there’s a page devoted to plain cooking, for those who just want a steak or lobster) he felt was daring and inventive. He was less impressed with a service experience that left him worried that a top-drawer restaurant had gone too casual for its place in the world. (See the next issue of Chicago Social for more details, I guess.)

My only experience with NoMi was this special dinner, which gave a nice picture of the expertise in the kitchen but clearly not of everyday dining there. But at least it meant I had context for how the renovation, if not radically changing the space, had taken it from a borderline-sepulchral high end art museum feel to a jazzier 60s fantasy-airport lounge look. The kitchen was now open to the room, with a busy raw bar at one end and the de rigueur hood ornament of the modern kitchen, the red Berkel slicer, right out in the room:

LaRoche’s past experience includes Tru and L’Atelier Robuchon, but from his menu, he seems pretty eclectically devoted to most of the major virtues you want to see on a menu right now. There was housemade prosciutto as well as an unabashed shoutout to Benton’s Country Ham on the menu, while asparagus, rhubarb and especially peas all played prominent roles on the menu at this moment. The first thing we had, the unassumingly named “avocado toast,” was the kind of combination that could provoke a loud WTF?, prosciutto and creamy uni, sea urchin:

The first bite I had, unfortunately, tasted only of the spicy mustard on the toast, but the next bite delivered all the promise of the dish— saltiness coming not from the sea creature but from the ham, a lushly gooey mouthfeel with just the cleanest hint of the sea coming from the uni… score one for the bizarre-sounding combination, with bonus points for the fact that my wife, who I’m sure has never gulped down a slimy-looking uni shooter like I have, ate one of sushi’s best-known dare foods without even knowing it was anything to be grossed out by.

A salad with more of the prosciutto and chili-tinged shrimp seemed less inspired, but some pea ravioli with feta and little bits of pickled rhubarb was exactly the ultra-light spring dish you should have at this moment. Then there was our entree— the $75 chicken, which has drawn comment from several who have looked at the new menu. We ran into sommelier Aaron Sherman (whom I first met some years ago at Avenues) on the way out, and he said one of the things they had done with the wine list was thin out the most extravagant and absurdly expensive things on it— but still, if you have a need to drop $2200 on a bottle of Romanee-Conti, a reason why your business would be best served by spending that money, it’s on there.

Likewise, the menu has three increasingly extravagant shared dishes— a whole chicken, a whole lobe of foie gras, and a whole steer— no, not quite, but some crazily huge hunk of beef, on an ascending scale from $75 to, I think, $190.  Nagrant had goaded me to at least find out what could make the chicken worth $75— especially since it comes from T.J.’s at the Green City Market, from whom I’ve bought many things including a few Thanksgiving turkeys. I’m sure their chicken is as good a candidate as any to be glorified into a $75 chicken, but what happens between the market and my plate that makes it into such a remarkable beast?

Yet $75 for two was really not more than any other pair of entrees, so we didn’t feel that we were sticking the hotel too rapaciously by ordering it and finding the answer to the mystery of this chicken. Well, in short, if they have trouble getting people to pay that for it, maybe they can have it underwritten by the American Sous-Vide Equipment Manufacturer’s Association, because it was a marvelous advertisement for the ability of sous vide cooking to turn out meat that is uniquely velvety, sensuously soft and delicate. There was a truffle sauce poured over the top, surely helping sell the price, and it sat on a vegetable “marmalade” (which I take to mean, cooked long enough to develop their sweetness; it certainly wasn’t jam-like), but really, all that chicken needed was its own meltingly soft and silky self to wow you and leave you making little gurgle noises of enchantment. It was certainly the best fine-dining chicken I can recall having… since the last time I dropped a wad to get a chicken just to see what made that chicken worth so much more than other chickens, a poulet Bresse at Alain Ducasse in Paris.

The new pastry chef is Meg Galus, who came over from Cafe des Architectes.  I have to say I respected the desserts more than I loved them.  Actually,  I liked mine, a rhubarb soup with ginger marshmallows and lemon gel in it, a lot; light, imaginative… it’s just it’s the sort of thing that should be a small shooter on a tasting menu.  Working my way through an entire bowl of red punch and marshmallows, the novelty ran out before it was done.  While the chocolate mousse was well executed, but I was waiting for some spin on it and the bland ice cream (vanilla? not sure) wasn’t it.

And as for the service?  For us, it hit just the right note, friendly and easygoing but conscientious throughout (I felt like I had hurt the bread guy’s feelings when I turned down his offer at one point, as he appeared the instant I stopped chewing the previous roll).  NoMi, perhaps a bit intimidating in the past, is aiming to be more accessible, and at least for us on our night, it hit the balance pretty well.

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Paula Haney of Hoosier Mama is up this week with millet, aka, the main ingredient in bird seed and the little yellow things in 12-grain bread:

Old Sky Full of Bacon viewers will know that this is not Paula’s first appearance in a Sky Full of Bacon-produced video:

No video next week, as it’s the Reader’s Best of Chicago issue, which I will have a couple of things in, so watch for that!

I’ve had a few social occasions with restaurant PR folks lately, and some of the conversation inevitably went in the direction of, what is this media world coming to and how can we all make it work so that it’s mutually beneficial and informative for journalists, restaurants, PR people and diners, rather than frustrating or intrusive or cheesy. (If you wonder why they ask me these questions, I suppose this series is one answer.) Some will, no doubt, ask why it’s the journalist’s job to help the PR industry at all, rather than to maintain an adversarial or at least wary, arm’s length relationship, but when it works well, it opens doors to new possibilities for writers. And when it doesn’t it doesn’t, so I’m all for better PR that works better for everybody, and this is my perspective on that. The following is a made-up conversation, but its pieces pretty much come from reality:

So how do you think restaurant PR can adapt to the era of blogging?

Are we an era? That’s a tough one because in a cost-benefit analysis way, I’m not convinced that any local restaurant blogger has an audience that’s particularly big enough to be worth going after— if that’s how you want to measure things. On the other hand, the PR business routinely spends money on an audience I’d have just as hard a time justifying the ROI on, which is the usual list of attendees for the Thursday night cocktails and nibbles event at such and such restaurant, which doesn’t really get the big names (with a few exceptions) because their organizations have policies against that sort of thing. So spending money on bloggers is not worse than that, but I’m not sure I think it’s any better on a pure audience size/conversion to reservations basis.

But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it anyway— a mass media way which is about getting the biggest raw number possible. That’s not what it’s about now.

So what’s it about now, and how do you justify spending money on it?

What has the PR industry always told its clients that it was getting for them? Buzz. This nebulous thing, which can seem like BS except, when somebody really has it, you see how amazingly it works. In Chicago it means places are packed on day 1 and can stay that way for years. But you’ve never been able to quantify it before, right?

Well, now buzz has corporeal form. You can go on Twitter and some of these food-news blogs and see it in action in real-time. So no one may have a massive raw audience, but some people are simply part of the conversation, they’re closer to the center of all this activity and what they get jazzed up about gets others jazzed up. And if you can target them and get them excited, then it will trickle up. I mean, Chicago didn’t become Weird Pork Parts City because Phil Vettel declared it one day. It became that because chefs got into it, and then there was all this talk going around that random animal parts were cool. That’s what’s so interesting about Twitter, though it’s certainly not the only place this happens, but it’s this incredibly democratic space where buzz moves around between people, not irrespective of status, but pretty damn freely. It should be exciting that there are so many ways to get into that conversation now.

Now you’re saying you’re at the center of the media universe?

Ha!  No, thankfully.  Actually I had a very interesting encounter at a PR event a while back; I met this woman who was a producer for one of the TV stations.  And she told me the big new local talk show she was working on and I told her about Key Ingredient and getting a Beard nomination… and it was obvious that neither one of us had ever heard of the fabulous and very important thing the other one was doing.  So no, I don’t think the media universe is waiting each day to see where Sky Full of Bacon says to eat now.  The media universe has no center now, it’s decentralized and has all these different spots where stuff is burbling and fermenting— where we’re all legends in our own minds.

So all you have to do is just keep an eye on what each of these dozen or two dozen amorphous groups are buzzing about.  Easy!

Oh, yeah, piece of cake. As a blogger, do you like being contacted with our usual pitches, or is it just annoying?

That’s a hard one to answer.  I like your pitch if I like your pitch, I make fun of it to my friends if I don’t.  (Sorry!)  I mean, I understand the issue of resources here— there’s a million of us termite bloggers and you can’t know what’s right up the alley of every single one.  At the same time, some of the things people send out— I mean, I got SO MUCH stuff about National Hamburger Month.  And I couldn’t help but think, did you look at my blog?  Do I look like I’m ever going to get excited that some chain restaurant on the Mag Mile invented a bacon egg and guacamole burger for Cinco de Mayo?  I’m going to drop doing a video about biodynamic charcuterie in the inner city and jump right on that, yeah.

So somehow, and I don’t envy you, you have to reconcile the fact that you have to talk to a wide audience and yet, let’s face it, sometimes your client just isn’t doing anything that amazing that bloggers or anybody else is going to get excited by. But still, you can’t write the new media world off because one, the other things don’t necessarily exist any more, and two, you just never know how it will pay off. I mean, three years ago I did a video about generational change at Sun Wah.  And this week, the New York Times does a piece about generational change in Chinese restaurants, and out of all the restaurants they could have picked in the whole country, they pick… Sun Wah.  Even if they never saw my piece, you know they saw the piece by somebody who saw my piece.  That’s how the world works.

What do you wish chefs and restaurants would do better when it comes to dealing with people like you?

You know, the one that amazes me is how little use restaurants and chef sometimes make of what I do. I know they’re all bugging you for publicity but then, when I show up and shoot something about them that makes them look more interesting and thoughtful than the two second soundbite they got on national TV, they don’t even think to tweet it or anything. Honest to God, I think some of them don’t really think it’s actual media because I don’t have twelve stylists and key grips trailing behind me. Well, you don’t need all that stuff any more! I’m the food truck of publicity, I show up, shoot for an hour, and get gone, but seriously, when the Food Network wants to find out about you, what do you think they’re going to look at? The two second soundbite or the clip where I let you talk, intelligently and extemporaneously, for five minutes? They don’t care how big a crew shot it.

So take advantage of it, for cryin’ out loud. And apply that lesson generally. Any time you get so much a mention somewhere, put the word out on it yourself. It helps build your brand, it lets other journalists know you’re a good source, it scratches the journalist’s belly a little to be noticed and thanked, it could lead to the New York Times.  Don’t ask for more PR until you’re milking the PR you already get for all it’s worth.

What do you think about what Ellen Malloy’s doing with putting a lot of PR content online for journalists to just pick stuff up from? Is that going to replace traditional PR?

I don’t think things replace other things all that much. It’s more likely that the new thing will grow the market in some new direction while the old one has to evolve to fit a changed environment. But she is doing one of the main things the internet always does, which we called “disintermediation” back in the dot-com days— giving the end user the ability to do it himself instead of having to go through somebody to get it done. In this case, she’s putting a lot of stuff online so journalists can go find story ideas poking around her site for two minutes and throw questions out to a bunch of people instead of spending the whole afternoon making phone calls. I think that’s obviously helpful in a lot of situations.  That said, I can’t say I’ve used it much myself, because I don’t do that kind of story— ohmigod Mother’s Day is coming up I need to find out who is doing what for Mother’s Day, fast.  That’s a mainstream media need more than it’s mine, but sure, it’s a smart solution that some people will use a lot, and will replace a few 22-year-olds fielding phone calls.

It’s also not the only solution that’s out there waiting to be discovered and built out, either.  There’s plenty of room to make this process better.

I suppose it hardly matters, the future belongs to Groupon anyway.

Well, I wouldn’t bet on any billion-dollar-value dotcom even existing in a few years, and Groupon’s lack of repeat business is somewhat worrying (though I don’t think a low return customer rate in itself is tantamount to being a Ponzi scheme).  But I have a somewhat different take on Groupon anyway, which is that fundamentally it’s less of a sales promotion service than a media company.  Traditional media were, of course, built on the idea that they were the only way to reach a big group of whoever— middle class department and grocery store customers if you were the Trib, counterculture young people who went to concerts if you were the Reader, etc.  Then suddenly there was ten times as much content and no clear sense of what anybody was really reading— I could buy ads in a million places aimed at restaurant goers, but what proof did I have that anyone would see them there, that I was reaching the best group in the best place?  An explosion of choice paralyzed the market and turned ad rates into a commodity.

So Groupon reinvented the business and nailed down all the loose pieces of the traditional media model.  Not sure if anybody actually reads this stuff?  We know exactly how many get our deals and how many buy, and no ad agency is going to have to give you a BS presentation about your front of mind awareness going up 7%, when your cash register is stuffed full of the things.  Don’t want to pay money up front? You don’t have to pay a cent up front, you’ll just pay out the nose on the back end, Groupon turned the 15% commission on media buys into the 75% on actual results one.  The clue is how much emphasis Groupon puts on writing fun copy— they’re entertaining their audience just like any other media company, not merely selling like the deal of the week offers that preceded them.  Now, I question its long-term sustainability for various reasons, but it’s definitely one of the models to look at to see where the world is going— if the mass media audience is fragmented, build your own and sell it.

This week’s Key Ingredient is apparently not poisonous in the quantities we ingested. So far.

Meanwhile, check out some improvements made to the blog here. The sidebar at right now has several new features including recent comments and tweets. But the coolest of all is the new Videos screening room, which gives you immediate access to all past Sky Full of Bacon podcasts, which will launch and play instantly in full glorious big-screen high definition. Check it out here.

All these changes were done cheerfully and very quickly by Artur Bobinski at Kenton Wen Design, and I happily recommend his services for building or tuning up WordPress blogs or other such projects. We did it entirely via email and I enjoyed excellent service and prompt turnaround for a very reasonable fee.

The so-called aquarium smoker— I say so-called because the main manufacturer, Avenue Metal, doesn’t actually call them that, and the term was probably invented by Chowhounders/future LTHers in this thread— has seemed a bit of an endangered species to barbecue-minded foodies, facing the double threat of local restrictions on open flame and smoke smell, and the fact that gas-fired cookers with smoke boxes are easier (and, in the best hands, can produce excellent barbecue, as at Smoque).

So there was some excitement when the proprietor of a new spot, Smoke Signals, sent out press releases announcing the best BBQ in the universe or something, and featured a glass pit prominently in the middle of his shop. (I believe it is an Avenue Metal-made pit; I learned you could spot theirs by the design quirk of the hexagonally-rounded corners.) So far reports don’t seem to suggest that his ‘cue lives up to his claims, but you know, give him six months or a year, who knows? I’m glad to see someone trying, anyway.

The real news is, his isn’t the only place with a new glass pit in town.

I’m kind of surprised no one’s spotted Mary Lee’s Smokehouse, because it’s in a fairly high-profile location— on Cermak just east of Chinatown, opposite Cafe Luciano’s. And the signage isn’t shy. I’ve hit it twice now, and if it’s not a great barbecue place yet, it clearly is modeling itself on the places that do it best, and doing an entirely creditable job by the classics:

My sons and I ate a combo of rib tips and links at Ping Tom park on a nice day and enjoyed the light but definite smoke flavor and the spicy hot link just fine. There are a couple of other wrinkles to Mary Lee’s that are worth checking out, though I haven’t managed to have them yet due to being there at the wrong times. One is that they cook steak in the smoker— has anyone done that before? They sell a ribeye steak, which you can have either off the regular grill, or the smoker. Needless to say, I think you’d be a fool to do anything but have it off the smoker; alas, the second time I went, they were sold out from the night before, so I have yet to try that, or the chicken which the menu seems proud of.

I also knew I’d be eating rewarmed barbecue that day, my fault for hitting a bbq joint at noon sharp, but having failed in my quest for steak, I figured rewarmed tips and links was still better than most other things close by. (I wasn’t thinking about Chinatown.) And I discovered something else about tips and links that have been cooked in the same smoker as steaks… they taste like steak! A definite beef-juices-hitting-hot-coals flavor coated the porky pork. Feel free to think that that’s either kind of cool or gross, I can’t decide myself. But I finished them. Sauce was very good in the typical sweet-spicy Chicago style; note that if you follow the standard LTHForum advice to order sauce on the side (which I mostly agree with), they’ll charge you something like $1.50 for a sauce container. I let it slide the second time and just let them dunk everything in the sauce.

So check out Mary Lee’s, timing your visit as to how much you want your pork to taste like beef, I guess. I’ll be back for pig-tasting steak one of these days.

Mary Lee’s Smokehouse
2 E Cermak
Chicago, IL 60616
(312) 225-4544

Your barbecue zen moment:

* * *

Not to bury the lede, but I’ve been visiting a lot of barbecue places lately… because I’m finally working on a new Sky Full of Bacon video podcast. I don’t want to hear any guff about how long it’s been since the last official one, I’ve made well over two hours’ worth of Key Ingredients in that time, but I promised a segment about barbecue long ago, going back to last summer when I shot interviews with a few well-known pitmasters for a Time Out Chicago print piece, which also yielded this short video. So I’ve been conducting other interviews and I think I will have some new insights into the history of Chicago’s own barbecue style by the time it’s done (whenever that will be).

Anyway, doing so I found myself deep on the south side, down where street names have three digits, and so I took the opportunity to finally try a couple of barbecue places that have been written about on LTHForum and elsewhere, but which I had never been to with favorites like Uncle John’s half as far away.

Exsenator’s in south suburban Markham looks more like small town America than south side Chicago. You expect a cozy cafe serving early bird specials to retirees from the outside, and it’s a bit jarring to find the usual intimidating bulletproof glass ordering system inside. But apart from the building, this is authentic Chicago barbecue with deep wood flavor. There’s just one thing I didn’t like about Exsenator’s, and it’s a big one if you forget the usual sauce-on-the-side advice. The sauce is the other thing that resembles a place where old folks would eat; it’s cloyingly sweet and completely devoid of any spice or complexity. It was like dunking your barbecue in applesauce. In this case, I’d tell them not just sauce on the side, but skip sauce entirely; the BBQ will be fine on its own.

Exsenator’s Ribs and Chicken
3349 W 159th St
Markham, IL 60428
(708) 333-1211

George’s Rib House’s notoriety among local barbecue fans is that George won’t cook with wood— he uses pure charcoal, because wood has worms, he says. So George’s BBQ doesn’t have a wood taste, it tastes like a backyard barbecue. But with these big meaty tips, cooked with care by a multi-person staff even on a quiet Saturday afternoon, you’re unlikely to be dissatisfied. Sometimes you feel like you’re eating around bone more than actually eating meat with rib tips, but not here. Good spicy sauce; fries were mushy, but maybe I just caught an off batch.

George’s Rib House
168 W 147th St
Harvey, IL 60426
(708) 331-9347

There will be more to come, I don’t want to give away the show yet, but you won’t go wrong this weekend hitting any of these three places as a new stop on the Chicago south side BBQ circuit.

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I really like that last week’s chef, Marianne Sundquist, picked a chef who’s not a name— she’s a farmer in the summer and a line cook at Vie in the winter, Abra Berens. As a result, she has her own viewpoint on ingredients, not to mention uses ones she grew herself, in this week’s video. Read the piece (which covers a lot of what she talked about that I didn’t) here.

P.S. By the way, I made her asparagus-radish-pea shoot salad the other day— I even used Klug asparagus like she did, since I had just been to the Green City Market. It was really good, and everyone was interested to see that yes, you can eat raw asparagus:

P.P.S. And watch an outtake here.