Sky Full of Bacon


WELCOME, EATOCRACY READERS! First thing you want to do is check out my latest video, Big Chef Small Farmer, just watch it above (if you’re at the main page) or click here. Then check out recent posts below.  If you’re a regular reader wondering what Eatocracy is, it’s this and I’m here.

Well, the Usinger elves are coming with their big plate of sausages, and so it must be Sky Full of Bacon’s second anniversary, that is, the second anniversary of the first video (a few posts predate that).  Actually tomorrow, but I’m sure you have better things to do on a Saturday, so we’ll celebrate today.

I’m less inclined to ramble extensively than last year but that’s because I’m busier in ways that were part of the point of doing all this.  I’m coming off a bunch of food freelance work, some in last week’s Reader, some in next week’s Time Out, preparing the next video, and continuing to try to keep up with the city’s heedless-of-recession expanding restaurant scene.

There are a few milestones to note.  Total views of my videos are approaching 40,000— and it’s remarkable that even the ones that are close to two years old continue to draw viewers steadily, only a couple each day admittedly, but still, it’s great to see that the foraging one has passed 7000 views, the Texas barbecue one is over 4000, and others have passed 3000 and 2000 months or even years after they were first made.  (The one for which I risked my life on a whitefish fishing boat, alas, is taking a long time to reach 1000, though.)

Another milestone is that the new version of the site, a long cherished project, is up, if still in the process of refinement.  But its main goals— highlighting the videos, adding a proper blogroll, keeping me from having to manually turn all the type from dark gray to black, etc.— are already accomplished, big thanks to my friend and collaborator Wyatt Mitchell.

And one of Sky Full of Bacon’s goals, to help establish my name as a food guy around town, has certainly worked.  That doesn’t mean everything I pitch gets bought (or even acknowledged) but it certainly helps, and it also means that editors come to me with things they need done that they know to be up my alley, which is the freelancer’s dream, surely.  I thank all those who have taken me seriously since I went from defiant, sometimes obnoxious citizen media at LTHForum to trying to be a pro, and have included me in many different kinds of projects and events.

Above all, I thank you, viewer-reader-commenter dear.  I’d do this if no one read it— the hypothetical there may be self-delusion at times— because to no small extent, this is where I keep my notes, but I wouldn’t do the videos if no one watched them.  I might do them for a lot fewer people than actually do watch them, though, so to know that something like the population of Naperville has watched them, that I could have filled the Chicago Theater 10 times over with all the viewers of my videos, is pretty cool.  Thank you for your visits, your support, your comments and retweets and Facebook and Vimeo Likes, and please, help yourself to the sausages.  The elves worked on them all morning.

Meanwhile, since it’s almost the end of the quarter, here are the best things I’ve eaten in the past few months, following up on the list at the end of this post:

• Burnt ends at L.C.’s in Kansas City (post to come)
• Bionic Burger, fries and cherry limeade, Wichita (post to come)
• Strawberry rhubarb pie made by me with Green City strawberries and rhubarb
• Hoosier Mama asparagus/lemon/ricotta handpie
• Rib tips at Mary’s BBQ, 606 S. Pulaski
• Collard greens at Fat Willy’s, which was way better than I remembered from, uh, 5 or 6 years ago
• Wild boar naan’wich, Gaztro-Wagon
• Thai-lime-cilantro ice cream at Jeni’s in Columbus
• Oil-poached halibut at Everest
• Pea soup at LM Restaurant
• Sturgeon and spongecake dessert at Blackbird (that’s two separate dishes, by the way)
• Cranberry-orange teacake at Bleeding Heart Bakery, first thing I’ve really loved there
• Scallops served on braised oxtail at Longman & Eagle
• Gin, Great Lakes Distillery, and Maria’s Pizza, Milwaukee
• Jared Wentworth/Longman & Eagle’s waffle with dehydrated bacon and ice cream, Baconfest

I will be more ubiquitous than Michael Nagrant in local food media over the next week or so.  For starters, on Wednesday at noon I will again be was a participant in one of those Vocalo Lunchbox discussions; the link for the transcript is here.

The next day, I’ll have some items in the Reader’s annual Best of Chicago issue, including Best Macarons.  I’ll link them here when they exist. UPDATE: here are my choices for macarons, cheese and Supermercado Taqueria, and there are plenty more from the likes of Hammond, Sula, Kate Schmidt, Philip Montoro, etc.  But be sure to look for the print issue, where my supermercado and my picture of it get the splash treatment right at the beginning:

You’ve seen that one here.

Speaking of macarons, Sula wrote about these macaroons (the coconut kind) and they’re awesome.

More to come next week…

Actually not my second voyage to Columbus, Ohio by any means— I go every year, almost, for a silent and classic film festival— but the second one I’ve posted about here with the finds I found in between obscure 1931 Paramount films.  (My posts go back even further here, here and here at LTHForum.)  Columbus is actually a pretty good food town, a university town with a number of ethnic cuisines (along with lots of fast food and bland American bars and restaurants to satisfy unadventuresome undergrads), and every year I poke around and find new, interesting things.  If you have any reason to go there… go there!  It’s a fun place.

Japanese is oddly big in Columbus.  I don’t know if there’s really a Japanese population there or if they’re just especially fond of the 1970s Benihana-type steak places.  But I heard there was a good izakaya (bar food, basically) place on the far northwest side and so I hunted it up.  It’s called Kihachi and, indeed, it’s a really pleasing place that feels like an authentic family restaurant, not tourist bait, and made me some very nice simple dishes.  I basically ordered off the specials list, with a little guidance from my waitress, and I was very happy about a plate of tender grilled pork cheek meat; an eclectic combination of things like mountain yam and baby octopus in soy sauce; “box sushi” (sushi pressed very very square in a box; it reminded me of the Thingmaker I had as a kid) made with mackerel; and a very interesting special in which a shrimp paste was pressed in between pieces of lotus root and deep fried.  It was sort of like a cross between Chinese restaurant shrimp toast and eating a bar of soap, but past the first, Avon-y bite, it was quite good.

When I last posted about Nancy’s Home Cooking it was a few days from closing.  About six months ago a woman with a catering business reopened it and if it’s not quite the place it used to be, either in terms of dead-on country diner food or the crowds that once thronged there, well, it’s still a perfectly fine place to have breakfast in a town surprisingly short on such.  I also visited Buckeye Donuts one morning, the place that every college town has where you can get your late night post-drinking carbs (at least until you realize you’ve put on a double helping of the Freshman 15), and the doughnuts are pretty good old school examples of the art.  As for the greasy spoon breakfast— well, the clientele is probably in exactly the right state to appreciate it, most of the time.

One of the things I’ve been meaning to check out for a long time is Columbus’ North Market. Though the new building it’s in doesn’t have the charm of Cleveland’s West Side market, the food choices are exceptional, a handpicked selection of meat shops, bakeries, ice cream makers, Vietnamese banh mi stands and all kinds of stuff that really represent the best of Columbus.  My only chance to go there was after a lunch, so I only managed to try the locally-acclaimed Jeni’s Ice Cream, but I was pretty much wowed by it.  There are lots of gelato and sorbet makers out there doing interesting things with exotic, tart and pungent flavors, but it’s much rarer to find someone doing flavors like Thai Lime-Cilantro in an ice cream.  Yet Jeni’s does great things with these flavors that take full advantage of the mouthfilling creaminess of dairy as well; I loved the Thai and very much liked a lavender berry one and a salty caramel as well.

As much as I try to take advantage of the festival’s meal breaks to try new places, though, I also use them to, you know, see other human beings, old friends who I pretty much only know from, and see at, this festival.  And sometimes that means I go where they want to go.  Frankly, it’s a pleasure sometimes to go off the foodie clock and just enjoy whatever they choose… which is how I wound up at the Columbus branch of Buca di Beppo, the dreaded, Ed Debevic’s-style cartoon concept version of Italian-American cooking.  Actually, you know what?  I thought the food was pretty decent, definitely better than the travesty of blandness that is Olive Garden.  Yeah, the red sauce is too sweet, but that’s true of a lot of Italian grandma’s red sauces too.

But the concept… mamma mia, what a shonda for the goyim!  Every square inch is covered with tacky photos, Sophia Loren next to Vic Tayback next to Pope John XXIII; the WASPy Ohio-born servers affect a high school theater My Cousin Vinny-esque chumminess as they try to upsell you (as you might expect, the menu starts out fairly traditional but the newer specials emanating from Laboratory Beppo are increasingly heading into Spicy Cajun Chicken Chipotle Pasta On a Stick territory); and the meal starts with a Goodfellas-tracking-shot-like trek through the warren of small dining rooms and into the kitchen where one family sits at the chef’s table, mortified to learn that their special honor means being displayed like wax figurines for every shlub entering the restaurant, while they sit there wearing the same expression Joe Pesci had in his last scene in the same movie.

I literally physically cringed several times in my first few minutes in the place at the overwhelming shtickiness of the concept… and then I thought, get over yourself, Mr. Foodie Snob, and just enjoy that you’re there with friends.  So I did.  And silently thanked the gods of Rome that none of us had a birthday, because if the clean-scrubbed college kids had come out to sing Happy Birthday to us to the tune of “Funniculi, Funnicula,” I really would have gone all Luca Brasi on their asses.

Kihachi
2667 Federated Boulevard
Columbus, OH 43235-4991
(614) 764-9040

Nancy’s Home Cooking
3133 North High Street
Columbus, OH 43202-1125
(614) 265-9012?

Buckeye Donuts
1998 North High Street
Columbus, OH 43201-1165
(614) 291-3923?
buckeye-donuts.com

North Market
59 Spruce St.
Columbus

Buca di Beppo
60 East Wilson Bridge Road
Worthington, OH 43085

Thanks to Serious Eats for mentioning the new podcast. Watch it above if you’re at the main page, or here!  UPDATE: Thanks to Chicagoist, too!  AND: Grub Street! AND: Gapers Block, who did it weekend before last but I missed it, being on the road.

*  *  *

Not too long ago I stirred the pot at LTHForum by making an impassioned plea to people who were talking about Burger King pork tenderloins, the impending openings of Culver’ses and Chick-Fil-A’s and Sonics, etc. to stop posting about fast food and go try a neighborhood joint that nobody had written about. I won’t rehash it, or recommend you waste 20 minutes there, but Wendy Aeschlimann summed up the argument just fine:

People can post about anything they want. That said, I find it exceedingly odd that the food that is “capturing the imagination” of this board lately is mass-produced, of inferior quality, involves CAFO meat, “prepared” by a teenager trained by corporate, and available on every toll road. I don’t get it. One of the reasons we all live in a big city is precisely so we don’t have to regularly eat that stuff — much less discuss it.

Along the way I noted that far from the woods being picked clean, there were new places to try all over the area— for instance, I had just spotted two unposted-about Italian beef places on Mannheim Road near Bellwood and Melrose Park the other day.

A couple of weeks later I was coming back from a business meeting in a western suburb and rather than face the under-construction Ike, I decided to try one of these places. I actually meant to try Mickey’s in Bellwood, which has the more 50s-hot dog stand look (and is apparently mainly a hot dog rather than a beef joint). But I must have missed it and spotted Jack & Lou’s first, in a nondescript building next to an adult book store (rather typical of that commercial stretch, actually). So I popped in. To the former.

Jack & Lou’s feels like the kind of restaurant you find attached to a bowling alley. It’s not— it seems to be attached to more of a cocktail lounge— but it has that feel, I guess because it’s been shoehorned into a funny, nondescript, deeply beige space off of a larger, emptier room, whose vast nothingness makes the restaurant seem rather forlorn. Making the restaurant seem even more quixotic as a venture, though, was the notice posted prominently by the front— Restaurant Closed Friday and Saturday Night. The mind reeled at what mysterious economic logic could make sense out of this policy— did the cavernously vacant lounge fill up so much on those nights that they could barely keep up the flow of gin and tonics, and didn’t have time to make hot dogs or subs then? (The menu is quite elaborate, taking in everything from pizza to weeknight specials like Baked Lasagna.) Was all their business concentrated at lunchtime because of some nearby factory? (Hard to believe that, based on the traffic while I was there.) Was there some other activity that took over the place on those nights? That wouldn’t be out of character for this part of Chicago, I suppose, but it was hard to believe of the friendly woman (probably not Jack, possibly Lou) manning the counter and calling me “hon.”  So no, probably not something dubious, just some decent folks who got a deal on a location with some curious preconditions, I guess.

What wasn’t so mysterious was the Italian beef combo I ordered, which was quite good. Actually, I should say that the Italian beef was good, and the sausage was very good. The beef was good quality, the broth had a nice flavor to it, it was a creditable if not life-changing beef. But the sausage had some real character, a little organ meat-y tang to it, clearly the product of a good local butcher shop or meat company with genuine Italian-American roots, and it lifted this sandwich above the crowd. If you’re ever in… well, you’ll never be on Mannheim Road looking for lunch, and even if you were Jack & Lou’s is one of those places that seems like it won’t be there the next time you go, or will be a completely different business, or something. Here it is, noted on the internet for one brief moment, to prove that it actually happened, even if I’m not exactly sure why.

Jack & Lou’s
2001 N. Mannheim Rd.
Melrose Park, IL 60614
847-451-0074

P.S. Inspired by this post, Da Beef posted about a visit to Mickey’s Drive-In on LTHforum; check it out.

1. Okay, I have to admit that I was slightly skeptical when Kevin Pang’s first report on the ChiTrib’s Cheap Eats beat was about ramen… at Takashi. I did worry that he might be using Cheap Eats to invade Phil Vettel’s expense-account-exalted turf. But all fears are dispelled by this dish-by-dish account of what to eat in Chinatown and where to find it, the sort of thing which in the pre-iPhone age you would have paid cash money to get laminated and keep in your wallet.
2. From Reason, the actual Pentagon specs for a US government brownie.
3. This represents some kind of perfect convergence of online foodie obsessions: Jonathan Gold writes about a secret menu Thai burger at Jitlada, the LA place first sussed out by Erik M.
4. Fan of geometry? Fan of Subway? This story is for you: Subway To Tesselate Cheese.
5. What happens when smorgasbord meets gastric bypass surgery, from Dinosaurs and Robots.
6. The Old Foodie is a blog devoted to historical (Victorian and Americana, mostly) recipes and foodways. The pseudo-old fashioned writing might be a little tough to take at times, but I enjoyed reading about sweet chicken pie, bitters, the origin of “Pig and Whistle” as a tavern name, and so on. (There was a chain of restaurants in the mid-20th century of that name; my great-uncle Earl worked for them as an accountant, and I have his Pig & Whistle retirement watch. I couldn’t let this go by without mentioning that.)
7. Guess the 100 games which inspired these 100 cupcakes. Your boss won’t mind if you do this instead of work.

Besides the new podcast, you’ll notice that Sky Full of Bacon has a new look!  This time it wasn’t rain at Kinnikinnick Farm but wrestling with WordPress upgrades that held it up, but my friend Wyatt Mitchell has manfully beaten WordPress into submission.  There are still things to adjust over the next few days, secondary pages don’t always work right yet, but I like the general idea of stressing the videos at the top of the main page (soon I’ll get the new video up there, and it will always display the latest), as well as various other features (including, at last, an actual blogroll) that will come in the next few weeks.  Comments and suggestions welcome, hope you enjoy.

Farmers and chefs, can’t live with ‘em, can’t… In this Sky Full of Bacon I look at the question of whether quality, sustainable agriculture can scale up to meet the needs of our modern food system by talking to a bigtime Chicago chef and one of the local, organic farmers he buys from.

Sky Full of Bacon 15: Big Chef Small Farmer from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Mark Mendez is chef of one of Chicago’s largest restaurants, and certainly the biggest restaurant with any kind of commitment to organic and local foods, Carnivale. David Cleverdon of Kinnikinnick Farm near Clarendon, Illinois is one of the many farmers who supplies Carnivale with high quality, organic produce. I talk to the two of them to get a sense of how chefs and farmers are both trying to work their way toward a system that supports better food and forms of farming— and deal with the challenges imposed on them by the realities of the other guy’s business. It’s a literally down-to-earth look at the issues too often discussed mainly at the 10,000-foot level in books and documentaries about the industrial food system.

With the irony that this podcast (delayed for over a month by heavy rains that prevented planting, and thus shooting of planting, at Kinnikinnick Farm) became notorious for to me, I finished it just as Mark Mendez announced that he would be leaving Carnivale in August. It may be tempting to read some signs of dissatisfaction into what he talks about here, and certainly you can sense that he was increasingly interested in running a smaller, more chef-driven restaurant, but for me the real story remains how restaurants like Carnivale and chefs like Mark are helping nudge the food system toward better ways of working, even when many would consider it just too big to even be able to care about such issues.

Here’s Carnivale’s site, and here’s Mark’s own blog; there’s not a lot there but this is a nice post about some of the same issues he talks about in the video. And in terms of previous Mendez-Media, Helen Rosner did this slideshow last year of Mendez showing you what to buy at the Green City Market— including Kinickinnick arugula.

Here’s Kinnikinnick’s site. You can buy their products at the Green City Market and the Evanston Farmer’s Market.

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About Sky Full of Bacon

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?

Please feel free to comment here or to email me here.

Within every first-person food essay is a deeply buried lede, and that lede is, “God I love talking about myself.”

A well-known local food writer retweeted that yesterday (I’d say who it originally came from, but Twitter Is Over Capacity and so I can’t find out who the original author is). We would never wish to disappoint those looking for evidence of solipsism in blogging, so here is my fascinating life in food over the last few days…

That was last week’s Green City Market summed up in a photo. I made, it will come as no surprise, asparagus soup and strawberry-rhubarb pie that night.

One thing they’ve been working on at Green City is having more meat vendors, so it was exciting to see Dietzler Beef and Becker Lane Pork available there. Dietzler Beef is widely used in local restaurants (you’ll hear about it in the next Sky Full of Bacon video) and Jude Becker’s pork, of course, becomes La Quercia Acorn Edition pork, among other things. That said… the Dietzler prices were not insane ($7/lb. for beef… well, it’s really good beef) but Becker was charging $12/lb. for pork belly and into the $20s for some cuts. Sure, if you’re going to roast a little piece of belly, Blackbird style, it would be worth it for meat of this quality, but that’s way out of my range for making bacon, say. (I pay about $5— with shipping— from another Iowa producer, and am very happy with it.) I don’t fault them for this, and I’m happy to see more suppliers, but that’s just the reality of what I, for one, will spend.

Those were purple radishes from Kinnikinnick (which I’m finally spelling right). The next day I went to visit these radishes at their home— yes! I finally shot the last footage for the next video at Kinnikinnick Farm! Actually I took the boys along, and Dave Cleverdon’s granddaughter was visiting, so what started as a 15-minute stop to get some establishing shots and B-roll, turned into an afternoon of farm fun for the boys, including a picnic lunch on the farm. (There’s no such thing as visiting a farmer for 15 minutes and not eating anything, I’ve found.) So anyway, a really pleasant day on the farm, the rain held off until just as we were leaving, and you should see some of that footage very soon, I think.

Now then, here’s a test of how much of a Chicago foodie you are: how many of these backs of heads can you identify? You should be able to get at least three between the two photos:

I was invited, courtesy of Mr. Steve Dolinsky, to an event honoring Grant Achatz for Alinea placing #7 in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants thing. (#7 makes it the highest-ranking restaurant in North America.) It was accompanied by a lunch at Everest. Given that the list tends to favor Old World places and virtues (though Dolinsky talked about working to change that), there was something oddly fitting about our most avant-garde four-star restaurant being feted at perhaps the most classical.

I’d only eaten at Everest once before, more than a decade ago. I think Chef Joho is one of our local heroes— pun intended; he was buying locally before local was cool— and I like Brasserie Jo a lot, where he gets down with the tarte a l’oignon and other Alsatian everyday food, but I have to admit that whenever I was going to drop an Everest-sized wad in the years since then, I was always more inclined to spend it on avant-garde novelty than classical French, however accomplished. Nothing against it, just not my sweet spot for where I’d spend my own money, I thought.

In my La Quercia video, Joho talks about the first time he tasted their prosciutto, and says, “It was the closest to perfection that you can do, even though perfection is nonexistent.” (I like that comment because the second part of it shows that he’s thinking seriously and discriminatingly in the first part, and not just handing out compliments casually.)

So you see that piece of halibut, poached in oil, with morels and asparagus and a butter sauce? I mean, morels and asparagus and butter, what could be more traditional, expected, breaking-no-paradigms French food, right?

Well, what Joho said.

So there, that wasn’t even me talking, let alone about me.

(By the way, the backs of heads you should have been able to ID were Tony Mantuano, Jean Joho, Steve Dolinsky, and Grant Achatz. And if you’d like to taste Joho’s food for free, he’ll be at Paulina Meat Market this Saturday.)

UPDATE 6/8: Well, some technical issues with WordPress have appeared along the way, delaying the new SFOB. If the site’s missing at some point, I promise it will be back soon, cooler than ever.

ORIGINAL POST 6/4: If you click here today and things look all different… it’s because my friend Wyatt Mitchell is putting up the new custom-built look for Sky Full of Bacon. Which will better showcase the videos with the blog, and include various other features to bring this site into 2010 and beyond. Feedback appreciated, future patronage encouraged!

Me, I’m running around interviewing barbecue pitmasters and such today for an upcoming piece in a local magazine. So I’ll have nothing to do with how the site looks till it’s done, but I am happy to say that after the spring without new videos, there should be two within a month. Thanks for your patience…

There’s a new smackdown on the underground dining thing, by Steve Dolinsky. He attended a Rabbit Hole dinner and was unimpressed:

Our third course, a homemade pappardelle with fresh ricotta was just plain boring. It needed lemon juice to brighten it up, as well as salt and pepper; there was allegedly some marrow in the sauce, but we couldn’t detect any; the pasta – while clearly hand-formed – was gummy and not exceptionally pleasing.

Read it all, but that pretty much sets the tone.

What floored me about this was the price: he spent about $200 for himself and his wife. As Dolinsky rightly observes, “after you drop $170 plus $30 tip… you then realize that for $200 you could have had a killer meal at one of any number of great places – Naha, Topolo, Avec, Blackbird, North Pond, etc.”

Price, of course, isn’t the only consideration here. But to me it’s a pretty good indicator that the underground restaurant movement isn’t underground in any way that really matters. In theater, say, something like this might be young people starting out, putting on work that’s too daring or experimental to make it with a downtown audience, performing in a dilapidated space in an edgy neighborhood, and charging low prices because it’s not about money and charging low prices gives you a certain freedom that higher prices would constrict.

But these underground dinners are like somebody finding the dilapidated space in the edgy neighborhood– and then charging $85 per seat for an illegal performance of The Lion King. They use an underground atmosphere to cover the fact that they’re trying to serve a Blackbird-level meal at a Blackbird-level price without the costly support system of Blackbird. If you could pull it off, it would probably be pretty lucrative. But they often seem not to pull it off, and so you wind up with a sub-Blackbird experience at the full Blackbird price, The Lion King in cheap Halloween costumes.

To me, the underground dining experience can only be justified one of two ways. One, is at a price that absorbs some of the diner’s risk. At $50, I’m game for adventure, at $100, it almost seems an insult to a city full of fine, hardworking restaurants to spend my money instead on some amateur who gets to evade many of their fixed costs, yet presumes herself in their company. Some of the caterers who’ve gone on to open restaurants have done this, such as Bonsoiree, at such modest prices, and it’s a reasonable path for getting feedback, practice, etc. in anticipation of opening a place or simply being a better caterer. That’s cool.

Two, is by being underground in some manner more meaningful than simply not paying the city a license fee. People put on Beckett or Dario Fo or, in their early days, Mamet or Letts in some ratty storefront, because it represented an alternative to big commercial theater. But what’s underground dining being alternative to— rigid bourgeois notions of how rickety your table should be? The dinner I attended was all full of talk about stuff coming straight from the farmer (who was present) to the table. Great, I’m all for it and more of it, but every week I eat at some place that’s touting its Gunthorp chickens and its Dietzler beef and so on. Not exactly new ground or a challenge to The Man that’s going to flip our dining paradigms. Likewise the kid who was going to introduce people to molecular gastronomy— in the city of Alinea. Our restaurants are already Steppenwolf, you’re not going to wow us by putting on yet another production of American Buffalo.

I could imagine underground dining experiences that would really wow me, but they wouldn’t just be second-tier versions of dinners I can already have. They might be something you can’t get here commercially, like a deeply authentic Southern meal or a Portuguese one or an exotically authentic Asian one, that challenged you to eat things you’d never touch normally. Or they might be more like performance pieces that make us experience food in a manner as much theatrical as culinary, eating and interacting with food in entirely new, provocative ways. I’d love to believe that there’s a space outside the commercial realm for different ways of dining and experiencing food, but I’m largely unsold on the idea that there’s a need outside the commercial realm for a second commercial realm that gets to do the exact same thing but avoid a lot of the entirely reasonable hassles involved, like health inspection and insurance. At the very least, I expect it to try harder than that to justify its positioning as something truly alternative— and that an alternative is needed at this historical moment.