Sky Full of Bacon

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.


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.

The game was 13-3. My son Myles was upbeat about it, though. His team is used to getting pounded by bigger, more experienced teams. They take their victories where they can find them, and at one point they had it tied up. Which considering that the other team’s pitcher looks like he’s 25, isn’t bad for 11-year-olds. (Then they pretty much blew it in one series of bungles, but hey, at one point they had it tied up.)

“How many more innings?” I asked.

“We can go after my next time at bat,” Myles said. Baseball is one thing, but we don’t let it get in the way of a new restaurant.

My younger son and my wife were out of town together on his 2nd grade camping trip. That left Myles and me to fend for ourselves, and one of the things I decided we were going to do was try a nice restaurant and try to teach Myles better table manners, without his brother’s influence at table dragging him back to kid antics and behavior. Surprisingly, he was game for this, and didn’t find it an annoying adult imposition on his lifestyle.

I chose LM, which I’ve wanted to try for a while. Partly because of their $22 prix fixe menu, but as soon as we got there, I could see that it had things that wouldn’t fly with Myles. So he ordered what he wanted: which turned out to be roasted duck breast, and a salad with blue cheese and pears. I ordered a fresh pea soup with mint and creme fraiche and monkfish with littleneck clams in a greenish broth.

“So what do fancy people do when they’re waiting for their food?” he asked.

“They talk,” I said. So we talked about stuff. Like his baseball team. I don’t think we got onto the other popular subjects of the moment, his current hero, the Zulu warrior Shaka, or World War II, which I seem to be explaining different aspects of all the time. (We had a good discussion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and whether or not using the atomic bomb was unavoidable given Japan’s militarism, the other day. But I’m glad we didn’t get into that over French food.)

The salad came. He tried the blue cheese (St. Agur), didn’t like it. Still, he tried it, and he ate the rest of the salad fine. I loved the pea soup, I don’t know where spring peas are coming from yet but this was pure spring in a bowl. The entrees came and he was very happy with his duck, less interested in the roasted turnips alongside it. The monkfish was very simple, very light, nicely done. It didn’t wow me (like my sturgeon at Blackbird a few nights later) but this isn’t so much a wow place as a very French, do it exactly right like it should be done place. For one of those, it’s very good.

Myles tasted my monkfish, and one of the littleneck clams. “So that’s three new things I tried tonight,” he said, proudly. At his age you keep a lot of lists like that in your head.

I was proud of him, he behaved well, he was adventurous. So we ordered dessert, but I don’t think they’re made in-house. I could be wrong on that, but they seemed sturdy and very precise, like the stuff from a place like Rolf’s Patisserie, which always looks to me like it’s built first to survive the trucking around town. Not delicate like its only travel is from an oven to a rack. Still, they tasted good enough. He’s not picky, like me, when sweet stuff arrives at the end of a meal. Yet. [UPDATE: Michael Nagrant says they come from Vanille Patisserie.]

We were walking back to the car. He was proud of having gotten to do something his brother hasn’t. He was proud of being 11 and old enough to do stuff like this. “I like that you take me to interesting places like French restaurants,” he said.

“I like that you want to go,” I said.

Happy anniversary, my sweet…

…and thank you, good friends, for the champagne with which to toast it.

Since the first time I went to Blackbird, which was between my ceasing to post on Chowhound and the launching of LTHForum, and is therefore a meal tragically lost to history, the only time I had been there to eat (as opposed to, say, butcher hogs in the basement) was for the mulefoot pig dinner. Mike Sheerin, the chef Paul Kahan brought in from WD-50 in New York to take over primary chef duties as his empire expanded with The Publican, had only been on the job a few months, and of the five main courses at the mulefoot dinner, his was the one that I was least excited by, which I took to mean nothing more about his abilities than that it was built on enoki mushrooms, which don’t do anything for me.  But even with complaints about other parts of the Kahan empire possibly getting stretched thin talent-wise as Big Star opened, the word about Blackbird remained rock-solid, its perch at the top of see-and-be-seen downtown dining undisturbed.  So it was time to check out what Sheerin was up to.  When my 20th wedding anniversary began looming, knowing that it would fall as it always does during the National Restaurant Association show (when tables are at a premium), I decided early on to go to Blackbird, and planned to book a table the next day.

The next morning, Sheerin became Chicago’s only representative among the 2010 Food & Wine Best New Chefs.

Ivar the World’s Greatest Waiter recommended this bottle from a producer “in the family,” as he put it.

But I snagged a table, just in time, and we went with David Hammond and his wife last Saturday.  And as impressed as I’ve been in the past with Kahan & co. as an operation, I think the thing that maybe impresses the most about him now is that he’s hired someone who has reinvented his flagship restaurant right under his nose, and seems to be fine with it.  (And it’s not like it’s because he’s not around, either; Kahan was on the floor in stained chef’s whites for much of our meal, a perfect symbol of Blackbird’s chic-meets-meatpacking-district ethos.)

I summarized what I thought was Kahan’s approach to food in something I wrote a year and a half ago (based, admittedly, on more experience with Avec than with Blackbird, and on what he and others said about The Publican’s intended approach):

What Kahan wants to do is serve food that tastes like the best example of that food you’ve ever had, and his restaurants aren’t shy about using every trick in the professional chef’s handbook to make that happen. Dishes are heavily salted (though rarely obviously salty), and you often hear the chefs talking about adding acid to a dish, both techniques for delivering a trumpet blast of flavor in your mouth that seems more intense and dramatic than you could produce at home. Still, there’s a line they don’t cross, the point at which a flavorful meat ceases to be itself; dishes are never dressed up with extraneous flavors, weird combinations for combination’s sake.

That still seems like a decent summary of the sensibility at work at Avec and The Publican, say. Salty, porky, bright and snappy deliciousness that invites you to order another beer or glass of wine and makes you full and happy. But Blackbird under Sheerin seems to be taking a subtler, more delicate turn. Even when you ate something cured or brined or pickled, it was balanced with something else, so it wasn’t a trumpet blast on its own. A couple of times, it even approached the level of playfulness with food that you associate with places like Alinea or Graham Elliott, which would be in line with Sheerin’s training at WD-50— though only a couple of times (and it is worth noting, the most extreme example was the very first course of the tasting menu, as if to get that over with quickly and get back to Blackbirdian no-nonsense-ness as quickly as possible). Overall, though, what you mainly take away is a sense that although Blackbird didn’t need wholesale reinvention, it did need sharper differentiation from its siblings Avec and The Publican, and that’s where it’s gone under Sheerin— a little less mad pork love, a little more elegance and refinement.

Here’s what’s on the tasting menu right now. I’ve stopped routinely taking photos when fine-dining out, because so many people do it better than me, especially in low-light conditions. In this case, an early table and placement near the window provided the perfect circumstances for my abilities, so I’m happy to stop talking and revel in food porn to give you the best idea of where this seminal restaurant is now.

Cuttlefish “noodles” with strawberries and a bit of candied olive.  (The menu also says rhubarb, though I defy you to find it.)  This was the most playful, tricky thing, reminding me of Schwa’s jellyfish pad thai; but I just didn’t really like the fish-and-strawberries combo.  The candied olive was more interesting, though so tiny a piece in this tasting portion that I can’t say I entirely got to taste it.

Peanut gazpacho with cured hiramasa, rhubarb (this time, visible), pine, peanut brittle and green peppercorn.  This was a gorgeous cold soup, creamy and complex yet easy to like.

Swan Creek suckling pig with apricots stewed in Lillet, a little relish of snow peas and water chestnuts, and beer vinaigrette.  So far as I’ve seen, Kahan’s restaurants don’t seem to have much use for Asian flavors, but Sheerin seems to like sneaking Asian vegetables in and letting them just be themselves.  The pork was deeply satisfying, unctuous meat and crispy skin, and the winey apricots a perfect accompaniment, although this was one dish where you really felt like a tasting portion was cruel torment, it cried for a softball-sized hunk to tear into.

Foie gras torchon with black garlic dip, green strawberry, and shrimp salt (whatever that means), served with a glass of Sauternes.  Interesting, using the tar-strong black garlic to challenge the more familiar fatty pleasures of foie gras; not the most likable thing we ate, but points for thinking hard and not taking the easy route.

Wood-grilled sturgeon, garlic-braised snail, smoked fresh pickles and napa cabbage.  I think this was my favorite thing of the evening, and I’m someone who often finds fish entrees nice but no more; the firm sturgeon was grilled perfectly with just the right degree of smokiness, and the snail was very well done too, but what made this dish at least as much as the fish were the pickles, lightly briny and sweet (was rice vinegar involved in the brine? I suspect so), and the napa cabbage, with its crunch and slightly brusque flavor.  The contrast of all of these was so much more than the sum of their parts.

Another fine fish dish, a delicate golden trout with shaved asparagus, ground ivy (!), white sesame, and a little banana puree which was subtle and liqueur-y, plus an unbilled cameo by lavender, I guess.  Interestingly, if you ate the shaved asparagus on its own, you didn’t really get an asparagus flavor, it could have been zucchini or something.

Duck breast with porcini, favas, Worcestershire brown butter and cinnamon crisps; now we were into the savory meats part of the tasting menu, and I liked this a lot although the cinnamon thing seemed out of place, like French toast at the wrong meal.

While the accompaniments for this little chunk of wagyu beef could have stayed home, this was all about the deeply flavored, mineral-y beef.  Interestingly, the description mentioned marrow here, but we were mystified where it could be in the dish; we finally decided it must be holding the “caraway crumble” together.

This was also my first exposure to Blackbird’s new pastry chef, Patrick Fahy (aspiring pastry chefs, go read Fahy’s bio at the Blackbird site; the answer to How to Get a Job at Blackbird is, apparently, work everywhere, usually two or three at once).  I loved the first two, “fruit of the cocoa sorbet” (tasted more like citrus to me, but what do I know), with great little candied cocoa nibs (and having tasted uncandied nibs, trust me, they need candying), cilantro allegedly somewhere in there, and a banana sauce which, again, managed to avoid being too banana-y; this was a wonderful palate cleanser dressed up to go out.

Even more impressive, not to mention playful, was this construction.  The sponge at left is a spongecake, apparently cooked in the microwave so it explodes (“Three minutes ago this was batter,” said Ivar the World’s Greatest Waiter); the white square is a white honey parfait with wonderfully tart and gooey passion fruit in the center, and the spiral is caramelized white chocolate.  This was a mindblower, lots of textures and flavors that went beyond expectations, a total delight.

I’m not a great fan of coffee desserts, or coffee anything besides a hot cup first thing in the morning, so I just kind of admired this last one technically; Fahy’s experience at Lutz here in Chicago comes out in the classic-looking hazelnut dacquoise with espresso and chicory flavorings, but it was the apricot kernel sorbet, with its little crunchies of something (don’t know what the kernels actually were), that I liked best.

And finally, a little plate of, I think, apricot jellies (really wonderful) and dark chocolates with a liqueur center of some sort (not my thing, usually).  We also finished with teas from Roderick Markus; I skipped the $150 pu-erh and had a simple, but really quite impressive and three-dimensional, Japanese green-tea sencha.

(Now, one question: should you do the tasting menu?  Clearly it’s less something that Blackbird developed organically (as it is at a place like Alinea, where the entire evening is carefully structured as a series of novel experiences in small portions) than something they started offering in response to customer expectations that every restaurant have one.  And everything on it (except maybe the cuttlefish) can stand up to being a full portion.  So at the very least I don’t think doing so is essential to the experience, well, unless your vision of the experience involves writing and posting a lot of tasty photos, as mine inextricably does.  If you’d rather just tear into a big hunk of that pork or the sturgeon, I wouldn’t blame you.)

First, some trivial news, then some deeper thinking.

When Howard Hawks set out to make his first western, Red River, he took his cast and crew to the location, and they rented a herd of cattle for the picture. A big herd, not some make 20 steers look like 200 herd, but thousands.

And then it rained. And rained, and rained. For five weeks straight. And by the first day they could finally shoot anything, they were over budget by millions. No wonder that the next time he made a western, Rio Bravo, he shot most of it on a soundstage.

Well, that’s not a perfect analogy for the delays before the next Sky Full of Bacon, but it will do. I shot the second of the two main interviews in early April, when the farm where I was shooting was still too cool to plant, and planned to come back at the beginning of May to get some more vibrant shots of planting in spring. Only, as you may have noticed, we had a seriously rainy May. And you need at least a couple of dry days before you can go out there and plant. And it took pretty much the whole month to get that. I was ready to shoot one day and then the farmer had a cold and had to cancel. And so the two month gap between episodes quickly stretched to three. I can only chuckle mordantly at the thought— hey, Mr. City Dilettante Videomaker, you wanted to find out what it’s like for farmers to have your whole work and life dependent on the weather? Well, this is what it’s like!

* * *

But it’s not wasted time— as I mentioned in passing, a redesign of this site is in the works, and will debut soon. Also, I’ve been lining up shoots for the summer, so I’ll have an interesting assortment of footage banked to keep the videos rolling out more regularly.

One guy I talked to, I honestly don’t know if it will ever happen or not. He’s a genuine prophet of a different kind of agriculture, there’s a page or two on him in The Omnivore’s Dilemma though he’s not otherwise media-overexposed, I didn’t think. What’s more, what he talks about is all through that book, and I’m betting he, with 30+ years experience living it, didn’t get it from Pollan.

So I sent him a packet, letter and a selection of the videos, and gave him a call. He started out by flatly saying no, too busy during the time frame, too many people who want to interview him and turn it into 90 vacuous seconds. I assured him what was different was, I try to go in depth for 20 minutes, not cut it down to soundbites.

Then it got interesting. He was more open to the idea at some future point, but at the same time, even 20 minutes is hardly anything, he’s working on a book and has been talking (to whom if anyone, I have no idea) about a Carl Sagan-like series on the subject, 10 hour-long episodes, that kind of thing. And then his point of view exploded in multiple dimensions and he went off on how organic farming for overpriced restaurants for foodies in big cities (in other words, exactly what most of my videos have been about) isn’t the solution, it’s a distraction from the real problem which is soil erosion, which is the result of 10,000 years of the wrong kind of farming and the scientific method which reduces nature to problems to be solved (that, by the way, is all over Pollan too) and it’s no good to tell people a little bit of it, they need to get the whole thing, because they need to see that we need to change everything from growing annuals to growing perennials, change the whole basis of agriculture or we’re doomed.

So this is one of those guys with a Big Idea. And guys with Big Ideas sometimes are cranks and sometimes change the world, and it’s not necessarily clear which is which at first.  Or maybe it’s a distinction without a difference.  And, well, I can see how people like him lose patience with the media turning their Big Idea into soundbites, even as there’s probably no way to win people over without first trivializing your Big Idea enough to get its foot in the door.  A contradiction which, it was clear, he was acutely aware of and didn’t need me to drive home the irony of.

In the end he gave me a little room for hope.  I could write up a proposal of what I was up to, and show how well I understood the topic, and he’d grade it and I had to get at least a B+ (yes, he really said that, with a chuckle— but not joking).  And then maybe, at a less busy time of year, it could happen.

You know, I may do it.  I don’t mind being put through hoops for this guy, because hey, how much would you go through to get a chance to hang for a day with Wendell Berry?  Or Thomas Jefferson?  Or John Brown?  I have no problem swallowing my ego and doing some extra homework to make that happen and be in the presence of somebody who might just change the world.  What does give me pause is… how far do I have to become an acolyte to win the chance?  Do I have to become a convert— or, contemptibly, fake it— to convince him I’m worth his time?  It’s a dicey thing for me because I do tend to make videos about subjects I’m highly sympathetic to, so the temptation to go from sympathetic observer to salesman is there.  And as much as I think his research and work is important, I can’t say I really expect the whole world to switch to what he’s working on any time soon, on his terms precisely.  I could see it making a big difference.  But I don’t think he would see his work being 20% adopted, even, as being any better than ignoring it completely.

In the end I asked him, if he feels that he already gets all the mainstream publicity he can stomach, is there somebody else in the area who’s doing something that he thinks is worthwhile?  The reply was withering— they’re all doing industrial monoculture agriculture, they’re all the problem. So apart from the people working at his place, he has no followers in his own country.  A video could, one supposes, help with that, help interest others in his vision of farming.  But for a prophet, accepting the diminution of your message even into 20 minutes may be too much of the world for you to bear— even to gain the world.

My camera went away on a school camping trip with my wife and younger son, so let me just paint a couple of pictures in your head:

• A middle-aged Latina in her restaurant’s kitchen, posing proudly in front of a whole roasted pork leg, its skin gleaming brown and stretched over a heaping arch of meat like the Thanksgiving turkey in a Norman Rockwell painting, the warm scents of pig and island spices in the air.

• A crowd of people jammed into a tiny corner grocery on a summer Saturday night… to listen to Paraguayan folk songs, belted out by a sweating singer and accompanied on guitar with the easy confidence of old friends who’ve played together for many, many years.

Actually, I only saw one of these on a Wednesday afternoon at lunch. But the other one will be coming up soon, at the same place.

But let me back up, because as the headline suggests, this post is actually about two places. I needed to meet with my friend Wyatt about the upcoming redesign of this website. He suggested Panera, because they have wi-fi. This seemed heretical to me— talking about Sky Full of Bacon at a chain restaurant!— so instead I checked an LTHForum thread about places with wifi that aren’t Panera, and found Macondo, a place in my neighborhood I’d been meaning to try (and which, surprisingly, had had no other mention on LTHForum, though plenty of other press).

Basically, when Las Tablas, a South American restaurant long resident on Lincoln and in a couple of other spots around town, built a newer restaurant down the street, they turned their old location into a coffeehouse serving empanadas, bunuelos and other light-ish breakfast and lunch items. Now, I’ve never been that excited about Las Tablas, it seems to me the most gringo-friendly, tamed down of the various South American places I know (not the downtown steak-on-a-sword places, which are pure gringo bait, but neighborhood places like El Llano, where you might actually see a South American dining). I wouldn’t say Macondo exactly breaks with that tradition; the empanadas are pretty much exactly what you’d expect, basic stuff like ground beef or cheese with chipotle spread, deep fried. The frying is done well, the inside tastes exactly like you think it will, and no more. But it’s a pleasant place, the service is very friendly, the wifi is free, they have some books and CDs and stuff for sale which suggests a certain earnest desire to spread their home culture to the gringos of Lakeview. A South American alternative to Starbucks or Caribou in my neighborhood. Cool.

* * *

But that tempered enthusiasm did remind me of something more intriguing I’d seen a while back, while I was out scouting Supermercado Taquerias. It was a Latin American grocery, on Laramie in the middle of nowhere in particular, which seemed to have at least a few menu items for sitdown service as well.

I’m not sure at first why I thought it might be South American; the menu pretty quickly revealed itself to be mainly Cuban and Puerto Rican. But I had had decent luck with that combination not too long before at La Bombonera, so I went inside and found the proprietor sitting at one of her tables with some papers and a shiny aluminum MacBook pro. Behind her was a kitchen, which took up nearly half of the room; the grocery part was limited to only a few shelves of Puerto Rican packaged goods. With few things to choose from (and little enthusiasm for Hamburguesa or Hot Dogs con Fritas), I ordered a Cuban sandwich.

While she was making it, I poked around a little. There was a warmer case with a few empanadas and some round fried things in it. I asked what they all were and she pointed to one which she called alcapurria, basically a kind of fritter made of starchy green plantains with ground beef on the inside. Now, the eating of flavorless starches (like yucca) is one of those things that sometimes deters me from eating non-Mexican Latin American food, and filling it with unseasoned ground beef seems only a modest improvement, but she seemed enthused about it, so I gave it a try.

It was surprisingly flavorful, the hint of banana mixing provocatively with the fried-ness and the meat. More than that, it was exotic, maybe even soulful, two things you could not say the textbook-perfect empanadas I’d had a couple of days earlier had been. A moment later my Cuban sandwich came out; now, no Cubano in Chicago is textbook-perfect, there’s always a compromise on what kind of bread you use and so on (nobody bakes the authentic lard-based roll, apparently), so in judging Chicago Cubanos, it’s not a matter of how closely they approach a Miami ideal but how well they succeed despite obvious heresies. And this, well, I kind of think this was the best Cubano I’ve ever had in Chicago, right up there anyway, maybe a long ways from the best example of a Cubano (try La Unica for that, probably), but that roasted pork was so good, moist and full of roasted and well-seasoned flavors, that even as there was too much of it, as there was too much cheese, as the supermarket French bread it was on was significantly off the model, it was just a great sandwich. (You could skip all my existential angst and just have the lechon sandwich, and enjoy the pork qua pork.)

So this modest little grocery, easy to drive by (I might not have ever noticed it if I hadn’t parked to try the taqueria across the street), had proven to be a real find— but there was still more to it than I realized. The owner, Palmira, was happy to chat (posed proudly behind her roast pork leg); she was Puerto-Rican, her husband Paraguayan, and they had owned a restaurant called El Arpa on Peterson for some years.  Like Ramon Delgado of La Bombonera, having gotten out, they wanted back in, but without the responsibilities of managing a large place and staff. So they started this grocery to cater to Puerto Rican and South American customers missing the authentic taste of this or that product they grew up with. Fairly quickly, however, the few prepared foods blossomed into a kitchen that largely overtook the grocery, and now she roasts a fresh pork leg nearly every day, presumably mostly for evening takeout (since I was the only customer at lunch).

But food isn’t the only cultural taste of home they’re keeping alive; a couple of Saturday nights a month, they move the tables out of the way and local musicians play, not so much in performance for an audience but in the kind of gathering, like in a pub in rural Ireland, where anyone in the community can join in and play or sing. There will be one of these this Saturday, the 22nd, of Argentinian music, from 7 to 12, and another on June 12 featuring Palmira’s husband and a Paraguayan friend who will be visiting.

So there’s a lot going on inside this tiny grocery with an unpronounceable name. I asked Palmira where that came from; she said the Tainos are the native Americans of Puerto Rican, and she has a granddaughter born around the same time she opened the store, who’s half Puerto Rican-Paraguayan— and half Irish. So Palmira calls her Tainayri, the little Indian, to encourage her to know all her different ethnic heritages. Not bad advice for any of us living in a place where a whole vibrant culture can be hidden behind the signs of the bodega on the corner.

2965 N. Lincoln Ave.
(773) 698-6847

Tainayri’s Bodega
2525 N. Laramie

Pizzeria Serio, a new Neapolitan-style pizza place on Belmont promising “serious brick-oven pizza,” has a promising look, brick walls, a dark wood bar (not licensed yet), fire glowing in the back and flatscreen glowing in the front. Promise starts being dashed, though, the moment you look at the short menu and its list of pizza choices. How can you claim with a straight face to be seriously devoted to authentic Neapolitan styles of pizza-making when your only toppings are the exact same ones that would have been offered at Fat Joe’s Pizza & Subs in Spearfish, South Dakota in 1967?

Enjoy your pizza with such typical fruits of the Italian countryside as presliced foodservice mushrooms, rubber-tire black olives and styrofoam-crunchy green pepper slices! Close your eyes and catch a hint of the Naples waterfront as you order a meat lover’s special consisting of pepperoni, Canadian bacon and sausage! That’s less old country than Old Country Buffet.

It’s not that every woodburning pizza place needs to break new ground in exotic ingredients. But Pizzeria Serio’s location is within a circle bounded by Spacca Napoli, Frasca and Sapore de Napoli, all of which make at least creditable brick oven pizza in a variety of styles. Frasca’s pretty much a sports bar dressed up as an Italian restaurant, and you can get a plain old pepperoni pizza there, but they also do white pizzas with rosemary and pistachios and so on; they are aware that such things exist and adroitly balance their menu between foodie and conventional tastes. Pizzeria Serio seems not to know that such things are possible on a pizza— let alone that they exist all around it, serving the same neighbors whose willingness to order such things has been amply demonstrated for a good five years now.

And because the frame of reference is so American, the pizzas come out in an unmistakably American style that wrecks the balance of the Neapolitan pie.  The crust really is pretty decent, clearly made with 00-style flour for that chewy-airy effect. I could wish that it had been cooked harder, or higher, or whatever it would take to produce some bits of char, which to me is the point of Neapolitan pizza, but then I’m a char-head and if that’s not what you’re aiming for, fine. But then every pie, even the margherita which is otherwise the one authentic-seeming item, is covered with easily twice as much acidic tomato sauce as a Neapolitan pie would have, a blast of harsh tomatoeyness that tips the balance of taste away from Naples and toward Little Caesar’s.  (Technically, it’s apparently supposed to be a “New York-Neapolitan hybrid,” which I can only take to mean, “we know we’re putting too much tomato sauce on for a Neapolitan pie.”)

At that, though, the pizzas were far better than the salad my wife ordered, which was the one thing that really lived up to the name of opera serio by being tragic. If you’re going to serve salad out of the same box of Earthbound Farms baby lettuce that all your customers buy at Whole Foods two blocks away, you ought to know what they know by now, which is that the dark purple lettuce with the ruffled edges wilts and turns black first, when the rest of the box looks fine. Pieces of this sodden black seaweed were all over the healthier greens in this salad, making it a nasty eating experience even if it hadn’t had all the other signs of indifferent salad making (too-large chunks of too-hot onion and a mound of eraser-rubber foodservice mushrooms tossed in a harsh vinaigrette). It’s the sort of wan contemporary salad that makes you appreciate the indestructability of the old Italian-American restaurant salad, crisp white iceberg and oil and vinegar adjusted by the patron, with a basket of crackers and breadsticks to nosh on if all else failed.

What’s unfortunate is that Pizzeria Serio has the equipment in place to do so much better, so why it should be aiming so squarely at a somewhat humdrum conventional American style topped with firmly mediocre Sysco truck ingredients is a mystery. Again, set aside a place aiming for true artisanship, like Spacca Napoli, and look at a place like Frasca, which is run by a restaurant group with various bars in their portfolio. One of their pizzas, the Capone, is like the platonic ideal of a Pizza Hut supreme, the ingredients are merely sausage and onion and tomato sauce and cheese, and yet the sausage is bright with fennel and the sauce is well-seasoned and for what it is, it sparkles. Nobody’s going to name Frasca one of the best Italian restaurants in town, but it understands the scene it competes on and makes a respectable, contemporary showing with flavorful, well-crafted food. Nothing at Pizzeria Serio reached even that mid-tier level of bright flavors or quality. If they’re going to make it in an area with this kind of competition, they need to get serious about what they put on that crust.

Pizzeria Serio
1708 W. Belmont