Sky Full of Bacon

Graham Elliott Bowles beams down from the Muthaship to bring some funk to the food at Lollapalooza.

Everybody loves to hate on Taste of Chicago, me as much as anybody, but if it has one legacy that runs deeper than $6 cheesecake on a stick, it’s the wave of festivals and events that have blossomed in recent years to bring the diversity of Chicago’s cuisine to the outdoors and a party crowd…

…on a stick.

The Green City Market Chef’s BBQ last week was one example, and this week’s is the food that Graham Elliott Bowles (of, as you surely know if you’re reading this, Graham Elliott) coordinated for Lollapalooza.  Last year he cooked for the band Jane’s Addiction, whose frontman Perry Farrell is also the organizer/big cheese of Lollapalooza, and sold a few of his signature dishes (like the lobster corn dog above) at a stand for festivalgoers.  That inspired a bigger idea this year, of trying to replace the Connie’s Pizza and other standard mass-produced fare entirely with food of a level of creativity comparable to the music on stage.  Considering that the music on stage includes Lady Gaga, that’s a tall and possibly too bizarre to be appetizing order, but nonetheless, he made some calls to fellow chefs, got the band back together and will have food including:

pork bao from Sunda…

tacos from Big Star…

Kuma’s burgers (since this was a sample size for this event, it used quail eggs)…

…and shrimp with a mango salsa from The Southern.  (I didn’t have a good picture of that, so here’s one of Nick from Grub Street Chicago trying to capture the ineffable essence of the Kuma’s burger.  If he runs a picture of one showing the egg, it’ll actually be of my burger, seen above.)  It’s hard to judge which was my favorite when one is something I’ve had several times before (the Kuma’s burger), and they’re all in a league above standard festival fare, but I really liked Sunda’s bao, no, it’s not as authentically funky as something you’d get in Chinatown, but the delicacy of the bao, sweet pork flavor and crunchy fresh vegetable toppings evoked happy thoughts of the Peking duck at Sun Wah.

But wait, there’s More… cupcakes from More.

Here are my homies Elliott, Perry and Hammond.  Farrell, alarmingly fit, is seemingly not built for foodieism, but he plainly cares about that stuff all the same, and far from maintaining rock star distance, came up to Hammond and me to preach the gospel of festival food that doesn’t suck.  As he put it, you take a girl to Lolla to listen to the music, you’re not going to impress her with a hot dog. It’s hard to argue with the rock and roll logic of that.

I also talked with Cary Taylor (SFOB #11) of The Southern, who said it represented a financial risk for his restaurant— between the seven places providing food, they’d spent $7 G’s on licenses alone, thank you Mayor Daley— but the opportunity to get known to 90,000 festival attendees was just too much for his restaurant to resist.

People talk about “rock star chefs” but there’s something that still strikes you as funny at first about mixing rock and roll and haute cuisine.  Or me, anyway, as I try to imagine how ZZ Top keep their beards from getting stuck in the custom-made utensils at Alinea.  But obviously to a generation that grew up with both rock and the food culture of the 80s and 90s, they’re all just part of America today, so why should your music be chained to bad baseball park food, or the clout-connected institutional food choices you associate with the Auto Show?  Why shouldn’t food go up to 11, too?  Grab a spatula and go my son, and rock.

P.S. Here’s Nick’s piece on the preview at Grub Street, and yes, that’s my hand Vanna Whiting a couple of the food items.  I like his picture of Bowles about to bust into Jailhouse Rock, too.

P.S. Well, and now here’s Audarshia’s account of the dustup that followed, and an LTHForum thread about how corrupt we all are for attending this party.

I was trying to explain to my wife what the Green City Market BBQ was like and after several analogies of varying effectiveness, I finally said “It’s like the food prom.” Which is about as good a way as any to describe what happens when all these chefs come out, their food duded to the nines, for an awesome summer party. This year they raised the prices‚ doubled them in fact, and still not only sold out (though it took to the last day this time) but seemed to pack this section of Lincoln Park more fully than last year. (Disclosure: my wife and I went on press passes.)

It’s a great event, besides supporting the city’s most influential farmer’s market, the one that does the most in establishing connections between chefs and farmers (hey, somebody ought to make a video about that), it’s a fantastic buffet of mostly astoundingly superior food, nearly every dish of which makes some use of things available at the market. Why can’t they set up something like this every Thursday during Happy Hour, and serve food of this caliber each week? Because then, what would we have to look forward to in eternity.

My first stop, mainly because they were near the entrance, was Mado. True to their reputation for aggressively whole animal cooking, their dish was barbecued beef heart, in a chipotle-ish sauce. Rob Levitt admitted he didn’t expect it to be hugely popular, but when we checked back toward the end, he was happy to tell us it was all gone.

One of the great reasons to go, of course, is to try food from chefs you don’t know if you want to go pay for a full dinner from. I ripped into Andrew Zimmerman pretty good when he was at Del Toro (and Rob Levitt was one of his cooks), but he’s at Sepia now, and this pulled duck sandwich with duck skin cracklins was mighty tasty, one of my top three for the night, and enough to make me want to check that place out again under his command.

Phillip Foss of Lockwood was serving up a sample of the kind of thing he might do in a food truck if the ordinance ever passes. It was a sloppy joe served on his Israeli-born wife’s recipe for a kind of puffy bread:

Here’s someone from NoMi making beer can chicken:

I’m not sure who was responsible for this out of the BOKA Group restaurants, since four of them including The Girl & The Goat were credited, but these two came off the grill just as we walked by and so we grabbed them. Pork belly skewers with cherry tomato and grilled melon, another of my top three, simple and wonderful.

Then we saw Tony Priolo of Piccolo Sogno making these chilled beet soup shooters— just the cold non-pork item we needed at that moment, and delightful:

And right after that we saw this peach and honey panna cotta with sprinkles of La Quercia prosciutto on top, from Bin 36. The fresh peach flavor was really nice.

Pat Sheerin of The Signature Room had the freakiest looking dish of the night:

The description bills the grilled beef shoulder first, but anyone getting it couldn’t help but notice the bright green tongue coated with salsa verde.

By comparison this grilled lamb from Balsan and Ria with a corn sauce and a dab of pesto was rather plain-looking, which is probably why someone was out promoting it in front of their stand. The lamb was beautifully tender, I’m glad I tried it, though my wife ate it, then asked what it was, and when she heard it was lamb, was sorry she’d eaten lamb during the time period that the kids are raising a lamb in 4-H.

Here’s Barry Sorkin of Smoque slicing up a Santa Maria tri-tip:

And Mark Mendez of Carnivale with his meatball:

Another chef whose food I was curious to try without spending a big wad yet was John Des Rosiers, of the suburban avant-garde restaurant Inovasi, in Lake Bluff. I was quite impressed with this unusual dish, which started with some long-brined and smoked pork topped with cherries and other fruit, and then included a kind of very light tortilla made in some fashion with cheese incorporated into it which he calls an “Inorito.” Weird (and a little soggy in this humid heat) but very interesting, I may have been impressed enough to make the trek up there some time.

If I had to pick a favorite of the evening, though, it was probably one that came just as I was about out of stomach for meats, Jared Van Camp of Old Town Social’s sausage with Brunkow cheese mixed into it and homemade sauerkraut on top. Yeah, sure, it’s an easy crowd-pleaser, a cheesy hot dog, but it was really well done.

Another chef I approached with some skepticism was Dale Levitski, hard at work here on his dish:

I know people have been impressed with Sprout but what I hear always sounds like weird combinations that, even if they worked, would leave me wishing for a cheesy hot dog after. But I tried Levitski’s herb salad with beef carpaccio:

And it was really a fine thing, beautifully balanced. Okay, I might still need the cheesy hot dog after a whole meal of such light and delicate things, but I was impressed nonetheless.

The evening wound down, the guy from NoMI was down to his last beer can chicken…

There weren’t as many dessert choices as last year, and many of them ran out by the time we were seriously hunting sweets to finish off the meal. MK showed up with an actual ice cream truck, but what they were serving was actually cherry slushies (alcoholic slushies, I should point out), and my wife staked out the first position:

A most refreshing end to a long evening of eating. Because you didn’t think that was everything we tried, did you? I didn’t even have a chance to mention the Dietzler Beef Italian beef from Vie, or the pork belly slider with peach chutney from Blue 13, or the blueberry lemonade from North Shore Distillery….

Donatella Majore had La Cucina di Donatella in Rogers Park for much of the early 2000s, and most of the reviews of her new place suggest that she has followers wowed by her Italian charm who are happy to have her back in new digs in Evanston. The Rogers Parker who invited me to try the place had a more jaundiced take: “It’s BYOB and cheap for what you get, which makes up for the fact that sometimes you can hear her reaming the staff in back. I don’t think anyone works here too long.”

That gibes with my memory of some of the posts on LTHForum about her past place. And within the first three minutes of our arrival, she’s ordered him to rearrange how his bicycle is parked, we’ve had a battle of wills over whether we’re going to be squeezed into a tiny two-top in a largely empty restaurant (we win, but we’re denied the best choice of the available four-tops), and practically the instant we sit down, she’s on us to order already, dammit. (Oh, and she rearranged my paper menu to make sure it didn’t get wet from my water glass. Twice. Once while it was in my hand.)

We engage in passive resistance, ordering an appetizer while we consider our entrees despite her clear preference that we order everything now. The place does fill up on a Thursday night, though it’s never completely full (and the table we were denied is empty most of the evening), and as it does, the service goes from harriedly pushy to long delays between courses, negating whatever benefit might have come from pressing us to order quickly. But take a bemused approach to the service and you’ll understand the charms of this place, an open-air Mediterranean cafe on a strip full of packed, utterly boring suburban restaurants (Prairie Moon, Tommy Nevin’s Pub, some sushi place that seems to have been assembled from a Hipster Sushi Restaurant In a Box kit). Modest pricing, BYO, fresh air and a general feeling of realness make for a pleasantly unpretentious night in the burbs… for what my friend can’t help noticing is a decidely older, upscale North Shore crowd.

“Evanston is 20% black and 10% Latino, and I’ve seen one black person here all night,” he observes.

“They must all be at Tommy Nevin’s drinking Guinness,” I say.

So how was the food? It was fine, at this price. A grilled seafood salad at, I think, $11 delivered a heaping plate of a bunch of different things (baby octopus, calamari, scallops, shrimp), all cooked correctly with a hint of char, simple and exactly what you want. My friend had mahi mahi (salt crusted, they said, but filleted in the kitchen), which was also simple and exactly what it should be, except maybe for more exciting sides than a lump of spinach and a lump of green beans. I had linguine with lobster, with lots of properly cooked lobster but slightly boring pasta and rather oily sauce. My orange ricotta cake was minimalist and nicely light; his “vulcan” (a version of the chocolate gooey center cake) was rich and decadent. It’s kind of 1992 Italian food, but that’s fine in a neighborhood place. This is not a crowd desperately seeking the next new thing.

The only real downside, once you take the “charm” in stride, is the plastic cafe chairs, which would be fine for coffee and a croissant, but which I was ready to be out of long before our check for dinner came. If Donatella had said up front “Trust me, you’re going to wish you’d ordered quickly once you’ve sat in these chairs a while,” we might have been more willing to follow her orders.

Donatella’s Mediterranean Bistro
1512 Sherman Ave.
(847) 328-7720

Sometimes you feel like you’re on a movie set in Chicago. Years ago I was walking down Rush Street and I saw a sailor, in his white sailor suit and cap and black cross tie, pop his head out of the top of a limousine and toss a flower to a pretty girl who was walking by, as if he were Gene Kelly in an MGM musical.

I kind of felt like that at the Chicago Reader’s party last night; the setting (an ex-factory loft space filled with oh-so-political art) and the crowd (hipster) was such a perfect picture of Friday night in the big city.  I’m sure many of these kid-free people actually do something like this every Friday night, but it’s been long enough since I was one of them that it felt kind of hyperreal to me.

The party, which my associate Dr. Hammond said was much more elaborate than past Reader events, was to celebrate the Best of Chicago issue, and bring together Reader staffers, Reader contributors, and people honored in the Best of.  But all I saw and met was people I already knew from the restaurant biz, like Barry Sorkin of Smoque or Nick Kokonas of Alinea; the only Reader person I met the whole night was Cliff Doerksen at the very end, literally on the way to the parking lot as I was leaving.  (I congratulated him on his James Beard award, and told him how much I hated him.)

I heard that some Reader folks might have been boycotting it because of the firing of editor Alison True, or simply didn’t feel like going to a party right after that (which may be a distinction without a difference).  I expect the management felt it was important to hold the party anyway, or maybe especially now, to help get past the bad feelings.  Yet they weren’t really there either, in actuality or spirit.  I think they should have taken the risk of the Reader’s notoriously rambunctious staff booing them or whatever, and taken a microphone at some point and made a real statement of… something or other.  Brass balls and alligator-hide skin have never been bad things for a publisher to have, and tend to earn the respect of a rebellious staff.  As it was, it kind of felt like the Reader threw a party but had somewhere else to be that night.

Thanks for the food and drink, though, guys.  This was the best cocktail of the night, Adam Seger’s Hum botanical spirit mixed (by Seger himself) with I think lavender-jasmine tea or some such thing.  Very floral, but Hum is great stuff.  Also enjoyed Smoque brisket, Mundial Cocina Mestizo tamales, some tasty meatballs from Sable, cake balls from Bleeding Heart Bakery, and so on.  (I also couldn’t help but think of the recent scandal over a blogger getting his wedding catered by restaurants he covered.  Those naughty bloggers!)

The Hammonds demonstrate their bona fides as good citizens of the People’s Republic of Oak Park.

I salute this woman for seizing her Marilyn Monroe moment and not minding if a total stranger took pictures of it.  Like I said, sometimes life is like the movies.

I liked the idea of Big Jones a little more than the reality of it, the first time I went.  That was almost two years ago and the restaurant was fairly new; it was a good enough meal for the price that I offered some qualified hope for the future:

The menu is still somewhat short and limited to pretty familiar things— gumbo, pulled pork, steak (!)— but maybe, over time, it will dig deeper into Southern traditions and become a Chicago equivalent of some of the innovative new Southern restaurants.

Actually, I feel like I do that too much— write that a place might turn into some other place, eventually. You should review the restaurant in front of you and not what it might become; generally speaking, restaurants get worse, not better. But there is some chance, at least, that one will get into a groove and sharpen their vision and, hey, just get better at competence. It happens.

I paid some attention to the ups and downs of Big Jones on LTHForum, but what really interested me in going again was reading chef Paul Fehribach’s blog, because he was doing exactly what I’ve been doing off and on for the last few years. Like me, he grew up in a midwestern state with just tinges of southern food around the edges, but it was enough to create a love for it as a deeper, richer heritage to explore than one’s own regional cuisine (and Midwest, I love ya, but we both know there’s just a lot more going on in the South). Like me, he’s dug into old cookbooks and adapted local produce to Southern recipes. Okay, he’s probably done about 1000 times more of it than I have, but the point is, I liked where he was coming from. Another chef whose blog was tasty enough to make me want to see if the food was, too.

And in short: yes, it pretty much is. I’m not sure how much more Southern it is than it was before. Sometimes it was, like the really tasty sweet-sour chow-chow in the picture at the top, which went with this head cheese:

Apart from the pickled okra and whatnot around it, though, the head cheese could have come from Mado or Old Town Social or The Purple Pig; there was nothing specifically Southern about it. But at the same time, hey, it could have come from Mado or Old Town Social or The Purple Pig; it tasted of superior meat and delicately exact seasoning, and with the combination of dijon mustard and sweet-vinegary chow chow, it was pretty terrific and a credit to any chef’s charcuterie skills.

So that’s kind of what I think about Big Jones now: the Southern thing varies from dish to dish, but the level of execution is plainly much higher than two years ago, taking very high quality, frequently local ingredients and doing as right by them as anybody in the same price range. I don’t think crawfish gnocchi is terribly common on the bayou, and jerk-seasoned skirt steak with chimmichurri sounded a lot like the kind of dishes you find in upscale Mexican restaurants, where Mexican flavors are forced into the a-steak-and-a-side format of American dining— but both were very tasty, the steak cooked perfectly and the heat and chimmichurri giving it a touch of the exotic, the gnocchi light and fluffy and serving as a great textural base for the slightly fishy red pepper sauce:

And when we did get something that was pretty much classic Southern, it was very well done. As C.J.’s Eatery has evidently closed, I will be in mourning and wearing black this weekend for their shrimp and grits, but it’s at least some consolation to know that Big Jones has a very good upscale version, creamy grits set off by a salty Tasso ham gravy, the grits actually made in-house. I don’t mean cooked in-house, I mean:

traditional grits are produced by soaking dried corn kernels in a solution of baking soda, lime, or wood ash (“lye water”) for a day or two. The kernel’s shell pops off, and the kernel swells to twice its size. Kernels are rinsed more than once, then dried, and finally ground into grits.

Yow, that’s some dedication, compared to simply calling Anson Mills to place an order.  I was less excited by tea-brined pork, which was pleasantly cooked pork, but didn’t get anything from the tea that I particularly tasted; and I wasn’t wild about dessert. We had a couple of some kind of doughnut made with rice flour, which was pretty good, but it came accompanied by frozen cherries, which I think was supposed to make them refreshing but made them sort of like chewing erasers. And a cherry pie with benne (sesame seed) ice cream had good flavor, but not much delicacy.  (It was also a freebie from the chef, I should point out.)  This is a region that likes its sweets, I know there’s more interesting and better things out there. Still, when we tallied up the meal, the several standouts easily outweighed the few others.

At the end of the meal Fehribach came out to talk to us and confirmed much of what I came to feel over the course of it— that he has worked steadily to improve the restaurant since its opening, buying better ingredients, working on more authentic recipes, getting better at his job. One thing he said— it could have been flattery, but I’m gonna take it and run with it— is that he was inspired to try to use only sustainable seafood after attending the Supreme Lobster event at the Shedd and seeing my video about sustainable seafood.

Sure enough, those were Laughing Bird shrimp in the grits, talked about in the video.  Frankly, there’s something a little bland about them, but this is what you want to use them for, something that has plenty of other flavor that would overwhelm delicate shrimp flavor anyway. If you’re paying that much attention to the shrimp, there’s not enough cream or cheese in your grits. That was not a problem Big Jones’ grits had.

Ketchup Boy and his older brother pose in front of the world’s largest bottle of ketchup, Collinsville, Illinois.

Before and after eating burgers in Wichita (recounted here), I sampled a number of other interesting, and at least one surprising, thing in the midwest. Strap in and let’s go:

Frank’s Pizza, Silvis, Illinois
Silvis is the town that wasn’t big enough to become one of the Quad Cities. Cathy Lambrecht suggested this as somewhere to eat a few hours out of Chicago toward Des Moines, and it lived up to what I expected for vaguely Italian midwestern pizza. The building was cinderblock-American Legion-lounge in feel, the place was packed on Saturday night with locals, the pizza was entirely decent old school, but the giveaway that you’re not in Chicago any more is the sausage. In Chicago it would be clumps of flavorful fennel and red pepper filled sausage, but in the rest of America, sausage on a pizza is something like bland breakfast sausage crumbled to tiny gerbil-food bits. Honestly, it’s like a sausage Maid-Rite in texture and taste. This is why I never ate sausage on a pizza until I moved to Chicago. The cheese was pretty good, though, and the pie is cut in strips, a weird way of slicing pizza found in some south suburbs (eg. Calumet City) as well.

Fiorella’s Jack Stack, Kansas City, Missouri
I had a long list of Kansas City barbecue places I wanted to try… which got shorter real fast when I saw how few were open on Sunday. So that pretty much put us at the outlet of this venerable KC spot located in the dazzling grand hall of the old railroad Freight House in downtown KC. Decor and barbecue quality are usually not very closely related, however, and that was kind of how I felt about Jack Stack. I admire the restoration of this great old building, and the clubby steakhouse atmosphere is pleasant, if atypical for Kansas City barbecue; but they should have one upscale place like this, and if one popped up serving this food in River North, say, it would be a great asset to Chicago. But as Kansas City barbecue goes, it was just fair— the rub on the ribs was salty, other things like “burnt ends”* were surprisingly bland. Beans were great, but that’s a small thing. We would have better on the way back.

* No longer true burnt ends, ie., the too-charred-to-sell edges, which places like Arthur Bryant’s used to set out for free for you to nibble on or season your sandwich with; but chunks of end piece brisket.

Cafe Asia, Wichita
Not many ethnic cuisines where Wichita outdoes Chicago, but by having at least two Malaysian restaurants, that puts Wichita two ahead of the none in Chicago. This one was especially an ironic visit for me because it used to be the home of Georgie Peorgie pancake house, an all-American restaurant run by Koreans where my sisters worked for years in high school and summers home from college as waitresses. Judging by the age of the clientele when they worked there, most of their Sunday-morning-after-church customers must be in the grave by now, so I wasn’t surprised it was something else; but it hasn’t changed that much, except that now there are a few Malaysian dishes on the menu, which is to say, fairly mild but pleasant (and huge) plates of curry-scented noodles, very much like what the 80s-90s chain Hi Ricky! in Chicago used to serve.

L.C.’S Bar-B-Q, Kansas City, Missouri
The place I really wanted to try in KC was L.C.’s, located southeast of downtown toward Independence. It was worth the wait, a smoke-encrusted brick building on an unlovely highway whose floors were greasy enough to ice skate in your gym shoes on. In short, the real deal— and of the three main things we tried, one was fair (a sliced pork sandwich), one was very good (ribs, with lots of smoke flavor and a hammy taste and color a little like Black’s in Llano, Texas), and one was Thank-You-Jesus fantastic: the burnt ends. Again, these were cubes of brisket with at least one exterior side, not bits of pure char, but the flavor of these smoky chunks in the slightly spicy, tangy sauce was as good as anything I ever had in Texas, where brisket is also king. This easily jumped to the top of my KC barbecue recommendations, as representing a place that most definitely is not living on past laurels (as many of the others can be said to be) but is the vital heart of barbecue right now. Fries were really good, too.

Later that day we arrived at the Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis— and if there’s a more crowded, blighted stretch of major interstate than I-70 west of St. Louis, someone should open a Denny’s every 50 feet on it like they have here. We were there for a legal event my wife was attending which included a number of meals, so I didn’t really get to try anything of note in St. Louis. The banquet that night turned out to have a downhome theme— and so, after eating sublime brisket at L.C.’s, we dined far more expensively on much more ordinary brisket claiming to represent the same culture. Ironically, for all we know the chefs may have grown up on places like L.C.’s, in a city like St. Louis it’s very possible, but thanks to advanced culinary training, everything you love about a place like that has been expensively boiled out of them and replaced by bland professional proficiency at making whatever the hotel needs that night. Progress.

Another blogger, one with a paying gig, mentioned to me the other day that she was going to have to start doing video for her job.  There’s an idea for a blog post from me if ever I heard one!  Lots of journalists are doing video these days and lots of them, sad to say, are doing video that doesn’t live up to the polish and professionalism of their writing.  So I thought I’d put down a few pointers about how to make a basically competent, interesting, well-enough-made video, based on the… well, I don’t even want to think how many hours I’ve shot by now, but I’ve created enough finished product to have made Lawrence of Arabia already, with a Bowery Boys movie as a chaser.

Note that these are not trying to teach you how to make videos exactly like I do stylistically, or even in a similar format but with your own style.  This is strictly about basic pointers, self-preservation for getting something you can work with to make something worth showing in the end— on a consumer-level camera with no crew or any other form of professional support. And though food is obviously my example, the advice here is pretty much applicable to any subject which an ink-stained reporter might find himself suddenly charged with making video about.  I will start with the three things you have to, HAVE TO, pay critical attention to, and then follow up with a few secondary pointers.


1. Visuals
No shit, Cecil B., you say.   But it’s not enough to simply point your camera wherever your eye looks and think you’ll have a movie in the end.  Basically you need to focus on actively getting three forms of visuals:
• Master shots
• Insert shots
• Money shots

For instance, if you’re doing interviews, then the interviews are the thing you need to get first; they’re your master shot, the shot that provides the framework for everything else.  And to get that, you need to point your camera at the person talking.  And keep it there until you get the whole piece.  They will say “Watch while I do this” and then what you need to do is IGNORE their direction to move the camera and look at what they’re doing and keep it on them while they talk.  Or, you need to make it clear to them that they have to stop talking while you get the shot.  But what they’re doing will be an insert shot into this master shot.  So get your master shot, then take the time to get your inserts, one by one.

Inserts, as noted, are the closeups of plates or action or whatever that you put into your master shot.  You need these not only because people will naturally want to see what is being talking about, but because you’ll use them in editing to hide cuts and pace the piece. Don’t expect to get these on the fly; even the cameramen on Top Chef often barely manage to grab these before food is gone, you’ll often see one that’s borderline out of focus or whatever, because it’s all they got in the hurry of competition.  Plan to take some time at beginning or end to systematically capture these and have a full library of them when you’re done.  You’ll always wish you had more.

And money shots… no, it’s not just about food porn.  A money shot is the cool shot that everybody remembers afterwards, the one that tells the whole story, almost, in a single image.  When you get one you know it.  When the guy at Sun Wah inflated a duck with a gas station air hose, I knew I had a money shot.  When the whitefish fishermen were pulling rope from the water against a painterly sky like sailors in Moby Dick, it was a money shot.  This is just a matter of watching for gold out of the corner of your eye… while you do everything else.

Do you really need insert and money shots while doing a 90-second standup interview with somebody?  Well, no, I guess not.  But anything more elaborate than that will benefit from even a little careful thought and artistry applied to making sure you tell your story with images as well as with words. And that’s the difference between you telling the story and some bystander merely capturing it with their cell phone.

2. Sound
Another no shit item, you say, but it’s critically important.  Especially if you’re working on one of those little Flip cameras or something.   You’ll be shooting under noisy conditions, guaranteed, so you need to know what it takes to get decent, audible sound out of whatever camera you have.  So at least wear an earpiece to make sure you’re getting something— a pro would wear complete headphones and only hear the captured audio, but I usually do it with half a set of earbuds in one ear— and do what you gotta do, such as getting up close and, again, capturing the whole thing, don’t move the camera away if it means the mic will be moving away too.

Somebody once sent me some Flip video they’d taken of a chef at work and asked if I could help clean up the sound.  The problem was, they’d shot the work, not the chef talking, and as a result, aimed the mic at the food the whole time, not at the chef’s mouth.  Understandably, they’d focused on the visuals, but the result was that the audio just wasn’t there; there’s nothing you can do about it at that point.  Know what you’re getting while you’re getting it.

3. Edit, Edit, Edit!
It floors me when good journalists who’d sweat a print piece to perfection put a 5 minute unedited take up on the web.  The falloff in viewership during the first minute must look like a black diamond ski run.

If someone’s making a blintz, we don’t need to see the whole thing from start to finish.  Cut it down, cut to the interesting steps, cut down what they say to get to the heart of the matter, cut out the uhs and false starts and cover them with an insert shot.  But cut, cut, cut, tighten, tighten, tighten, until you reach the point that there’s nowhere in your piece where you feel tempted to click to something else, and the whole thing surprises you that it ran seven minutes because it only felt like three or four.  Editing is so easy in programs like iMovie, it takes no skill (I use Final Cut, which takes a little but is hardly rocket science).  Your movie is made in editing the way your story only happens once you actually start typing; everything up to that point is just gathering raw material.

So those are the big three you can spend a lifetime getting better at.  Here are some pointers based on experience, sometimes bitter, hardwon experience:

• Keep it steady, stupid… You can get by with some shakycam as you get your inserts, say, but if you’ve got a talking head, try to keep it as steady as possible.  The best investment I ever made was $150 for this, I use it everywhere, but I also shoot handheld all the time… but try not to let it show too much.  Steadiness in your master shot plus a more rough and ready style in your inserts cuts together very well and feels lively, yet won’t make anybody nauseous.

• …Especially if you’re using a Flip-style camera. The shotgun style of shooting handheld is natural for shooters and audiences.  The idea of holding something shaped like a deck of cards is not; there’s still something alien to us as viewers about the way people shoot with that shape and weight, including a temptation to whip it around.  Think of it as weighing ten pounds in your hand, and move it slowly and deliberately, like a barge.  The video below was obviously shot with one, and it’s not a bad thing by any means, but I think you can just feel that it’s coming from something light and flimsy that jerks around too easily.  Give it the heft of a big camera as you shoot.

• Vary your shots… especially if you’re using a Flip-style camera. There’s a temptation, especially with a small camera, to treat it like an extension of your eyes and shoot from your own perspective.  Actually slightly below your eye level is often better because it makes your subjects a little heroic (unless it just makes them fat).  But change viewpoint from time to time, including at different stages in your interview, just for visual relief.  And get on top of the food and get it from whatever angle makes a great shot.

• Kill any background audio you can. Music will mess up your ability to cut, even if you don’t care about rights issues.  It’s also distracting.  If people are banging stuff, see if you can get them to take a break, or just go somewhere else.  There’s no such thing as clean audio around food, and they’re not going to shut off a walk-in fridge for you, but do what you can.

• Clean your lens frequently. Food splatters, ’nuff said.  I’ve discovered a glob on my lens just small enough to not show up on the LCD viewfinder more times than I care to remember. (Forget expensive lens cleaning stuff, get a lens cloth and a bottle of saline solution at the drugstore.)

• Script some interview questions ahead of time. You won’t remember everything while you’re worrying about everything else in a shoot.  Also, you sound much better asking “How did you become interested in broccoli?” rather than “Okay, so I know— well, I read that piece that called you like the king of broccoli, not that you don’t do other, you know, like vegetables and stuff, and I was wondering— I mean, was there, you know…”

• Don’t talk over your interview subjects. Try to keep their speech as clean and whole as possible.  Don’t have a conversation unless you really want your voice in there.  Phrase a question, then let them talk and finish, completely.  You’ll be glad you did when you’re trying to cut it.

• Don’t talk too much, period. If you have to explain everything with narration, it might as well be a print piece.  I work hard at paring my setup down to as much haiku-like brevity as I can.  It may not seem like it at first, but listen to the opening of my Chef/Farmer video, say, and see how quickly and briefly I set up a whole bunch of concepts about their relationship and the issues of scaling up artisanal farming.  Then… I shut up for the whole of Mark Mendez’s part, and my voice only pops up a couple of times with David Cleverdon to pose questions.  It’s not about me; I get my viewpoint in because I get final say on what they say.

• Don’t shoot too much. Steve Dolinsky said this and frankly, it’s one I don’t follow, because I’m not on deadline, and I can take two months to boil four hours of conversation into ten minutes. (I put long conversations on my iPod and listen to them while I cook or drive the kids to school, to find out where the best parts are without having to watch the same shot for four hours.) But if you have to finish your video in a day, exercise some editing control while shooting and get the key points down quickly from your subject so you have 20 minutes of raw footage to go through, not 6 hours (which is not at all unusual for me, but again, I’m not trying to make tonight’s 6 o’clock news).

• Charge your batteries and remember to pack them. Not that I ever made a bonehead rookie mistake like that, oh no.

James Lemons at Lem’s Bar-B-Q.

So I’ve got a couple of things in the new Time Out Chicago, or at their site, that you should check out:

I did interviews with four leading barbecue pitmasters here.

Me being me, I took my video camera along. A fun two-minute video on one topic with those four barbecue pitmasters is here; I’ll be doing more with that material and other BBQ interviews in the next Sky Full of Bacon.

I also wrote a piece, I believe for the same issue, on the “aquarium” smoker seen at most of Chicago’s best BBQ establishments, but I can’t find it online as yet. Here it is. Thanks to Peter “Rene G” Engler for fact-checking that one (since the facts probably came from him as much as anywhere in the first place).

Two ideologies, one American and individualist, the other rooted in a pitiless foreign dogma, challenging one another not via arms, but through a peaceful competition, to achieve a dream that mankind had known since its earliest days…

…I refer, of course, to online debates as to whether plain American road food made by democratic ordinary joe cooks can be considered fine cuisine, or if that honor is to be reserved for the products of severe, hierarchical French kitchens.  Not long ago Steve Plotnicki, that up-to-the-minute bellwether of the state of hoity-toitiness in America, fired a Sputnik of absolutism across the night sky of LTHForum by stating:

Fact. Hamburgers and steaks aren’t art. The closest you can get to a hamburger being art is the DB Burger as it is a composed dish. Toppings on a hamburger just don’t rise to the level of being an actual culinary composition.

In short, a hamburger can’t be art unless it’s so Frenchified that it’s no longer recognizable as itself.  On the contrary, I believe that a well-made hamburger and fries is as perfectly constructed and balanced a peasant meal as any product of rustic French tradition— combining the rich pagan satisfactions of beef over fire with a delicate combination of sweetness (ketchup), salty vinegariness (mustard, pickle), umami (ketchup again), onion bite and dairy lushness (cheese).  Add potatoes (more saltiness, more friedness, more ketchup) and you have the meal which rightly defines America.

Which is not to say that its virtues aren’t often observed in the breach.  Last year we drove the Family Truckster to Wyoming, a state where lunch could be summed up with the single phrase “Where are we going to eat a hamburger today?”  Without exception, the hamburgers were as indistinguishably functional as the gas we bought at the gas stations, sheer fuel made with frozen patties and served with a side of pale blond foodservice potato-stubs.

The first three days we were in Kansas, we also ate hamburgers— but this time it was by choice, and what a difference it was to be in a state where frying a hamburger is a noble calling.  Kansas and Wyoming are both cattle country, but for whatever reason, it’s the beef states of the midwest which take the hamburger most seriously.  60 years of fast food has taken its toll; you wouldn’t say that every small town still has a drive-in where the meat is ground fresh and patted by hand.  But a lot of them do.

When I was growing up in Wichita, my two favorites, arrived at by a long process of sampling, were Bill’s Big 6 and Livingston’s Diner.  Bill was a survivor of the Bataan Death March, which earned him indulgence for whatever racist or crackpot stuff came out of his mouth in later years, not to mention the unbelievable jet black toupee perched atop his head; it was his place and if you didn’t like it, you were free to go somewhere else.  Bill and Mary Lamb retired some time back and, in all likelihood, Bill has joined his band of brothers in Valhalla; Livingston’s is still around, but I didn’t make it there and, if I did, it would probably be for a chicken fried steak anyway (for me, the standard by which every one in the 30 years since has fallen short).  Instead, my first visit was to a mini-chain which first appeared while I was in high school, Bionic Burger, and quickly formed the third of the great burger triumvirate of my youth.

Bionic Burger actually had its origins in Oklahoma, the rude and untutored wilderness to civilized Kansas’ south, and its Okie origins showed in those days in the sketchily ramshackle restaurant on the dirt-road south side of town where the fat, overalled cook would sit rolling balls of meat and setting them on squares of paper.  When a burger was ordered, he would slap the paper onto the grill with his hand, and peel it back to reveal a jagged-edge patty on the grill.

Bionic Burger has cleaned things up a bit since then; the one I went to, besides being located in an old Long John Silver’s on the tonier northeast side, now puts the burger-making process out of sight (and to judge by the results, uses some kind of patty-forming device).  Still, this is an exemplary burger by every standard, fresh-ground meat with a bright taste of salt and pepper. the right kind of white bun (springy top but not so much bread that it interferes with the meat; few bakeries seem to get this right in Chicago), and thick fresh-cut fries which came out with a little too much vegetable oil sticking to them, and in much too big a quantity (word of advice: almost anywhere in Wichita, a regular order for one is enough fries for two), but still better than a Five Guys’ franchise’s best day.  Though Kansas and Oklahoma may be distinct political ecosystems (Kansas is libertarian Great Plains, Oklahoma Bible-belt Southern), on burgers they are of one mind.

The next day we went to Hutchinson, about 45 minutes to Wichita’s north.  For being the closest town of any consequence, it’s surprising how rarely I ever went to Hutch in my childhood, but it didn’t take long to see why: it’s a pretty depressed place, dusty and out-of-date looking like a lot of Rust Belt towns in Indiana or Michigan.  But then you’re driving in a neighborhood of modest houses and beatup cars, and suddenly come upon this:

Believe it or not, obscure and rather down-at-heel Hutchinson is home to the second or third best collection of space stuff in the world, ranking with the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  How, you ask?  Well, back in the 60s the director of the local planetarium started collecting stuff that NASA had discarded, and consulting for space movies and TV programs (often in exchange for the props after they were done with them), and later, as the Soviet Union crumbled, he began wheeler-dealing with the Soviet space program, too.  Sadly, he eventually went to jail for mixing his official and personal space junk dealings, but the result is a museum you’ve never heard of that has both a genuine German V-1 and V-2, the exact replica of Chuck Yeager’s Glamorous Glennis from The Right Stuff, a full size lunar lander they helped build for NBC’s space coverage, spacesuit and camera replicas from Apollo 13, a Soviet Vostok space capsule (used), Gus Grissom’s Mercury capsule that sank when the hatch blew and was recovered 30 years later, and much more, a surprisingly comprehensive tribute to the greatest battlefield of the Cold War.  Really, it’s astonishing how good a museum this is for being in the middle of nowhere (quite literally, given that we’re talking central Kansas), I can’t recommend a detour here highly enough for anyone crossing the US on I-70, say.

Along the way, Hutch decided to make an attraction out of its only other point of note, the massive salt mines located 650 feet below the surface which, besides providing road salt to Chicago for decades, are also used for safe underground storage by Hollywood of treasures like the negatives of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.  The only thing more improbable than finding a Vostok space capsule in Hutchinson, then, is to find the Batman suit with nipples from the George Clooney Batman movie 650 feet below it:

The kids, frankly, loved the subterranean creepiness of the salt mine even more than the space stuff. Anyway, back to burgers.  In between Bruce Wayne and Yuri Gagarin, we came into town along an industrial strip, and were immediately smitten by a place called Oliver’s Burger and Bait:

This was no cutesy cracker-humor name, either; the actual bait shop is located in a shed out back, and at one point during service the waitress had to go open it for a customer.

I wouldn’t say Oliver’s was a great burger (I actually had a chili burger, for variety; the chili was canned), but it was a perfectly decent one, and more than that, it was a demonstration of what is so appealing about the midwest.  From the moment we walked in, city slickers all, and found the staff and the regulars joking good-naturedly, we were made at home, inquired after (“Didn’t think I’d seen y’all in here before”) and quickly included in the friendly joshing by which they pass the day.  In the end, we walked out not only cheerfully fed, but in possession of the gift of a T-shirt for my 8-year-old (“Burger and Bait: If we’re not cookin’ we’re hookin’”), last one in stock, on the house.  Thanks, guys, for making us feel at home.

The last burger I tried while in the greater Wichita-Hutch area was one that apparently has been around for decades, but which I had never heard of.  As the name suggests, Bomber Burger is located way down south in the heart of Wichita’s military-industrial complex, near the Boeing military plant that’s the city’s largest employer, and McConnell Air Force Base, no doubt serving burgers and brewskis to the crews who literally built and flew the bombers that were the other side of the aeronautical struggle with the Russkies.  Well, someone growing up on the white collar east side of town had little enough reason to ever go to that part of town, though I might have recognized one or two of the old roadhouses (the kind with dancers) down on K-15.  (For more information see my friend Scott Phillips’ crime novel set in the 70s Wichita demimonde, The Ice Harvest.) If the Cold War comes dressed in noble aspirations at the Cosmosphere, here’s the Kansas blue collar democratic ethos in its most raucously independent-minded mode:

Spangles, incidentally, is a local burger chain of no particular distinction.  Not sure why Bomber Burger should have chosen them as an enemy to replace the Soviets, but it’s so typical of the redneck-libertarian Kansas spirit to do something like that, and if you were going to be offended by Bill’s Big 6, you really don’t want to go to Bomber Burger and start reading the walls, where ex-wives, non-Phillies fans (maybe the owner’s from there originally?) and President Obama come in for equally sardonic treatment. Me, I had a great old time, not least because I dragged my sons and their girl cousin there and sat them at the bar (“Now children, this is what we call a ‘shitkicker’ bar”).  Much of the conversation, rougher (note the “no guns” symbol above my son’s head there) but still in its own way as welcoming as at Oliver’s, had to do with how the fellow seated next to me had acquired the nickname “Dirty Amish Hippie.”  (Somebody called him that in a fight in a bar, and he laughed for ten minutes straight, ending the fight.)

Ah, to be back among my people.

Anyway, the Bomber Burger is a real bomber, a fat 1/2 pound or so compared to the thin patties typically served in the area, but it was made with the same automatic, why-would-you-do-it-any-other-way freshness and handmadeness of the other burgers we ate, and the burger and fries were every bit as good as the atmosphere.  After three days of burgers, there wasn’t time or stomach to try Walt’s or Takhoma Burger or Ty’s or Livingston’s or West Street, here’s a guy with a whole list of burger joints which I mostly haven’t tried yet, but at least I was certain that the iconic American meal continued to be in very good hands in my hometown— and, whether or not it was art, to certainly represent a high level of craft.

Thanks for the burgers, and the welcome.  Dos vedanya until next time, y’all.

Bionic Burger
6121 East 21st Street
Wichita, KS 67208
other locations

Oliver’s Carry Out: Burgers and Bait
228 E 4th Ave
Hutchinson, KS 67501

Bomber Burger
4860 South Clifton Avenue
Wichita, KS 67216-3066

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