Sky Full of Bacon

Meet three butchers who are changing the way we grow food and consume it— by finding their way back to a more traditional way of raising meat. Rob Levitt of Chicago’s The Butcher & Larder, Paul Kahan of Chicago’s Publican Quality Meats and Bartlett Durand of Black Earth Meats in Black Earth, Wisconsin are each reconnecting chefs, consumers and farmers in their own way. Butchers are hip now, and that’s part of their appeal in this video too, but it also shows that there’s more to it than that in the ways these butchers use meat to create community. (28:49)

Please note: while this video does not show slaughter, it does show plenty of meatcutting, because that’s what butchers do.


Here’s my coverage of this video’s premiere at Uncommon Ground, at an event with, and here’s my post about the event at last year’s Family Farmed Expo (now renamed Good Food Festival & Conference) which inspired this video to a considerable degree, by showing me how these three guys were interrelated. (They appeared with Ellen Malloy and with Herb Eckhouse of La Quercia, who I already made a video about.) Here’s the trailer for that event.

Here are links to the three butchers featured in it:
The Butcher & Larder
Publican Quality Meats
Black Earth Meats

Paul Kahan (and two of his restaurants) were in this earlier video and this one; Rob Levitt and the restaurant he used to have were in this one.

Some years ago I went to Florence and Siena. The image of dining in Italy that Americans have is idyllic— every Olive Garden ad bloodsucks that image of the table of hearty food and warm family in our collective head— so it often surprises people when I say that I found it almost impossible to find anything good to eat on that trip. Well, for dinner; for lunch we would stop at the central market or the bakeries nearby, and that stuff was always cheap and fantastic. Here was the bounty of amazing-tasting simple stuff that is Italy’s birthright. But let them actually cook it into a dish… there was the pasta place so bad we waved other tourists away, like the damned warning the living that there was still time to save themselves, and there was the Florentine steak place we picked out of Michelin which forever defined Michelin for me (snobbish, insanely expensive, twenty years behind the times). Honestly, one of the best dinners we had in Florence was Chinese food. It was almost as good as the old school Cantonese in Wichita.

Now it is many years later, Chowhound and LTHForum and Sky Full of Bacon and Grub Street Chicago later, and I think I understand better how to avoid crap places and suss out promising ones, in any culture. First, of course, is just to go where someone you trust says you should go; more on that anon. Second is learn how to recognize the signs of crap for tourists— the Coca-Cola-branded signage promising menu turistico, the lavish gelato bar (Americans are drawn to vast arrays of sweets like bees to flowers), etc. I’m not going to say we scored 100%, there were a couple of meals where we wound up spending $50 to feed the four of us hospital cafeteria sandwiches, but I also had several scores where we picked a place, a humble bar or bakery, and spent a relative pittance to have fresh-tasting, beautiful homecooked food served up by a smiling Italian mama or gent straight out of a 50s movie. Like this place:

This was the bakery just around the corner from our friendly B&B near the Colosseum, facing the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, and I could find its address for you, but I don’t want to recommend it (unless you stay at the same B&B), I want you to be able to find yours near where you’re staying. A bustling little bakery, freshly made sheet pizza (pizza al taglio) with simple toppings like ham and mozzarella or potato and rosemary, desserts, a few tables crammed into a space right in front of a door, traffic in and out, stuff like this in the morning:

And it cost nothin’ and I felt like a million Euros for being able to recognize it and direct my family there just a couple of hours off the plane. Same thing when we went to the Vatican, we stopped on the way for a coffee and pastries before our time in the Sistine Chapel (allow me to highly recommend going at Christmas, not because they do all that much different then— it’s not really a place that needs extra religious-themed decoration— but the crowds were a fraction of what they’d be in the high season). The place we stopped was just a little cafe, nothing special:

Luckily I didn’t see the Coca-Cola sign till after. Anyway, coming back at lunchtime we had a recommendation for a nice, if expensive lunch, and we got to it and they were still setting tables and vacuuming, wouldn’t open till 1 or 1:30, so we walked half a block back to the cafe to have something to tide us over for a half hour or so. And we sat there, and guys like this:

were feeding an obviously local crowd with stuff like this:

And it all smelled really good and was dirt cheap and I thought, are we chumps for waiting to eat a $100 lunch for four when this stuff is being served up all around us? Yes, we were. So we stopped being chumps and just had them make up plates of enough food for six or eight, and it was maybe $35 (and half of that was Cokes), and we dug in, and were happy as could be.

Or when we went to this place (again, because a lunch choice wasn’t open yet, after seeing Bernini’s St. Theresa):

And while we were waiting the guy came by with the fresh mozzarella and the mama opened the box and jabbed toothpicks in a couple of them and handed them to us to try:

And on and on like that. One thing I learned along the way: nobody knows how to microwave like the Romans do. Because that’s how a lot of this food was heated up in these little cafes and bars; they don’t have room or time for a big oven, they just pop it in the microwave, yet it was never hardened and rubberized like food is when American restaurants microwave stuff. I suspect part of it is that our microwaves are simply too powerful, compared to theirs; we death-ray our food by comparison. For once the fact that everything in Europe is smaller and underpowered was an advantage. Whatever it is, they know how to use technology without destroying the tradition the food comes out of.

* * *

Now, one place I would unquestionably recommend, just as it was recommended to me— actually, two different parts of the business were recommended to me separately, and I didn’t realize they were the same place until we got there. It’s Roscioli, which you might call kind of the Zingerman’s of Rome— a group of businesses devoted to presenting the best artisanal foodstuffs, which may seem redundant in Rome, but in a city where that humble bar-ball of mozzarella on a toothpick was something special, Roscioli’s are a cut or two above even that. Jared Van Camp recommended the main store for its stunning collection of cured meats from all over the region, as well as the chorus line of prosciutto and jamon iberico legs poised above the salume:

Looking at their website, I saw that Roscioli also served dinner— as it turned out, kind of a popup dinner spread throughout the store. Dining among the olive oils and salume was an irresistible idea, and so we went:

It’s not, I think, that there’s some great chef here, but there’s a good chef making the same stuff you’d have elsewhere, but with ingredients sourced at Roscioli’s level of quality, like a gooey alien-egg of burrata topped with shaved white truffle (you pick the amount by the gram):

Or this platter of mostly housecured meats, including a fantastic testa and a speck-like ham:

Cacio e pepe, the most everyday Roman dish, elevated by the outstanding quality of the parmesan:

Which brings us, though, to a conundrum. Roman pizza, wherever we had it, was great just because the bread was so fresh and simple and delicious, whatever you put on it got a gold frame for its own flavors. But I didn’t feel that way about Roman pasta at all. The best pastas we had were at Roscioli because the best things went in the pasta. Other pastas we had were fine, satisfying enough, but without Roscioli’s sourcing, they were no better than things I’ve had in many places in Chicago, and the pasta itself was always serviceable, not one of those things that makes you go, aha, so that’s why pasta. This was the case at Luzzi, a frequently-recommended-in-guidebooks spot near our B&B, where the wood burning oven’s simple products infinitely outshone our homey (in the not entirely flattering way)* pastas:

I frankly feel there’s more devotion to making great pasta in or about to unveil itself in Chicago (Nellcote, Balena, etc.— at least that’s what their press releases promise) than we saw anywhere in Rome; if there’s someone in Rome obsessed with making the world’s greatest authentic preindustrial pasta, a Poilane of pasta, we didn’t eat his stuff.

Anyway, meanwhile Michael Morowitz had recommended a place called Antico Forno. The trouble was, that just means “old-style oven,” there are “Antico Fornos” all over Rome. What he meant was just up a side street from Roscioli:

This was Antico Forno Roscioli, a bustling bakery with lots of food to go (and almost nowhere to eat). There was sheet pizza:

and an amazing array of baked goods for the Christmas holiday just a couple of days away:

We bought it and sat on the steps of this chapel a block away, like the poor with their crusts of bread:

Except we had this, the greatest ham sandwich of my life, as I mentioned in my ten best list for last year:

Another recommendation from Morowitz was a tiny bakery in the Jewish quarter— more the Jewish block— which he said specialized in a kind of chocolate ricotta cake. Alas, after standing in line for twenty minutes, crowded into it like a phone booth, the ricotta cake was sold out (not sure why the Jewish bakery was as busy as all the others right before Christmas, but it was). I came away with slightly burnt biscotti:

And the irony of remembering that I had seen exactly the thing I’d come here for earlier that day… at Roscioli.

I bet they do a great job with it, too.

Another pizza place that was widely recommended to me, notably by Tony Mantuano who says it inspired the pizzas at his new Bar Toma, was Pizzarium, which I wrote about more fully at Grub Street. It’s just a walk-up stand in a fairly modern neighborhood on the outskirts (easy to get to, though, since it’s just up the street from the Cipro metro stop), but renowned for the excellence of the sourdough crust, which more than Bar Toma’s, reminded me of Great Lake’s (and has a similar overnight retarding period before it’s baked).

There were all kinds of toppings— I regret passing on one that had mandarin orange slices on it— but again, simplest was often the best; the tomato bread with burnt spots was magical. Pizzarium, like Rome generally, demonstrated to me anew that the secret to eating well in Italy is to spend as little as possible… in exactly the right places.


A few extra notes:

* Better in all departments (especially the warm Italian mama welcome) was I Clementini in the same neighborhood:

That said, one night when we were tired we did return to Luzzi and stuck to pizza, and were all happy.

Gelato is everywhere, but everyone seems to agree that one place, off the Trevi Fountain, is a standout, Il Gelato Di San Crispino:

This despite being a bit surly and having few places to sit. I’d agree— for the fruit gelati, especially the pear (praised in the NY Times) and some of the fig ones. Dairy ones seemed less outstanding to me— fine, but not unique.

Here’s a quick, photo-heavy recap of a couple of more things eaten while on a very short Detroit-area trip.

If Mike’s Famous Ham Place didn’t exist, you’d think the Sterns would have invented it— yet astonishingly, it’s not in their book. It’s hard to think of a place that does a better job of pushing all their Road Food buttons— location on a nothing strip of Michigan Ave. in Detroit, beautiful artwork of ham on the outside, an extremely short menu (ham sandwich, ham and eggs, split pea and bean soup), only a counter to sit at, extremely large portions, and the sweetest, cutest Greek couple running it:

Not to mention the charming touch of sticking a chunk of the glazed crust as a garnish on top of your sandwich. My son and I each ordered one of these— for breakfast— and we each could only eat half. Partly because as soon as I started taking pictures, they wanted me to try the soups, too:

Everything was just as good as it looked, just as good as you could imagine it would be. “There are lot of peectures of us on the eenternet,” the wife said, smiling in a slightly-mystified, but good-natured way. Yes, and now there are five more.

Mike’s Famous Ham Place
3700 Michigan Ave
Detroit, MI 48216
(313) 894-6922

Yes, Chicago, there is an automated parking system even more cumbersome and incomprehensible than yours. Welcome to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where parking near Zingerman’s takes 5 minutes to figure out, even for locals, apparently. Next time, find street parking, is my advice.

And there will be a next time because Zingerman’s is, of course, Zingerman’s— a deli and fine foods shop to make any big city in America jealous, located in a college town in the midwest. Actually Zingerman’s is a complex of shops and bakeries now, but the original deli is still there even as the space in between two of its buildings is being excavated for a third (meaning that you order in one building, and they walk your food over to the other through a construction site, the sort of thing that would appall you in Chicago, but just seems adorable here).

As packed and tiny as it is, the deli was a little overwhelming at first, but I made an instant bond with a young woman at the counter when I ordered a quarter of a pound of something I had never eaten even at La Quercia’s plant or the Eckhouses’ house— La Quercia’s Acorn Edition. (I probably shot some of these very hams, two years ago.) This is their acorn-fed Becker Lane pork, sold only by the half or whole pig and shipped when each different piece is ready (so you get fresh pork right away, but won’t see the prosciutto for a couple of years). It’s madly expensive that way, even moreso sold by the hand-slice (at $125 per lb.) (And because it’s sold by the whole ham, the Eckhouses had no way of tasting it themselves until Zingerman’s let them try some of theirs on a visit.) But I guess I established myself as a big spender with that order, and sending her off to hand-slice $30 worth of prosciutto off the bone gave me time to examine my other choices more carefully:

The rows of cured sausages intrigued me, the fact that many of them were from the supermarket brand Columbus less so (even if they were its higher end line), but when she returned with my prosciutto-more-expensive-than-gold, I asked for some help selecting more unusual things, and wound up with a pretty good Spanish-style chorizo from Fra’ Mani and a really excellent wild boar sausage from Creminelli.

Then on to cheese; having tasted practically every cheese in Wisconsin recently, I wanted to skip past those and look at some of the lesser-known things from Vermont and elsewhere, and I spotted an intriguing name: Twig Farm Fuzzy Wheel. “I can’t believe you spotted that,” she said, pulling a tiny remnant from the shelf. “That’s the last piece, but it’s terrific.” She gave me a tiny piece of the buttery-funky cheese and I cried “Wrap it at once, before it is wasted on these rabble!”

My deli purchases in tow, I examined the bake shop. I’ve only ordered from the bake shop once, to be sent to someone else; the prices are so high once shipping speedy enough to keep things fresh is included. My feeling about the bakery is, well worth picking up if you’re here but not necessarily so great to be worth shipping for someone in Chicago. A nice crusty hunk of brown miche was tasty, but locally you could get better for less at La Farine; likewise a pecan-raisin bread, which was very nice but not better than Fox & Obel’s. What was really excellent was the hot cross buns made for Easter, which had real brioche-like texture and tooth. In the end we checked out with $200 of fine stuff and a picnic which would keep us from stopping at some fast food joint on the way back, plus new deli T-shirts for the kids; a stop well spent.

And how was the $125/lb. Acorn Edition prosciutto? Well, it’s pretty wonderful, but I’ll tell you. From ordinary mass-produced prosciutto to La Quercia is a leap in complexity and subtlety, you feel like doors have been opened and your prosciutto palate has been expanded in all directions. From La Quercia’s standard product to the organic green label is another such leap, introducing a cheesy funkiness that’s rich and profound. And from the organic green label to the Acorn Edition is even more of that cheesy funkiness, that lactic bite dialed up to 11— but it’s not a qualitatively different or more complex experience. So for me, as much as I enjoyed finally tasting the Acorn Edition, the organic green label, which you can buy a whole ham of (around 15 lbs.) for $270, is the best deal and the one that gives you the greatest experience for the price. Not that I regret my $30 package of ham one bit— in fact, I may go have to have one of the few remaining slices right now.

Zingerman’s Deli
422 Detroit Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
(734) 663-3354

I wrote about Old Town Social and its made-in-house charcuterie a year ago, so I was excited to have a chance to shoot a Key Ingredient there and finally see its fully certified, HACCP-compliant, all-T’s-crossed-with-the-health-department curing room. You can see it at the start of the video:

Okay, so it just looks like any other walk-in fridge, not the gleaming glass Bond-villain vault of meat I imagined. But if there was nothing extraordinary in how it looked, how it smelled was another matter entirely, and those deep, dripping-fat, curing-meat, phantasmagorically primal smells had me convinced that I needed to get back to the restaurant, soon.

Jared explained to us that he had made a number of improvements to the way he was making his charcuterie and that he felt it had come a lot closer to his mostly Italian ideal in the past year. The first issue, he said, is that he feels American charcuterie is too tart, has too much of a lactic acid bite to it; this, he believes, is because of the most commonly used bacterial cultures in the curing process. It’s a bit like how so many American craft beers taste heavily of the same few commercial hop varieties and thus tend to taste a bit alike. So he switched to a different strain of bacteria to use in the curing process and felt like it had produced a mellower, subtler meat flavor in the end result.

Another change he had made had to do with the culture on the outside of the meat— the one that produces the snow-white mold on the skin of certain sausages. This too has a subtle but definite effect on flavor that is responsible, in some mysterious way, for the authentic Italian taste. After a trip to Italy last year he placed an imported sausage in the curing room and its white mold seemed to spread quickly throughout the sausages hanging in there. This, too, he believes has contributed to a flavor improvement closer to his Italian ideal.

My friend Michael Morowitz and I volunteered to help test these theories by eating mass quantities of Jared’s charcuterie last week:

Although my memories of what I ate a year ago are only so clear, I did feel like compared to the general run of in-house charcuterie in Chicago, Jared’s seemed more authentically Italian overall, subtler and more about meat than about the funk of salt and curing. Several were especially outstanding, such as the pressed sopressata above at right, and the toscano with big cubes of fat next to it; we also very much liked the mortadella, which Michael said reminded him of what he and his wife ate on a train-compartment picnic leaving Bologna, and a smoked sopressata, which was an off-menu mistake— a batch of sopressata was made with the wrong curing powder (No. 1 instead of No. 2, which has both nitrates and nitrites for a more effective longer cure). Frankly, it probably would have been fine, but to ensure its safety, they smoked it a bit. Not heavy with smoke, it nevertheless gained a lot of character from the light kiss of smoky flavor.

He’s also just started work on his second restaurant in Chicago (his company has another in San Diego) which will be in the former Marché space on Randolph. Although Old Town Social’s meats will doubtless make an appearance over there, this time the emphasis will be on a broader range of Italian food, with a similarly artisanal approach taken to pasta. He spoke about how flour is one of the stumbling blocks for locavore cooking— you can make all the stuff that goes on the pizza or pasta locally, but there’s no local mill for locally-grown wheat at the specifications a restaurant requires for its range of dishes; you have to buy the same national or imported products as everyone else. So they’re working on building an in-house mill which will allow them to make everything down to “00” pizza flour in house. It sounds as if it could be a big step up for the local Italian food scene; watch for it somewhere around fall to the holidays.

Saying Jared is enthusiastic about his charcuterie hardly covers it; his enthusiasm spreads as quickly as his authentic Italian white mold, and if you’re an amateur charcuterist yourself, it is well worth not only trying his exceptional stuff but finding the opportunity to talk about it with him. (I suggest quieter nights early in the week at this popular Friday/Saturday night drinking spot.) He’s happy to talk shop and share what he knows (we saw a prosciutto ham in his walk-in that he’s hanging for Chris Pandel of The Bristol) and even to share some of the secrets of his products— he’s making enough of the small sopressata to be selling it from the restaurant on the side, and will happily encourage you to buy one and hang it with your own cured meats to catch his Italian mold. Good guy, good meats.

The Family Farmed Expo is a kind of trade show for better farming and eating. I came mainly for this panel discussion, which was like a Sky Full of Bacon reunion— since it starred Paul Kahan of Blackbird et al. (There Will Be Pork), Herb Eckhouse of La Quercia (Prosciutto di Iowa), Rob Levitt of The Butcher & Larder (A Head’s Tale) and Bartlett Durand of Black Earth Meats in Wisconsin (see this post), moderated by Ellen Malloy (see here). They had a lot of interesting things to say about the meat system and how and why they’re doing things to encourage better meat production and filling in the distribution gap to make things available to the consumer. One point they all seemed to agree on: eat less of chewier, but more flavorful, cuts of meat and you’ll not only have better tasting meat and be healthier, but be more respectful toward the animal and the environment.

“I was hoping I could get through this whole thing without having to speak,” Paul Kahan began his first comment. (He’s no fan of public appearances; when I shot the video three years ago, he talked about how he’d turned Iron Chef down, and later he told me that he also turned down being on Key Ingredient. We’ve arrived!) Anyway, what he did have to say was one of the most interesting bits of new news for me, which is, that the new butcher shop they’re opening next to the Publican is really designed to increase the number of new farmers selling naturally-raised meat in the city to the restaurant trade, by creating a channel of distribution to the public that also will showcase them for the restaurant community and help them grow a customer base among chefs quickly, making it more obviously attractive for them to target this market. Durand said that one problem for farmers is that restaurants will like their stuff so much they’ll overwhelm a single farmer (as was talked about in my video with Mark Mendez and Dave Cleverdon), and this is Kahan’s solution to broaden the pool of farmers selling quality meats beyond the few names like Dietzler or Slagel every restaurant-goer in Chicago has come to know.

Afterwards several of us (if I may use “us” presumptuously) went to the Publican for a party-slash-video shoot. Gastrotommy, a site which seeks out high quality food and wine deals and offers them to its members, and features video interviews about both the products and the world of food and wine more generally, was shooting Herb Eckhouse and Paul Kahan carving a bone-in La Quercia ham in an authentic Spanish-style ham torture device thing:

Kathy Eckhouse with ham.

What the heck do I do with this?

That is Gastrotommy at far right.

This Kahan kid has promise!

They cut little flakes of ham for something like two hours for a couple of dozen people, and only really cut off a chunk the size of a piece of pie. Is there anything on earth that packs so much meaty satisfaction into so little meat as La Quercia prosciutto? It was a great illustration of the earlier session’s point.

After a fine afternoon tasting wine, noshing prosciutto and a pork pie from The Publican, and chatting about ham production with the Eckhouses and video production with the Gastrotommy folks, I tagged along as the Eckhouses got VIP treatment at Big Star. We all felt very, very old there, but at least you can say if the kids of today are eating Paul Kahan’s idea of good meat on Saturday night at hipster taco and beer joints, there’s hope for the future.

Kathy texting their son, who was denied entrance to Big Star the last time he came to Chicago with them because he was underage.

When Rob and Allie Levitt left Mado to start a butcher shop, I was concerned that we’d lost one of the best restaurants in town (and I mean that in a 2 or 3 at most sense, not an airily wide-ranging sense) and would gain a business that couldn’t make it on volume, was just too specialized. Which just shows that Rob sees more in a piece of meat than I do— literally; one of the first things you notice at The Butcher & Larder is just how many product offerings they can make out of the same carcass. But also, he saw more customers out there who would want that sort of thing and be willing to pay for it, and he was evidently right, to judge by his tweets around Valentine’s Day which were more about what he was out of than what he had.

What’s fascinating to me is how readily a decent-sized customer base has taken to their non-supermarket way of selling stuff— we have what we carved out of the animals we have, and if we don’t have what you came in for, we’ll sell you what we do have and tell you how to make it. I’m sure Mado wasn’t the highest volume local-farmer, nose-to-tail restaurant in town, but no other place impressed upon me so strongly what eating by the seasons and making use of everything you get in really amounted to, and not just because I made a video about them. You saw it in their vegetables, too (alas, something you can’t get at The Butcher & Larder), the simplest treatment of what came from the market this week opening your eyes to the flavors of something like sunchokes or beets in a way that nothing ever had before. Meat palace Mado was also the best vegetable restaurant in town, in my book, because of the respect with which they treated the natural, evanescent goodness in everything.

I was thinking about this as I sat down to lunch at The Butcher & Larder:

This was beer-braised pork shoulder. And what’s funny about it is how little Rob evidently cares about the trappings of contemporary dining versus simply doing the right thing by meat. If you got a sandwich like this at another locavorish kind of place— City Provisions, say— you’d get some arty little crispy chips with it, or you’d order a side of beet salad, or something. Or there would at least be some fancy toppings on it, a little shaved fennel pickled in red wine vinegar. They’d make a nice-looking combo out of it. At The Butcher & Larder, you get a generic bag of supermarket potato chips and a pop, just like you’d get at some sub place on the south side. I can’t help but think there will be Yelp reviews shortly getting indignant about this, wondering why there aren’t truffle chips like at Grahamwich. But then you bite into the sandwich… and the cares of the world, the jostling and striving, melt away. It’s just pure porkerifficness, bathed in beer and a few spices, but most of all, in the time to do it right.

As at Mado, Rob Levitt believes you either get it or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s somewhere else out there for you, and someone else out there waiting to buy from him.

* * *

I have a The Butcher & Larder problem, though. Which is that for years I have casually referred to Paulina Market as the Greatest Butcher Shop in the Universe. And I’ve lived here for 20+ years without ever once having to contemplate a rival for the title.

Of course, the world is a big place with many different things, and there’s no reason that I have to choose between two such different businesses, just because they sell roughly the same thing. Paulina was an old-school German meat market, back when that’s what my neighborhood was, that successfully escaped being pigeonholed as an ethnic market and made the jump to simply being a superior meat market for those who were savvy enough to know that when you wanted a steak to cook out, you didn’t go to the Jewels, you went to Paulina.

And I’ve gone to Paulina for decades, and taken my kids who they’ve watched grow up (and who eagerly look forward to free samples of bologna— I avoided bologna for 20 years, but if you want to know how good the most routine of lunchmeats can be, go to Paulina and try what they make in house). Now, along the way I’ve obviously become conscious like many people of the issues involved in how meat is raised, and I’m a big partisan of non-industrial pork and a somewhat more qualified one of artisanal beef. So to some extent I’ve followed my values to buying more meat from the farmer’s markets and the like.

But those aren’t my only values; I also have ones about supporting ethnic diversity in Chicago, and patronizing businesses that come to know their customers, and spending my money at places that do things the right way because they’ve always done things the right way. And so every week I go to Paulina for some of the things that they make in an old-school, non-industrialized, real ingredients kind of way: their bologna, their baked ham, their summer sausage, their hot dogs. What Rob Levitt had to rediscover and reintroduce to his customers on one side of the great mass industrialization of American food, they’ve been keeping alive from the other side, from before it happened.

I sent a friend a couple of recipes for things I’ve been making from what they offer at Paulina for literally two decades now. They barely qualify as recipes, they’re so simple, and Paulina does the hard work in both cases. But they’re both great winter meals that you’ll be glad you added to your repertoire.

Simplified Choucroute Garni For a Busy Night

6 Paulina Thuringer sausages (they’re precooked, fyi)
1 container Paulina sauerkraut
2 lbs. small red potatoes

Cut potatoes in half, cut sausages in thirds. Dump kraut in big stockpot, mix potatoes and sausages into kraut, pour enough water to 2/3 cover it all. Sprinkle with pepper (no salt, there’s plenty in the kraut). Heat with lid on until potatoes are soft, stirring it around carefully to mix what’s on top down into the bottom from time to time. Serve with a dab of brown mustard on the side.

Split Pea Soup With Paulina Ham Hock

1 Paulina ham hock aka pork shank
1 or 1-1/2 packages of split peas, or navy beans, or canned chickpeas
1 medium onion
1 carrot

Dice carrot and onion, doesn’t have to be too fine. Cover hamhock and vegetables with water in a stockpot or dutch oven. Simmer for an hour or two. Add split peas or beans and cook till soft (obviously, if you use dried beans, use the appropriate process to soften them up first; split peas will soften in about an hour or so).

Take hamhock out and let cool while you puree soup. Cut band of skin off hock and start hunting for the pieces of meat hidden inside, cutting or scraping away big hunks of fat; dice meat and toss it back in the soup. Give them another 20 minutes to melt out some gelatin and blend flavors. Salt to taste.

The Butcher & Larder
1026 N Milwaukee
Chicago, IL 60642
(773) 687-8280

Paulina Market
3501 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 248-6272

The things I’ve made most recently are all media: three videos and two articles for this week’s Reader, to be precise. (Kate Schmidt, the food editor, joked that this week would be the special Michael Gebert issue.) So as far as blogging here goes, I’m just going to cover it off with a few pics of things I made to eat at home around the holidays:

1. Pork Head & Parsley Pate, from Pork & Sons.
When I reviewed James Villas’ Pig a few weeks back, Mark S., who blogs about charcuterie here (and is Msmre on LTHForum), mentioned the book Pork & Sons as his favorite of the current crop of porky books, so I added it to my Amazon wish list just in time for my birthday. I have to admit that until then, I had overlooked it purely because of its pink gingham cover. A French import, it’s kind of the Amelie of French meat books, awfully pleased with how cute and quaint and Fffronsh it is. Still, it does indeed seem solid and evocative of a certain style of eating worth preserving.

Wanting something for a Christmas dinner starter, I decided to make this pate— really, a headcheese. I contacted the Jake’s Country Meats folks, who sell at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market, and asked for whatever they had of the cuts the recipe listed: a head, two trotters, and some shoulder. Well, they were all out of head, but I got the trotters and the shoulder, diced up the appropriate amount of the latter, and set it to cooking with some aromatics and vegetables:

One thing to note about pig’s feet— there’s no meat on them. I don’t mean “hardly any,” I mean zero— all you get from them is the gelatin. The meat was all from the shoulder. When reduced to tender chunks, I diced it up and laid it in the terrine:

One thing I remember Rob Levitt said when he was demonstrating making testa was that you should salt and season it heavily, since it will be eaten cold. Meanwhile I reduced the gelatinous broth to a truly shimmery thickness, and poured it over the packed meats and vegetables:

A couple of days to set in the fridge, and:

I really liked this pate, it’s full of flavor (and not just meat, either), though I think I need to buy a smaller terrine for such exercises— I’m the only one who eats this stuff, generally, and it didn’t get completely finished, sad to say.

2. Pancetta, from Charcuterie.

At the same time I got three decent-sized strips of pork belly from Jake’s. Two were destined to be bacon, but I decided to experiment with pancetta with the other, having loved my pancetta from Bolzano Artisan Meats in Milwaukee. I mixed up the spices and curing salts, coated the belly and sealed it away for a week…

After a week I cleaned it off and cut it in half. I wrapped the pieces in cheesecloth and hung them in my wine fridge:

A week after that I took one piece out to try some and use it on a pizza. The meat had only lost about 10% of its weight, and what I realized was, although this soft, supple meat had the texture of most pancetta you buy, and tasted fine, I really preferred Bolzano’s, which I suspect is both more heavily salted and more aggressively dried. So I’m going to try drying at least one piece more, even at the risk of spoilage, and see if I get closer to what I liked about theirs. If it goes bad, well, I learned something.

3. Great Grandma’s Suet Pudding, Marjorie Zalewski, Toledo, Ohio (3rd Place, Ohio State Fair Family Heirloom Recipes Competition)

I was of a mind to make a traditional Christmas pudding this year. Cathy Lambrecht mentioned that she had posted one that had won a prize in a contest at the Ohio State Fair at the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance site.

With such simple beginnings do many epic sagas start.

The recipe looked like just the thing— old-fashioned flavors like molasses, suet as the primary fat, and so on— so, being of a mind to get whatever I could out of the way before the big day, I mixed it up (making cranberry relish at the same time on the top of the stove), grated the suet myself from some beef fat I’d bought at Paulina Meat Market, and baked it in a bain-marie for three hours. At the end of which, opening the Jiffy Pop-like aluminum tent, I found that it was… flat. Very flat.

I studied the recipe for clues. It didn’t take long: carelessly I had used baking powder where more inflationary baking soda was called for. It was now about eight o’clock on Friday night. If I hurried and actually paid attention this time, I could just get a second one baked by midnight. This is how I spend Friday nights, folks.

The second one went in. Meanwhile, I tasted the first. It tasted… authentic. With nothing but molasses for sweetener, it was very 19th century, very hardscrabble life on the Plains. It tasted like Christmas… in a Willa Cather novel.

I decided I couldn’t end Christmas dinner with a dessert that no one liked. Notably, my children. So the next morning I started making an apple-lemon curd dessert with Sauternes— if the first dessert was Willa Cather, this one was Schnitzler, Toulouse-Lautrec, Debussy, Continental elegance with a touch of the dandy and of the decadent.

Christmas dinner came. I advised my guests that no one would take it amiss if they had one bite of the prairie dessert and then devoured the other. But, in fact, Grandma Zalewski had a trick up her sleeve— it may not have been the case in 1840, but by the 20th century when she was passing this one down, it came with a brandy hard sauce full of sugar, which lightened and leavened the dense, molasses-y darkness of the pudding. It was still substantive, but no longer ponderous. The clash of dessert worlds became a fair fight, and in fact, both were eaten with considerable pleasure (not to mention the rest of the Sauternes). In the end, Cather and Schnitzler together produced a last course out of Dickens, leaving us full and full of good fellowship. It’s important to know how to keep Christmas, after all. Ask a famous author.

Bryan Burroughs’ book Public Enemies, which leant its title but not much else to the recent Johnny Depp Dillinger movie, is one of those books that changes how you see the place where you live. We’re used to the idea of the urban gangster, Capone et al., but the bank robbers he focuses on were really a rural phenomenon created by the automobile— in fact, exactly what you would get if you took earlier horseback robbers like Jesse James or Butch Cassidy, and gave them a Ford. The automobile gave them the ability to swoop into a small town, rob it blind, and then be miles down some country road before the sleepy local constabulary even knew what hit them. And often, the place they’d be heading to would be another kind of small town, which had a crooked sheriff who spent most evenings at the card game in the back of the local garage owner/fencer of stolen goods, and would arrange for the robbers to hide out for a few days till the coast was clear.

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I imply nothing about the past of the town of Hampshire, a tiny town a little ways south of I-90 past the last outlet mall west of Chicago, which for all I know was as clean a place as you could wish. The Dillingeresque activity around Chicago tended to be closer to the lake and the Indiana or Wisconsin borders, anyway. But seeing as perfect a slice of small town America as Hampshire’s short commercial strip, and then barreling out of it past corn fields, it was hard not to imagine myself one of those fedora-brimmed tough guys, making off at high speed with the loot. Only, my loot was bacon.

I’ve bought Dreymiller & Kray products before at various places (they’re at Fox & Obel, Treasure Island and others in the city), but the one time I tried to go there, I made the mistake of hitting Ream’s in Elburn first, and they were closed by the time I got there, shutting the door at 2 on Saturdays.

Not exactly preserved in amber, Dreymiller & Kray nevertheless still has the look of the 1930s era business it is. But the current owner and his longtime staff have been working on expanding into the Chicago market, and I had a chance to talk with them at Baconfest last spring. They’re doing a nice job of balancing still being the vintage small town business they are with taking advantage of their heritage and products as something marketable in the big city. And so you have a business which displays a menu from chichi Terzo Piano at the Art Institute with their bacon on it… and also displays handknitted potholders for sale on behalf of some local church or school group.

I picked out a nice assortment of their products, from bacon to brats, and then got to talking with Keith, a longtime employee who I remembered from Baconfest. He called my attention to some of the fermented sausages they started making after Ed, the owner, visited Italy. Like other charcuterie-makers, they’ve had to wrestle the health inspectors a little to get them to permit them to sell these unfamiliar products without processing in the same way as conventional meats, but he says they’ve mostly accepted that after 80 years, Dreymiller & Kray know what they’re doing. I salute these noble public servants for their obvious good sense.

I asked about one especially picturesque old wooden door and if it was still in use. “Every day, that’s the way to our smoke house,” Keith said. “Want to see it?”

My fellow meat enthusiast and I eagerly accepted this invitation and Keith led us back into the halls of the deceptively long and narrow building. He explained that the store opened in 1929, but the founder was a bit casual at first about the smoking, and about a year later, he burned the whole block down. He set up temporary shop in the hardware store across the street for several months, and the current building, including a much more fire-resistant smoke house, was opened in 1931.

I wish I could show you how splendidly atmospheric the smoke house is… but of all the smoke houses I’ve seen, from Susie-Q’s to Calumet Fisheries to Smitty’s in Texas, this has to be the pitch-blackest, virtually impossible to photograph unless you had a bank of klieg lights. So he explained its operation as I peered into its inky depths. The racks, which are suspended from the ceiling on a track system (also used to move sides of beef around the building), can hold a total of 800 pounds of bacon at a time, which will spend a full 24 hours cold-smoking in the smoke house, being brought up to 140F at various points to meet government regulations. (They keep temperature records on every batch, and are inspected daily to ensure that things are running properly.)  The coals are fed into a moon-shaped firepit at the bottom.  Last year, they made 23,000 pounds of bacon, which by my estimate, would be about 230 pounds per resident of Hampshire annually if they weren’t selling most of it elsewhere by now.  I’ve had it before and it’s really nice stuff, good quality pork (ruby-red like the stuff I make at home) and with a subtle smoke and salt flavor.  If you haven’t bought bacon from a butcher shop that smokes their own— Paulina, of course, being another one in Chicago— you really need to see how much better and cleaner it tastes than standard industrial bacon.

As the volume has risen, they’ve added new technology to their old butcher-shop ways. This is their walk-in cooler, and the machine at right is a tumbler which, by jostling the pork bellies around, cures them in about two days, instead of the week or two it used to take. He also demonstrated their high-volume vacuum sealer, which they clearly are happy to have, since they vacuum-seal just about everything in the shop except the knitted potholders.

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Thanking him for our tour, we left with a bunch of fresh sausage and bacon and a chunk of the finocchiona, and headed for Elburn, about 20 miles south. Ream’s, a somewhat bigger meat market renowned for its wide range of sausages and brats, has been written about a fair amount elsewhere, they even have a Dolinsky icon by the door, and in any case they were too busy on a Saturday afternoon to put up with somebody like me cross-examining them about their business as Keith at Dreymiller & Kray had done. But we added to our meaty loot here with various brats and wieners, and I noticed that they too were now dabbling in cured fermented Italian sausages, and bought some slices of their finocchiona, too.

On Saturdays, Ream’s has a little stand out front selling their hot dogs and one of their various housemade sausages. Today’s was a cheese brat which had apparently won some competition somewhere. Considering that just two days earlier I had had Old Town Social’s cheese wiener at the Green City Market BBQ, this was shaping up to be a heck of a week for cheese filled tube steaks, and though the cheese wasn’t as good as the Brunkow that Old Town Social used, this was still a pretty wonderful lunch.

When we got home I did a Kane County finocchiona taste-off. Dreymiller & Kray’s, the more finely ground one on the right, had a strong lactic taste from the fermentation culture, and an actual hint of fennel (visible in the photo); it seemed more homemade. Ream’s, the coarser slices on the left, had little fennel flavor but a nice meatiness that tasted like the pork it came from, and seemed more professional, vaguely. Both were plenty good. Just try and take ’em away from me, copper!

Dreymiller & Kray
140 S. State St., Hampshire
(847) 683-2271

Ream’s Elburn Market
128 N Main St, Elburn
630 365-6461

It’s official at last, I’ll be doing a bacon-making demo at Baconfest this Saturday.  I’d tell you where to get tickets, but they sold out in like two minutes, so you can’t.  However, in the meantime you can at least read my progress as a bacon-maker in this old thread from LTHForum.

(This is, incidentally, the closest you’ll ever get to the first attempt at a prototype for Sky Full of Bacon.  I shot a baconmaking demo in my own kitchen, and decided from it that I did not want to be an on-camera personality, or for these things to be all about me.)

And as you probably know if you’re a Chicago foodie, big congrats to Mike Sheerin of Blackbird, hog-breaker-downer extraordinaire (as seen here), who is Chicago’s member of the Food & Wine best new chefs for 2010.

There’s an early Disney cartoon, apropos with Easter right behind us, called Funny Little Bunnies, in which cartoon bunnies sing and dance while painting Easter eggs and making chocolates. Like so many of those early Disney cartoons, it’s kitsch, but of an order that’s beyond mockery; if you aren’t charmed on some level, you were never four. (Before you click, know that the song will stay with you for days.)  A number of these early Disney cartoons— with titles like Cookie Carnival— are about food dancing and singing its joy at being born to go in your mouth, which one can imagine was an especially delightful fantasy in the early years of the Depression.  (It’s also hard not to see Funny Little Bunnies as an allegory for the industrialized production of cartoons themselves, but set that aside.)

Anyway, as I was heading to the bathroom after a meal at Old Town Social, I was behind one of those twentysomethings who dresses like he’s still a toddler— T-shirt, shorts, ball cap, buzzcut, flipflops.  He was sort of the proportions of a little kid, just blown up.  And that just sort of confirmed for me that Old Town Social is a wonder like in a Disney cartoon— sausage!  Beer!  Pretty girls!  All appearing from big old-fashioned cartoonishly-colored machinery (well, not the girls), you could imagine Goofy turning the big crank on this one and salume just plopping itself neatly on your plate:

And then it comes to your table on the arm of a hot punk waitress and it’s full of salty meaty deliciousness and gets washed down with a hip, if not aggressively unusual, list of microbrews.  Love is in the air, and on the plate.  If you aren’t charmed on some level by Old Town Social, you were never twenty-four.

At this point I can imagine the restaurant objecting that that cartoonishly-colored slicer is a Berkel, which is to say a very serious European slicer (the last one I saw that close was at Herb [La Quercia] Eckhouse’s house), and they take their cured meats seriously.  Well, I took the food here seriously too, though I don’t know about the rest of their crowd— the gals at the table next to us hardly seemed to touch their flatbread, and “flatbreads” are pretty much a bullshit item to order anyway, especially in a place like this.  But basically I felt about Old Town Social the way others have felt about The Purple Pig— impressed that would could just be another bar hawking mozzarella sticks is doing serious charcuterie and well-thought-out, well-executed dishes.

My colleague, Dr. Morowitz, and I were there to try the charcuterie first and foremost, so we ordered a preset collection of five and asked our waitress to select five more.  In general, I’d say that the charcuterie doesn’t push the complexity of funkiness as far as some I’ve had in town— for instance, the toscano had a harsh lactic bite, which I liked, but it didn’t necessarily have three other things going on at the same time, depths of dark gnarled old world flavor, as some really outstanding salume I’ve had in town (eg, Avec) does.  But the pleasures of quality meat (the menu says it’s all heritage pork, grassfed beef, etc.) cured like this are considerable, and I’d happily try anything they make.  Particular standouts were the toscano and the sopressata (which claims to be spicy, though it wasn’t all that much), the chorizo (once you got past the smoked paprika, this was a really nice, multilayered sausage) and what they called pastrami, which didn’t particularly have a salty-pastrami taste but was instead a kind of delicate, lightly cured smoked brisket.  I’d love a sandwich of that.  I found mortadella and a grassfed beef pepperone kind of bland; lardo, bizarrely, was whipped into a spread, which to me made it less appetizing, a biology-class texture I didn’t especially want to eat, and I wasn’t wild at first about the chicken liver, too much oil and too fluffy, though I will say that I finished it off, using it for a little organ meat-palate cleanser after many of the other bites.

The rest of the menu is a mixed assortment, aiming to please both noshers and diners; we skipped the entree side and stuck to appetizers, and to our surprise, both of the things we ordered were at least as impressive as any of the charcuterie.  Actually, my favorite thing of the night was a dish called “sausage and waffles,” a big hunk of smoked sausage on top of maybe the best waffle I’ve ever had— the menu calls it a cornmeal-bacon waffle, it was robustly-flavored and with a nice tooth to it.  If somebody were doing a blog about waffling, these would be guys to talk to.

I was also surprised by something called “duck wings”— surprised that the duck wings had that much meat, that the sweet glaze was as well-composed as it was, that the creamy cucumber-mint raita that came with them for dipping was such a well-chosen variation on the usual creamy wing dip.

I’d have been fine with Old Town Social serving up good charcuterie and then taking it easy on the rest of the menu, but that’s not what happened at all.  The happy little sausages have many happy friends, and we were glad to have visited their happy land.