Sky Full of Bacon

If you’re looking for something to do this Saturday night… it’s time for the annual Delafield, Wisconsin raccoon feed, chronicled in Sky Full of Bacon #9.  My friend Cathy Lambrecht, who has been the Coon Feed’s leading Chicago booster and publicist, has a piece about how it all started in the north shore editions of the Tribune today; you can read it here. And here’s the video, if you haven’t seen it:

Sky Full of Bacon 09: Raccoon Stories from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

I’ve been sort of down on Chicago street festivals, whether it’s Koreanfest or Finnfest you somehow wind up seeing the same pork skewer vendors and insurance company booths at them, but I had a great time earlier this summer at Pierogifest and so that inspired me to finally take David Hammond’s advice and go to Taste of Melrose Park.

Meet famous Italian celebrities at Taste of Melrose Park.

I don’t know a lot about Melrose Park, but having bought a couch there once 15 years ago (since sent to my alley where couches often go to die), it’s definitely an old school Italian-American suburb, the New Joisey of Chicago. Taste of Melrose Park is full of families and church organizations running booths making their family specialty to sell at $2/serving, maybe $3 at most, and though a lot of them are old school pasta and red sauce type dishes (perfectly likable, nothing special), more than a few are much better than that, and the whole event is packed, lively and full of boisterous Chi-town energy.

We hooked up with Hammond and his wife Carolyn Berg, surprised that no other LTHers had taken him up on his posted offer, and he led us to several of the best choices— there were some hearty, enormous arancini (rice balls), and I really liked Melrose Park Peppers, apparently an old local specialty but hard to find now, basically Italian sausage and sauteed green pepper in a bun with marinara sauce.

Others, even if I wasn’t 100% wild about them, where else are you going to go to a street fest and find artichoke casserole in a styrofoam cup?  Try to get that on the north shore. I certainly liked it better than the bread bowl with pasti e fagioli, which threatened to take up way too much valuable stomach space for its fairly ordinary Italian restaurant flavor.

Hammond had more of an adventurous palate than myself, he tried both the clams:

and a stand offering, curiously, soul food-style neckbones, which were pretty rank, he couldn’t get anybody else to try a bite.

We tried other stuff— one kid nursed a pizza slice for about a half hour until a fried Twinkie came his way— but the two things we were really out to try were the famous sfingi, eggy donuts made by an order of nuns, which had at least an hour’s worth of line waiting for the sisters to get each batch out of the fryer:

And the famous fried bologna sandwiches, showcased in Hammond’s article linked above.  He and I stopped by their stand as the others waited for sfingi and he was embraced as a celebrity for having driven traffic to their booth from as far as Glenview.  They also said they wanted to meet his wife (read the article, you’ll see why) and so we relayed that news as we took bologna sandwiches back to our line-bound compatriots.  I was really surprised how good the bologna sandwich was— the combination of fried, slightly blackened and crispy bologna, mustard and sweet caramelized onion, and white bread was great, like a minimalist Chicago hot dog flattened out.

Once we had our sfingi— likewise wonderful, the egginess making them like something between a donut and French toast—

—we made our way back to the bologna booth and Carolyn was embraced as a long lost sister.  In gratitude to Hammond for the article, they invited all of us into the back of their booth for a slice of homemade cheesecake.

As much fun as the fest itself is, as true as it is to the warmly outgoing Italian-American spirit, it quickly became clear that the real fun, the real neighborliness, the real spirit of the fest is in what goes on in the back alleys of the booth rows, where the different stands— mostly amateurs— trade food and recipes and goodnatured jokes back and forth.  And that cheesecake!  It might not have been the best one I ever had in my life, maybe only in the last 20 years, light and creamy and made with love.  I couldn’t have been prouder of my younger son when she asked him how he liked it and his eyes rolled back in his head and he just said, “Soooo gooooood.”  Right answer, Liam, if you want to be invited back next year.  Seriously, I don’t know how you swing an invitation into the vendors’ social lives, but Hammond did so on our behalf, and it was one of the highlights of my summer.

Better photos than mine of much of the food can be found in this LTHForum post.

When I first saw that Michael Pollan had written a ten-zillion-page opus on the state of cooking, eating, the Food Network, Julie and Julia, and other such weighty topics, my first thought was that this was way, way too much to read onscreen; Pollan has written a piece about how our lives are too busy for cooking, at a length that our lives are too busy to read.

My second thought was, I’m about to spend ten zillion hours in the car going to and from Wyoming, so I’ll print it out.

And so I wound up reading a foodie manifesto during perhaps the least foodie week of my year, in the least foodie place I can remember going to in just about my entire life. I mean, Wyoming is a marvelous and beguiling place to visit in many ways, a state where they bother to put up population signs for towns with two-digit populations (if only someone in Emblem had died right before they put the sign up, I might have seen a one-digit one) and then follow it with a sign announcing the local cattle rustling heritage museum (every town seems to have a museum of something that happened between 1870 and 1900).

But as far as food culture goes… in terms of restaurants, it’s pretty much, where do you want to eat a preformed hamburger patty and frozen fries today? Apart from a smattering of Mexican and Chinese (no part of America is bereft of those), that’s pretty much it; when a shopkeeper in Cody asked my wife where she was from, the name “Chicago” immediately prompted a five-minute lament on the state of what little Italian food there is in Wyoming, which basically concluded with the axiom that Italian food gets steadily worse from the Rockies on. (To judge by the Jersey-in-1957-amber menu of the place down the street from him, he knows whereof he speaks.)

This made Wyoming an interesting context for considering Pollan’s points, which are roughly these: We may celebrate Julia Child as the progenitor of food TV and our foodie culture, but actually our modern food TV is her antithesis, great at encouraging us to watch more and more hyped up food-sports shows, but largely discouraging our own venturing into the kitchen to do anything more than assemble processed junk a la Sandra Lee—and her advertisers. We have the food TV we have because it suits the world of processed foods we live in, where no one has time to really cook and the habit itself is rapidly being lost.

As a market researcher sums it up (in the best quote in the piece), “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.”

So cooking has become a niche pastime, like quilting or radio controlled aircraft. Yet niches can occupy pretty big territory sometimes, and after a week in Wyoming I came away convinced that they can even cover entire states.

It’s not that processed foods weren’t all over Wyoming— in restaurants, as I said. But restaurants are scarce enough outside major tourist stops that it’s clear this is one state where people don’t eat out every night. Meanwhile, go into a grocery store and, sure, amid the frozen dinners and Lunchables and Kleenex-brand sandwich bread, there’s a surprising amount of natural, organic and just old-fashioned real stuff being sold even in very small towns. (A lot more than I’d bet you could find in towns five times as large in Illinois.) Somebody in Wyoming is certainly cooking better than you can eat out in all but the largest and wealthiest tourist-oriented towns like Jackson.

And the proof of that for me was certainly that several of my better meals were in little cafes which seemed to be no more than an extension of the proprietor’s home— not that they were objectively great, but that they were usually the most real, the least prefab, the ones that seemed the most rooted in a local housewifely sense of how to make things as opposed to drones following the instructions on the Sysco box.

In short, Wyoming seems to be one of the last outposts of the old food culture— before the processing that Pollan decries, but also, before the heroine whose legacy he celebrates.  Maybe those two events are not as opposed as we assume.

*  *  *

The standard narrative, which Pollan seems to assent to, casts Julia Child as the great liberator of the American home cook— even as American cooking began declining right as she appeared on the scene.

True, she gave status to the act of cooking at a crucial moment for American women— but look at how she did it: by encouraging us to abandon American cookery for French technique. Far from championing American cooking (like her fellow West Coasters James Beard or Alice Waters), by the time she really turned to her life’s work she was a classic eastern establishment WASP trying to lead the masses toward European tastes and sophistication.

And to be honest, can you really say she succeeded? She tried to teach us French; we all learned Italian instead. Part of the reason Julie Powell’s blog project was such a novelty is precisely because so many people own Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking… and so few ever crack it open now.

What’s more, to the extent she has had an influence, hers was a pivotal step in turning cooking from something you did well for the sake of others at your table, to something you do for self-expression.  And the problem with turning cooking into a Me Decade pursuit, like jogging or meditation, is that it’s no longer necessary— it’s just something to be done when you feel like it.

It’s telling that the only woman in 21st century America who actually cooks every night is doing it for her blog, not her husband— and that she’s therefore remarkable enough to warrant a movie about her strange lifestyle.  Child set out to teach America how to cook a better cuisine, but on a certain level the message America took away was that its native cookery was inferior—and thus not worth the effort being put into it. Or the effort it would take to pass it to the next generation.

Partly as a result, preparing food became a self-conscious act, and American cookery ceased being our indigenous cuisine and became just one more concept. It’s easier to accept the artifice in processed foods when it’s all an act anyway; in a true beef culture, Wyoming hamburger stands would pride themselves on handformed fresh beef as a matter of principle. But when hamburger stands are about fitting the concept of a hamburger stand, all that matters is that you carry off the concept convincingly. If the meat’s a little worse, play the oldies a little louder; it will average out.

Now, I don’t mean to lay every box of T.G.I. Friday’s Frozen Jalapeno Cheese Poppers at Child’s feet. Obviously the main reason Americans stopped cooking is because both sexes are working now, and working more, and the time just isn’t there. But that lifestyle change also owes something to the feminist movement telling housewives to throw off their chains and find their real meaning at a desk rather than a stove.  The chain of American cooking passed from mother to daughter broke in the 1960s, and if the most influential food personality of the decade didn’t have something to do with it, who did?

Ironically, it’s precisely the meaninglessness of her boring desk job that drives Julie Powell to find meaning by taking up cooking, discovering in it all the things that corporate bureaucracy lacks— tactile pleasures, finality followed by a fresh start the next day, instant feedback, real appreciation.  She turns to Julia Child to help rescue her from a less satisfying life without realizing the irony that Child is part of how she got stuck there in the first place.

One of the amusingly fluky things that happened right after I started doing all this was that I got caught in an internet-wide sweep of freelance writers by Maxim magazine, looking for people to nominate things for the 2008 Maxim Food Awards. I suggested 14 possible candidates, of which they used precisely one (Khan BBQ). Whether or not I made good money at this depends on whether you judge it by the dollars per word published (pretty damn nice) or the hours spent generating the other 13 unused ideas (suddenly not so hot).

They asked again in 2009, and I offered suggestions in two categories they said they were looking for. One was, “Places you should eat before you die,” which I took to mean extraordinary culinary experiences. The other was, “Places to eat before they die,” which means places full of history and culture and flavor. I suggested five of each. Their cover touts 77 total. They used… zero of mine. (Actually at least one is mentioned in the magazine; some guy named Achatz writes about Schwa.)

Since they’re not using them, I thought you might be interested to see what I submitted. If you want, you can compare to what they actually published, and see if you think they really did give their readers the hyper-edgy, super-authentic culinary insight promised.

* * *

Places to eat at before you die:

1) Schwa, Chicago

Like an indie band that refuses to sell out to a big label, Schwa serves some of the most fearsomely accomplished haute cuisine in Chicago from a fixed-up storefront where the cooks not only serve as waitstaff but the chef himself answers the phone (when you can get through). Also like an indie band, they broke up in a drug-fueled haze once, but back together and apparently cleaned up, they’re dishing up their greatest hits like the blatantly sexual quail egg ravioli alongside new material like pad thai made with velvety slivers of jellyfish.

2) Hot Doug’s, Chicago

There are ten million average hot dog stands in Chicago and then there is one and only one Hot Doug’s, the “encased-meat emporium” where whatever sausage Doug Sohn can get his hands is done up however he feels like it. The standard Vienna Beef char dog stands side by side with the likes of wild boar, alligator and elk sausage topped with truffle creme fraiche, bleu cheese, or even foie gras– Doug was the only actual perp busted under Chicago’s short-lived foie gras ban. Some are great, others not so great, but it’s always worth checking to see what he’s concocted this week (and you can always fall back on the thuringer with caramelized onion and brown mustard, which cognoscenti know is one of the best things to eat in Chicago).

3) Apple fritter at Old-Fashioned Donuts, Chicago

A hundred blocks south of the Michigan Avenue tourists see, in the black Roseland neighborhood, a donut shop that looks like nothing turns out catcher’s-mitt-sized fritters so unspeakably indulgent, so addictive in their perfect fried sugariness, that they can only be the product of the same CIA plot that created crack cocaine.

4) Cemitas Atomica at Cemitas Puebla, Chicago

Mexican sandwiches are mostly gutbombs, and God knows the fact that this one contains ham, pork, AND fried breaded steak suggests that the name Atomica was chosen with its fallout in mind. But El Dios is in the details and the specially baked cemitas roll, the Pueblan cheese imported by the owners from their hometown, the hand-roasted chipotle, the schmear of avocado and the medicinal hint of the papalo herb make this one a superbly balanced sandwich that will light your lunch up without a prolonged half-life.

5) Arnold’s, Nashville

Southern “meat and threes” cafeterias are often more about meat and dessert than the soggy vegetables served alongside. But the meats at Arnold’s, even the ham and the garlic-studded roast beef, take second place to the Bordeaux-like profundity of the pot likker in which the turnip greens stew, which proves that vegetables can be great art.

Places to eat at before THEY die:

1) Burt’s Place, Morton Grove, Illinois

Imagine a pizza place tucked on a side street in an obscure suburb, which nevertheless is so busy that you have to call ahead to reserve your dough and find out what time you’ll be expected to be there. Oh and by the way, the phone number is unlisted. But Burt’s isn’t some insane too-hip-for-you joint, it’s just that Burt has started and sold half a dozen pizza places, and now he’s 70+, and in his place he does it his way, and if you don’t like it, or if he gets any more customers, he may just up and retire. The reward for doing it his way, besides basking in his stoner-grandpa presence, is an impeccably balanced and brightly-flavored pan pizza, not thin but not the phone-book-thick deep dish you find all over Chicago either.

2) Klas, Cicero, Illinois

Al Capone’s name is to Chicago joints what “George Washington Slept Here” used to be to New England country inns. And most of the time, well, the connection is probably exaggerated at best. One of the few surviving places that really can claim a Capone connection is this Czech cuckoo-clock of a restaurant in what was long a Mob-run suburb, though the decor suggests Castle Dracula as much as Roaring Twenties. All the same, go upstairs and you can still see the back room where Al would play gin rummy with owner Adolph Klas while “hostesses” entertained the boys in the private alcoves.

3) Hollyhock Hill, Indianapolis

“Like eating at Grandma’s” is not necessarily the compliment that people think it is. But this place, which started in the 1920s as a country inn and is now well within the suburbs of Indy, shows just what simple but spot-on cooking chops midwestern grandmas had back in the 20s– perfectly crisp and golden pan-fried chicken, flaky hot rolls, iceberg lettuce with old school vinegary-sweet dressing, and ice cream with your choice of toppings to end every meal. There’s no irony to the retro here, just pure rib-sticking midwestern hospitality.

4) Calumet Fisheries, Chicago

When steel mills dotted the south side of Chicago, every bend in the river had a shrimp joint to serve working men a fried lunch that went well with a beer or three. The mills are gone and so are most of the fish shacks, but one of the few survivors sits in the shadow of the bridge the Blues Brothers jumped, frying shrimp and smelts and best of all, smoking chubs and other fish in its riverside smokehouse.

5) Taylor Cafe, Taylor, Texas

When Bobby Mueller of the legendary Louie Mueller’s passed away last year, it made his rival in this tiny town with more great barbecue joints than people, Vencil Mares, that much more of a living legend. At 83, Vencil still wrestles his briskets into his smoker himself, though most of his day is spent holding court in his bar/cafe, telling anybody who stops by about the cottonpickers’ brawls he used to break up with his fists or how he integrated his place by taking out one of the two jukeboxes and forcing blacks and whites to listen to each others’ music. The barbecue’s pretty darn good, but an afternoon listening to Vencil’s stories as the trains go by is the real treat.

Years ago, when LTHForum was new and time was infinite and I had nothing better to do than go on for 1500 words bringing up Georges Bernanos in a pizza review, I posted something about a thin crust pizza place way up in Mundelein:

Every once in a while I think of what must be, without doubt, the most obscure book I have ever read. I found it in the library of my Catholic high school, was perversely attracted to it by the fact that it had not been checked out since 1958 or something, and read it– or more likely only part of it– for a religion class book report.

Alas, I don’t remember the precise name, and I’m sure it’s unretrievable by the usual means. The title was something like “Unknown Saints of Rural France,” by Father Somebody or other, S.J. And basically it was an effort in ecclesiastical expense account justifying; shortly after WWII this priest had had a bicycling vacation in France, and to make more than a holiday out of what he was doing, he spent part of it going from village to village, tracking down tales of especially pious people who had been mentioned to him by someone else a village or two over.

Most of them were farmwives, the long-suffering women who are the mainstay of every church, and there was little enough remarkable in the story of any of them– no unsuspected Bernadette Soubirouses or Therese Martins having visions among them, just hardworking peasant mothers. Had the good father been more of an artist, he might have made something of his theme, that in the devotions of these unremarkable women, often half-ignored even by their families, was to be found the truest sainthood and love. This was, after all, the time and countryside of Bernanos’ Journal d’un Cure de Campagne (and Bresson’s masterful film of it), about saintly grace going unnoticed and even despised by the world. But he wasn’t an artist, and I was a high school punk amused by the book’s flimsiness as a vacation document rather than touched by the artistic portrayal of grace, and so here we are, 25 years later, probably more of us reading this now than ever read the book in the first place, using it merely as a device for a review of a pizza place in Mundelein.

* * *

What made me think of Father whoever and his forgotten book was the fact that I had had to go up to Gurnee Mills, of all ultra-worldly places (though the Bass Pro Shop is certainly worth a visit), and then decided to take some meandering old-school road back rather than zip back on boring 94, the idea being– like Father bicycling from village to village– to see what unknown historic or culinary curiosities might be revealed along the former highways now shoved aside by the giant expressways and the chains they draw like magnets. I wound up on Route 45, whose supply of old road houses and such things was none too plentiful except perhaps around Gages Lake– but I only needed one, and at Diamond Lake Road and 45, I found it. A handsome vintage neon sign announcing a little hot dog and pizza stand called Bill’s, next to which sat a larger, hunting-lodge-like establishment called Bill’s Pub.

The Pub was not open but in the window of Bill’s the stand, they promised “Fabulous Hot Dogs.” I was prepared to try them but secretly I had my heart set on pizza, because I saw a box which said “Since 1957,” and one of my rules is, always try a pizza that dates back to the 1950s. There is always a small possibility that in the intervening 35+ years, they have NOT screwed it up by trying to make it more like Domino’s or something.

I asked the young lady behind the counter which I should have, the hot dog or the pizza. At first she answered with the answer that always shows a lack of imagination, “They’re both good,” but then, warming to her theme, she said that she has gladly come in on her days off to have the hot dogs, and she has gladly come in on her days off to have the pizza, and that I couldn’t go wrong either way. And so, bowing to her enthusiasm, I ordered a small thin pizza.

Fifteen minutes later the box was perched on the hood of my car. The verdict? This pizza, unknown and unheralded in Mundelein, was worthy of the same devotion given to any cracker-crust thin pizza to be had in Chicago– not better, perhaps, than Vito & Nick’s, Candlelite, Zaffiro’s, etc., but undoubtedly comparable in its paper-thin crackliness, its foldability, its boldly spicy tomato sauce and thin layer of quality mozzarella. Given its location off the beaten path in a far northern suburb, it is unlikely ever to be known to the greater world; it is unlikely pilgrimages will be made to it from Chicago; but I can only say that I hope it is appreciated by its family and friends, that they are grateful to have its example among them, providing warmth and sustenance night after night, and that I have been encouraged to continue my quest by the fact of having found this example of pizza grace toiling in obscurity.

Bill’s Pizza & Pub
Diamond Lake Road and Route 45
Mundelein, IL 60060

I revive this ancient palimpsest mainly because attending the Lake County Fair in its new fairgrounds gave me my first chance to try Bill’s again, indeed, to dine inside. And you know what? I really do think this is one of the best thin crust pizzas in Chicagoland, right up there with Vito & Nick’s, Marie’s, Pat’s, Candlelite as it was a few years ago, D’Agostino’s or Zaffiro’s of Milwaukee for that matter. The crust is cracker-thin, yet it doesn’t just soak up grease like Pat’s does; there’s a little more kick to the sauce and sausage than at D’Agostino’s, though it’s still definitely on the mild side; really, this is an admirable old school thin crust in every way that deserves to be better known. And as for the place itself— oh man, it is a trip. Northwoods hunting lodge on acid, with goofy stuffed animal displays, peanuts on the floor, and gaudy stained glass images of Disneyesque deer. It must be seen to be beyond belief.

Oddly enough, when I wrote my original review it enraged a northwest suburban LTHer who thought I was mocking his part of the world with city condescension. So make no mistake: I am sincere when I say this is one of the best pizzas in Chicagoland and you should make a considerable drive to go have it. Maybe not all the way from home, but certainly worth a 15 mile detour in the northern reaches.

My head was still swimming with fish from the new Sky Full of Bacon podcast (that was a direct link to it, by the way, that will skip you past the ten zillion pierogi pics to follow), from the frenzy in which I shot the last interview on Tuesday, finished editing Tuesday night, watched it the next morning and wasn’t happy, restructured it completely and rewrote and rerecorded the voiceover on Wednesday, and posted it Thursday morning. It was done, I needed to forget it and move on, I needed new adventures. In short, I needed the Pierogi Fest in Whiting, Indiana.

Chicagoans tend to have a pretty dire notion of northwest Indiana but, as I knew from a visit last summer, Whiting is a proud and tidy little town, full of cute little houses with perfect square lawns and flowerbeds and, during Pierogi Fest at least, flying the Slovakian flag.  And, it seemed clear, a cheerful sense of the absurdity of a festival devoted to dumplings.

Knowing her to be the source on small town food events, I called Cathy2 beforehand.  She warned me that during the Friday night parade and lawn mower drill team performance, Pierogi Fest could be packed beyond one’s tolerance for crowds; she felt it had become more of a tourist event than an organic local festival.  Well, I couldn’t go Friday night anyway, so I aimed for what I hoped would be a midafternoon lull on Saturday.

Timing was pretty perfect, actually; the ice cream and root beer stands had long lines but the pierogi stands were fairly quiet.

The fest stretches through four or five long blocks of Whiting’s picturesque main street (119th), with probably 8 or 10 pierogi stands as well as a variety of other refreshments and assorted local vendors of the sort you see at any street fest, everything from tchotchke sellers to tarot readers to a National Guard recruiter, as well as a stage area devoted to folk dancing and music.

Clearly there were going to be more pierogi than I could take in on one trip.  I needed a strategy, and so skipped the first couple of vendors in favor of a name I recognized:

Lynethe’s, on 119th just a few blocks east of here, is well known as one of the best spots for pierogi, especially since John Kass wrote about it a few years back.  Ironically it’s actually run by a Latino who had worked for the previous Eastern European owner, but it remains a pillar of the Whiting pierogi scene and was doing some busy frying even during this lull time:

So I figured Lynethe’s would be a good choice for a control, especially since I’ve cooked them at home (and still have some in my freezer from last summer).  I ordered a sauerkraut one and a potato with cheese:

Lynethe’s belongs to the fried-crisp school of pierogiology.  The sauerkraut I liked a lot, the potato oozed way too much orange cheddar, like Cheez Whiz Pierogis, I wanted just a note of tart bryndza-type cheese like they have at Smak Tak.  Still, a good baseline for what would follow.

Buscia’s is a non-restaurant vendor cooking up pierogi in an assortment of 50s-style electric pans.  They are apparently there to represent Whiting’s transgender community:

Seriously, I was totally drawn in by the promise of bacon buns in a combo, so I ordered the combo.  The pierogi were a little mushy and just so-so; hamburger forgettable, potato decidedly better:

The bacon bun could stand to learn a thing or two about being lighter and fluffier, it was pretty much artillery standard, but it had great bacony flavor and was one of the best things I tried.

I walked past other, more improbable food vendors…

But this bunch, from a bar called Coach’s Corner, lured me in with some quick-witted banter and infectious enthusiasm.  They were serving “chevaps,” which is to say cevapcici, ground meat sausages freshly grilled, and despite hardly thinking that I needed the minimum order of five, I tried them.

“You take pictures of your food before you eat it?” one of them asked.

“Well, you don’t want to take pictures of it after you eat it,” I said.

These were great, and I loved the simple butter-cream cheese stuff that came on the side.  I’m definitely going to have to go back and give Coach’s Corner, 6208 Kennedy Ave. in Hammond, a try.

I haven’t been able to track down Victor’s Grill, if it’s a standing restaurant, and it may just be another homemade spot, but it looked promising, so I stood in its line for a few minutes (business was starting to pick up as lunch was digested).

These were kind of heavy, wrapping-wise, but the fillings were pretty good.

I wandered some more past the stage area and reached the block with the beer garden in it.  Although business had picked up a little at other stands by now, I wasn’t prepared for the line at Dan’s, which stretched down the street and around the picnic tables:

What accounted for this wild popularity?  Did everyone know that Dan’s was the place, or was this one of those psychological things where a line attracts more line because, hey, if there’s a line, it must be good?

I heard someone ask these very questions of someone ahead of me and the answer came back, “This is the only place where they’re not frozen.  They’re totally fresh.”  Well… I’m not convinced that that was the reason, because I’m not convinced you can tell the difference, frankly.  Still, it wasn’t like I was too hungry to spend 15 minutes in line, so I did.

It is an impressive operation, a dozen bins filled with a dozen flavors, certainly the widest choice here by a comfortable margin.

I tried cabbage, sauerkraut and mushroom, and cherry (which squirted hot cherry juice all over me as I bit into it).  The wrappers were a little rubbery from the holding method, but the fillings were outstanding, it wasn’t hard to see why this place was popular.  As I picked up my order, I heard someone say that the spinach were the best, so now I have a reason to go back next year.

I’m often disappointed by Chicago’s small street fests because it seems like the same vendors are there at each one dishing up the same pork skewers.  Pierogi Fest, though it had some commercial catering ringers, clearly draws real local cooks and earns a lot of local support as a result.  I loved it, the small town feel, the enthusiastic goofiness of pierogimania, the women who clearly should not have been wearing “Hey, Nice Pierogies!” T-shirts yet did so anyway, everything.  It’s a great Chicago-area event and well worth checking out on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the perfect day for it.

The following is something I wrote for my kids’ school’s newsletter, outlining some interesting spots for daytrips in the greater Chicago area, together with a few food recommendations either personally experienced or at least gleaned from LTHForum. Several of the places are discussed further in this LTHForum thread. If anyone from the school (or anybody else) sends me more ideas, I’ll update it.

* * *

We are big fans of summer road trips, the kind you can do in a day, see something that may not objectively be worth the drive, but makes for a great day of helping your kids discover the world and see life out of Chicago. Here are some places we’ve enjoyed within an hour and a half or less from Chicago, along with restaurant recommendations (this is small town America, so it’s mostly diners and drive-ins; vegans, you’re on your own).

AURORA— Aurora Regional Fire Museum has historic firefighting trucks and other equipment in a 19th cent. firehouse. Lunch: El Pollo Giro, 991 N. Aurora at Rte. 25.

GARFIELD FARM—19th century farm museum near Elburn. Mostly Wednesdays and Sundays only; best time to visit would be 1840s Days, June 27-28. Lunch: Bien Trucha, 410 W. State, Geneva.

GLENVIEW—Wagner Farm, Cook County’s last working farm, is now a museum; my son Myles does 4H there.

KENOSHA, WI— Kenosha has quite a remarkable array of inexpensive or free museums largely unknown to Chicagoans near the lakefront, including a new Civil War museum dedicated to the service of the Great Lakes states, the Kenosha Public Museum (a small natural history museum), and a dinosaur museum. There’s also a lighthouse you can climb and streetcars to ride for a quarter. Breakfast or lunch: Frank’s Diner, 508 58th St., Coffee Pot, 4914 7th Ave. Lunch/picnic stuff: Tenuta’s Deli, 3203 52nd St.

LAKE COUNTY FAIR—Carnival rides, animal and crafts competitions and more; look for us in the 4-H sheep barn. July 28-Aug. 2, Grayslake. Lunch: corn dogs at Squire’s Dog Haus on fairgrounds.

LOCKPORT/LEMONT— The Illinois & Michigan Canal has historical sites and walking/biking trails all through this area; the best-preserved lock is near Channahon. Lunch: Vito & Nick’s Pizzeria/Bowling Alley, 1015 State St., Lemont.

OTTAWA— One of the largest artworks in the world is in Buffalo Rock State Park a little southwest of Chicago—who knew? Effigy Tumuli is a series of earthworks shaped like giant river fauna; fun to climb over and try to make out what the shape is. Ottawa is the nearest town; for lunch try Row House Cafe, 728 Columbus St.

RACINE, WI— Racine has a very nice small zoo on the lakefront, 2131 N. Main, and there are some interesting playground areas for small kids on the beaches nearby. There’s also the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings at S.C. Johnson, which have some public access. Lunch: Kewpee, 520 Wisconsin Ave. Then swing by Bendtsen’s, 3200 Washington Ave., to pick up some kringle.

ROCKFORD— Excellent children’s museum, the Discovery Center Museum, 711 N. Main St.; also a nice small dinosaur/natural history museum, the Burpee Museum, 737 N. Main, and a public waterpark. Lunch: Not much, there’s a local chain called Beefaroo, various locations around town.

SOUTH HOLLAND—The Forest Preserve District of Cook County has several nature centers with exhibits and walking trails; one of the nicest yet least-known is in a large reclaimed preserve on the southeast side. Lunch: Schoop’s, 695 Torrence Ave., Calumet City

UNION— The Illinois Railway Museum has one of the largest collections of real live trains in the world, many you can walk inside or even ride around their property. Lunch: there’s an on-site restaurant, or Allen’s Corner near Hampshire on Hwy 20 is a good old-style country diner.

VOLO— Tiny Volo has the Volo Auto Museum, but the coolest thing is a swamp—specifically, the huge Volo bog, which has a floating walkway through it as well as a nature center. Lunch: Sammie’s, 799 E Belvidere Rd, Grayslake.

WAUCONDA— There’s a Lake County historical museum whose main exhibit, oddly, is about a big postcard printer in Chicago; also some historical stuff of the Capone era, a tribute to Waukeganite Jack Benny, etc. Lunch: Frank’s Karma Cafe, 203 S. Main St.

Every year of the last three, I’ve gone to Columbus, Ohio over the Memorial Day weekend for a film festival. Who’d hold one in Columbus, Ohio when there’s Cannes to go to? People who are interested in old movies, that’s who—as old as 1915. It’s called Cinevent, and the movies, shown in the “ballroom” of a Ramada, are merely a side attraction, the main purpose is room after room of movie collectibles, from massive original posters worth thousands of dollars to dupe DVDs of old TV shows going by the last day for a few bucks each.

I, however, don’t collect stuff, I collect experiences, and fix them with pins on the internet— especially experiences of the past, still living in old movies or as refugees-of-a-lost-era businesses. So part of attending Cinevent, of course, is seeing what Columbus offers to eat, old and new. The first year I went, I stuck close to the hotel, and it was dreary fast food; but in subsequent years I learned to head down High Street toward Ohio State University and the hopping “Short North” area. One place on High north of the university which I discovered on and first visited last year is Nancy’s Home Cooking, a tiny dive of a diner (Roadfood likes places that squeeze a lot of customer-cook interaction into a tight space) with a U-shaped counter which snakes around just enough room for the cook to operate in, and barely enough for “Nancy” (actually Cindy King, but I’m sure many assumed she was Nancy) herself to reach over and retrieve the finished dishes from him. If she ever entered his space, it’d constitute grounds for divorce in most states.

It was easy to see what locals loved about Nancy’s— they mostly seemed to know each other and the staff, they always had Ohio State sports to discuss, and the food was all-American and dirt cheap. In fact, no prices are even indicated anywhere (the only menu is what’s painted on the wall); you take your ticket to the grillman, and he arbitrarily devises a total on the spot which is guaranteed to be at least a dollar or two per person less than you could possibly imagine it being.

That said, I didn’t love the food at Nancy’s the first time. I had read that the thing to do was to have them ladle sausage gravy over your home fries. (You’re thinking, ah, sausage gravy, they must have biscuits and gravy. Nope, no biscuits. The gravy is there for the home fries, nothing else.) So I did that and… it was greasy and gloppy, moving the whole breakfast down about one row on the periodic table.

I might not have gone back this year except… well, for one thing there aren’t that many breakfast choices not named Bob Evans. And for another, word came that Nancy’s was closing June 1st. Apparently years of not only not charging enough for meals, but not charging a lot of folks at all, had caught up with Nancy’s:

In 2004, I was on disability due to two back surgeries. Once a week, my son and daughter and I would stop at Nancy’s for breakfast. If Cindy was cooking that day, she’d always tell me: “Big John, you’re not working. Put your money back.”

So how could I not go? Like my beloved old movies full of the dead and forgotten, Nancy’s was itself about to leave the realm of contemporary existence for the half-life of memory. I grabbed a couple of attending New Yorker film buffs, and we squeezed ourselves into a booth built for jockeys while one of the New Yorkers regaled us with tales of his encounters with the likes of Deanna Durbin.

This time I skipped the gravy and went minimalist—an omelet and home fries. It was great. Oh, you’re just being sentimental because it’s about to close, you say. Maybe, but really, it was just want you want in a diner breakfast, the home fries crispy and soft at the same time, the omelet not so eggy that it smothered the freshly griddled taste of ham, onion, cheese. (One note about that— one of the New Yorkers ordered hers with just ham, onion and green pepper, and soon learned that in this part of the midwest, cheese is assumed unless you write NO CHEESE on something. But they were gracious about banging out another one as quick as could be… and probably they took another couple of bucks off the already too low bill.)

Nancy’s is closed on Sundays anyway so today, if you read this on Saturday, may be your last chance to go there. Or not; there was a fundraiser last Saturday, so who knows what the status may be. I hope Nancy’s will still be around next year, but if it isn’t, well, it’ll just be one more ghost casting shadows of memory in Columbus over Memorial Day.

A layer of fat in a Kobe beef brisket.

1. Please remove your “1.20.09” bumpersticker now. You don’t want to be as bad as the car I saw on election day 2008 bearing a (weirdly pristine) Kerry/Edwards bumpersticker.

2. Just saw that Michael Nagrant kindly posted this in a year-end roundup type thing at New City:

Top 5 Culinary Things to be Thankful For
Any dessert Elizabeth Dahl makes at Boka
Green City Market and the late Abby Mandel
Mike Gebert’s culinary videos at Sky Full of Bacon
Mike Sula’s thoughtful food writing—especially the Mulefoot project at the Chicago Reader
Ryan Poli is back in town at Perennial

3. The ChiTrib has a great story on Jennifer McLagan (of Fat fame, no not her personally, her book of that title which I talked about here.) A sample quote:

McLagan further believes that including good-quality animal fat in that meal will start us down the road to wellness. “Because fat is digested slowly,” she writes, “eating it leaves us feeling sated, and we’re less likely to snack between meals. Eat the right fats and you’ll probably lose weight.”

Take that, prosciutto-avoiders.

4. Kinda random masthead tagline at LTHForum right now:

So, from the ‘better late than never’ files, here is a photo recap of our meal . . .

Except it isn’t “here.” You have to dig through the site to find what it’s referring to.  Anyway, it’s far from the pithiest, cleverest thing I can remember being said there lately… not that I can remember any of them offhand, of course.

5. My friend Wyatt Mitchell (thanked at the end of several podcasts for various technical reasons) passed along this fun story under the heading “Sky Full of Bacon Goes To Tokyo.” I wish…

It’s ten best list time, so here (according to my personal rules) are the top ten things that were new to me this year, never had ‘em before, along with whatever other things I manage to sneak into the discussion to allow myself more than ten. A cynical person would note that many of them relate to my Sky Full of Bacon podcasts, and might ascribe sinister motives to my blowing their collective horn, but of course 1) I tend to make the podcasts about things I’m already enthusiastic about, and 2) spending so much time with something is likely to increase the meaning it holds for you, so it seems unsurprising to me that those subjects should figure prominently here. Anyway, here’s the list:

10. Cherry doughnut hole from Sweetwater’s in Kalamazoo, eaten (two or three of them, actually) at the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance program on desserts, with a nod to the peach donut from Mel-O-Cream in Springfield, Illinois.

9. Beans at Mercat a la Planxa. What beans? Any beans, apparently— both times I went, I had a dish in which ham and beans had combined into something intense and magical, rich with deeply comfy porky flavor. The first time it was a side with the suckling pig; the second time it was a warm bean salad. Either way, wonderful, and hardly the most expensive thing on the menu, but certainly the most comforting.

8. Copa, with a side of raw beets in a kind of mustardy sauce, at Mado. Yeah, I made a podcast about their headcheese, but this is the housecured meat that wowed me, and so did those crunchy-fresh oh-so-local beets.

7. Great Lake pizzeria calls it by its ingredients— prosciutto, onion, some cheese, I forget what all— but to me it’s a tarte flambee, the best one since the lost lamented Alsatian stand at the Christkindlmarkt a few years back, which arrives trailing a cloud of miraculous flavor hot from the oven.

6. Grapes from Klug Farms, Green City Market. There was that whole silly debate about local eating last fall, pose or pretension, and all you would have needed to get past it was one taste of the amazing tiny gooey wine-like, no, first-growth-Bordeaux-level, grape varieties they were selling, which were all the justification local eating could ever need, and made further argument superfluous.  Oh, and hey, as long as we’re talking locally grown, how about that arugula I grew in my Earthboxes? That was pretty wonderful too, delicately peppery, it grew like mad and we ate it with joy as long as it lasted.

5. The uchepos gratinados at Mixteco Grill, the dish we’ve ordered more than any other there, with its delicious combination of comfy cornmeal and sharp roasted corn…

And as long as we’re talking tamales, would it really be fair to let this list go by without mention of the fantastic ones, creamy and rich and delicious, served at Chuck’s BBQ during his monthlong Cinco de Mayo fest, which remains one of the greatest, least heralded culinary events of the year in Chicago?

4. Sauerkraut pierogi at Smak Tak, and the whole terrific feast that went with it and pleased my mom no end with its authentic evocation of the tart, comfy Ukrainian varenyky dished up by our Mennonite forebears in Kansas.

3. Peking duck at Sun Wah, the dish that heralded the ascension of an old favorite to new heights under the second generation.

 Photo by Eatchicago

2. Pulled pork at Neely’s in Memphis, the meal where I finally got why Memphis barbecue isn’t about unvarnished hunks o’ meat, like Texas barbecue, but about the interplay of pork, sweet cole slaw, fluffy bread, all playing off each other like the Guarneri String Quartet or Messrs. Howard, Howard and Fine.

And hey, while we’re talking my Tennessee trip, how about those amazing greens at Arnold’s in Nashville, huh?  What was it I said about them here— “it was the threes that made the leap toward greatness— especially the greens, whose pot likker was Bordeaux-complex in its depth of flavor, smoky, porky, cognac-y.”  (Whoops, I already used that analogy in this ten best.)

But as long as I’m saluting the greens at Arnold’s, fairness insists that I also mention the incredible greens at our own Chuck’s BBQ at the LTHForum holiday party, even at the risk of mentioning one amazingly versatile place twice.

1. The mulefoot pig dinner at Blackbird, particularly two outstanding dishes, Vie’s cotechino full of gamey meatiness, and Justin Large of Avec’s headcheese ravioli in an amazingly porky and lemony consomme, though that’s not at all to slight a meal that was absolutely top-notch all the way.  Obviously I had a somewhat unique perspective on this meal (well, unique to me and Sula), given the days and days I spent chronicling it and seeing it all behind the scenes, but besides being boundlessly impressed by the chefs I watched in action (and not a little jealous, frankly— I sure never saw people work together so well and at such a high level in any ad agency I was in), I came away convinced that for all that Chicago is a world capitol of conceptual dining and foams and gels, its real distinction is in a small collection of superb restaurants who source carefully and prepare in an Italian-inflected modern style that brings out the flavor inherent in a dish and then some.

I don’t have a worst this year; I don’t remember anything that really irritated me (well, other than the meal where my window was bashed in and my iPod stolen), indeed why dwell on mediocrity as if it were at all hard to find without my help?  (Thus no comment on the rash of outta-town burger chains which have opened in Chicago this year, and which uniformly underwhelmed.)  Let us salute the good things, which beyond the above would include another cotechino at Riccardo Trattoria, one bite of duck at Boka, the pork chop at Sepia, the deconstructed Caesar salad at Graham Elliott, the birria at Zaragoza, lamb rib from Southside Market, Elgin, Texas, grabbed between morning shoot at Louie Mueller’s and afternoon shoot at Taylor Cafe, the biscuits I learned to make for my Southern party, Tupelo honey picked up at Katzinger’s in Columbus, OH, the ginger vanilla ice cream I’ve been making (inspired by the one good part, dessert, of a lunch at Shikago), the intriguing lemon grass and clove cookies at Kan Pou, a root beer float at Scooter’s (such an obvious idea, lifted into the stratosphere by the combo of their custard and Sprecher’s Root Beer), tomato-goat cheese quiche and vanilla cannele from Floriole Bakery at the Green City Market, and the garlicky eggplant dip at Albawadi in Bridgeview— a suburb I will have more to say about shortly.

Finally, let me end the year with thanks to you, dear Blog-Reader and Podcast-Viewer, whomever you are.  My exit from my previous primary role in shaping and managing LTHForum left me determined to use the opportunity— of a little name within the food community, of the videomaking technology I would have killed for when I was making super 8 movies when I was 15, of this perilous but pregnant moment in media history— to invent something new, to approach the subject of food in this great city in new ways and not just write about going to Khan BBQ or Burt’s Pizza for the umpteenth time (much as they are justly loved).  I’m just beginning to make that happen on the level of print media— let’s hope there are still print media this time next year— but the thousands of views my podcasts have enjoyed at Vimeo and iTunes has been greatly encouraging and gratifying. Thanks for that, and see you next year.

Ten best for: 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003