Sky Full of Bacon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, what Joho said.

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

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

The spat between Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan and the Empress of Organic Food, legendary chef Alice Waters, came to an end pretty quickly with all sorts of people running to the defense of Waters and declaring Flanagan anathema.  Not since Christopher Hitchens attacked Mother Teresa has the civilized literary world reacted with such a unanimous cry of “Oooh, who farted?”

I think Flanagan raises, snarkily (it’s undoubtedly a fun read), some issues worth thinking about apart from the near-universal adulation that Waters enjoys, and I think Corby Kummer and others refute them to a considerable extent.  But I think there’s an issue beyond that that no one has quite touched on— which, in the end, puts Waters in some very surprising company for an old Berkeley lefty.

Flanagan’s argument basically comes down to a single incredulous observation: So a rich white lady is telling Mexican kids they need to spend less time in the classroom and more time harvesting crops?  And people think this is progress for them? She portrays Waters’ Edible Schoolyards project as a crackpot idea out of Rousseau, an anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution which is cutting into the class time they really need and wasting it on hippie notions of getting back to nature:

What evidence do we have that participation in one of these programs—so enthusiastically supported, so uncritically championed—improves a child’s chances of doing well on the state tests that will determine his or her future (especially the all-important high-school exit exam) and passing Algebra I, which is becoming the make-or-break class for California high-school students?

Now, as it happens my kids go to a so-called “hippie school” (Chicago Waldorf School), which indeed has a garden.  And where they also learn things like knitting, painting, music, all that non-book stuff that there’s no room for in modern public schools.  Do I send my kids there because I want them to be macrame-making airheads who don’t know which century the Civil War took place in?  No, I send them there because despite spending a good portion of the day on non-academic subjects, I see that these kids, my own and their classmates, are far more engaged with the world, interested in history and politics, passionate about reading, curious about science and math, than the typical Chicago public school student.  In a very real sense, they get more out of four hours of that a day than most kids get out of seven in a public school.  (Kummer points out how the whole program comes out of Waters’ long-ago experience as a Montessori teacher; Montessori and Waldorf are, if not twins, certainly cousins.)

Knitting, what the school calls handwork, is the one that’s inevitably the hardest sell for parents considering Waldorf.  It seems like the school day is being wasted on occupational therapy.  But as the teachers patiently explain, it has all kinds of value for the rest of the curriculum, developing hand-eye coordination, inculcating self-discipline, nurturing a sense of accomplishment (people are blown away when they tell a second-grader “Nice hat” and the kid nonchalantly replies “Yeah, I made it”), even teaching math (you have to count rows and so on).

Likewise, gardening isn’t taking time from science class, it is biology.  And so on.  The focus and ability to concentrate and think things through and follow through till they’re done— all these things are crucial to academic subjects, and they’re developed in these non-academic pursuits.  The unchallenged assumptions in Flanagan’s piece are that more and more class time in algebra would get everybody through the tests on algebra— and that the tests on algebra have real meaning in terms of future achievement, indeed, they’re the only way you’ll get there.  Only if you think that the only place learning happens is a lecture hall, can you believe that it’s that simple.

Flanagan’s argument comes down attempting to paint Waters’ solution as run-amok 60s big government liberalism, what you might expect from a Berkeley free-speech lefty type:

Waters calls for a new federal program based on an old one [the Presidents’ Council on Physical Fitness], but the new one is necessary only because the old one has obviously failed: American kids are fatter and sicker than ever…

The suicidal dietary choices of so many poor people are the result of a problem, not the problem itself. The solution lies in an education that will propel students into a higher economic class, where they will live better and therefore eat better.

But if Waters is applying the Wahington-money-fits-all-problems approach, Flanagan is hardly a Hayekian herself; she simply wants a different federal program with different classroom priorities to make good middle class taxpayers out of all those kids.  And is there any evidence her kinds of government programs are working in inner city schools at a notably higher rate of success than gardening is?

At the same time I was reading this, I read a piece on minority Chicago schools by Heather MacDonald in City Journal, which is published by a conservative think tank; okay, I know many people checked out right there, but there’s some solid, if grim, reporting in the piece that will leave you better informed about how something like the Derrion Albert beating death happened.  (There’s also, admittedly, quite a lot of use of it to bludgeon the record of the area’s most famous ex-community organizer.)  The argument here is that Chicago social programs are very much focused on defeating social pathologies by raising the kids economically to the middle class with government spending.  Their (decidedly conservative) argument is that this has it backwards— middle-class responsibility will be achieved not when it’s handed to those unprepared for it, but when they have it inside themselves and raise themselves to the middle class:

Now, perhaps if [school superintendant Ron] Huberman’s proposed youth “advocates” provided their charges with opportunities to learn self-discipline and perseverance, fired their imaginations with manly virtues, and spoke to them about honesty, courtesy, and right and wrong—if they functioned, in other words, like Scoutmasters—they might make some progress in reversing the South Side’s social breakdown. But the outfit that Huberman has picked to provide “advocacy” to the teens, at a reported cost of $5 million a year, couldn’t be more mired in the assiduously nonjudgmental ethic of contemporary social work.

Talking about Boy Scouts in the context of schools run by gangs may seem like a joke— but it’s no moreso than talking about gardening, surely.  Gad!  Does this mean Alice Waters is a closet conservative, using gardening to infiltrate her sneaky rightwing ideas (like honesty and perseverance) into the school system?

Well, no, not exactly.  But it might mean that Waters’ idea of liberalism is a broader and more thoughtful thing than Flanagan’s big-government-by-experts version.  The hippie left of the 60s is usually portrayed as impractical and druggy, but it also had powerful strains of libertarian self-reliance within it— certainly within Waters’ world, it meant back-to-the-land types who ate or starved based on their own willingness to work, and who became her suppliers by assiduously seeking to produce the best possible produce for her restaurant.

And that’s what Flanagan just doesn’t get— gardening isn’t menial labor to Waters, it’s the pursuit of excellence.  Waters wants kids to learn the self-reliance and discipline that farming teaches— and if that’s conservative, well then so is my kids’ hippie school and so are Thoreau and Jefferson, and liberalism has just given up some very important home ground for bad reasons, it seems to me.  Flanagan is ultimately on the side of tests and credentialism and knowledge being dispensed from on high; Waters is ultimately on the side of developing the individual so they can achieve, and will want to.  And that’s why Waters is more right than Flanagan about the value of getting the kids out of the classroom for an hour a day and cultivating their own gardens.

I hadn’t been to Green City since the summer market closed, but figured I could stand to stock up on some things before making Christmas dinner. Or for the long winter. This was a true winter market, the ends of things, the makings of spare winter meals, but there were still enough things to be had to keep you connected to the growing season behind us and ahead.

We picked up some Honeycrisp apples outside, and some freshly roasted chestnuts, which my older son and I munched on as we looked over things, enjoying their hot, meaty texture.

I saw Oriana, of Asian pear and Sky Full of Bacon #8 fame. She only had some small and rather misshapen pears (not that that is bad for flavor). As you might have guessed from the cold, wet summer and fall we had, it was not a great year for her; she said only about 60% of her trees produced decent fruit, and the basket I got had about a dozen of the brown-skinned pears and precisely one yellow one. At first I thought she had something new wrapped up in a napkin– lychee nuts? But it turned out to be the apple cider donuts from the people a stall or two over. She gave one to each of my sons. Now she’s not only handing out too many samples of her own stuff, but of other peoples’, too.

I hadn’t planned to pick up a jar of Traderspoint Creamery’s herbed creme fraiche, but in the process of spreading samples onto crackers for my kids, I sort of smeared a sign on their table, so I pretty much had to. When I got home, it made a nice filling for an omelet with some excellent eggs from Mint Creek (I think). I did plan to get Nordic Creamery butter, which has been raved about at LTHForum. I’m not as wowed by their cheeses as some people, but I picked up one aged cheddar anyway.

Nichols has various heritage apple varieties— some red and bumpy, others brilliant yellow. None perfect enough for supermarkets— these are the apples you see in old still lifes, next to pheasants and violins. We noshed on a couple of things— a Hoosier Mama assortment, a crepe, some elk salami from the elk guy— and then I saw a name that I hadn’t expected to see ever again: Snookelfritz. About five years ago, a lady sold handmade ice cream under that name, and I thought I put a ginger ice cream she made on my ten best list at LTHForum or even Chowhound (apparently not, I can’t find it) but then she moved to California, or so I heard. Well, she’s back, she was flattered to be remembered from way back when, and though she can’t sell the ginger under Green City Market’s more stringent rules about ingredients being produced locally, she had some very nice flavors including an excellent pear ice cream I liked a lot… just a few minutes ago, in fact. So look for her in future markets, an old friend returned. A few more months and many old friends will return.

Click here to go to part 1.

Now it was time to get to work, recreating my childhood memories— in the kitchen.

Before Cathy arrived to show me the ropes of canning, I did as much prep as I could. I started with the beets. Beets will benefit from almost any logical thing you do to give them a little savory flavor to soak up as you roast them; in this case I vaguely followed this Alton Brown recipe (though the time is never enough; mine roasted for a full hour), coating them in a little oil and tossing them with shallots and a little rosemary I plucked from a plant that never really grew in this weird summer’s weather. But any herb and oniony flavor will be good, enhance their roasted beetiness.

Then I began peeling the tomatoes. Boil water, drop in till the skins start to split, toss into cold water in sink. Considering the half a bushel or whatever I had, it was fast work.

Then the beets went into their bath of vinegary solution. Cathy has a canning kit from Ball which is full of neat little plastic gizmos. The funnel is perfect for not spilling your precious farmstand goodies as you fill the jars…

And this device lets you stir air pockets out, then reverses to show you the height of the air space in your filled jar.

And into the steaming inferno they go, to emerge as shelf-stable, pickled beets.

How do you know how much to do some of these things, like the amount of vinegar, the time to boil, the height of air to leave in the jar? Take off your shoes, your Government has it all figured out for you! Just go here, a site actually maintained by the University of Georgia but paid for by your USDA tax dollars, and a few clicks will take you to instructions for the appropriate foodstuff.  For instance, beets in a quart jar will take 35 minutes of boiling to be safely canned.

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While the beets boil, I turn to the piccalilli.  I puree 8 good sized tomatoes, then add 3 sweet red peppers, a yellow and two green peppers.

Add some onions and at this point what I have is a pretty nice salsa.  I add some cinnamon sticks and allspice in a tea strainer, then half the final vinegar, and begin stewing it all. For the moment, it’s as red as ajvar.

Meanwhile, the beets come out of the canning pot and next go in the Roma tomatoes.  Even with lemon juice, they will take 85 minutes, which gives us plenty of time to fiddle with the piccalilli as it stews.

All along, I’m tasting and testing.  The cinnamon and allspice begin to appear in the background, making it less like a bowl of stewed tomatoes and more like a sauce.  Too much vinegar, but some sugar mellows it a bit, and salt balances the sugar.  Slowly, addition by addition, taste by taste and test by test, I get closer to my grandmother’s piccalilli, like a Polaroid slowly developing, revealing long-gone faces as familiar as if you’d seen them yesterday.

That’s Lilly and her mother, who lived into the early 80s, almost to 100. Did the piccalilli recipe come from her? Or was it just something Lilly clipped from a magazine decades ago that she never thought of as a family tradition, and only became one to me because I associated it with her? I’ll never know. (Well, unless I find the recipe card and it turns out to have the clipping stapled to it, I guess.)

Finally, after maybe two hours of stewing and adjusting, it tastes something like my childhood memories—the vinegar too strong still, but it will have a month or more in the jar to mellow.  The color isn’t an exact match; maybe she did have green tomatoes, after all, what I remember was definitely a mix of red, green and brown.  Growing up, I never even knew there were such things as green tomatoes (that is, as an edible foodstuff) until I was 20 or so, but that doesn’t mean Lilly didn’t.

But the flavor is close, it excites neurons that haven’t tasted this memory in 25 years.  It’s not exactly like being in her house again (for that, I’d have to light up a few Winstons), but it’s like a surprisingly sharp picture of one part of it, reminding me of things I haven’t thought of in years.  (Of course, to really taste my piccalilli in all its Wichita-1978 glory, I’ll need Wonder bread and Cure 81 ham.)

Just five minutes’ boiling for piccalilli, surprisingly.  Then a month or so to mellow.

Not at all a long wait, to have something again for the first time in 25 years.  And to pass a little bit of the great-grandmother who died before they were born, to my two boys.

Lilly, my grandfather Al Gebert, my dad and my uncle, c. 1935.

Lilly’s Piccalilli, Version 10.09
8 large ripe tomatoes or equivalent
3 sweet red peppers
3 bell peppers, green or yellow or orange
2 large onions or equivalent
1-3/4 cups sugar
3 cups cider vinegar
3-4 Tbsp salt, to taste
3 cinnamon sticks
1 dozen allspice berries, in cheesecloth bag or tea strainer
1/4 cup mustard seed
1/3 Tbsp celery seed

Peel and core tomatoes, chop coarsely in food processor, and partially drain mixture in a strainer. Chop peppers and onions in food processor to approximate size of pickle relish. Place all in stockpot with cinnamon and allspice and 1-1/2 cups of the vinegar. Bring to a boil and simmer vigorously, reducing liquid considerably, for 1 hour to 1-1/2 hours.

Remove cinnamon and allspice. Add remaining vinegar, sugar, salt, celery seed and mustard seed, as well as powdered cinnamon and allspice to taste. Simmer for 10 minutes. Pour into hot sterilized jars, allowing 1/2 inch headroom in jars. Boil in canner for 5 minutes.

The closing of Gourmet has led to a number of articles noting the irony that the healthiest food magazine out there is the one that was bought by Gourmet’s owner two decades ago, promptly killed in part to help protect Gourmet, and then resurrected on a business model 180 degrees from Gourmet’s: Cook’s Illustrated. If Gourmet was the New Yorker of food, Cook’s Illustrated has long been the Chilton’s— a no-gloss how to guide low on romance, high on practicality. Their editorial approaches were manifestly opposite, but more significantly now, so were their business models: Gourmet existed to sell glossy ads to food companies wanting to reach old money, Cook’s Illustrated sells subscriptions directly to people who want solid information and will fork over their own money for it.

So you might expect Christopher Kimball, editor-publisher of CI, to make that point when asked why his magazine flourishes in the face of Gourmet’s demise. You might expect pretty much his whole life to be built on that difference, in fact. But you would be wrong. Kimball’s response, in a NY Times op-ed, basically is… “Gourmet would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you pesky bloggers!” Not only did free writing on the internet hurt paid writing at Gourmet (that much seems true at least to a certain point), but in the process, Kimball claims, it killed a culture of quality food writing, only to replace it with democratized dumbth (as Steve Allen called it when he would rant about how pop culture had sunk since his day of… bringing Mexican dialect comedians to America).

This is an odd argument for Kimball of all people to be making, since his magazine is built on the assumption that you can democratize any dish by finding the optimum way to prepare it. But it gets even odder with an account of the history of food publishing that contradicts and refutes itself as he goes:

The precursor to Gourmet, and the first truly successful American food publication, was founded in the 1890s and titled The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics. It eventually changed its name to American Cookery and then died in 1947, forced under, in part, by the founding of Gourmet… It was the end of domestic science and food economy and the beginning of the era of the gourmet

The end of domestic science… except for the literally thousands of practical recipes that continue to be published not only in the major women’s magazines that existed then (McCalls, Better Homes and Gardens, etc.) and have come into existence since (Martha Stewart, O, etc.) but in the many cooking magazines that have sprung up, everything from Cooking Light to Rachael Ray magazine. That is a home ec iceberg that has always been larger than the gourmet tip, if largely unnoticed by the food elite. But keep in mind that exaggerated report of a death when considering the other death Kimball is here to announce.

Next, he poses a scary question:

Now, 68 years after its founding, Gourmet has followed American Cookery… Is American magazine publishing on the verge of being devoured by the democratic economics of the Internet?

but then immediately demonstrates that it’s based on a false premise. He admires the vanished charms of an old school billionaire, Conde Nast’s S.I. Newhouse:

He poured his fortune into his magazine properties and his editors, even when the prospect of return seemed dim. His was a world of philanthropic publishing.

So did Gourmet never actually make money, even in the boom times recently ended? Was it basically The New Republic of food, a moneyloser supported by a rich guy in search of influence? That seems hard to credit, but it does suggest that its high-flying ways were especially vulnerable to any downturn. I’ve read that pages in Gourmet went for a base rate of $90,000, where Bon Appetit, which actually had a larger (if far less elite) subscriber base, charges about a third of that. Is it really any wonder that such a magazine would prove too rich for any advertiser’s blood in any economic downturn? (And will you really be surprised if, having cut Gourmet’s enormous overhead by shutting it down and clearing it out, Conde Nast revives the brand in a much more cost-effective guise?) It wouldn’t take bloggers to kill a magazine under circumstances like that.

The shuttering of Gourmet reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up. They can no longer be coronated; their voices have to be deemed essential to the lives of their customers. That leaves, I think, little room for the thoughtful, considered editorial with which Gourmet delighted its readers for almost seven decades.

I find this too incoherent to entirely follow (and it goes on for another couple of grafs, without getting clearer) but to the extent I see arguments here, they seem mostly backwards. Articles in magazines may be written by experts, but they’re more often written by freelancers who’ve interviewed experts on the phone, and often in the process simplify and dumb down and just plain screw the expert’s insights up; the internet has brought us the voices of ten million non-experts, it’s true, but one thing it’s also done is cut out that middleman freelancer and given experts a way to talk to us directly. At the same time, by removing another mediator— the editor— the vast variety available online gives us the ability to find for ourselves the voice we trust most on a subject.

Okay, so at its best, Reichl finding and editing Laurie Colwin, say, you have that vaunted magazine experience of the editor shaping the reader’s experience. But 95% of magazine writing isn’t about that, it’s about 5 Hot Tips for the subject of the minute that every other magazine is about this minute. In a bulletpointed, tip-driven freelance market, the reason so many writers blog is because it is their chance to write the thoughtful, considered piece, and not just 7 Great Cheeses To Pair With Giving Him the Best Sex He’s Ever Had.

But Kimball’s committed to the cult of the expert and the editors who love them, so he ends it with an analogy that he thinks closes the sale, but actually sends him down in flames:

Julia Child, one of my Boston neighbors, epitomized this old-school notion of apprenticeship… Her first question upon meeting a young chef was always, “And where did you train, dear?”

That’s right, Julia Child, who wanted us all to cook French at home, is trotted out as the advocate of only eating from certified chefs. If anyone stood for the idea that self-education was possible, it was Child— true, she might have expected expertise in a high-priced restaurant, we all would, but it was an expertise that she herself did not really have (yes, she attended Cordon Bleu, but a housewife going to cooking classes hardly constituted an “old-school notion of apprenticeship” in the feudal kitchens of 1950s France) and plainly did not consider it essential to the act of writing about food. Child may not have thought much of the best-known blog specifically about her, but I very much doubt that if she were alive now, she would so presumptively dismiss, as Kimball does, the explosion of interest in and, yes, expertise shown about food on the internet today.

I know lots of people who can foods around this time of year, but I had never done it myself before last Sunday. I’m pretty game for tackling new culinary techniques, even ones with a risk of botulism attached to them, but this was one thing I wanted somebody to hold my hand on the first time I did it. It’s one thing to inspect a piece of coppa to see what’s growing on it, sniffing and poking it yourself, but another to peer into a sealed jar wondering what life and death might be growing inside it.

The estimable Cathy Lambrecht, LTHForum co-founder and whirling dervish of the culinary-historical scene (if you don’t know her from any of those activities, you saw her helping prep raccoon in Sky Full of Bacon #9), is a hardcore canner and, frankly, someone who takes the Jack Webb approach to canning, the rules exist to be followed exactly, just the USDA regs ma’am. So there could have been no better guide for my first foray into canning.

So what got me canning this year? Well, that’s a little bit of a family historical tale.

I’ve posted and even given talks based on the cooking of one side of my family, my mom’s German Mennonite side. I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned the other side, my dad’s— and at first glance there’d seem to be a reason for that. They were Irish Catholics, not a group noted for fine cuisine, and they were in Kansas in the middle of the 20th century. Steak, meatloaf, hamloaf— that’s pretty much what I remember them eating, and they ate it out as often as they did at home. They had an active social life right up until most of their friends had died, and my dad summed it up with a story he liked to tell about when he was first in the Marine Corps and the recruits were getting a little maudlin about their silver-haired mamas slavin’ over a hot stove. My dad replied that he could see his silver-haired mama slaving over… a hot game of bridge.

Yet Lillian Gebert (nee Davison) was a very good cook for her day, and my mom made sure to save her recipe box when we cleaned out her house (she died in 1990). And surprisingly, though her side didn’t come from a farming background within living memory (her dad was an executive with a department store), she was the one who occasionally made things to can. If she ever canned fruit or vegetables, I don’t remember it, but there were two condiments she made every year as long as she could: honey mustard and piccalilli sauce.

I’ve never felt a need to make the honey mustard— commercial products like East Shore taste exactly like I remember it— but the piccalilli has long been a mystery, tantalizing me. What is piccalilli, you ask? Well, that’s part of the problem: it’s a lot of things. Search for “piccalilli recipe” and you will find quite a range of preserved condiments seemingly with little beyond the idea of pickling in common. At one end it’s a British pickle with a distinct Indian influence, much like chow chows and chutneys; here’s a good example of this kind of British piccalilli, cauliflower and cucumber in a pickle turned bright yellow with turmeric.

Since the name is almost certainly British, that’s probably where it began, but it came to mean something rather different in the American South. Basically, in America it’s a green tomato relish, and became something of a traditional way to use up any green tomatoes still clinging to the vine when winter hit. You might find things like cabbage in it still (as in this recipe), but basically it was a sweet-sour relish made of green tomatoes and green and red peppers, with notes of spices like cinnamon and allspice or cloves.

As the cloves suggest, it goes well on ham, and in fact that’s pretty much all I ever did with it as a kid, put it on ham sandwiches. I’m sort of curious now what else you might do with it. Yet even if my use of it was not terribly sophisticated, it was a pretty bold taste for an 8 or 10 year old to develop a love for, and was probably one of the first genuinely complex things I really appreciated.

So I opened Lilly’s old recipe box, found the recipe, and… nope. It didn’t work that way. The one recipe I wanted was, of course, the one that wasn’t in there. (I have to wonder if, stupidly, I didn’t pull it from the box some years ago, and put it somewhere that it will never be found.) Instead, I had to do some detective work, trying to piece together what was Lilly’s likely recipe based on the tastes and recipes of the time.

I made some suppositions based on memory. It definitely had cinnamon, and I remembered her spending some hours stewing it, so that suggested cinnamon sticks; this was the 60s and 70s, so it probably didn’t have any heat to it, no more than ketchup does. I doubted that she used green tomatoes, that’s a Southern thing we really didn’t know in Kansas much, and she might not have even had red peppers— the color of hers was probably a mix of red tomatoes and the ubiquitous green bell pepper. Clearly it was vinegar-based, both by what I remembered of the taste and because it would need it for preserving, and that obviously implied a lot of sugar and some salt to balance.

Online and in one of Cathy’s many, many vintage midwestern cookbooks, I found a couple of recipes I felt looked right, close enough that I could wing something of my own and make adjustments during the cooking process. Cathy and I picked Sunday to do the canning, and so I set out Saturday with one son driving toward DeKalb, looking for farmstands (I was using enough that it was worth driving out into the country versus paying city farmer’s market prices).

* * *

I chose that direction because I knew another place in the area I wanted to try: Ream’s Market, in Elburn. Elburn is a small town about 15 minutes beyond the edge of Chicago suburbia, and Ream’s is a great little old school butcher shop that answers the question what you do for fun in Elburn: you make sausage all day long. They have an amazing number of different kinds of sausage, most of the bratwurst variety (I picked up a South African style called Boerewors) but including some dry cured salamis (I bought some little finocchino, which are excellent). Not suprisingly, Ream’s is the hub of activity on a Saturday afternoon in Elburn and luckily for me and a hungry boy, there’s a guy with a hot dog cart selling Ream’s incredibly flavorful and smoothly-ground brats and housemade hot dogs.

We continued on Rt. 38 toward DeKalb and saw two farms with farmstands. I drove past the first one to one called Yaeger’s, which had seemed appealing since it also claimed to have Halloween amusements (a corn maze, an inflatable jumping and climbing something or other). Fact was, though, it was pretty small and on a drizzly day, fun looked minimal. So we stuck to acquiring some tomatoes and some corn, plus one pumpkin. Doubling back, we hit the other stand (I don’t remember the name but, hey, it’s the other stand on Rt. 38 between Elburn and DeKalb) and found a much better range of produce. I bought a big box of Roma tomatoes for $12, and some beets as well (I’ve done refrigerator pickles of beets before, but I figured the Romas and the beets would give us something to can while the piccalilli was still stewing). That was all I really saw, this late in the season, that looked like the kinds of thing I’d like to have in my pantry. Relatively cheap produce acquired, we headed back to Chicago to await canning the next day.

Would my piccalilli match up to my memories of Lilly’s?  Stay tuned for part 2.

Ream’s Elburn Market
128 N Main St
Elburn, IL 60119-9167
(630) 365-6461

I did a CSA for the first time this year, and while some of it was just ready supply (I made a lot of zucchini bread), I can think of a couple of things I got in my CSA, or grew in my Earthbox, or bought at the farmer’s markets which really surprised me with how much better they were than what I’d been buying, or avoiding buying, for years. Despite all the arguments about whether organic or farmer’s market or whatever produce does or does not contain more Flavora-6 or Nutritia-9, this stuff blew me away with its more concentrated flavor and, I am convinced as a result, concentrations of many other good things compared to watery supermarket versions of the same species. Here’s what surprised and delighted me this year:

1) French breakfast radishes. I’ve spent a happy life not eating radishes, but I had radishes with butter and dark rye bread at the Bristol last year, and after staring at it with a definite WTF? expression, suddenly I had an epiphany and not only wanted more radishes, I wanted to grow radishes. And so I did, as I described here. They were a hit through much of the summer, I’m now a committed radishophile.

2) Kale. Another vegetable I think I’d managed to live several decades without eating, but what started to sell me on it was having the cavolo nero, black kale, at various fancy dinners (such as the mulefoot dinner; you can see it in process at Vie in my video on that dinner). Kale soaks up porky flavor beautifully, as well as any collard green-type southern green, but it keeps more of its own texture than those greens, which get a little seaweedy by comparison. Not that they aren’t glorious, but I like the sturdier kale best.

3) Celery. This one really surprised me. I got celery in my CSA box a couple of times and it’s just amazingly more flavorful than watery, styrofoamy supermarket celery— small, dark green, packed with peppery flavor. A little of it adds a lot of vegetable depth to a soup or other use. I’ll never look at this often rather mediocre and forgettable utility player the same way.

Rob Gardner says over at the Local Beet that Oriana Kruszewski will be selling Asian pears and who knows what else at tomorrow’s Green City Market. This is my sign that fall is truly here— when Oriana, who specializes in fall fruit, starts selling at the market. Who is Oriana you ask? Why, I just happen to have a video about her:

Sky Full of Bacon 08: Pear Shaped World from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Watch it, then go at least sample her Asian pears. Odds are you’ll come home with a bunch.

The biggest “premiere” I ever had for one of my videos was when I showed Raccoon Stories to a dozen guests at one of my Southern parties.  Monday night, the venue was a little bigger than that:

But let me back up.  So as you could either tell or guess from my last two, fish-oriented videos, A Better Fish and In the Land of Whitefish, my involvement with fish came about, first, because Carl Galvan of Supreme Lobster invited me to poke around their place, and second, because during the making of the first one, he said “Hey, you wanna go on a whitefish boat?” and set it up for me to go out with one of their suppliers, Susie Q Fish Co.

Supreme is certainly the biggest company I’ve dealt with in any of these, many times larger than La Quercia, for instance, and initially I wondered if there might be some hesitation or sensitivity about a guy running around with a camera in their company.  I wondered, in fact, if they’d demand some sort of editorial control.  (Which on a formal level I wouldn’t agree to, though I’d certainly listen to any comments, just as I gave La Quercia an opportunity to watch the final cut and tell me if there was anything proprietary they didn’t want shown, which as it turned out there wasn’t.)

But his bosses trusted Carl and he trusted me not to do some kind of hatchet job, and I think I honestly portrayed what they are— a big, efficient and busy company where sustainability is on their radar, and they’re moving things in that direction where they can, but change doesn’t happen overnight either, and so much of it depends on the consciousness of their customers and their customers’ customers as well.  That’s a realistic picture of how progress happens, each piece in the supply chain— fishermen, brokers like Cleanfish, distributors like Supreme, restaurants like Vie and Chaise Lounge, diners like me— helping nudge the others along, making it economically possible to do what’s better.  That’s especially why I was so happy to be able to include Cleanfish, who are really committed to market rather than governmental solutions, protecting non-sustainable fish by driving the market toward other more sustainable fish; and I think it’s obvious that their commitment has had a pretty rapid and direct ripple effect through to distributors and then to chefs and diners (as shown in my Reader piece on their Nunavut arctic char).

Anyway, after they saw the first one and felt it was a good picture of their operation (even if it did reveal that their sales reps sometimes use bad words!), they had the idea of planning an event to raise awareness of the quality and versatility of Great Lakes fish and sustainability more generally, built around a screening of the first video and the (at that point, unfinished) one about whitefish.  And, well it was quite an event— they got the Shedd on board as a venue (and it doesn’t get much snazzier than that):

and Paul Virant of Vie and Troy Graves of Eve, plus the Shedd’s own in house team, cooking with fresh and smoked whitefish and smelts, alongside Goose Island beer.  The invite list included over 200 chefs and media folks, and I talked to many of them, Paul and Troy of course, Jean Joho, Todd Stein, Cary Taylor, Radhika Desai, etc., though they were just as many I missed (I never did catch Geno Bahena, who was there with the madonna of moles, Clementina Flores; or Michael McDonald of One Sixty Blue, Bruno Abate of Follia/Tocco, etc.).

I think that one’s going to be an ad for Goose Island, or maybe Colt .45 Malt Liquor.  (Photos, by the way, are by Supreme’s Reed Shallenberger if they’re any good, and were taken with my camera if they’re not.)  Here’s Carl working on the playlist for the party at the Shedd’s loading dock:

The food really showed the versatility that Great Lakes fish can have, with the biggest eyeopener being Troy’s surprisingly flavorful whitefish cake, which didn’t miss crab a bit.  Here’s Paul bringing in some escabeche:

After about an hour of mingling (and me running around checking on the AV) we gathered in one of the  exhibit rooms as a repurposed screening room.  The president of Supreme and a couple of folks from the Shedd talked about the fish biz and how Shedd works to promote sustainability (including as a big buyer of seafood for its own animals to eat), and then, this guy got up there:

Since I try not to yak-yak in my movies, I tried not to do so before them for too long, either.

Paul Virant, Mike Sheerin (Blackbird) and Jean Joho watching the videos.  I have to say, it was a real gift to finally get to see some of my work with an audience, like a real movie, not just because of the ego boost (though that was certainly gratifying) but also because, I think I know where the laughs are, where the “Hmm, never thought about that”s are, and so on, but you don’t really know until you can hear and feel a whole audience reacting.  It was really great to hear that everybody else found Robert Schuffler as delightful a character as I did, or roared at why lawyer fish are called that.

Afterwards Carl, who had really made everything possible, was thanked by his boss for his dedication and passion to the business of selling fish, and got a big round of applause, well-deserved, for making the event happen.  I really hope that some of our city’s best chefs came away thinking of new ways to make use of Great Lakes fish, and sustainable fish generally, in a way that’s better for the oceans and lakes and for all of us.

Some people get up early to eat Sunday breakfast out.  Okay, that’s us most weeks.  This week, we got up early to harvest it.  And I don’t mean corn for cornmeal muffins.

You would never guess, walking by the old convent next to a Catholic church in Rogers Park, that the roof was doubling as an apiary.  The building (incongruously Art Deco for a convent) is now the Marjorie Kovler Center of the Heartland Alliance, once better known as the Travelers & Immigrant Aid Society and helping immigrants to Chicago since 1888.  One of the staffers, Mary Black, who works with refugees and torture victims as an occupational therapist, had been interested in beekeeping and found that it was often a skill that turned up among immigrants in their programs.  A grant from Heifer International for livestock enabled her to start hives on the roof, with an Eastern European man named something like Mirostat (I never quite heard it right) as the master beekeeper. [EDIT: my wife heard, I didn’t, that he’s a teacher at Roosevelt High School named Mirsad and one set of hives are his school project bees.]

In addition to the Kovler center’s own bees, there are a couple of other groups keeping hives on the roof; we were there at the invitation of one of the teachers from our kids’ school.

A man from Cameroon named Goodwin (left) helped us with the bees today.  He told us about beekeeping in Cameroon, where they lacked the protective gear we used today.  In Cameroon, the way you avoid getting stung is, when they come after you, you run and jump in the river.

I wondered if we’d still have a visceral reaction to bees swarming around us but you soon feel quite invulnerable in your protective gear (even though you’re not, really).  The bees are very good at sealing up where they live and work with goo of their own making, so you first use a “hive tool” to pry the hives open, smoking them to calm them down and chase them away:

Some of the combs were neat like this one, some almost overgrown with bee-stalactites of wax:

You want the ones that are “capped,” which means each individual cell in the comb is full and closed off.  We took about half the honey, and left the other half for them to live on over the winter.  Goodwin asked how they get out to feed if there’s lots of snow covering up their entrance to the hive.  We explained that, well, they don’t, because there’s nothing to feed on in the winter.  Another difference between beekeeping in Chicago and in Cameroon.

Goodwin brushed the bees off the comb…

and Myles and Liam, unphased by bees all around them, opened the box where the combs, as bee-free as we could get them, were kept to carry downstairs.

Sometimes if a comb was covered with bees, they’d just knock it on the ground, and the slightly dazed bees would just sit there, wondering what the heck just happened.

The white blobs are drones; unfortunately the black spots are signs of an infestation, mites that prey on bee colonies, so treatment will have to be applied in the next couple of weeks.

Under the watchful eye of the teacher, Mrs. Holdrege, both kids went to work uncapping the combs, which basically means using a thing sort of like a pet comb to neatly scrape the top layer of wax to open the cells without scraping up too much honey.  They did surprisingly well with this delicate operation.

Then into the centrifuges, which the kids loved cranking.  Me, I soon remembered the nice motor-powered centifuges Peter Fonda had in the movie Ulee’s Gold.

I expected we’d get a couple of good-sized jars.  We filled two 5-gallon buckets most of the way… after more than an hour of cranking.

Some are freaked out by the bits of comb, stray bee legs, etc. that speckle the honey in the buckets, and so they filter it before eating it.  We ate the raw honey on bread and apples undaunted, and it was wonderful. I’ve had plenty of really great honey in recent years but this stuff fresh from the combs was in its own class, floral and incredibly fresh tasting.  We came home with a beautiful jar, the foreign matter has already pretty much floated to the top.

I think biscuits will be on the menu for dinner.

Update: Here’s a link to a video about Heartland Alliance.