Sky Full of Bacon

Library, The Public Hotel.

So Monday morning there will be an announcement which many have guessed, or simply assumed, to judge by the congratulations I’ve been getting since before it was official. I am taking the post of Chicago editor (which is to say, writer and editor of myself) for Grub Street Chicago. Which, if you don’t know, is a site which aggregates and creates foodie world news in several major foodie cities.

In doing so I’m going straight against what one of the best-known people on the Chicago food scene has just done:

A couple of weeks ago I went to an announcement party at Union Sushi & Barbeque Bar for Steve Dolinsky’s new site, Dolinsky, who is mainly known for his food segments for ABC 7 in Chicago, had (among his other gigs) been the food blogger at Vocalo, the bloggy offshoot of WBEZ which has now simply become He gave that up, and my friend Louisa Chu took it up:

One of the reasons Dolinsky told me he had left WBEZ and spiffed up his own site (for which he plans to create an impressive amount of weekly content) was that frankly, he felt he should be building his own brand on the web, not somebody else’s. I agreed completely at the time, and still do in general— and the value of my own efforts at personal brandbuilding were quickly affirmed by the owner of the restaurant introducing himself and turning out to be a Twitter follower of mine. (Okay, he follows 2000 people, but he’d responded to me on occasion, and I recognized his Twitter name.)

Afterwards, Louisa and I checked out the renovated Pump Room…

and the Library, which is a very nice, quiet bar, not at all overrun as I assumed this highly-hyped opening would be.

So why am I doing the opposite? Well, one, they’re paying me, and I really want to be able to afford to do things like go cool foreign places with my kids while they’re still young enough to tolerate me. (Happy 13th birthday, Myles.) As Mr. Mom/advertising freelancer/food writer person, I don’t exactly have the cares of someone depending wholly on their food freelance income, but I could certainly use an income. Two, although I have good access to the food scene and its notable figures, I’m sure just the needs of covering the scene will expose me to many more things much more rapidly. Three, I like the idea of being compelled to produce on a regular basis. To be forced to think up story ideas, day after day, to follow up leads right then. This is my training for the marathon, my fighting middle age contentment by taking on something new and demanding. Better to burn out than to fade away, and all that. So, I’ll be doing the grunt work of aggregating news from all over every day, but I’ll also be trying to produce original content just about every day, interviews and videos and slideshows and commentary. Bookmark it, if you haven’t already!

Marcus Jernmark and Chandra Ram at Plate Cooks.

Not that Dolinsky’s event is the only thing I’ve been to lately, but most of the others quickly got repurposed into material for Grub Street’s insatiable appetite. One was the industry how-to conference Plate Cooks, put on by Plate, a trade magazine based in Chicago whose editor Chandra Ram I’ve met on several occasions. Two different publicists invited me to events, one with Marcus Jernmark, of New York’s Aquavit, which used to be Marcus Samuelsson’s place. To be honest, I had never heard of him and barely of Aquavit, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with that here, but I had nothing else that morning and I figured, hey, I can attend a chef’s demo at Kendall, why not? Little did I know how grateful I’d be for this material the next week when I started filling in at Grub Street; you can see what I made of that here.

Another was a butchering demo with Rob Levitt and Michael Paley of Louisville’s Proof on Main; I’ve never made it to one of Rob’s butchering demos so it was a great chance to see one and share it, finishing the demo off with Paley’s coppa and fried pig tails:

After that one I stuck around for the next, a panel about sustainability, which included Randy Zweiban and Ari Weinzweig, the co-founder of Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which I had visited for the first time a few months back. I especially wanted to meet him… because I was already planning to have dinner with him that night. Anyway, Plate Cooks was a great industry event, strong on the technical side which I found fascinating, light on the showbizy-commercialized side even though it did have sponsored interludes (but even those, like Tony Priolo demoing risotto with potatoes in it, were perfectly respectable and worth attending). I’m definitely going to try to get invited again next year.

But wait, you were about to ask, how was I planning on having dinner with the co-founder of Zingerman’s again? Well, some months back the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, who invited Hammond and me on this, invited me to a bacon dinner at L’Etoile in Madison, part of the push around Weinzweig’s new book, Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon.

And I’m not just repaying their hospitality when I say this was a fantastic dinner, worth the 3 hours each way. I was a little apprehensive about having salt/baconfat overload, but I should have know that L’Etoile’s Troy Miller would have a delicate touch with bacon, bringing out the flavor of numerous different bacons in delicate, surprising ways:

But the other great part of it was that I had the chance to talk with Weinzweig about the prospect of doing a Sky Full of Bacon video at some future date. As I said to him, “Think of some part of your business that you’re fascinated by but no one else seems to be interested in. I’ll be interested in it.” And he was receptive. (In the meantime, this short clip ran on Grub Street.)

So wait, you say, does that mean Sky Full of Bacon is still going? Hell yeh, it’s still going and Key Ingredient comes back this week, too. SFOB is certainly going to be quieter, I’ve tried to do a post a week no matter what, and that won’t happen now. But I’m going to make the next two promised videos on schedule, and there will be something here from time to time.

In the meantime I had a couple of suggestions to check out in Madison before I headed home the next day. One was suggested by one of the Milk Board folks, a very tidy and friendly German sausage place, Bavaria Sausage, where I picked up a bunch of really well-made sausages that went happily into a choucroute garnie that very night when I got home. The other was an old-school Italian deli, Fraboni’s, suggested by Matthew, who comments here from time to time. It’s not as impressive as Tenuta’s in Kenosha or Glorioso’s in Milwaukee, but you certainly wouldn’t be sorry you had it nearby, either, and I grabbed a nice sub (could have had better bread, but what was inside was just fine) for the road home.

Check me out at my new home, Grub Street Chicago, from now on, and my personal home here, too, at least once in a while when I have something to say or show here.

…the video part, that is. Not that I haven’t been busy on Key Ingredient videos, so you’ve had hours (literally) of video of mostly high end chefs to watch. But I’ve wanted to get back to subjects other than chefs, there is more to food than them, as interesting and creative and talkative as they are. And I’ve been shooting stuff during the past year, I just haven’t been finishing it. But here, with all due caveats about how you never know what life will bring you, is a preview of what I have planned for Sky Full of Bacon over the next several months:

(It seemed kind of pompous with that music when I first finished it, so I added a line that really seemed to say what Sky Full of Bacon is about…)

The South Side BBQ piece grew out of some initial interviews I conducted on behalf of Time Out Chicago, which led to this and this. But there was a lot more than I could use in those pieces, and I’ve steadily added to it over time, digging more into the history of Chicago’s own indigenous barbecue style. In the process it turned into what I’ve tried to keep Sky Full of Bacon videos from being— a great big comprehensive study of a subject which keeps growing and getting too long and complex to finish. (That’s what happened to the second Gorilla Gourmet video, and why it was never completed, and why I conceived of Sky Full of Bacon as being smaller, one-subject pieces which wouldn’t grow out of control. Hey, it worked till now…) Nevertheless, I have the bulk of it cut into what I think is pretty watchable fighting weight, and I hope to have it complete within a few weeks.

The farm one is shot as well; the butcher one, only in part. So things may change. But I feel good that even with Key Ingredient continuing for however long it continues (at some point it will get old, but as you’ll see this week, there’s always a new wrinkle to how chefs approach the challenges), I’ll also be able to complete at least a few pieces of my own on longer and quirkier subjects. So, as always, thanks for your interest and, on occasion, your patience, and watch this space for more news soon.

This is an extremely deep metaphor for what happens here.

It’s the 3rd anniversary of my first video, and that makes it time for my annual State of the Bacon address, on how things have worked out and what might lie ahead. Needless to say, I feel pretty good about a year that brought a Beard award, and getting national press as one of Saveur’s Sites We Love, and just this week, this in the Reader’s Best of Chicago:

In some ways that’s the coolest of all, though it doesn’t frame as nicely as a Beard award. But there were no nominees in these categories; this is, as we say in the ad biz, unaided recall, top of mind awareness, people who, asked to name a top food blog, said Sky Full of Bacon with no prodding. To come in third behind a well-publicized arm of a national publication and a site with hundreds of users of its own, as one of the sites people think of first in this category, is a pretty great testament to the fact that my work here has gotten through and made a splash on the local food scene. That people actually watch and read this stuff.

When I started writing for publications about food, one of the things I knew I would need to do, as a dad with kids and thus much less free time than the many young people checking out new restaurants and bars every night, was find ways to stand out beyond simply doing every assignment I could land. I knew I needed a project that would help me be seen as having a particular point of view and the capabilities to bring it to readers and viewers. I chose doing videos about food because I felt it was something I could do that few others were doing and that would get attention— and I thought I could do it well.  Two of my particular ambitions for it when I started were getting an ongoing gig of some kind (or more than one) using video, and winning a James Beard Foundation award for it, which in turn would hopefully serve to open other doors when I could call myself a Beard Award winner.

So this is a big year in that both of those ambitions were realized. The phone finally rang with an editor at the other end, wanting to talk about the prospect of a series of chef challenges— Key Ingredient for the Chicago Reader. And literally our very first work— the first three videos/print pieces in the series, from last November and December— won a Beard. Add to that other notable work (such as the Eater videos about Next and Aviary, which have now had over 10,000 views) and milestones (such as getting published by probably the magazine that I most dreamed of writing for when I started all this) and I believe that I have sort of completed the first stage of this process, graduated from one level of food writerdom.

Now I just have to take those accomplishments and figure out how I use them to go to the next level. Whatever that is.

The next level.

Alas, there is a melancholy part to this anniversary, which is that the other Reader-cited “blog” (not exactly) that I helped start, LTHForum, is at an unfortunate crossroads in its own existence. In a few days it will be sold as an asset in the bankruptcy of just one of several founders— possibly to a group of LTH insiders (who also have some responsibility for LTH being in this mess, but nevertheless, are presumably its best hope for continuing). Or possibly to… who knows?  Will it exist a week or two from now?  No one can say for sure.

I haven’t told the story of how that happened, and don’t intend to start now (though I’ll answer questions), but if this next week brings down the curtain on LTHForum as that community’s outlet, I will still be proud of the impact our community had going back to Chowhound days in awakening Chicagoans to the real diversity of ethnic cuisine all over the region. As I am also proud that in the end, when I felt I needed to walk away, I didn’t just sit there and nurse a grudge but took what I had learned there and raised it to the next level with my own new creative pursuits.  (And with a URL people could actually remember.)

Thank you, if you read this far, for going along on that journey with me for these past three years, and for reading and watching. The best is yet to come, I promise.

A poster mentioned on LTHForum the other day the clever logos that “someone” used to do a few years back, repurposing various forms of food-related vintage art. Needless to say, that someone was me, at least for the first few years; here’s one that I never got around to running before I left, and thus has never appeared at LTHForum.

I’ve had a few social occasions with restaurant PR folks lately, and some of the conversation inevitably went in the direction of, what is this media world coming to and how can we all make it work so that it’s mutually beneficial and informative for journalists, restaurants, PR people and diners, rather than frustrating or intrusive or cheesy. (If you wonder why they ask me these questions, I suppose this series is one answer.) Some will, no doubt, ask why it’s the journalist’s job to help the PR industry at all, rather than to maintain an adversarial or at least wary, arm’s length relationship, but when it works well, it opens doors to new possibilities for writers. And when it doesn’t it doesn’t, so I’m all for better PR that works better for everybody, and this is my perspective on that. The following is a made-up conversation, but its pieces pretty much come from reality:

So how do you think restaurant PR can adapt to the era of blogging?

Are we an era? That’s a tough one because in a cost-benefit analysis way, I’m not convinced that any local restaurant blogger has an audience that’s particularly big enough to be worth going after— if that’s how you want to measure things. On the other hand, the PR business routinely spends money on an audience I’d have just as hard a time justifying the ROI on, which is the usual list of attendees for the Thursday night cocktails and nibbles event at such and such restaurant, which doesn’t really get the big names (with a few exceptions) because their organizations have policies against that sort of thing. So spending money on bloggers is not worse than that, but I’m not sure I think it’s any better on a pure audience size/conversion to reservations basis.

But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it anyway— a mass media way which is about getting the biggest raw number possible. That’s not what it’s about now.

So what’s it about now, and how do you justify spending money on it?

What has the PR industry always told its clients that it was getting for them? Buzz. This nebulous thing, which can seem like BS except, when somebody really has it, you see how amazingly it works. In Chicago it means places are packed on day 1 and can stay that way for years. But you’ve never been able to quantify it before, right?

Well, now buzz has corporeal form. You can go on Twitter and some of these food-news blogs and see it in action in real-time. So no one may have a massive raw audience, but some people are simply part of the conversation, they’re closer to the center of all this activity and what they get jazzed up about gets others jazzed up. And if you can target them and get them excited, then it will trickle up. I mean, Chicago didn’t become Weird Pork Parts City because Phil Vettel declared it one day. It became that because chefs got into it, and then there was all this talk going around that random animal parts were cool. That’s what’s so interesting about Twitter, though it’s certainly not the only place this happens, but it’s this incredibly democratic space where buzz moves around between people, not irrespective of status, but pretty damn freely. It should be exciting that there are so many ways to get into that conversation now.

Now you’re saying you’re at the center of the media universe?

Ha!  No, thankfully.  Actually I had a very interesting encounter at a PR event a while back; I met this woman who was a producer for one of the TV stations.  And she told me the big new local talk show she was working on and I told her about Key Ingredient and getting a Beard nomination… and it was obvious that neither one of us had ever heard of the fabulous and very important thing the other one was doing.  So no, I don’t think the media universe is waiting each day to see where Sky Full of Bacon says to eat now.  The media universe has no center now, it’s decentralized and has all these different spots where stuff is burbling and fermenting— where we’re all legends in our own minds.

So all you have to do is just keep an eye on what each of these dozen or two dozen amorphous groups are buzzing about.  Easy!

Oh, yeah, piece of cake. As a blogger, do you like being contacted with our usual pitches, or is it just annoying?

That’s a hard one to answer.  I like your pitch if I like your pitch, I make fun of it to my friends if I don’t.  (Sorry!)  I mean, I understand the issue of resources here— there’s a million of us termite bloggers and you can’t know what’s right up the alley of every single one.  At the same time, some of the things people send out— I mean, I got SO MUCH stuff about National Hamburger Month.  And I couldn’t help but think, did you look at my blog?  Do I look like I’m ever going to get excited that some chain restaurant on the Mag Mile invented a bacon egg and guacamole burger for Cinco de Mayo?  I’m going to drop doing a video about biodynamic charcuterie in the inner city and jump right on that, yeah.

So somehow, and I don’t envy you, you have to reconcile the fact that you have to talk to a wide audience and yet, let’s face it, sometimes your client just isn’t doing anything that amazing that bloggers or anybody else is going to get excited by. But still, you can’t write the new media world off because one, the other things don’t necessarily exist any more, and two, you just never know how it will pay off. I mean, three years ago I did a video about generational change at Sun Wah.  And this week, the New York Times does a piece about generational change in Chinese restaurants, and out of all the restaurants they could have picked in the whole country, they pick… Sun Wah.  Even if they never saw my piece, you know they saw the piece by somebody who saw my piece.  That’s how the world works.

What do you wish chefs and restaurants would do better when it comes to dealing with people like you?

You know, the one that amazes me is how little use restaurants and chef sometimes make of what I do. I know they’re all bugging you for publicity but then, when I show up and shoot something about them that makes them look more interesting and thoughtful than the two second soundbite they got on national TV, they don’t even think to tweet it or anything. Honest to God, I think some of them don’t really think it’s actual media because I don’t have twelve stylists and key grips trailing behind me. Well, you don’t need all that stuff any more! I’m the food truck of publicity, I show up, shoot for an hour, and get gone, but seriously, when the Food Network wants to find out about you, what do you think they’re going to look at? The two second soundbite or the clip where I let you talk, intelligently and extemporaneously, for five minutes? They don’t care how big a crew shot it.

So take advantage of it, for cryin’ out loud. And apply that lesson generally. Any time you get so much a mention somewhere, put the word out on it yourself. It helps build your brand, it lets other journalists know you’re a good source, it scratches the journalist’s belly a little to be noticed and thanked, it could lead to the New York Times.  Don’t ask for more PR until you’re milking the PR you already get for all it’s worth.

What do you think about what Ellen Malloy’s doing with putting a lot of PR content online for journalists to just pick stuff up from? Is that going to replace traditional PR?

I don’t think things replace other things all that much. It’s more likely that the new thing will grow the market in some new direction while the old one has to evolve to fit a changed environment. But she is doing one of the main things the internet always does, which we called “disintermediation” back in the dot-com days— giving the end user the ability to do it himself instead of having to go through somebody to get it done. In this case, she’s putting a lot of stuff online so journalists can go find story ideas poking around her site for two minutes and throw questions out to a bunch of people instead of spending the whole afternoon making phone calls. I think that’s obviously helpful in a lot of situations.  That said, I can’t say I’ve used it much myself, because I don’t do that kind of story— ohmigod Mother’s Day is coming up I need to find out who is doing what for Mother’s Day, fast.  That’s a mainstream media need more than it’s mine, but sure, it’s a smart solution that some people will use a lot, and will replace a few 22-year-olds fielding phone calls.

It’s also not the only solution that’s out there waiting to be discovered and built out, either.  There’s plenty of room to make this process better.

I suppose it hardly matters, the future belongs to Groupon anyway.

Well, I wouldn’t bet on any billion-dollar-value dotcom even existing in a few years, and Groupon’s lack of repeat business is somewhat worrying (though I don’t think a low return customer rate in itself is tantamount to being a Ponzi scheme).  But I have a somewhat different take on Groupon anyway, which is that fundamentally it’s less of a sales promotion service than a media company.  Traditional media were, of course, built on the idea that they were the only way to reach a big group of whoever— middle class department and grocery store customers if you were the Trib, counterculture young people who went to concerts if you were the Reader, etc.  Then suddenly there was ten times as much content and no clear sense of what anybody was really reading— I could buy ads in a million places aimed at restaurant goers, but what proof did I have that anyone would see them there, that I was reaching the best group in the best place?  An explosion of choice paralyzed the market and turned ad rates into a commodity.

So Groupon reinvented the business and nailed down all the loose pieces of the traditional media model.  Not sure if anybody actually reads this stuff?  We know exactly how many get our deals and how many buy, and no ad agency is going to have to give you a BS presentation about your front of mind awareness going up 7%, when your cash register is stuffed full of the things.  Don’t want to pay money up front? You don’t have to pay a cent up front, you’ll just pay out the nose on the back end, Groupon turned the 15% commission on media buys into the 75% on actual results one.  The clue is how much emphasis Groupon puts on writing fun copy— they’re entertaining their audience just like any other media company, not merely selling like the deal of the week offers that preceded them.  Now, I question its long-term sustainability for various reasons, but it’s definitely one of the models to look at to see where the world is going— if the mass media audience is fragmented, build your own and sell it.

Permanently behind the times on new movies now, I watched Julie and Julia courtesy of a Starz preview a couple of nights ago. Streep was a hoot, a caricature of Child that nonetheless captured the woman bursting with life in a Muppet’s voice; as her husband, the normally sharp Stanley Tucci was so sweet and supportive you eventually wanted to smack him with a hammer (he also looks too Hollywood-fit for 1946); while Amy Adams and Guy Who Played Her Husband struggled to have more to their characters than the sloppily-dressed slacker couple in a cellular phone commercial. (I’m a blogger! Can you hear me now?) Still, this was better, and more likable, than I expected, even ever so slightly formally inventive for second-generation chick flick auteur Nora Ephron (whose parents wrote Desk Set for Tracy and Hepburn back in Julia Child’s day).

By giving us a lush 1950s story and a much more cramped and neurotic modern parallel, it’s basically a deconstruction of one chick flick subgenre, the career gal movie. Back in the day, a career gal movie was about a young woman who goes to New York, pursues a career and independence in some field open to women like magazine publishing and advertising, fends off some powerful but married wolf, and winds up happily ever after with some lesser hunk of 1950s actorly cheese. (The masterpiece of the genre, of course, is The Apartment. This is of course because it transcends the genre with a career that sucks, a wolf who isn’t fended off, and an ending that only barely manages to seem happy.)

But Ephron, aiming at a better educated female audience than the latest Matthew McConnaughy rom-com, switches the tables around. Both Julie and Julia are married as the movie begins; the real prize at the end is something a mere husband pales next to— a book contract. (I will assume that spoilers are by definition impossible with this movie.) So this is a romance about two women groping their way toward the greatest of all loves, of an author for her name on the cover of a book.

Except one of them is reading and cooking from the life of the other— so one is basically living in a movie which the other is watching. (They can never meet on the same temporal plane, of course, not least because Child lived long enough to sniff disdainfully at Powell’s blog— accurately, to judge by the banal excerpts we hear or read onscreen.) Julia and Paul Child live in a Paris where there’s room to park a motorboat of an American car, buy whole fish at the market in gloves and pearls, and throw parties in your vast apartment managed by a smiling, welcoming concierge. That they may have actually lived this life (except for the welcoming Parisian concierge, a detail I refuse to believe) doesn’t make it any less movie-like, and as fantasy Europes go, it’s as confected and irresistible as Mary Poppins’ London. There is some modest struggle for Julia in getting to her consummation with a publisher, but basically, the movie Julia Child goes through life like a parade float.

Where Julie has all the struggles of the modern caricature— a comically dilapidated Queens apartment, comically awful more-successful friends who use cell phones at the table, a comical encounter with live lobsters. (All credit to Amy Adams for whatever real feeling she can bring to this sitcom life.) The blog will be her way out, and frankly given Hollywood’s typical portrait of technology (all those high tech intelligence agencies still using c. 1988 green screen monitors that type one letter at a time) I feared how badly this movie would get blogging.

Not badly at all, actually. There’s an early scene which exists only to explain what blogging is in the simplest of terms to the older ladies in the audience, but once she’s online, the details seem pretty right. The problem I had was with the purpose the movie purports for the blog— which is to provide a new way in which someone whose pathway from editor of the Amherst literary journal to authorial fame had flamed out can mount a sideways assault on the publishing world.

And so while Julie’s rise is tallied in terms of her readers (“I got 55 comments today! From people I didn’t know!”), what’s dramatized are her encounters with the institutions of the New York publishing world— Child’s own editor Judith Jones (who jilts her), The New York Times (via Amanda Hesser, who comes to dinner playing herself), and finally, an orgasmic cascade of phone messages from big media brand names, Simon & Schuster and Food Network, this movie’s equivalent of the montage in an old musical in which we see the marquees of Alice Faye’s hit shows (“Lois Lovely in Damaged Woman… Lois Lovely in Hearts Over Montana… Lois Lovely in A Kiss For Princess Maria”).

Although plenty of people blog to get a book deal (or even, I’ve heard, to help attract freelance writing and videomaking gigs), by focusing all of Julie’s attention upward toward bigger fish in the New York media pond, her story ultimately misses all the other cultural shifts and implications of blogging in the course of leading her to the exact same publishing climax Julia Child (or Shirley Maclaine or Doris Day or whoever) would have enjoyed 50 years earlier. Some readers send her food items, but there’s no sense of bloggy interaction with her readership; she never learns better from them how to pull off a technique in Child’s book, she certainly never invites a learned reader to join in any of the meals she makes for her same batch of old, pre-internet real world friends. (The real Julie in fact did have events to which readers were invited.)

In short, there’s no sense that blogging might not be a way to crack the old media world so much as a way to get around it— to build your own audience free of media gatekeepers and editorial interference, a new form of communication entirely in which writers and readers interact. For the movie Powell, there’s nothing about blogging that wasn’t true about using your trust fund to publish a “little magazine” in Greenwich Village back in the day— it’s just a way to try out for the only show that matters, the big publishing show in midtown Manhattan.  The irony is that Julia Child, who found herself in Paris and became famous in Boston, is less parochial in the 1950s than the woman who has the whole internet at her fingertips in the early 2000s— but never once thinks that if she hates her tiny apartment over a pizza parlor and her careerist friends, maybe she could try Portland, say, and do her blog just as well from there.  Julie and Julia offers a curious picture of the evolving media landscape in which you can now publish yourself to the whole world— but you still have to do it from the 212 area code to be anybody, just like in Shirley Maclaine’s day.  

As close to the podium as I thought I was going to get.

Having been nominated in the “Multimedia Feature” category for the James Beard Foundation Awards, I went to New York with a firm conviction that I was not going to win. (And by “I,” I mean “we,” my fellow nominee Julia Thiel who writes Key Ingredient in the Chicago Reader and myself.) Partly this was a defense mechanism— if I actually thought we would win, I’d be nervous; being convinced we would not, I was nonchalant, kind of. But part of it was that I really thought Andrew Zimmern would win, being famous, or Katherine Shilcutt, the lady from the estimable food section of the Houston Chronicle, whose editor is Robb Walsh, famous in his own right for a barbecue book I clutched throughout several trips to Austin. Illustrious company to be nominated in, who the heck are we to really compete with them?

Anyway, so Friday evening comes, my family who traveled with me to New York is off to see a play and I stroll over to the event space in Hell’s Kitchen… and the first thing I see is that animal rights protesters have set up stuffed animals in cages to protest the cruelty of fine dining. I notice that they also have what looks like a spray bottle of fake blood— if you’re going to spray that, I think, it’s going to be on the dress clothes of someone better paid than me.

I check in and get a little badge which says Nominee, which serves as a great icebreaker— throughout, people come up to me, or I to them, and say, so what are you nominated for? I catch the eye of the distinguishedly sturdy fellow on the right with salt and pepper goatee and he introduces himself.

“Robb Walsh,” he says, thrusting a hand at me. I can only repeat, dorkily, “Robb Walsh!” In an instant I realize that the whole evening is going to be like this, meeting people whose names I know, but whose faces are professionally hidden most of the time. It’s an odd social situation, but I make the best of it I can, and I think this is my awkwardness low point, which he handles graciously, wishing me luck even as he acknowledges that he’ll have a grieving reporter on his hands if Katherine Shilcutt loses to us. (Besides being Shilcutt’s editor, Walsh is nominated with two others for a story on oysters which appeared in, of all things, Garden & Gun, whatever that is.)

I’m a little suaver when I spot and zero in on Andrew Zimmern, who has a crowd around him, as most of the recognizable TV celebrities here do. I push my hand forward and say, “Since I’m going to lose to you in about 90 minutes, I figured I should say hi.” That disarms him and we talk for a few minutes about his recent Chicago episode. He manages to combine down to earthness with a celebrity glow and high voltage persona that makes you instantly understand why someone thought he’d be a natural for TV.

We take our seats— Julia, myself, and Mara Shalhoup, the Reader’s new editor, right up front (though my best view of the event will be the projected image on a side wall). More celebrity glow is on hand when Ted Allen and Gail Simmons take the stage; on Top Chef, Gail may play the more approachable Mary Ann to Padma’s exotic fashionista-dominatrix Ginger, but she’s quite glamorous in real life, and that wasn’t a faraway observation since she sat at our table when she wasn’t needed on stage.

The chair of the awards committee comes out and explains the changes in the awards this year, which have greatly expanded the number of categories to reflect the much more varied and, importantly, online basis of the profession of food writing these days. This doesn’t actually affect our category, which has existed for a while (Mike Sula and I were nominated in it two years ago), and I’m sure Beard cynics like Anthony Bourdain would say it’s just to increase the number of people sending in their entry fees, but compared to the way many journalism awards are still hopelessly hidebound (the Pulitzers just gave their first prize for reporting to a purely online story, which to my mind is sort of like giving the first Oscar to a talkie in 1940), it seems to me progressive and smart. Likewise, where the Beards could be awards from New York publishing for New York publishing, the regional sweep of the awards, taking in everywhere from Minneapolis to Seattle, is admirable.

Many, many awards follow— nerve-wrackingly, ours doesn’t come till after the second course— but some particular hero-worship highlights for me included Jonathan Gold winning the M.F.K. Fisher award for distinguished writing. Gold was chronicling grungy taquerias in L.A. before Chowhound was a gleam in Jim Leff’s eye, he’s right up there with Calvin Trillin as far as I’m concerned for the guys who first turned attention from haute to hot-n-greasy cuisine.

The Edible Communities group of publications won a special award for pioneering their model of hyperlocal coverage.

While Wylie Dufresne gave a thoughtful appreciation of a book that has had enormous influence on his generation of molecular gastronomists: Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. McGee in turn said that he hears all the time from young chefs in culinary school who can’t find out what they want to know from their traditionally-trained teachers, so they go direct to the source— him.

Somewhere in there our batch of awards comes up. At some point Julia and I realize there is actually a nonzero chance that we might wind up on stage— we don’t know what to make of the fact that we seem to have been seated quite close to it, for no good reason we can see— and we talk about what we might say if we do. It’ll be short, we agree on that much. Ted announces our category and I start recording video as the computer system slightly botches a clip from our very first Key Ingredient, starring Grant Achatz:

The moment I hear “Mi—” I mutter “oh my god” and flip the camera off. Julia and I look at each other with a bit of shock and she leads the way. There are, thankfully, two medals for us (they got that right in the multimedia category), and Ted Allen, who used to be at the Tribune, warmly says “Welcome, fellow Chicagoans” as he puts them around our necks.

Julia takes the microphone and offers both thanks and a memory of the late Cliff Doerksen, who won a Beard award last year and died a few months later. I’m not expecting this but it’s absolutely the right thing for her to do and she does it beautifully. There’s not a lot more for me to say, so I just make a quip to the effect of “Thank you for supporting regional work from small obscure places like Chicago,” which gets a mood-lightening laugh (but does represent my genuine appreciation that the Beards look beyond New York for great work), and we exit to go have our portraits taken in front of the obligatory wall of logos.

We return to our seats, but two or three times later we will turn to each other and say some variation on the theme of, “Holy shit, we won a Beard award.”

And the awards continue. Ruth Bourdain wins the first one to go to a Twitter account, or to a nonexistent person, leading everyone to immediately start murmuring— will we finally see who Ruth Bourdain is? No such luck, a Beard committee member accepts it (though since it was nominated, it does mean that the person behind it broke character long enough to actually enter it him/herself). Another hero of mine, Southern food writer James Villas, wins for his fine cookbook Pig and says one of the night’s most memorable soundbites: “To quote Dorothy Parker when she received an award late in life, it’s about goddamn time.” The applause indicates general agreement with the sentiment.

Grace Young, author of Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, gives maybe the night’s best speech. As she explained, before her book of family Chinese recipes and lore was published, her father (its inspiration) died, her editor left after 20 years, her agent quit the business, her publicist quit… but she stuck to it and had her reward, in what struck many as a surprise win over Diana Kennedy. (If they put the full video up, you should definitely watch her speech, and Dufresne and Harold McGee.)

A few minutes later, part of the reason for the surprise win over Diana Kennedy was revealed— the committee had decided to create an award honoring one cookbook as best of the year, clearly (given the way it was presented) with an eye toward giving a boost to important, but not entirely commercial, projects. And the inaugural winner was Kennedy’s Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy, which even after her pioneering role in all the Baylessian Mexican food that has followed, couldn’t find a commercial publisher and was ultimately put out by the University of Texas.

And so the awards wrap up. Monica Eng, the only other Chicago journalism nominee this year (who totally should have won last year for her series about going to see slaughter), comes by and congratulates us. Julia calls her the Mindy Segal of journalism, in reference to the great Hot Chocolate pastry chef’s perennial also-ran status, but I prefer to think of her as being our Deborah Kerr, eight Oscar nominations, no wins, but always a class act.

Emboldened by the big piece o’ bling hanging around my neck, I decide to go say hi to a couple more of my heroes. Villas is nowhere to be seen, alas, but I do find Jonathan Gold and introduce myself. Looking at my Sky Full of Bacon business card, he says “Oh, I know this blog. I like this blog,” and immediately we go into a discussion of Alinea, where he just ate… and how he wished he’d been off sampling Chicago’s Mexican or Indian food at several points during it. (Let’s just say that he thinks that there’s no injustice in Noma being several rungs above Alinea on the San Pellegrino list.) When I make a witty observation about Alinea from one of my shoots, he says “Oh, I’m so stealing that,” which I can only beam at.

That in turn leads to a discussion of the food scene in Chicago. “Chicago has a great food community, there’s that, what is it, HRM Forum or whatever,” he says. “There’s nothing like that anywhere else.” But the rise of amateur online foodies has made his job harder: “There are so many people who have it in for me now, who’ve drilled so deep into something like Thai food or ramen and they go around saying I don’t know anything.” He just kind of shrugs amusedly at this— after all, he won the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing award, not just the Distinguished Discovery of Strip-Mall Carnitas award— but of course I know exactly who the Thai food reference is in regards to. “You mean like Erik M.?” He smiles and nods and asks me about him.

As we’re talking Andrew Zimmern comes over and congratulates me very graciously; he goes home 0-for-2 tonight (though he won last year). And that’s sort of the perfect moment that encapsulates this great journey from early days posting at Chowhound and then helping start LTHForum to this night— Andrew Zimmern congratulating me while I talk with Jonathan Gold about Erik M.

Thanks to the Reader for this great opportunity which I hope did them proud, thanks to Julia, my partner in chef-torment, and thanks to you, dear readers, some of whom I’ve known online or in person since those very first days to now.

More: Chicago Reader Chicago Tribune Eater Grub Street The Feast Crain’s

For nine days, I will be in the enviable position of being both a James Beard nominee and a Saveur Best Food Blogs nominee. (Then odds are I’ll be just the latter and Andrew Zimmern will have a Beard medal…) So if you’re coming here to find out what the heck this nominee Sky Full of Bacon is, well, I do food videos. The one up at the top of the page is the most recent, done in tandem with a print article in the Chicago Reader, but I’d really recommend checking out some of the independently-made ones such as Big Chef Small Farmer, about the chef-farmer relationship:

or The Last Days of Kugelis, the poignant story of the closing of the oldest Lithuanian restaurant in the world:

I also write stuff on this blog; scroll down to see a pair of posts on a recent trip to Detroit and to eat middle-eastern in Dearborn, Michigan.

Meanwhile, the Beard nom is for Key Ingredient, a series done for the Chicago Reader in which we challenge a chef with an oddball ingredient. Here’s the latest one, with Carlos Gaytan of Mexique (read the print piece here):

You can find the whole series here.

The new Key Ingredient stars Stephanie Izard, who really is just as adorable as she seems on TV. And it’s one of my favorite challenges so far, because she gets thrown a personal curveball and really takes it and makes something out of it that was totally a Girl & the Goat dish:

Nothing else happening this week though I did get a passing mention in Whet Moser’s interesting take on the whole molecular Myrhvold thing, which is well worth checking out. (And apparently the big dogs are still fighting over how to list Key Ingredient here while making sure to leave off my name. Get a life, or a room! Just don’t list it at all, I’m sure the Reader will be fine without the three reader/viewers coming from this source. UPDATE: My wife says it and I am listed now. I can’t work up the energy to go check.)

UPDATE: Kind words from my Key Ingredient teammate Julia Thiel here, as well. Who knew what life my two cents on the B.R. Myers thing would have when I dashed it off one Sunday?

This week’s Key Ingredient is the most prosaic yet… bananas. But there’s a twist to why that’s our challenging ingredient this week, so watch it above and read it here.

Meanwhile, even I’m sick of reading about me by now, but I should say thanks to Mike Sula for this nice announcement of the Beard award nomination at the Reader, and I turn up quoted extensively in Julia Kramer’s rant on shared plates at Time Out, so check that out too.

Exciting news, that Julia Thiel and I have been nominated for a James Beard Memorial Foundation Award in the multimedia category for the Key Ingredient series, which she writes and I do the videos for. Thanks to Julia, tireless food editor Kate Schmidt, Kiki Yablon, Whet Moser, Mike Sula, Geoff Dougherty, John Dunleavy, and Alex Parker, who are the other Readerites past and present I can remember who contributed to getting the series launched, and to all the chefs (19 so far) who have participated. (Sorry if I forgot somebody else.) Congrats also to Monica Eng for her nomination for her terrific work on school lunches at the Chi-Trib.

If you’d like to see the nominated articles/videos for yourself, they are the first three: Grant Achatz with Kluwak Kupas, Curtis Duffy with Chinese black beans, and John DesRosiers with geraniums. If you come here just because you want to find out what Sky Full of Bacon is, click on the “Video Podcasts” category at right to see examples of the main video podcast series here.