Sky Full of Bacon

Just a reminder, there are weirdly eclectic foodie holiday gifts available via my Cafe Press stores.

The Sky Full of Bacon tote bag will make you the coolest kid at the farmer’s market or the local Whole Foods:

Click here to order.  And there’s a bunch of stuff eternally available at the LTHForum shop, of which the top item, unquestionably, remains the Pork Clock, as hangs on the wall at Smoque:

What’s at the very top?  Bacon!  How prescient…  Click here to order that.

To jump to the most recent Sky Full of Bacon video podcasts, click on Video Podcasts under Categories at right.

I just received an email with some tragic news which ironically underscores one of the points of the two mulefoot videos— that the survival of a breed is at risk without a wide range of farmers raising them, which necessitates a market for their meat which can support a wide range of farmers.

Arie McFarlen is the woman who acquired the breed from R.M. Holliday, who had kept the last purebred herd. She in turn sold the breeder pairs to farmers such as Mark Kessenich and Linda Derrickson, seen in the video. 

Dear Friends of Maveric:

It is with the deepest and most profound grief that I write this message. At 5:30am November 19th, 2008, we awoke to our beautiful 100 year old gambrel barn engulfed in flames. Trapped within the barn was my beloved stallion, several rare Mulefoot hog sows with their litters of piglets, an extremely rare Wessex saddleback boar, a favorite guinea hog boar and all of my dearly loved cats. Although we made attempts to rescue our animals, we were unable to save any from the barn.

We were able to run pigs from their pens near the barn to the pastures and get them away from the heat & flames. Many animals in these pens were burned and have suffered smoke inhalation. Though it is several days after the fire, we are still losing animals we have been nursing and trying to save.

The fire burned with such intensity that it caught a large tree and our new barn on fire as well. The firemen were able to save our new barn, but our gambrel was a complete loss. The fire marshal reported that the fire was burning in excess of 2000 degrees due to the way the metal items in the barn melted and puddled. The fire was apparently caused by a failure in the main power breaker. When the power transformer began to melt, we lost power to the whole farm. This also left us without water, as our well is pumped by electricity.

All of our feed (approximately 1000 bales of alfalfa), our tools, watering troughs & feeders, buckets, piglet pens, fencing supplies, power cords, winter heaters, saddles & horse gear, construction materials for our new barn and so much more were completely destroyed.

We cannot replace our rare breed pigs. They simply do not exist. Our work for nearly ten years has been to preserve and save these breeds of pigs. We cannot begin to express our sense of loss over these animals, not just from our lives, but from all future generations.

This tragedy has made it even more clear to us that these rare breeds are in a very precarious situation. At any moment, a disaster, accident or disease could take yet another species from this planet.

Our friends have already begun to rally around us and offer support. We have received many calls and emails from the folks at Slow Food USA, Animal Welfare Institute, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and Dakota Rural Action. Because of this outpouring of encouragement, we feel compelled to persevere and insure that future generations are able to raise and enjoy these breeds, and that biodiversity amongst pigs is preserved.

The Endangered Hog Foundation has been established to help us rebuild and to help continue work with endangered pig breeds. We fully intend to carry on with our DNA research, breeding program, establishing new breeders and promotion of endangered pigs. We have already begun the process of cleaning up the debris and will begin construction of a facility to continue working with our pigs as soon as spring arrives in South Dakota. Temporary measures to provide for the pigs during the upcoming winter are underway.

*We need your help*. Our immediate needs are for physical labor to help with clean up and building temporary shelter to winter the pigs. Additionally, we need to find a source for alfalfa hay square bales, to obtain portable shelters for the pigs due to farrow in early 2009, hog equipment and hand tools.

Donations can be sent to the “Endangered Hog Foundation” in care of Maveric Heritage Ranch Co. at the address below or through the link on our web page at

Thank you to everyone who has offered support. I cannot describe how it feels to stand in a place of profound grief and intense gratitude at the same time. We will carry on through the love and support of our friends.

Endangered Hog Foundation
Maveric Heritage Ranch Co.
47869-242nd St.
Dell Rapids, South Dakota 57022

Arie McFarlen, PhD
Maveric Heritage Ranch Co.
(605) 428-5994

More information is here.

Here’s the link to the podcast. It’s the last segment, about 10 minutes from the end.

David Hammond, whose audio podcasts on WBEZ’s 848 are one of those things that made me want to do video podcasts (so I wouldn’t be doing the same thing he already did well), has one on gluttony tomorrow this morning.

Naturally, he turned to me for my viewpoint.  You can listen on 848 tomorrow this morning or evening, or I’ll post a podcast link once it’s empodded.

I am also, to my surprise, quoted in this story about Hammond’s Thanksgiving heresies.  And apparently Steve Dahl talked about it on his show, so who knows, I may be quoted there too. (UPDATE: Yes, I just listened to it—and that’s some mighty compelling radio, listening to Dahl read from a suburban paper and make Andy Rooneyesque gibes about how wrongheaded the world is these days—and I am mocked, all too briefly. Hey Steve, I worked with Larry Lujack in about 1989, he says hi.)

To jump to the most recent Sky Full of Bacon video podcasts, click on Video Podcasts under Categories at right.

I’m surprised to find that Tiztal Cafe hasn’t registered on LTHForum yet, even if the board is kind of in revisiting-greatest-hits mode these days, few new discoveries being talked up unless they’re hamburger franchises from out of town. But it’s cute-little-cafe-Mexican in Uptown just shy of Andersonville, so you’d think somebody would have stumbled on it; this is one case where the press has been decidedly ahead of LTHForumites.

Tiztal is a breakfast joint with a twist: it’s open 24 hours on weekends, serving that crucial Lakeview demographic of people who don’t get up till 2 pm, or need a lot of carbs at 2 am. There may not seem like there’s going to be much call for waffles at 8 at night from people over 10 and under 90, but things tend toward the spicy and savory, so it makes a reasonable comfort food dinner. If you’re hammered.

Me, I went there with the family at 9 am on Sunday, and the place didn’t look any the worse for having been open 36 hours straight by that point. The menu is short, some omelettes, waffles, a couple of savory crepes and yesterday, at least, chilaquiles were on special. I ordered them, stupidly since I’ve been battling a stomach bug, which took the opportunity to remind me that I wasn’t over it yet, so I lived on crackers and Jell-O the rest of the day. I’m not going to say they were worth that; I’m not going to say anything would be, not even if Grant Achatz had deconstructed them by making a puffy chip and squirting salsa and cream into its middle personally. But they were quite good, and better yet were the potatoes which were roasted (and actually cooked all the way through, which is a surprise at breakfast places) with garlic and parmesan, and eminently scarfable. (They come with nearly everything, which is very smart from a marketing standpoint.) Youngest son had a waffle with strawberries, bananas, and a strawberry crema, which is a nice novelty change from syrup alone (I tasted it, a little too Nestle Quik-ish for me, but he liked it which is all that matters).

Better than anything we had, though, the thing that really makes me want to give them some love and send you there next weekend, was the hospitality. It’s run by a woman who used to be at Zephyr Cafe for a million years, and assuming she’s the one who came by first thing to check on us, she’s got that kindly, welcoming earth-mama thing down pat. I had just been reading Yelp reviews of a couple of obscurish Sunday brunch places where people complained in both about indifferent bordering on hostile service, and this could not have been further from that; the warmth of her welcome trumped the food, entirely enjoyable as it was. To think that she was able to muster that after her place has been open serving drunks for the previous 36 hours is pretty remarkable. And the staff generally exhibited the same level of warmth and helpfulness, on top of things throughout (mind you, they weren’t slammed like most breakfast places on Sunday at 9, so that undoubtedly helped).

So, Tiztal, come for the gentle easing into your Sunday morning, stay for the pretty darn good food.

Tiztal Cafe
4631 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60613
(773) 271-4631

To see more in this series, click Restaurant Reviews at right and look for the numbered reviews.

Sometimes I think I spend too much time on these podcasts, then I watch something like this and feel like a slacker.

MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

Big big thanks to Monica Eng for a really nice link to the latest podcast at The Trib-Stew. (She links to the similar story of hers which I’ve recommended a couple of times by now.) Scroll directly below to find part 2 for yourself.

Also to Vital Info, who reminds me that I never got around to thanking MenuPages for the comments on Part 1.

Meanwhile, this has nothing to do with the podcast, but I really love those things people do where they roam around some spooky abandoned building taking pictures of its state of decay. Here’s a great one I discovered via Chicagoist, about a power plant in Dixmoor, IL (no, not nuclear) that seems to have been abandoned like the Marie Celeste.

UPDATE: Thanks to Gaper’s Block and Chicagoist and Helen at Menu Pages whose reference to lion and bear meat apparently led to a nationwide mention on the Menu Pages Blogpire. Matth, who’s posted a couple of comments, posted a longer take well worth reading on his blog here.

UPDATE 2: And Serious Eats has linked to it here with thoughts of their own. Thanks!

Helen made bemused mention of my arty switch to black and white at a couple of points. I’ve used this a few times now because to me, switching to black and white sort of steps out of the flow of the story, as it’s being told in the immediacy of realistic color, and says… “here’s what we thought when we had time to contemplate it a little more.” It seems to work well to mark the line between the hurry of making food on a schedule, and the thoughtfulness of talking after the fact.

That said… like more “artistic” decisions than we realize, I suspect, it was initially rooted in a “salvage something that didn’t work so well” moment. My interviews with Kelly Cheng at Sun Wah for podcast #2 just came out looking lousy; the fluorescent light was sort of greenish and the stretch of wall behind her was just kind of dingy and plain. So I tried different things to improve it and it turned out that simply making it black and white suddenly made the dingy, bumpy wall seem like it was full of character. It’s worked for me ever since….

UPDATE 3: In a perfect illustration of the point about how sheltered we all are from the reality of meat processing, The Huffington Post is ragging on Sarah Palin for being filmed in front of the “gruesomeness” of a turkey slaughter. Because, to borrow a phrase from Full Metal Jacket, if you eat a nice fat juicy turkey this holiday season, God miracled its ass into your oven. There’s no bigger hypocrite than someone from the city slagging rural folks about the reality they help shelter us from while keeping us well fed. (No, this should not be construed as a political comment for or against anybody. It’s a political comment for honesty about the food we eat.)

UPDATE 4: Thanks to ex-Readerites Nicholas Day at Chow (there was one about part 2 as well, which is proving impossible to find), and Martha Bayne at her blog.  And when I looked at the referrers on the Vimeo page, a bunch of them seem to have come from a post at, which turns out to be… a Notre Dame chat site.  I can’t access the post so I have no idea why my videos have turned up there, but thanks anyway, from a descendant of the Fightin’ Irish (my grandfather, no joke, played for Knute Rockne, and my dad went there to play football too till he messed up his knees).

There are also some great comments you should read, mainly in the announcement post for part 2 (be sure to read Jon in Albany’s) but also a new one in this old post.

The phrase “farm to table” is used a lot in foodie circles. In the second half of this Sky Full of Bacon two-part podcast, I’ll complete the picture of what that really means with visits to restaurant kitchens… and to a slaughterhouse.

Sky Full of Bacon 06: There Will Be Pork (pt. 2) from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Mike Sula of the Chicago Reader has been writing about the rare mulefoot pig for the last year and a half (see here). Now the Reader has enlisted award-winning chef Paul Kahan, of Chicago’s Blackbird, to plan an elaborate six-course dinner showcasing the meat of these pigs and the sustainable, humane way in which they’re raised, as a benefit for Slow Food.

In Part 2, Mike Sula and I watch as Kahan and chefs Jason Hammel (Lula Cafe), Justin Large (Avec), Mike Sheerin (Blackbird) and Tim Dahl (Blackbird) prepare for the big night and talk about why supporting and promoting good pork matters to them. And we go to the rural slaughterhouse with Jason Hammel to gain a better understanding of what really lies behind the meat we eat. (Warning: although we were not allowed to film the kill itself, the video does contain frank footage of everything else that goes on in a slaughterhouse.) (19:56)

Mike Sula’s account of the same events
Recipes from the dinner
The Chicago Reader’s complete “Whole Hog Project” archive
LTHforum posts on the dinner, and Chuck Sudo’s account at Chicagoist
Monica Eng of the Chi-Trib wrote a really great piece about her experiences at various slaughterhouses here

P.S. Originally I felt like this one needed some kind of summing-up at the end expressing how I felt after watching my dinner live and die. In the end, as I usually do, I preferred to let the subjects and the images speak, not listen to me yak. But here, if anyone’s curious, is what I wrote and recorded but left on the cutting room floor:

It was an amazing meal. Was it worth the price?

We all joked, before we went to Eickman’s, that we’d come out vegetarian converts.

But in the end, I found myself affected less by the moment of these animals’ deaths… than by the day I spent seeing their lives at Valerie’s farm, free and happy and living naturally.

And I was impressed by the thoughtfulness, even reverence with which all of the chefs approached the meat we brought them.

It’s easy to say meat is bad. It’s just as easy to buy industrial meat without thinking about where it comes from. The hard thing is raising, cooking and eating meat in a way that’s good for the land, pigs and people. That’s what I feel like I’ve seen on this journey… from farm to table.

About Sky Full of Bacon
Sky Full of Bacon #5: There Will Be Pork (pt. 1)
Sky Full of Bacon #4: A Head’s Tale
Sky Full of Bacon #3: The Last Brisket Show
Sky Full of Bacon #2: Duck School
Sky Full of Bacon #1: How Local Can You Go?

Please feel free to comment here or to email me here.

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I was a bit startled to learn from an LTHForum thread that Boka had opened in (late) 2004. I was thinking of it as one of the new restaurants; apparently it just slightly postdates Charcoal Oven. Nevertheless it is slightly newer than it looks thanks to the presence, and subsequent Food & Wine best new chefs anointment, of Giuseppe Tentori, who I guess has just been there a couple of years at most.

If, as was claimed at the time, Boka was once trying to be the new Blackbird, that’s clearly not Tentori’s aim. He’s clearly aiming for a delicate sort of Asian fusion in which main ingredients are paired with surprising new flavors, many of them citrus fruits or of a similar lightness. So it’s more like the new Yoshi’s, or the new Le Lan— or whatever the hot restaurant of Asian fusion circa 1991 was, it felt more like dining a decade-plus ago than the last several upscale meals I’ve had. Not that I object to a little time travel with my meal, any day.

The down side is that many of these novel flavor combinations just didn’t pan out; the meal was a frustrating mix of spot-on marvels and weird, who-thought-that-went-together moments. A starter of hamachi paired with a brightly grassy cilantro sauce and something called “young coconut-buddha hand vinaigrette” (I could look up what all that means, but really, it’s better as just pure poetry) was exquisitely light, a little shot of helium for the palate. Slices of duck breast in some combination that included a cornmeal sauce (however such a thing is possible) were savory and intensely satisfying. Sweet roasted beets with a tangy beet puree and little dicey bits of smoke flavor from Nueske’s bacon was a terrific salad.

But a scallop came with some odd combination of fruit and whatnot that tasted like banana next to it, doing no more to enhance the flavor of the scallop than dipping it in chocolate sauce would. And a baby squid accompanied by squid-ink tapioca (trying to be caviar, coming off more like a briny Jell-O pudding) was flat, it just needed another note to make it all zing. Nothing was so far off that I wanted to call in Gordon Ramsay to ask “Did you fookin’ taste this before you sent it out?”, but I would have sent a couple of them back for rethinking and simplifying. The fact that you can get an odd fruit this time of year does not mean you have to use it with the first piece of protein that comes along…

Dessert ended things on a high note; I really, really liked a crepe cake with cider sorbet, a perfect autumn dessert with great texture and flavors. The room is quite nice, romantically dark and cozy, sails that look like they came from Calatrava’s Milwaukee art museum make something dramatic out of a square box room. Service was pretty solid, a little young and overeager in its enthusiasm for chef’s cuisine, but capable and on top of things throughout (when my wife noted that her cocktail had been quite strong, the immediate response was to summon an extra round of bread service). All in all a good meal, but not one that made me feel like I was in the assured hands of a master; if I were to return it would be with more thought given to each thing before I ordered it, and whether I really believed that its four or five preciously described ingredients belonged together.

1729 N Halsted St
Chicago, IL 60614

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A couple of notes about being a small, one-man media outlet in this fast-changing world, rooted in my corner of the world (Chicago foodblogging/podcasting) but surely applicable to any niche market in the new media world. If you’re mainly interested in food, feel free to scroll to the next post.

Data point #1: I commented on a blog post at a major Chicago media outlet’s food blog on either Friday night or Saturday morning. Then I thought, why did I just bother doing that? No one will approve the comment till at least Monday. (I was correct.)

Data point #2: Another major Chicago media outlet does food videos too, not exactly like mine. They host them on Vimeo too. So I checked their stats. Here they are, with a subscriber base in the six figures and celebrity chefs (okay, I have those now, but not until recently) and all the power of cross-promotion. And their videos… draw way fewer viewers than mine do. As in, the one I put up 5 days ago has already outdrawn the one they put up a month ago. As in, my most-viewed one has had six or seven times as many as most of theirs.

I point this out not to gloat but to make a serious point. For all that newspapers and magazines are going around bemoaning the impending porcelain swirl of their industry, these factoids suggest to me that they still haven’t grasped how to harness the power of new media and build an audience online. The things I know how to do that they still don’t, quite, include:

• Post frequently. Blogging isn’t even the main point of Sky Full of Bacon, the videos are, and yet I manage to get 3 or 4 posts up a week. Where oftentimes the bigger media, with contributing food blog staffs of anywhere from 2 to 10 people, manage to get… 3 or 4 posts up a week. If you can get a daily paper or a weekly magazine out, yet can’t manage to post new content online on a regular schedule, that says where your priorities still are.

• Post on an audience-timely schedule. I became acutely aware of when most people are at their computers while helping run LTHForum. It was dead till about 9:20 am, busiest from then till just before noon, dead from noon to about 1:30, moderately active till about 4:30, dead till about 7, moderately active from 7 to 9, then low but steady until past midnight.

So what’s the blogging schedule at most big media publications? I suspect it’s basically like this:
10:30 am: writer turns in blog post to editor
4:30 pm: harried editor turns from putting out fires on print edition to email box, reads and finally approves post
4:57 pm: post goes up just as audience shuts down computers and goes home

• Interact with your readers. The name of the game is reader loyalty— they have to want to come back. What makes them want to come back? Interaction. They come back to see if someone else responded to what they said. They come back to see if the writer of the original piece flatters them with attention. So how do you expect to build that if 1) you can’t even approve a comment in less than 3 days and 2) your writers are too busy on print assignments to check back and interact on the blog?

Fact is, I can’t remember on most of the big media blogs when there’s even been the least little sign that the bylined writers even read the comments. Which is why when a similar topic goes up at a big media outlet and at LTHForum, frequently the big media outlet with thousands of paid subscribers will be stuck at 3 or 4 responses when the LTHForum thread is on to its 3rd or 4th page. There may be far more readers at the former, but there’s far more positive reinforcement at the latter, and that’s what builds audience loyalty and keeps them coming back.

That’s why, even though I don’t get many comments, I take the possibility of comments very seriously, and check my blog at least a few times a day to make sure I can approve any that have appeared. And I try to respond in comments to any comment I have anything of value to say about. I am grateful for the time commenters take to write anything here and try to reward it with appreciation.

• Don’t underestimate the audience. A few people questioned, when I started doing these videos, if people would sit still for 15 or 20 minutes on these subjects. It’s odd, 15 or 20 minutes is, of course, shorter than any food TV show, but the perception was that online video needed to be 2 or 3 cute, snappy little minutes at most; the idea of spending 20 minutes going somewhat in depth into a topic (and a restaurant, and the life of the guy who owns it) seemed like something nobody would watch.

Yet here we are about five months later and as the viewership stats at Vimeo demonstrate, there’s a much stronger audience for 20 in-depth minutes on the people and philosophy and technique behind something than for 3 quick little minutes on the technique alone. There’s a much stronger audience for something that represents a single podcaster’s quirky personality and way of looking at the world than there is for something that plays like a skillfully-made but rather generic food demo that just happens to have local chefs.

And I think that points to another thing about our new media world. Generic doesn’t sell, individual does. The sites I go back to are the ones where I feel some bond, some kinship with the blogger/podcaster/whatever, because of his or her unique personality. It’s not about getting a million vaguely interested readers with the common denominator any more, it’s about getting a thousand fanatically loyal ones because they feel they need to hear from you on the topic of the moment.

Follow these principles and the lowly individual blogger, with no more resources than his own sensibility, will and spare time, can be shockingly competitive with huge media companies in terms of audience gathered, and by some measures occasionally kick their butts. Which is an exciting thing for him, but will be tragic if it means the big media outlets sink before these lessons sink in. I don’t want a world in which the media I grew up on and still read pretty faithfully bit the dust and were replaced by I want a world in which they successfully made the leap from the print era to the online era by absorbing the ways in which online behavior and expectations and tactics are different.

And if any of them would like my help in getting there, they know where to reach me….

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This is how my life works now. I read about tarte tatin at one blogger’s site. So I go to Green City Market and wind up buying the apples for it from another blogger.

Ruhlman made it sound good and easy, so I found a recipe for it in (another blogger) Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Pie and Pastry Bible. I knew I was going to make an apple run Wednesday because I had made a terrific apple pie using Mutsu apples, so I wanted to stock up on a few of them and cut them up for pie and vacuum seal/freeze them.

Although I grant you that Honey Crisps are damned tasty apples, and it’s no mystery why they’re the apple of the moment, I also think of them as the tramps of apples, easy and obvious in their sugared-up appeal, their in-your-face 44DD flavor. Instead I looked over the other apples and two Charlie Brownish varieties (small, irregular, bumpy, a little sad-looking) caught my eye. Of course I can’t remember their names, now, but they were both old varieties. The goldish ones were especially pretty; I just ate one and it wasn’t complex but had a nice astringent apple-juiciness, like apples used to taste before that brazen hussy Honey Crisp came along.

The reddish ones screamed pie and were said to be good for that, by Fruit Slinger himself (who I had talked to many times, but never until yesterday actually talked about being a fellow food media outlet with). It was a gray drizzly day, nearly over for him, and he looked very ready for it to be over, but he did give me his imprimatur on my choices and purposes for apples, so I felt blog-approved in my purchases.

Anyway, so here’s the gist of tarte tatin. Make some caramel with butter and the juice that dripped off of your apple slices as they sat in sugar and lemon for half an hour. Arrange the slices as neatly as you can in rings.

Cook, basting frequently, till the caramel is nice and thick. Let cool a bit and fit a crust over it. Bake.

Flip like a Spanish tortilla (plate over pan, one firm decisive flip, listen for plop). Fix any egregious spots while still warm and wet. Let cool and harden.

Take another picture, it’s so pretty.

It was very good, accompanied by (instead of Ruhlman’s creme fraiche) Scooter’s custard, although as a dish I’d still rank it second to a first-rate American apple pie, or the apple tart with apricot marmalade and custard I make from this book.

Here’s yet another blogger, suggesting something else to do with apples from Green City in a nice little video she made. Who knows, I’ve probably seen her there, too.  Life’s like that.

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