Sky Full of Bacon

“Convey[s] the downright decency of all parties involved with a directness that’s difficult to achieve in prose. Listening to farmer Linda Derrickson talk from the heart about honoring and giving thanks for the happy lives of pigs is worth at least 100 pages of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” —Martha Bayne

The phrase “farm to table” is used a lot in foodie circles. In this Sky Full of Bacon two-part podcast, I’ll show you what it really means— from the farm to the slaughterhouse to the kitchens of five of Chicago’s top restaurants.

Sky Full of Bacon 05: There Will Be Pork (pt. 1) 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. 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. Kahan in turn recruited chefs Jason Hammel (Lula Cafe), Paul Virant (Vie), Brian Huston (the newly opened The Publican) and Justin Large (Avec), as well as Blackbird executive chef Mike Sheerin and dessert chef Tim Dahl, to each prepare a course utilizing different parts of the whole animal.

But no meal begins with the restaurant. In Part 1, Mike Sula and I visit the farmers who’ve raised these mulefoot pigs in southern Wisconsin, and consider the paradox of why eating an endangered pig breed could be the key to saving it. And as preparations for the meal get underway, we talk to Huston and Virant about why raising pork humanely from farmers you know and using the whole animal matters to them. (Warning: video does contain vivid footage of meatcutting.) It’s an epic tale with as much meat (pun unavoidable) as two or three Sky Full of Bacon podcasts, which is why it’s broken into two parts, the first of which runs 19:57.  Next week, in Part 2, we’ll complete the story.

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

About Sky Full of Bacon
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.

Sunday, driving up Elston.  I spot that a perpetual, never especially interesting hot dog stand has suddenly become a taco place.  The name, Taqueria LP Express, seems generic, but they are touting their steak tacos.

I soon understand why: the LP stands for La Pasadita, the famous trio of steak taco joints on Ashland near Division.  The same family owns several places with various names (Las Asadas, for instance), and this is a slightly less hidden-in-plain-sight version, since signage and clippings are at some pains to establish that you’re getting the real La Pasadita deal.  Which you pretty much do; I’ve never thought La Pasadita’s were the greatest steak tacos on earth, but they’re certainly good, and they’re certainly better than anything else Mexican I know of on that stretch of Elston (not far from the supremely 1950s-looking Las Cazuelas).

Taqueria LP Express
4968 N. Elston

Driving down Ashland, scouting out unknown sout’-side places.  I see what looks like it used to be a fast food place I can’t quite identify, advertising tacos, breakfast, rib tips, all kinds of stuff, but not actually bearing a name.  41st and Ashland.  It’s next to a pork processing plant so I make two quick assumptions: one, it’s their de facto cafeteria, two, order the pork.

Both seem correct to me.  I order a pork and a steak taco.  The steak is lame, overseasoned to make up for many manifest deficiencies.  But the roast pork seems pretty good and tasty, roast pig, what’s not to like.  I get a call from Pigmon on my cell (this stop was, I must admit, merely a recon stop for our real lunch to follow immediately) and tell him he should come have the carnitas, the pork.

Ten minutes later he orders the pork and the al pastor.  The pastor is lousy, mealy, kind of gross.  A moment later I notice he’s eating the pastor while avoiding the pork.  “You’re not eating the carnitas?”

“The pastor blows.  But it’s the best thing here.”

“I didn’t think the pork was so bad…” I say, suddenly my own opinion of the meal thrown in doubt, like a guy who was standing up for Franzia Rosé in front of a stranger who turns out to be Robert Parker.

“Worst I’ve ever had.  Totally tastes like ass.”

So I don’t know what I think now.  I mean, it’s not like I would have recommended this cafeteria-like place overall to begin with, but I did think the pork was okay, it’s roasted pork, a pretty simple pleasure that I was okay with.  I guess the only thing to do is to sum it up like Alpana on a Check, Please:

“And we tried carnitas at Kiki D’s Carnitas Family Restaurant in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.  Mike enjoyed the pictures of the soccer team they sponsor and the roast pork carnitas.  Pigmon thought everything tasted like ass, and wouldn’t feed that shit to a dying donkey.”

Kiki D’s Carnitas
4117 S. Ashland

Academy award winner Sir Ben Kingsley as Kiki D, the ex-military soccer coach from Kazakhstan who turns a lovable gang of inner city kids into international champions in Carnitas! from Touchstone Pictures.

P.S. Chuck Sudo reviewed Kiki D’s once.  He agrees with Pigmon.

P.P.S. We finally had lunch here.

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


Ghosts Before Breakfast, by Hans Richter.

The final cut of the next podcast is complete and the computer needs some time to itself— 4 or 5 hours— to turn it into a Quicktime file for uploading. A few notes I feel like taking note of:

• The fourth podcast, A Head’s Tale, will shortly have had 1000 viewers at Vimeo. (It’s been stuck at 998 all day, frustratingly. I don’t normally watch things that closely, but— go to 1000, dammit! UPDATE LATE MONDAY NIGHT: Finally!) This is the kind of milestone that really encourages me to keep doing this— 1000 people watching it all the way through. Cool. (As opposed to the 4 or 5 who read this blog.)

• Interestingly, the second podcast, Duck School, also had a big boost in viewership recently. A thread on LTHForum recounted Sun Wah’s recent temporary closing by the Health Department (not an unusual thing in Chinatown— personally, I think Sun Wah is MUCH cleaner than it used to be). Some people were reacting rather harshly to this news, so I linked to the podcast and said “You want to see how clean Sun Wah’s kitchen is?” I figured two or three people might go watch it. The actual number was 81. The first day. Over 100 new viewers checked it out as a result in the last 3 days (typically it would draw one or two viewers a day by now). A little insight into what drives traffic, I guess….

• Week before last, I went to Green City Market on its last day of the season in the park before moving indoors to shoot some footage for what, at this point, will probably be podcast #8 in February. It’s about Oriana Kruszewski, the little Asian lady who sells pears, paw paws, black walnuts and some other oddities in her own inimitable fashion. (The pears are wonderful, I had some that had gotten a little old in the fridge and made an aigre-doux, a form of sweet pickling with them.) Anyway, while I was there I saw another camera crew— not an unusual thing there— probably students from Columbia College or the like, a young woman directing, a couple of guys hauling Canon XL-1s around for her, and various other people doing sound or being key grips or who knows what.

It struck me that one of the things that everyone seems to do is feel like they need to turn film or video production into, well, a big production. The young woman was clearly enjoying expressing her vision in the form of commands to her crew, the videographers were busy getting just the right shots, and so on. Meanwhile, there I am just walking around, camera in hand and bag on my back, getting what I need with no fuss in much less time and, I feel certain, getting enough pretty footage of pretty food in sunlight that there will be a certain visual grace to my rough and ready production. I really like that the low cost and low weight of my style production makes it possible to just grab and go and shoot what I need so easily; if I were the teacher of these kids, I wouldn’t be sending them out in a pack of 6 with two cameras, I’d send them out by themselves with a single camera and make them rely on themselves and find their own subjects and be part of their movie the way I am. It’s a pen, write with it, don’t have a scribe to write for you and two bearers to carry it….

• It’s a small food world #1: I was shooting the next podcast at Blackbird and the pastry chef, Tim Dahl, mentions that the dessert will include Asian pears. Mike Sula, who’s working on it with me, says “Are they Oriana’s?” They were. (Mike did a piece on her in the Reader a couple of years ago.)

• It’s a small food world #2: I’m standing at Oriana’s stand, getting a panning shot of the Green City Market, and suddenly a guy in my frame turns and looks at me and waves. It’s Paul Virant of Vie— who’s another one of the chefs in my next podcast.

• A little about the next podcast: it’s about the mulefoot pig dinner that the Reader arranged with Paul Kahan of Blackbird, who recruited several other notable chefs such as Virant to participate. Sula has been writing about mulefoot pigs for 18 months and so he recruited me to tag along and shoot everything— the farm, the slaughter process, and as much of the cooking of the meal as we could get access to. Kahan and company were really great about allowing us so much access and being gracious about it in the midst of busy times (especially for The Publican, which had just opened to much more business than they were quite ready for).

One of my goals in doing these podcasts was to keep them under 20 minutes. That seemed a good maximum length. So I cut each individual segment for this one, and put them together, and I found I had slightly exceeded that maximum.

By 16 minutes.

36 minutes. Yikes. Not an insane amount of time for the subject— it’s less than an hour-long Food Network show minus commercials— and considering that I had three podcasts’ worth of subject matter here— farming, slaughter, cooking— not a self-indulgent amount, I feel sure. But I really doubted whether my audience would sit for that in one go. It seemed like it would scare people off, just the running time alone.

There was another issue. Slaughter is an emotional subject, an emotionally charged one, a viscerally affecting one. If I followed the story chronologically, slaughter would come in the middle somewhere, and make everything that followed look barbaric. I also felt my subject had something to do with the fact that it’s too easy to separate meat from animals, to mentally disassociate a square of meat from a living creature, and that honesty demanded that I keep the reality of the animal’s life and death in the story, not let the viewer push it out of mind once it’s done and we’re on to more congenial cooking subject matters.

So I came to two decisions. One was, to break the saga up into two parts. The second was, to jumble it up chronologically, so that you’re always conscious of meat-eating when looking at cute piggies, and vice versa. So part 1, which will go up later this week, runs just under 20 minutes (whew!) and bookends our (quite charming) visit to the farm with footage about the handling of the meat at the restaurants. Part 2, which will go up next week, will include the slaughter sequence, again in the context of the restaurants as they work on the meal. (We weren’t allowed to shoot the moment of death, but I got everything else about the slaughtering process, believe me.)

Watch for Part 1— officially Thursday, actually Wednesday night.

Trailer for Sky Full of Bacon 05 from Michael Gebert on Vimeo Music by Kevin MacLeod.

Let’s return to something genuinely interesting: my comments about the demise of Eater Chicago, in the post “Death Eater” below.

Several reactions to the piece worth noting:

1) Helen Rosner of Menu Pages gently pointed out that the especially dull procedural item I cited as an example of Eater New York’s attempts to make newsy news out of trade news and minutiae… was in fact a quoted-in-its-entirety example of Grub Street (another NY food blog thing, which is corporately related to Menu Pages BTW) attempting to make newsy news out of trade news and minutiae.

So yeah, I kinda bungled that, but I think the point still holds, since Eater New York evidently found it thrilling enough to warrant reprinting.

2) Grub Street has its own comment on my post:

Sky Full of Bacon is ignoring the power of more “hype-ridden” blogs to drive readers to food-focused endeavors such as his own. Come on, man — all boats rise with the tide, or all bacon bits rise with the fondue or whatever. SFB points to the hype over Fergus Henderson’s appearance as an example of Eater’s superficiality — but if it gets someone to try crispy pig’s ear for the first time, or to pick up Henderson’s book in order to learn more about nose-to-tail eating than can be shared on a restaurant blog, well then what’s the harm?

Well, yes and no.  On the one hand this is the all-purpose defense of any form of media that willfully undershoots the intelligence level of its audience— to apply it to the world of film, it’s basically “Yeah, Entertainment Weekly may be bubbleheaded and running its 53rd cover story on The Dark Knight, but at least people will also hear about Kristof Kieslowski and they’ll check him out!”  You may be surprised to hear, from the snark with which that sentence was composed, that I don’t dismiss this out of hand.  Such media have greatly contributed to our hype-ridden world in which people care more about weekend grosses than the actual content of movies, seemingly creating an environment in which nothing could be more irrelevant than a European art film that makes bupkis.  But on the other hand, your local Blockbuster actually does have a couple of Kieslowski films which rent fairly steadily, which, I can assure you, is NOT what life was like when I was a 12-year-old film buff in Wichita reading about Antonioni and Godard films that seemed as impossibly remote to my life as a cocktail party thrown by Cole Porter at the top of the Ritz.

So media like this can make us a little dumber and a little smarter at the same time, depending on how we use them.  I accept that, though it also means they have to accept that I just don’t find all that industry news all that valuable to me, either, and a distraction from the things that are interesting to me.  This is really what it comes down, to the distinction between news and commentary.  Commentary interests me because there’s a person with a sensibility behind it.  News doesn’t interest me, because there just aren’t that many things happening in the restaurant biz that quite rise to the level of real news, in my book.

The other thing I am forced to accept, in honesty, is— I’m a total hypocrite and if Eater Chicago does ever launch here, please post about Sky Full of Bacon!

3) I got an email from the president of Eater inviting me to i) look more deeply at Eater NY and see some of the more feature-length, substantive stuff they’ve published, and ii) view the backstage double secret test site that Ari Bendersky has been posting to in anticipation of Eater Chicago’s launch.  I appreciate him taking the time to contact me and offer me that access, though I might still quibble about the whole idea of secret practice blogging— to me, one of the main virtues of blogging is the chance to discover what you’re about in public through feedback and just seeing how things play in the real world.  Will you do some stupid things and make mistakes along the way?  Welcome to the club.  I think corporate bloggers are foolish not to bite the bullet and accept that and be part of the world, secret practice blogging is sort of like secret practice at losing your virginity, there’s only one real thing and it requires more than one person.  Nevertheless, I appreciate his offer and will, when not eyeball deep in Obama’s transition the next Sky Full of Bacon, take him up on it.

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Though they don’t seem to be making a big deal out of it as yet.

UPDATE: photo thread from the dinner is now up here.

Overall they shot down a few more than I would have predicted (the awards tend to be overly generous in my book)— Urban Belly and Great Lakes seem to have been rejected for being too new (Bill Kim’s anti-blogging comments probably didn’t help, but I doubt they really mattered), Peoria Packing for being too far outside the definition of the program, CND Gyros engendered an interesting debate over where the line is drawn between crappiness and great atmosphere, no one seems to have bought the Roman Hruska*-like argument that Lincoln Park deserved to make the list with the Athenian Room (or the fast-foody Little Brothers, which only I even tried), likewise Hannah’s Bretzel for the Loop, El Pollo Giro in Aurora or Naperville was just too obscure, Bonsoiree became the first two-time loser, without enough new trials to overcome last year’s mixed reviews, Kang Nam, once loved, failed to measure up, and Beef and Burger, though a convenient go-to place for me, didn’t strike anyone as that far above average.

I would have shot down Sahara Kabob (never been that impressed, south suburban middle-eastern would kick its ass, see my reviews of same), Double Li (a one-dish star and that one dish is overrated), Poochie’s (my meal was a definite miss) and I have pretty damn high standards for fine dining GNRs and the reviews on both Paramount Room and Prairie Grass Cafe were too mixed to justify a GNR at their price points, in my book.

And why in God’s name is Avec classified as Spanish?  Just because of small plates?  The food’s Italian and American contemporary if anything.

All that said, a good list, check ’em out.

* Nebraska senator who, upon hearing a Nixon nominee for the Supreme Court described as mediocre, asked “Don’t mediocre people deserve representation too?”

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Eater Chicago is dead.

Yeah, what’s that? you ask. Eater is a group of online blogs about doings in the restaurant industry, with locally-focused editions in NY, SF and LA.  The name suggests a sort of gossipy thing like Defamer or Gawker, which are surely the models, although it all seems rather tamer and less trashy than such celebrity-oriented, what’s-Lindsay-snorting-now stuff.  Chicago was supposed to be the next stop, with one Ari Bendersky (ex of UR Chicago) as the blogger.  But the current environment of economic spookedness means that Eater has pulled out of the market.

To be honest, and with no disrespect meant to Mr. Bendersky, whose efforts we never got to see and can’t judge, I can’t say that I find this a huge loss, because I can’t say that I find the concept all that interesting.  It’s not like it’s been that tough to keep track of new openings (hey, I hear that Publican place is worth checking out).  If someone were to do real digging into the workings of the industry, that might be fascinating— I’m convinced there’s no end of rich material there— but such depth is unlikely to come out in a format aimed at producing ten newsy little blog items a day.  Look at this typical example, from Eater NY:

EaterWire: Ed Witt’s Chef’s Table, Jawn Chasteen in at Sea Grill, Plywood, and More

EAST VILLAGE— A little pre-plywood news over on Grub Street: Cru’s chef Shea Gallante is applying for a liquor license for the old Sea Salt space: “Orhan Yegen had trouble clinching a full liquor license before he ejected from the space earlier this year, and the CB has been no-nonsense about the Sin Sin zone (think Mercury Dime), but if anyone can charm them at the November 12 meeting, it’s a Michelin-starred chef…” [GS]

Pulse quickening yet?  There may be a certain audience for this kind of information about the latest hot places, but I find it hard to see why this kind of news of routine business transactions should be any more interesting to me than the “Heard Around the Injection-Molder” column in the latest issue of Plastics & Polymers Today.

Perhaps that’s an especially dull example.  But the attempts to gin up celebrity-sighting excitement by chronicling every movement Fergus Henderson made in New York are not really any better; it doesn’t tell you anything about Henderson (a genuinely interesting guy), it just flatters you that you’re in the know about… a guy in the foodservice industry who 99.99% of America has never heard of.

But Mike, you say, you spent years fostering an environment for exactly the dissemination of such minute foodie trivia at LTHForum.  And how can you say you aren’t interested in the doings of chefs and restaurateurs when you’re devoting so much time to a video podcast series about them? Are you saying you wouldn’t love to sit down with Fergus Henderson?

In the case of LTHForum, the news is much less what’s opening than what there is to eat there.  The focus is on the wonderful things people uncover at restaurants, which I can then go try for myself.  Yes, that’s sort of the same impulse that leads people to want to know about hot new places, but for me, at least, there’s much more interest and intellectual heft in going to a nowhere middle-eastern restaurant because some really cool authentic dish is on the menu than in going to Jerry Kleiner’s latest place just because it’s Jerry Kleiner’s latest place.

And in the case of Sky Full of Bacon, yes, I do it to get to talk to chefs and farmers and folks and observe them in action, but that’s because the action itself is interesting to look at, and I’m intrigued by the way that how they fix food and share it with others reveals their philosophy about food.  I’m interested in what they think about pork, not in their plans for expanding into Oakbrook.

What it comes down to for me is that Eater seemed to have carved out exactly the perspective on our food scene that is least interesting to me, most hype-ridden and PR firm-driven.  I can pick that info up peripherally while reading a blog like Menu Pages’, which is still focused more on what real people out there think and write about food than on what permits have been applied for.

Personal blogging is an escape from the strictures of publications that want the latest news and the five tips for this and that and a focus on the TV-famous. (Rocco DiSpirito on the 7 Ways To Drive Your Man Wild During a Post-Thanksgiving Tryptophan Drowse!) Corporate blogging, too often, isn’t an alternative to such trivial approaches but an even more extreme example of them, designed to grab attention quick so the eyeballs can be counted for advertisers. Anyway, I will miss Eater Chicago far less than I would any number of blogs written by real people who really care about food as food, not as a reason to feel trendier than the next person with the in-the-know stuff you know.

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My mom has been here for a week from Kansas, and as you will be absolutely surprised to learn, meals were a prominent part of her Chicago experience. Here are her comments on some well-known places:

Smoque: “Terrific! I thought that was great barbecue. Good fries with skins on.”

Art of Pizza: “Little too much dough to my liking. But tasty overall, a nice fresh taste.”

Lao Sze Chuan: “I’m glad we didn’t order intestines and frogs, because what you did order was very tasty.” (Chicken crack, stir-fried pea shoots, tea-smoked duck.)

Pasta alla Genovese (made at home): “Wouldn’t have thought of putting pasta and potatoes together, but it was wholly satisfying with the new potatoes from the farmer’s market.”

Muskie’s: “That was a hot dog and fries. Are we rating that too? Good hot dog and fries.”

Urban Belly: “I think some people must have a genetic disposition to Japanese and Asian flavors. And I’m not one of them.” (Editor/Favorite Son’s Note: I really liked the pozole-like pork belly and hominy, though.)

Hot Doug’s: “That was very interesting, all the different flavors. I liked all the many combinations.” What was your favorite? “The Thuringer, and the smoked fennel sausage with sage cheese.”

Mado: “No one expects the wild boar heart!” (Rob Levitt brought us that as a special treat to taste from his recent wild boar dinner.) “Lovely assortment of pates, I’m a big pate fan, and interesting twist with the pickled beets instead of cornichons.”

Smak Tak: “Great comfort food, close enough to what my grandmother used to make. I’m going to try to make the hunter stew, sauerkraut cooked in veal juices, and the pierogi are first cousins of vareniky, so it’s traditional comfort food for me. Really liked the sauerkraut and mushroom pierogi.”

Noon-O-Kebab: “Very good mideast food, but that’s something I’m very used to.” (Wichita has a substantial Lebanese population and a number of quite good restaurants.”

La Cebollita Grill: “I’m a spice wimp like I’m an Asian food wimp, I guess. But I really liked the Day of the Dead exhibit at the Mexican Fine Arts Museum.”

Oriana’s Asian pears at Green City: “I’m a huge new fan of Asian pears, especially since they’re good for wiping out your cholesterol. Nice subtle differences, with a little winey taste to some of them. Can’t wait to make a salad with little greens and gorgonzola cheese.”

Overall: “More meat than I’ve eaten in three weeks. Meat-O-Rama. So much good food that I hardly missed having tuna fish casserole or Jell-O with marshamallows.” (That last part was sarcastic. I think.)