Sky Full of Bacon

So Monday night I went to a press event at mado for The Local Beet, my friends Michael Morowitz and Rob Gardner’s local eating site which, if you’re reading this, you probably know about.  I’ve contributed very modestly to it (mainly they feature my podcasts whenever they relate to local eating, which is fairly often since it is, after all, local filming) but it’s rapidly becoming a great overall resource for what’s at farmer’s markets, how to incorporate local eating into your diet, etc.  It also looks so much sharper than it did when it started.  A couple of particular things to check out:

• Michael has a great guide to CSAs, just in time to order and start getting weird vegetables every week.

• Melissa Graham has a very interesting piece on local honey (“Not to be indelicate, but it could be said that honey is bee barf”), which as someone who’s been enjoying the heck out of raspberry-tinged honey I bought at Green City last winter, I concur with entirely.  (It was the Bron’s raspberry honey, which Melissa also raves about in a buyer’s guide at the end.)

Meanwhile, I got lucky at the press event.  No, not that way.  I won a jar of pickled beets from Vie.  Not many people would get as excited about beets as a door prize as me, but I couldn’t be more pleased.

You may not feel the need to read another why-newspapers-are-dying piece— one example of how Big Journalism is out of touch with its readers is how much more fascinated it is with its own demise than they are— but you should read Whet Moser’s entry in the Reader, which is much more practical and down to earth than most.

Unlike a lot of me-hate-bloggers professionals, Moser accurately understands why blogging and other forms of online activity have eaten Big Journo’s lunch: “Some of these people writing for free are better at writing than many of the people who are paid to write… Traditional journalism, in 2009 AD, is boring and kind of uninformative.”

This is cruel but true enough. Partisan, passionate, snarky, occasionally fearsomely well-informed bloggers have written rings around much of journalism. There are two reasons for this, one of which Moser sees, one he doesn’t, quite. The first is because sometimes, they are the very experts who, in past days, journalists would have called for a quote. In that case journalism is just another middleman displaced by the internet. No, the average 22-year-old spouting off about the Supreme Court may not know what he’s talking about, but it’s a safe bet Richard Posner does, and when you can read Posner directly, you don’t need the newspaper reducing him to a “but critics say” soundbite in some reporter’s piece. The clueless 22-year-old loudmouth is merely a side effect of the freedom that makes Posner’s blog possible, and easily ignored.

In every area where I’ve abandoned mass media for some new online form, it’s been because it has brought me closer to the experts in the field, to people who really know what they’re talking about. That’s as true of thoughtful eaters at LTHForum as it is of silent film preservationists at my old movie chat board NitrateVille. Everything I participate in online gives me a more intense, more deeply informed experience of that subject than I had in the old mass media days. I probably have less broad knowledge than when I subscribed to Newsweek and had the world digested for me that way, but I have much, much deeper knowledge in a few areas I care about.

But here’s the flip side Moser doesn’t quite see. He understands that part of what has made newspaper writing boring and staid is that the institutional voice has taken over. Newspapers once encouraged stars, bright voices, strong personalities, today they’re no more supportive of idiosyncrasy and boatrocking than any other large corporation. (Look how quickly the Tribune got rid of Bob Greene once they had the chance. Yes, he sucked, but he had a huge following— yet they couldn’t get rid of him fast enough when he had a little scandal, the first time anybody in journalism ever hit on a source.) Moser’s right on the atmosphere side of that equation, and why that allows free, irresponsible, lively blogging to steal readers from the snoozily middle-of-the-road David Broders of the world.

But beyond a tone problem, newspapers really have a structural business problem, which is that they’re chasing a mass audience at a time when the mass audience is going away. They were built on the fact that Marshall Field’s wanted to advertise women’s apparel to the whole city, or at least the upper 2/3rds of it, and would pay the bills for a publication that went to the entire middle class. But that stopped being how people shopped in 1975, and now it’s stopped being how they read, too.

Moser brings up Redeye as an example of something that seems to be working, after a fashion. But I think he draws the completely wrong conclusions from it. Redeye is a last gasp, an example of newspapers chasing the people who don’t read newspapers with something so short and catchy they’ll hopefully read it by accident. But even if a lot of people read it on the subway, it’s hard to see how you survive by chasing after the people least interested in reading. If they’re just barely involved with your freebie paper, why should advertisers think they’ll be any more involved with their ad?

Surely the people you really want to chase are the ones who are so deeply involved with what they’re involved with that they left newspapers behind for something more involving. Like me. The trouble is, Redeye still looks like a mass audience while the new, highly involved microaudiences plainly do not. What neither media nor ad agencies have yet figured out how to do is make the case that 1000 or 5000 fanatics are a better audience than a half million casual glancers— that their conversion rate from ad to sale is infinitely higher because they’re so deeply involved. That, bluntly, 5000 people who really care about something will buy more of your product in real numbers, not just per person, than 500,000 people who picked up something free and left it behind them on the El.

The newspaper that figures this out will break itself up into a bunch of individual online media outlets, cross-promoting each other to be sure to drive traffic, but mainly aimed at a sliver of their present audience— but a sliver that’s really worth something to somebody. Where once you had the Sears-like, everything in one store newspaper, now you need the lots-of-different-stores mall.

This is part of the reason I do Sky Full of Bacon, my conviction that there’s an intensely interested few-thousand-person audience out there worth having (on monetary, ultimately, and non-monetary levels). Moser ends his piece with a rather woolly and pretentious quote from the supremely pretentious New Yorker writer George W.S. Trow, which he sees as condemning the post-apocalyptic triviality of Redeye:

“The middle distance fell away, so the grids (from small to large) that had supported the middle distance fell into disuse and ceased to be understandable. Two grids remained. The grid of two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. Everything else fell into disuse. There was a national life—a shimmer of national life—and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening.”

What I guess this means is that Redeye will tell you Obama was elected, and it will tell you how Rihanna is recuperating, but it won’t drill into the boring middle and tell you what the Treasury Department is doing with your money. I see Trow’s analogy very differently, though. I think all mass media, even august 100-year-old dailies, are basically good at giving you headlines and get much less good very quickly at digging into stuff (though when they do it well, they do it very well indeed). Meanwhile, we the people are creating a new “grid of intimacy” in which many of us are finding a much more intense level of interaction with whatever subject most fascinates us. Fewer of us know much about any one thing, but those of us who do know it better than ever before.

And that might very well be better for democracy, in the long run, than the last hundred years of filtering everything through the mediating, moderating sensibilities of large journalistic organizations. Or not; but either way, it’s happening.

I have a post at the Reader’s Food Chain blog about Operetta, one of Chicago’s few remaining Czech restaurants.  Here are some more photos to set the scene (the Reader only shows one):

And if this is your first time here, click the Video Podcasts link at the right under Categories to see the main purpose of Sky Full of Bacon.

So I had been checking on my coppa in process more or less daily, and it seemed to be doing all right, no foul odors, just a nice pork-and-seasonings smell. The one potential problem seemed to be that the moisture it was losing was keeping the inside humidity of the wine fridge turned charcuterie chamber way too high, but cracking the door regularly seemed to be helping.

Then last night I examined it, maybe more closely than before, and… mold. Not just white mold, which is normal and even healthy, but… green spots. Oh hell, that’s the end of that, I thought. Yet nothing smelled bad, in fact, it smelled great.

So I read up and found that green mold could still be washed away— it’s black mold, with roots going into the meat, that really means death for your meat and sickness for you. So I hurriedly unwrapped the cheesecloth and discarded it and most of the mold with it, and then washed the outside with vinegar, scrubbing the mold away. I even made some unobtrusive cuts to see the inside, fully expecting to see death and destruction, but… it looked beautiful. It smelled right.

I wrapped it in fresh cheesecloth, retied it, and rehung it. I think it’s going to be okay. We’ll see. That’s part of the point.

I went to a community meeting the other night in which people who’ve lived in my yuppified ‘hood for something like 60 years were complaining about the new parking problems caused by the ‘hood’s recent hotness.  It reminded me how often people in Chicago think the way things are is the way they should stay, and so they don’t even see the irony in, say, Latinos complaining that Pilsen is losing its traditional Hispanic character or that breeders are overrunning traditionally gay Andersonville.  Neighborhoods in Chicago are in constant demographic evolution and be glad of it, because the alternative is Detroit.  Or Dayton, Ohio.

All of which is by way of saying that I was a bit surprised to run up to Kedzie near Lawrence and find my attempt at a middle eastern lunch experience should be so Mexi-flavored.  I don’t think Kedzie is going to stop being middle-eastern any time soon, and there had been taquerias and such on Kedzie before, but it was still striking to, for the first time, see such a Latino presence here in two places, both new but only one of them intentionally Latino.

The first was in a new restaurant called Zahrat al Madaa’en, named for a nickname for Jerusalem.  I went in to the pristine, empty restaurant and saw what looked like pretty decent beef and chicken shawerma cones, with a fair amount of outside char.  But I also saw something I couldn’t quite decipher on the board.  I asked about it and the guy kind of shrugged and said something about the main guy being back soon.  Likewise I tried to order baba ghanoush and it became evident that this guy had no idea what it was or how to make it.  It wasn’t necessarily clear at first glance, but I soon realized that he was the Mexican hired hand in the kitchen, and I’d have to wait for the Palestinian owner for anything beyond simple shawerma.  So… I ordered beef shawerma.

I had misjudged how done it was– it was kind of rare, which isn’t all bad, but was certainly a bit odd for shawerma– but the flavor wasn’t bad at all.  For a Shawermachanga.  No, it was a decent version, and the place has at least modest promise, and I’ll probably check it out again when the owner is on the premises, since Kedzie is close and the best known places (I’m talkin’ to you, Salam) have disappointed me a few times in recent times.  I wouldn’t mind some good competition for the established places on the strip; we’ll see if this could be it.

I walked up a few more blocks and found a new spot next to the El called, simply, Antojitos!, supposed to be offering simple snacks to commuters.  Well, there must be a fair number of Latino commuters in the area, since it’s hard to imagine Palestinians or Lebanese munching tamales in their corn husk wrapping on the Brown Line.  Anyway, I got a salsa verde chicken tamale, and it was fine.  It was just like authentic tamales sold out of Coleman coolers at Mexican bakeries all around town.  The interior is nothing great, tiny and with daytime TV blaring.  If you live nearby, check it out, if you don’t, not a lot of need to travel that far. A cutesy name has gotten this place more attention than it would rate if it was called El Gallo Loco or Panaderia Juarez.

The numbers, incidentally, in the headline refer to my ongoing series of places not written about so far on LTHForum.  Aha, you say, they may not have been written about on LTHForum, but Mike Sula just posted about both of these at The Reader.  Yes, he did, but I actually beat him to eating at at least one of them.  How do I know?  Because I ran into him outside Zahrat as he was walking to Antojitos!, and he told me so.  (He definitely hasn’t been to Zahrat yet, I wasn’t sure if he had eaten from Antojitos! but he was on his way to talk to the proprietor.)  So watch the Reader for more on at least one of these, anyway.

Zahrat al Madaa’en
4503 N. Kedzie
(773) 279-7200

4645 N. Kedzie

1. At Michael Nagrant’s Hungry Mag, Barry Strum recounts the time he tried his first banh mi… at a military prison in Vietnam in 1969. Which sorta puts worrying about how politically correct your coffee is into perspective, if you ask me.
2. A hell of a good sounding burger in Sikeston, MO.
3. The Periodic Table of Awesoments. Beer is #6. Guess what #1 is.
4. Nosfertater and other cool food art.
5. Two Chicago-based homebrewing blogs: The Daily Ikura (some nice pics of British charcuterie there, too) and Chibebrau, who just had a baby.
6. Great pictures and evocative text from a woman cooking and living rustically in SwitzerlandFrance. Read the one about goat farming.
7. A too-short but interesting segment from a Jamie Oliver TV show showing Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (The River Cottage Cookbook, etc.) talking about why you should have free range pigs:

Makes you want to see a whole video on that subject! Or two!

In getting rid of a particularly bounteous crop of spam comments one morning, I think I zapped all the legit comments for a few day period at the beginning of the month.  So if you happen to notice one of yours has vanished… it’s nothing personal, it’s just collateral damage from sparing you having to read about Die Beste Online Gambling Seite and Great name for a blog! Would you like info about Free Viagra? and my oldest and most constant friend, An*l Clip Download.

This week’s Save This Restaurant column in Time Out Chicago is about C.J.’s Eatery in West Humboldt Park, whence came the shrimp and grits seen above, and it’s by me.

My wife ate lunch several days a week at the Trotter’s To Go downtown before it closed last week.  What, did she inherit money?  Nope, she ate soup, the one thing that seemed relatively economical there.  But now it’s closed and so it has fallen to me to attempt to replicate Trotter’s To Go’s soups in little plastic containers for her to take to work.  Consequently, she’s been bringing me soup from there to taste and attempt to retro-engineer.

One of her favorites was curried sweet potato soup.  I tasted it and, well, it pretty much tasted like sweet potatoes, a nice yellow curry powder, and a little cream.  But I suspected, it being Trotter’s, that there were hidden depths in it, specifically a top-quality vegetable broth.  This was a bit problematic for me, since I’ve pretty much never made soup without a carcass in it, in fact, my idea of soup is pretty much, take a bone, add water.

Poking around the web I found that Thomas Keller had a recipe for vegetable broth, which seemed as close as I was likely to get to Charlie himself, in The French Laundry Cookbook (which I look at from time to time, it’s very beautiful and thoughtful, but generally find hopeless to cook from).  Now, coming from Keller, the recipe was very particular about what should go in vegetable broth to produce something clear and beautiful.  Yes to fennel, carrots and leeks, no to celery (gets bitter), no to salt and pepper (save for the final dish), no to the random scraps that cloud up flavor (says he), yes to straining and straining till it’s perfectly clear.

So I started out with the Keller-approved vegetables:

Just 45 minutes later, I strained it and then put the sweet potatoes in the broth:

Now, making a Keller-level broth right there pretty much killed the economic value of making your own soup, what with those leeks and that fennel bulb and so on.  There’s probably $12 worth of vegetables at Whole Foods prices there, before we ever get to adding sweet potatoes to it. But I figured, throw in some more of the scraps Keller wouldn’t approve of and I could get a second batch out of those same vegetables.  So, after reducing both the remaining pint or so of the first broth and the quart or so of the second broth to fit in my freezer, I ended up with another little jar of very clean and flavorful Keller-approved broth concentrate, and a slightly larger one of, if truth be told, pretty much indistinguishable Keller-plus-scraps broth concentrate, which will make a nice base for my next batch. The cost per unit is at least a little better now.

This is either right after adding milk, or the opening credits of a Roger Corman picture:

Not exactly the way Charlie makes it— I think this recipe I used for guidance adds more milk than he does— but not bad, not bad at all.  I got one good dinner for the whole family, and three pint containers to freeze. A good start. Thanks, Tom and Chuck, for helping me stretch that household budget!

The LTHForum Great Neighborhood Restaurants awards, which I largely invented, are now in the process of renewing and even re-renewing numerous past designees. Is your pulse pounding yet? Are you on the edge of your seat, waiting to see if Xni-Pec or Barbara Ann’s are still any good?

No, you are not. That’s because the overwhelming likelihood is that every single past designee will be renewed. You are all Top Chefs! The awards were designed, in part, to spur discussion, but at the moment they have the effect of smothering it in tedium, encouraging people to post vague words of support which are rarely rooted in a recent visit (look at the Cafeteria Marianao threads, where GWiv’s 2009 word of support for renewal is practically the first post since Gwiv’s 2007 word of support for renewal) but providing no incentive for anyone to stick their neck out and knock a place based on actual experience, or even question if anyone goes there any more.

I don’t blame anyone for this, but it’s a clear structural problem that is pretty much guaranteed to keep the list bloated up with whatever people were talking about four years ago. And the more foreordained the results are, the less and less likely it is that anyone will say anything interesting to challenge a designee in the future. Clearly a new structure for the renewal process is needed, one that reintroduces some drama into the mix and encourages people to participate, but in the meantime, I have a suggestion for something the judges could do that would surprise everyone, get some press attention and make the awards lively and vital again:

Vote down “Little” Three Happiness.

Could LTHForum actually torpedo the place that gave it its name? By the stated criteria for continued designation as a GNR, yes, absolutely. LTH was always a mixed bag as a restaurant— you could have a very good meal there IF you followed Gwiv’s instructions on how to tell them how to make a good meal, ordered only what he said to order, and doctored it with his chili oil, kept in the fridge there for Friends of Gary. Compare that to Lao Sze Chuan or Sun Wah, the current overwhelming board favorites in the Chinese department, where you practically can’t order something, even randomly, that isn’t wonderful.

Precisely for that reason, it seems obvious from a review of posts in the last two years that Lao Sze Chuan and Sun Wah have taken the place that LTH once held, even among its strongest partisans. Only newbies go there and, usually, are disappointed by the mediocre food they try ordering on their own, leaving them feeling burned and hesitant to use the GNR list in the future. What could make a better statement of how the LTHForum Great Neighborhood Restaurants are a living, constantly evolving and vibrant list than by retiring, with thanks and fond memories which will live on in the form of old posts, a restaurant once beloved but now, in the cold light of day, supplanted by others.

It’s supposed to be good news for us food adventurers when we discover new favorites that make old favorites seem not so good. It’s time for the GNR awards to reflect that constant spirit of discovery and critical reevaluation— not to offer the opinions of 2004, preserved forever.

Mike’s List of GNR Renewal Candidates Which May Be Very Good, But Haven’t Met The Standard of Continued Trial, Discussion And Praise in the Renewal Period of 2007-9:
Barbara Ann’s
White Palace Grill
Ed’s Potsticker House
Fabulous Noodles
“Little” Three Happiness
Cafeteria Marianao
Amanacer Tapatio
La Oaxaquena
Deta’s Cafe
Il Mulino
La Pasadita