Sky Full of Bacon

Every year of the last three, I’ve gone to Columbus, Ohio over the Memorial Day weekend for a film festival. Who’d hold one in Columbus, Ohio when there’s Cannes to go to? People who are interested in old movies, that’s who—as old as 1915. It’s called Cinevent, and the movies, shown in the “ballroom” of a Ramada, are merely a side attraction, the main purpose is room after room of movie collectibles, from massive original posters worth thousands of dollars to dupe DVDs of old TV shows going by the last day for a few bucks each.

I, however, don’t collect stuff, I collect experiences, and fix them with pins on the internet— especially experiences of the past, still living in old movies or as refugees-of-a-lost-era businesses. So part of attending Cinevent, of course, is seeing what Columbus offers to eat, old and new. The first year I went, I stuck close to the hotel, and it was dreary fast food; but in subsequent years I learned to head down High Street toward Ohio State University and the hopping “Short North” area. One place on High north of the university which I discovered on and first visited last year is Nancy’s Home Cooking, a tiny dive of a diner (Roadfood likes places that squeeze a lot of customer-cook interaction into a tight space) with a U-shaped counter which snakes around just enough room for the cook to operate in, and barely enough for “Nancy” (actually Cindy King, but I’m sure many assumed she was Nancy) herself to reach over and retrieve the finished dishes from him. If she ever entered his space, it’d constitute grounds for divorce in most states.

It was easy to see what locals loved about Nancy’s— they mostly seemed to know each other and the staff, they always had Ohio State sports to discuss, and the food was all-American and dirt cheap. In fact, no prices are even indicated anywhere (the only menu is what’s painted on the wall); you take your ticket to the grillman, and he arbitrarily devises a total on the spot which is guaranteed to be at least a dollar or two per person less than you could possibly imagine it being.

That said, I didn’t love the food at Nancy’s the first time. I had read that the thing to do was to have them ladle sausage gravy over your home fries. (You’re thinking, ah, sausage gravy, they must have biscuits and gravy. Nope, no biscuits. The gravy is there for the home fries, nothing else.) So I did that and… it was greasy and gloppy, moving the whole breakfast down about one row on the periodic table.

I might not have gone back this year except… well, for one thing there aren’t that many breakfast choices not named Bob Evans. And for another, word came that Nancy’s was closing June 1st. Apparently years of not only not charging enough for meals, but not charging a lot of folks at all, had caught up with Nancy’s:

In 2004, I was on disability due to two back surgeries. Once a week, my son and daughter and I would stop at Nancy’s for breakfast. If Cindy was cooking that day, she’d always tell me: “Big John, you’re not working. Put your money back.”

So how could I not go? Like my beloved old movies full of the dead and forgotten, Nancy’s was itself about to leave the realm of contemporary existence for the half-life of memory. I grabbed a couple of attending New Yorker film buffs, and we squeezed ourselves into a booth built for jockeys while one of the New Yorkers regaled us with tales of his encounters with the likes of Deanna Durbin.

This time I skipped the gravy and went minimalist—an omelet and home fries. It was great. Oh, you’re just being sentimental because it’s about to close, you say. Maybe, but really, it was just want you want in a diner breakfast, the home fries crispy and soft at the same time, the omelet not so eggy that it smothered the freshly griddled taste of ham, onion, cheese. (One note about that— one of the New Yorkers ordered hers with just ham, onion and green pepper, and soon learned that in this part of the midwest, cheese is assumed unless you write NO CHEESE on something. But they were gracious about banging out another one as quick as could be… and probably they took another couple of bucks off the already too low bill.)

Nancy’s is closed on Sundays anyway so today, if you read this on Saturday, may be your last chance to go there. Or not; there was a fundraiser last Saturday, so who knows what the status may be. I hope Nancy’s will still be around next year, but if it isn’t, well, it’ll just be one more ghost casting shadows of memory in Columbus over Memorial Day.

UPDATE: Okay, despite saying the audio podcast would be at iTunes, I can’t seem to get it to show up there. So listen to it here, or download it via the link below and add it to iTunes manually. And scroll down one post to view the latest video podcast.

UPDATE 2: Finally, some link rays of sunshine: thanks to Chuck Sudo at Chicagoist for some very nice words, and Carolina Bolado subbing for the vacationing Mlle. Rosner at MenuPages (no, I don’t know what’s with the pissy second comment, either; wasn’t aware I was making news, I thought I was making erotic food poetry, frankly).

UPDATE 3: Thanks to Mike Sula for this nice piece too, which directs you where to try Acorn Edition prosciutto in Chicago when Ham Independence Day rolls around.

WARNING, NEW MEDIA MUSINGS AHEAD: Beyond that, it’s still a little slow on the linky linky love. When I started this thing, okay, Plan A was that one of the media outlets would want to be my advertising godfather (making me money without having to soil myself), and obviously that went pfft with the fact that they’re all desperate to survive themselves; but Plan B was, hey, at least I’ll give them something to write about now and then, and to embed on their sites, and to contribute to the general cause of attracting traffic with interesting food talk. Not because what I do is so all-fired great (though of course it is!), but because if they’re all running food blogs, they gotta write about something and post 3 or 4 times a day, right? Right? In fact, though they all have food blogs, they don’t seem to feel the need to post that much, and though overall they’ve been very good to me publicity-wise and I am certainly grateful, I very much doubt they see it as, how nice of me to give them something to make a post about today.

But really, it’s a service to your readers, I see what traffic I get from any link I get and consistently it’s 50, 75, even 100 or more of your readers watching my video all the way through and, presumably, feeling that the time spent reading your food blog was in part justified by that interesting video you told them about. It costs you nothing and it makes your readers happy. It gives you one more thing to write about on a particular day and c’mon, you know you need to be blogging multiple times a day, not just 3-4 times a week. So link to Sky Full of Bacon today, embed the new podcast at your blog today.

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Extended audio interview with Herb and Kathy Eckhouse of La Quercia, artisanal prosciutto maker in Iowa.

For more information on this and the accompanying video podcast, go here.  (This post is mainly just to alert iTunes.  The real info is there.)

Listen to it below, or go here, or listen to it at iTunes here.


Can food as good as Europe’s best come from the midwest? Go inside the Italian-style prosciuttificio of La Quercia in Norwalk, Iowa, and see for yourself.

Sky Full of Bacon 10: Prosciutto di Iowa from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Here’s an example of a local food from the midwest that’s not just good for a local product, but as good as any of its kind on earth. Since it first hit the market in 2005-6, the prosciutto made by La Quercia has been hailed in rhapsodic terms by top chefs and food writers (as you’ll see and hear from three of Chicago’s top chefs). Herb and Kathy Eckhouse set out to make a truly world-class product—and to do it in accordance with their principles about being environmentally responsible and humane toward the pigs they use. In this Sky Full of Bacon podcast, we tour the prosciuttificio south of Des Moines to see how state-of-the-art technology simulates the traditional Italian way of making prosciutto, and we hear the Eckhouses talk about how they got started, how they’ve built a business in line with their principles, and about getting Iowa farmers to adopt the ancient practice of raising pigs on acorns for the best hams.

Bonus Audio Podcast

I conducted a long and thoughtful interview with the Eckhouses, only a small part of which could fit into the video. So I’ve condensed the highlights of it into a 44-minute audio podcast which goes into greater depth into such issues as starting and marketing an artisanal food business, and how their prosciutto fits into the local food movement. It’s an interesting conversation that expands on much of what’s in the video; you can listen to it below, or go here, or listen to it at iTunes here.

La Quercia’s website is here. I highly, highly recommend the organic prosciutto. It costs more, but it’s worth the extra.

Here’s Jeffrey Steingarten’s December 2006 piece from Vogue, referenced in the video. (You have to register to read the whole thing.)

Here’s a NY Times piece which came out right after I first contacted them— I thought for sure they’d be too busy for me after that, but thankfully not. (You glimpse it on the wall in the video.)

Here’s a piece by, who else, Mike Sula in the Reader a couple of years ago on their guanciale.

Here’s a piece (which was Beard-nominated) on Russ Kremer, one of the two farmers Kathy’s talking about at the end when she says if she had to be a pig, this is where she’d want to be one. (The other is Jude Becker, who is the “Jude” Brian Huston of The Publican refers to offhand in Sky Full of Bacon #5, incidentally. It’s a small world of good, humane pork.)


About Sky Full of Bacon
Sky Full of Bacon #9: Raccoon Stories
Sky Full of Bacon #8: Pear-Shaped World
Sky Full of Bacon #7: Eat This City
Sky Full of Bacon #6: There Will Be Pork (pt. 2)
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.

Mike Gebert, creator of Sky Full of Bacon and a founder of LTHForum, will host and moderate a conversation with Tom Standage, author of An Edible History of Humanity and business editor of The Economist, Saturday June 6th at the 25th Printers Row Literary Festival, from 10:30 to 11 am at the Good Eating Stage presented by Jewel-Osco.

An Edible History of Humanity shows how food has been an important shaper of culture from the earliest days of seed cultivation to today’s global food-transportation system. Sky Full of Bacon is devoted to exploring what food means in people’s lives and how they use it to express their values and culture, so it should be an interesting and wide-ranging conversation.

At 2:15 the same day on the Good Eating stage, hot dog authors Bruce Kraig and Bob Schwartz, hamburger author Andrew Smith and moderator Kevin Pang will talk fast food icons. So c’mon out for some great food chat.

For more info: The official guide to the Lit Fest will be printed in a special section in the Friday, May 29th issue of the Chicago Tribune and the website is updated frequently.

El Mariel is a Cuban sandwich place that has opened up next to the popular Habana Libre on Chicago. If “Habana Libre” conjures up Hemingway and stiff tropical drinks, El Mariel refers, of course, to the Marielitos, the people who crowded onto boats to escape— or not— Fidel’s rule and land in America. Which makes the Cuban part seem a little more immediate and harsh than at the very picturesque, almost stereotypically so, Habana Libre.

The menu is short and basic, so I ordered the most obvious thing: a Cuban sandwich. I also ordered papas fritas, which is to say French fries, not realizing that homemade potato chips would be served alongside it. Oops.

Before I got any of this, though, the proprietor, a burly mustached man hard at work on some sort of baking project, offered me a cup of soup on the house. It was chicken soup, nothing great, but perfectly okay, fresh vegetables and real chicken, what’s not to like? That was pretty much how I felt about the Cubano, too— nothing that would change my life, but an entirely decent rendition, far from skimpy with the ham, and offered in an atmosphere of eager and hopeful hospitality. I found the attitude winning even when the food would have served its purpose today and been forgotten tomorrow. That will bring me back, to see if El Mariel develops into something more interesting in time.

El Mariel
1438 W Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60642
(312) 226-0455

The John Mariani saga so far, for those who haven’t been following along:

So a bunch of people including Sky Full of Bacon sniped at elite foodwriter John Mariani as he came to Chicago to tell us which of our restaurants met his high standards, some of them Twittering his antics as they happened though one of the best comments was this David Hammond LTH post; MenuPages summed up the controversy in a post temperately entitled “Why Does Everyone Hate John Mariani?”, which got so many comments attacking or defending him that first Mariani’s Esquire editor responded, and now Mariani himself has.

So basically Mariani’s rebuttal comes down to, blogs got no journalistic ethics.  Says the man whose defense is basically that even though he writes one of those hype-y magazine list things (“Best New Restaurants”), which would normally be the province of a critic, they gave him a different title so he wouldn’t be bound by the ethical requirements of a critic while still meeting the magazine’s minimum requirements for sensationalism, publicity and trendiness.

There, blogs, now you know what to aspire to as you clean your act up.

In my podcast Eat This City, urban forager Nance Klehm notes (starts at around 12:45) that milkweed shoots can be eaten something like asparagus, and that the pods, when very young, can be cooked like okra. But then she says she doesn’t like to eat them, because they’re the only food of the monarch butterfly, and she’d rather eat other things (since she can and they can’t).

This notion piqued my curiosity, though, since I had milkweed growing in my somewhat neglected front yard patch last year. The kids and I had observed it in its various phases— and best of all, spotted the occasional monarch dining in our front yard. So the notion that monarchs needed it for their own food was by no means abstract— but at the same time, omnivorous foodie that I am, I couldn’t help wonder what milkweed would taste like. Here we are in the season when ramps are all the rage, I could be the first on my block to try another bit of locally grown, wild flora.

So I went into my weedpatch of a front yard and examined the shoots. There were 6 or 8 clusters of about 4 to 6 shoots each. Surely I would not do any harm to simply thin the clusters out by one shoot each, they wouldn’t all grow to butterfly-feeding maturity… right? That at least is what I told myself.

I came back inside with a fistful of young shoots, thin and tender, only a few leaves at the top, leaking sticky white sap from the cut end. Then I began looking up how to cook them. The news at first was very far from encouraging:

Milkweed is typically found in dry habitats, especially in dry, disturbed areas like roadsides, pastures, and dry stream beds. Although eating milkweed is rarely fatal to humans (because it tastes nasty), livestock occasionally die from eating it. Young shoots of milkweed can be eaten, but only after thorough cooking. Never eat parts of mature plants. Milkweed sap can cause a rash on people with sensitive skin.

Then I found this, by a guy who’d not only eaten them without changing the water three times (as all the recipes recommended to rid them of bitterness and toxicity), he’d eaten them raw, and lived into his 70s to tell the tale:

Eventually I tried milkweed shoots boiled without changing the water; furthermore, I made sure to begin the process with very cold water so I could “set” this elusive bitter principle just to see what it tasted like. (I had expended so much time, water, and cooking fuel to fight this chemical culprit that I was becoming anxious to meet him.) The result was perfectly delicious without even a hint of bitterness. I drank of the cooking water, too, and it tasted mild and pleasant, like green beans. After that I went out and ate a small quantity of milkweed shoots raw, and they were rather tasty. So then I tried the milky sap by itself – only to find that it was without any noticeable unpleasant flavor. It turned out that our bitter enemy was too much of a coward to even show up.

Who to believe on the internet? In the end, I took the small chance of following the recipes that said cook it for 15 minutes in the same water, no changes. Someone had to be the first to taste tomatoes, grapes, hemlock. I started the pot boiling and meanwhile, figuring that asparagus was the model here, I whipped up a simple butter-lemon-tarragon cream.

15 minutes later and, well, they were already so soft that it was hard to imagine how more cooking and more changes of water wouldn’t have turned them to puree. I took them out and tasted one.

Yes, certainly asparagus-like, not quite as strong-suphurous… and a little sweet note which asparagus never has. Interesting enough to try once, little reason to want to make it a regular part of your spring diet. Which was a relief; had I found it wonderful, I would have had to ask myself whether it was ethical to call attention to eating milkweed in a way that might influence others to go out and start stripping fields of newly grown shoots.

Yet of course, the only reason I’m asking this question at all is because I happen to have a factoid about this one plant in my head. How many other times have I called attention to something delicious, heedless of the fact that today’s foodie trends to watch list is tomorrow’s endangered species watchlist? My clusters of ethics are clearly rooted in a vast field of locally grown, wild ignorance.

So take my word for it. Milkweed’s okay if you’re a native American during a slow bison season, but it’s nothing to get excited enough about to make it worth taking from the mouths of butterflies. No particular need to add this one to the heavy list of sins we gluttons carry.

Although I am awfully curious about this:

Wild Food Recipe: Sautéed Milkweed Pods and Mushrooms

In this recipe, I removed the immature seeds – the inner white part of the milkweed pod. I looked for young pods, which tend to be small, rough textured, and do not split open easily.

I wanted to see if cooking the insides of the pod would make it stringy, like cheese. In this case, I used white mushrooms, so I could focus on the milkweed.

The La Quercia podcast would be done except for one more interview which has involved chasing a famous chef around the world like Inspector Fix chasing Phileas Fogg.  (Oh yeah, right, there’s something called the Restaurant Show going on right now.  Sure there is.)  Remember that this was the one that I did before the fish one I’d originally planned to do next… because it would be easier to finish up quickly.  Har har, it is to laugh.

Anyway, the La Quercia podcast will positively drip with lascivious prosciutto porn when you finally get to see it, hopefully next week, and not only is it awe-inspiringly porky in its own right, but your patience in waiting for the next one (and I know it’s practically all you could think about, day and night) will be rewarded with a special bonus Bacon Bit… in an entirely different medium than video.  So see you after the holiday weekend with all of that, I hope.

In the meantime, here’s some cool news: I upgraded my Vimeo service to their new Vimeo Plus, which means that true HD videos can be embedded right here and viewed from (Before, the ones here were of somewhat lower quality, though still way better than blurry YouTube.) This applies retroactively to all the past podcasts as well; I’ve also made them bigger here to maximize your total viewing experience (though to see them in their fullest, hugest glory, you need to download the entire Quicktime file, which you can do at the Vimeo page; you have to register at Vimeo, and then you’ll see Download at the lower right of the page. The iTunes version is also the full-res file.)

Well, I spent a lovely day indoors editing prosciutto porn for you people, but meanwhile Mike Sula is meeting your food video needs by posting this video of cheesemaking in Wisconsin (which, as the second cheese video he’s posted, keeps making it harder and harder for me to do one).

Making cheddar at Grassfields Organic Cheese from mike sula on Vimeo.

Here’s the story it goes with. You could find the story from his blog post about the video, but you’d have to look very closely to find the link to the video from the story, so Sky Full of Bacon does it all for you. Incidentally, when you finally see my prosciutto porn… the footage of Paul Virant in that one was shot the very next day after Sula’s footage of Paul Virant in this one. Weird, huh.

The admirable Fruitslinger, blogger of fruit-growing and Green City Market selling, has an appeal for funds for better hosting and a better camera. His blog is worth it; check it out here and then make a pledge here.