Sky Full of Bacon

UPDATE: Twitter fun, source will remain nameless: “Sat next to food writer last night. Level of douchbagery astonished me. Had recipe on the back of their card for the bartender to reproduce.” Of course, we don’t really know it was Mariani. Or do we? (At least the bar where he pulled this was not The Violet Hour— it was a little north of there on Damen….)

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My arch-nemesis, the bounteously expense-accounted and ethically challenged food writer John Mariani, the epitome of the parachute-in-to-four-star-meals food writer, a man who sees America as a vast black hole of pizza with high points only on the edges, a man who once wrote an article on Texas bbq without ever venturing more than 20 miles from an international airport, will be eating at Graham Elliott tonight, reports Helen at Menu Pages.

Here’s where I’ve railed against him in the past. First, on pizza:

…the main point is just that usual old coastal snobbery toward Chicago-style deep dish pizza. I mean, a list that can take in the 80s trend toward froufrou duck sausage pizzas with hoisin sauce but completely looks down its nose at an exuberantly over the top indigenous American art form like the Chicago deep dish– it’s like an interview with Andre Previn I read once where, pressed, he acknowledged that Stephen Sondheim perhaps proved that music hadn’t completely died as an art form after about 1960. Thanks, Andre, we’ll let you crawl back into your crypt now, and you try to hum the opening number from “Assassins” while John Mariani surveys the vast pizza wasteland from coast to coast.

Then there was the time Mariani tried to decide what his last meal would be, an exercise in jawdropping pretension:

“Nope, I don’t want the overwrought pièce de côte de boeuf Simmental au feu de bois, vert et côtes de blettes, os à moelle, jus corsé from Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Monaco. But I will order the Prime Illinois corn-fed 21-day-aged bone-in rib eye at Wolfgang Puck’s stunning new steak house, Cut, in Beverly Hills, Calif.,” scribbles Mariani in the grip of his obsession, like a sociopath who still imagines he has the power to pass judgements of life and death upon his victims, rather than being about to have society’s judgement carried out upon him.

If he vanishes tonight and is found a few days later in a diner in Great Bend, Kansas, insensate in a plate of biscuits and gravy and wearing a Toby Keith T-shirt, I had nothing to do with it.

For this edition, I’m sticking to my local homies (or at least out of towners I kinda know), plenty of good readin’ there:

1. Ronnie Suburban ate cured meat at Vie, The Publican and Mado, and took mouthwatering photos.  I ate about that much meat going to Wisconsin for a day and a half, or at least it felt like it on the drive home, with little of the aesthetic delight.
2. Christopher Borrelli writes a paean to hippie restaurants in the Chi-Trib.  Comes out more like an exercise in masochism to me, but it’s pretty funny.
3. The totally insane Chicago Gluttons does an even funnier paean to The Bristol, complete with cheesy music video and obscene Cathy parody (that’s the comic strip, not Cathy2).
4. This Serious Eats piece would be frightening if it were merely an insanely detailed history of food on Star Trek. That it’s merely scratching the surface of a subject which has already generated two cookbooks…
5. Why Dominic Armato did not get to go to Commander’s Palace, and what he ate instead.
6. Hugh Amano makes stuff himself, prompting the comment, “You can’t make pickles, you can only buy them.”
7. Fig Catering recounts everything that went into their particpation at the Mole de Mayo. Best entry: “1 week prior…Since our health inspector has ignored us for the last year, but we need a health inspection within 6 months in order to participate in the event, they have to be called in. Molly handles this one solo and learns exactly how weird health inspectors are (make sure you ask about his Nutri-System diet).”

I wouldn’t have paid any attention to Amelia’s if Martha Bayne hadn’t reviewed it for the Reader. First off, that’s because I would have mistaken it for this Amelia’s, a onetime blight on the Mexican food landscape which (in a victory for truth in advertising, I suppose) now has an even more blatantly inauthentic name like Fiesta Sombrero or Cantina Cucaracha. David Hammond reviewed that Amelia’s thusly:

I’m awe-struck, however, by the transcendently sensation-free salsas. I’m bummed by the Disney-version of mole negro – tasting as though squeezed from a bottle of Bosco. I take a scoop of beans but can barely believe it: there’s weight on my tongue, I feel it, I know there’s something there and yet…there’s just about no flavor, there’s barely even a hint of grease, there’s no there there.

This new no-relation Amelia’s has a far more promising, if also somewhat checkered, Mexican food pedigree: the couple who owned Mundial Cocina Mestizo, an upscale restaurant in Pilsen, divorced, selling it to the third partner in the business; now they are each opening separate businesses. The ex-wife plans to open a bakery, the ex-husband has opened this attractive restaurant in… Canaryville.

And that’s the second reason I would never have noticed this restaurant: it’s in the middle of freakin’ nowhere. This may have seemed like a repeat of the successful urban pioneer strategy Mundial employed, the first high-end joint in Pilsen just as it gentrified. But Pilsen was at least full of life if not entrees over $8; this is in an attractive building facing a vast empty lot that was once stockyards, with next to no housing in its immediate vicinity. You’re going to have to want to go to Amelia’s.

So do you want to go to Amelia’s?  You do, I think.  Chef Eusebio Garcia worked at MK before opening Mundial, and his thing has been high-end Mex tinged with Mediterranean flavors.  My feeling is that the former are much, much more promising than the latter.  Oysters topped with spinach, hot sauce and Asiago cheese reminded me that Asiago cheese should be banished to Panera by now, and it didn’t help that no two seemed to have the same proportion of those ingredients.  A gorgonzola polenta on the side of a ribeye was a bowl of warm blue cheese goo, like baby food for gourmet babies.

But the straight-up Mexican things were quite good, especially scallops in a chipotle sauce with onion marmalade and some grilled vegetables.  And the steaming homemade tortillas were impossible not to want to instantly grab and wrap anything at hand in. Generally, in most of the upscale Mex places I think you’re better off ordering off the appetizer menu, where you’ll find simpler and more authentic things like tamales rather than entrees consisting of a large hunk of protein in a sauce with vegetables on the side, which is not really the way Mexicans tend to eat; and Amelia’s is no exception to this rule.

So the next time you’re facing the prospect of a long line at Mixteco, Frontera, or whatever Geno Bahena’s opened this week, consider being a real food adventurer and making the hike to Amelia’s.  Since there’s basically no traffic for a mile in any direction, it’s an easy shot down the Ryan to 43rd from the north side; the neighborhood is no scarier than, say, Humboldt Park and probably safer just by virtue of being so empty.  You’ll get the personal, relaxed attention those other places are too busy to provide, and you’ll help sustain, for at least a little while longer, a very attractive and pleasant restaurant which probably made the mistake of opening at the end of the universe.

Amelia’s Mexican Cafe
4559 S Halsted St

IL 60609
(773) 538-8200

P.S. Chuck Sudo has reviewed it here for Chicagoist.  Note that he had exactly the same things I had!  (Yes, I was his extra ordering power.)

Last year I shot a couple of quick videos about my son’s involvement in 4-H at Wagner Farm in Glenview.  I probably should have done a full-fledged Sky Full of Bacon about it, but this is one of those cases where being a parent and being a filmmaker just proved too much to do well at the same time.  (It was definitely good practice for the podcasts, though— I learned how sensitive the mic is to picking up my breathing, making me sound like an asthmatic running a marathon through much of this!)  Anyway, here are the two videos from last year, showing him exercising and feeding his lamb, and then the day of the auction at the Lake County Fair.

My Lamb Triskaidekaphobia from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Triska Goes to the Fair from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

He has a new lamb this year, a bigger one, named Arachnophobia.  He’s an old hand now, it was fun watching him last week helping wrestle them into the pen, as if every 10-year-old knows how to handle a herd of sheep.

It’s been a busy month or so at the Sky Full of Bacon headquarters.  So I thought it might interest all two or three of you to know a little bit about what’s ahead.

The picture above is from what will be the next podcast.  Hey, those don’t look like fish, you say, if you remember that the raccoon dinner podcast ended with a preview for one about fish.  Well, you’re right.  Right as the raccoon podcast went up, I went to Norwalk, Iowa to shoot at La Quercia, makers of some of the best prosciutto in the world.  And as it happens, that one’s in better shape to be finished sooner, so it should be up within two weeks or so.

Sky Full of Bacon has gotten tagged with having a locavore bent, which I’m fine with, although to a certain extent that’s accidental— hey, you go and shoot producers in your area, the result is you’re doing a story on local food whether you meant to or not.  But La Quercia is the kind of midwest-foods story I really want to spread the word on: some folks in Iowa seeing the potential of making a traditional food (prosciutto) using Iowa pork, and as a result producing truly world-class product which has been hailed by chefs nationwide, not just in the midwest.  This isn’t a story about local being better because it traveled less, this is a story about local being better because it’s the best of its kind on the entire planet.  (Arguably, of course, but you’ll hear from prominent chefs who feel that way.)  California has lots of stories like that, but the midwest is just starting to create them.  So that’s what’s coming next.

At 5:45 this morning, I was standing on a dock in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, waiting to ride 3-1/2 miles out onto Lake Michigan to catch whitefish.  This was something of the climax of a series of events that started when Carl Galvan of Supreme Lobster contacted me some months back about the possibility of shooting at their distribution center/big building kept cold and full of fish in Villa Park.  I shot out there a couple of times and interviewed him and a fish buyer without knowing exactly where the story was going— but I figured that was okay as long as I knew we’d have cool fish house visuals.  Then Carl came up with another possibility— going out with a whitefish boat.

Previous podcasts have mostly involved people whose stories I already knew.  These two are really examples of finding the stories as I shoot.  In the case of the fish house one, I’ve been interviewing chefs about what they and their customers want when they’re thinking about fish for dinner, and that’s provided a broader context that connects what we’ll see in the fish house with how we eat.  In the whitefish boat one, it quickly became clear that the fishermen have big issues with how they’re being managed by the various state agencies, and so part of it will be looking at how this profession, which some of these people have been in for generations, is changing today under regulatory pressure.  If that sounds like a simple story of overfishing fishermen versus purehearted conservationists, it’s not at all, far from it.

In both these cases, getting these additional interviews has taken up more time and, perhaps, slowed production on the next one a little, since the editor is still out shooting.  But still, it’s encouraging to me to know all the good stuff that I have in the can and the time I have to really pursue the fish stories and get all the pieces that will make them solid and thought-provoking videos.  (And I even have parts of a fourth in the can— about an ethnic deli/restaurant in an old-time suburb.  I shot interview footage out there but need to go back and shoot them making food.  And then I need to figure out if it’s a standalone piece, or if I need a second segment on the same theme within the same video, something I haven’t actually done since the very first one.)  So, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in the works here— watch for it.

Just in time for a recession in which Starbucks gets used as a primary example of the kind of luxury people will no longer be willing to shell out for, coffee joints have started getting fancier, and more expensive, about the way they brew coffee.  Intelligentsia got some press and grief (see a response here) for laying in a supply of $11,000 Clover machines and using them to make $4 cups of coffee that take seven minutes.  Just as I was reading about that, a vegetarian coffeehouse opened on Lincoln near Martyrs, bearing the name (which comes awfully close to, the former impossible-to-spell-right name of a “social bookmarking” service now just called Delicious) and offering, in the $3-4 range, cups of coffee brewed in a thing called a Chemex.

From the name I expected a big fancy machine, gleaming steel and chrome, spitting steam like a Raymond Loewy train engine.  The reality proved to be simple enough to do for yourself; a glass carafe with a funnel mouth into which you set a filter and slowly pour hot water around the edges, thus getting roughly even amounts of water to pass through all the beans, rather than extracting most of your coffee from the ones at the bottom of the filter:

So did it live up to the hype?  Actually, yes, at first anyway.  The cup was subtler, more floral, almost creamy (possibly a projection of the name of the coffee I chose, kurimi); you could taste the point about getting the best flavor from all the coffee in the filter versus overextracting acids from the stuff at the bottom.  Within 20 minutes of going on my way with my paper cup, however, it was just another cup of coffee.  So if you do feel the need to spend $3+ and carefully watch as owner/professional BMX racer Kevin Porter hand-assembles your coffee drip by drip, drink it while you’re there, and fairly quickly, to savor the difference.  Or if you use a French press, you might consider switching to a Chemex of your own (they have them in stock), as it’s no harder to make a cup in your office this way and for me it’s a less oily, more well-rounded cup.

But for me, the real point of this is that when I walk into with my son, who was instantly smitten by their cupcakes baked in ice cream cones, the Chemex process gives me something to shoot the breeze about with Porter or his staff for a few minutes, enjoying the earnest vibe of people who opened a vegetarian coffeehouse in their neighborhood because having one seemed like the most important thing in the world.  $3 or so will get you that and a first-rate cup of coffee, which seems eminently fair to me.
3827 N. Lincoln Ave.
Chicago IL 60613

David Hammond’s latest thoughtful and interesting 848 piece is on a subject dear to my heart full of bacon, why better pig raising is better for humans, pigs and chefs alike— especially in this moment of swine flu worries. Among those he talks to is Mado chef Rob Levitt. Go here and play it on the pop out player which, unfortunately, I can’t embed.

Ruth Reichl and Gourmet won the James Beard Foundation Award for Food Journalism: Multimedia, defeating Ruth Reichl and Gourmet, and also… where is it, I have it here somewhere… ah yes, The Whole Hog Project from Mike Sula at the Chicago Reader and, representing the multi part of multimedia, Sky Full of Bacon. (See them here and here if, somehow by now, you haven’t.)

It was, in any case, a great thing to be nominated along with the Reader, and I thank them for the opportunity which I hope they feel I rose to, and which has afforded me entree to top chefs and national attention at an earlier stage than I could have done on my own. Big thanks to Mike Sula for inviting me along on the last stage of his adventure, and to Kate Schmidt, his editor, for supporting this in-depth project in so many ways, my part included.

Winners are now indicated in the posts with links to the Beard journalism so you can read it for yourself:

Miscellaneous print/online

A food blogger code of ethics has been proposed.  To examine both sides of the weighty issues it raises, I thought I’d invite two noncorporeal beings who live with me to discuss the text by annotating it.  Angelic comments are in blue.  Luciferian comments are in, what else, red.

1. We will be accountable

• We will write about the culinary world with the care of a professional. I thought we were gonna be interesting! Already with the snarky attitude. Well, this is getting off on the wrong hoof to me. If I wanted to be a professional, um, I’d save all this material and sucker some editor into letting me blow it up into a big expense account piece.  Blogging was supposed to be fun, casual, racy, snarky, assuming that the reader could catch up and didn’t need everything carefully and laboriously explained.  Already this is sounding like work. We will not use the power of our blog as a weapon. Aw, c’mon. Some things out there need a good skewering with the ol’ trident. And besides, isn’t “power of our blog” right up there with “Vatican Offensive Combat Capability”? We will stand behind our claims. If what we say or show could potentially affect someone’s reputation or livelihood, we will post with the utmost thought and due diligence. Unless I think of a good nasty one-liner, then I’m going with it.

• We will not hide behind total anonymity. Even if we choose to write anonymously for our own personal or professional safety, we will not post anything that we wouldn’t feel comfortable putting our name on and owning up to.  You can’t object to that.  Nobody wants to blog as a coward. You’re right.  Especially since the practical difference between “blogger’s real name” and “total anonymity” is what, four people?

• If we review a restaurant, product or culinary resource we will hold ourselves to a standard set of guidelines as offered by the Association of Food Journalists.  Hey, a code isn’t supposed to reference another code! Well, journalists have long wrestled with these issues. Yeah, and plumbers wrestle with the building code, doesn’t make their answers mine.  I followed the link and basically they’re saying I have to eat at a place twice before I write about it and all that other standard daily paper stuff. What’s wrong with that?  Any place can have an off night, is it fair to attack them for that? Helloooo, 1974, is that you?  There’s no recognition that blogging is not the same as publishing The Daily Grandiosity.  Again, the point of blogging is to be personal, catty, sarcastic, whatever you want to be.  Why do I have to eat at a place twice when a hundred bloggers will, between them, have a hundred meals there?  This is still stuck in the mindset of monopoly dailies that there is one final word to be passed on every restaurant and we have to pass it, like a kidney stone.  It’s a new world in which opinion is fluid, cumulative, comin’ at ya from every direction, like a host of flies.

2. We will be civil

• We whole-heartedly believe in freedom of speech, but we also acknowledge that our experiences with food are subjective. We promise to be mindful—regardless of how passionate we are—that we will forthright, but will refrain from personal attacks. I can’t see anything to object to in this. You wouldn’t.  Who made them Anti-Pope, to dictate to everyone what the tone of blogging should be?  The Heaven with that!

3. We will reveal bias

• If we are writing about something or someone we are emotionally connected to, we will be up front about it.  Wow, this is really a problem?  Bloggers are actually getting laid?  It’s beneath my dignity to answer.

4. We will disclose gifts, comps and samples

• When something is given to us or offered at a deep discount because of our blog, we will disclose that information.  As bloggers, most of us do not have the budgets of large publications, and we recognize the value of samples, review copies of books, donated giveaway items and culinary event, but it’s import to disclose freebies to avoid accusations of conflicts of interest.  This seems very responsible to me. It seems to me again like it’s drawing the line right where journalism decided it long ago belonged, for their convenience— here’s a profession where food has to be paid for, yet every book reviewer sells the free books he’s reviewed and keeps the money.  I see no reason bloggers can’t decide to draw it somewhere else… and readers, who are not idiots, can judge for themselves whether or not someone’s been bought.  Of course readers have long understood what those in my profession have always known— the real temptations are not in gold or jewels but in flattery, in access, in the illusion of collegiality.  I’ve bought many a journalist’s soul with a few words suggesting that he was the equal in importance of the subject he was covering.  (Thomas Friedman, he’s one of mine.)  A comped plate of scallops is angel kids’ stuff by comparison.  Mmm, those do look good, maybe I’ll just have— no, best not.

5. We will follow the rules of good journalism

We will not plagiarize or use images from others without attribution. Yeah, that would be like journalists gleaning ideas from bloggers without attribution, except we all know that that’s never happened in the history of mankind. We will research. We will attribute quotes and offer link backs to original sources whenever possible. We will do our best to make sure that the information we are posting about is accurate. We will factcheck. Very good principles. I trust you agree. In other words, we will practice good journalism.  Except when we feel like doing something else.  Even I may not object to most of this in practice, but I do object to the overall feel of this thing, which seeks to lay out the terms on which I write about food and force me into a format replicating journalism’s current state.  But shouldn’t there be certain principles we all live by? Well, last I checked I was paying for my web hosting, not the National Association of Inkstained Humbugs, and it seems awfully early in the history of blogging to be saying so many things so firmly about what can and can’t be done in a new medium.  Yeah, most of these are good guiding principles (some get a little schoolteacherish) but given a choice between a catechism and the freedom to experiment and evolve, I’ll take free will every time— and trust the readers to make their own choice.  I’m all about choice, it’s paid off very well in my line of work.  Go on, try a scallop.

The local CBS station does a piece on eating local featuring two people who’ve been in Sky Full of Bacons: Cassie Green of Green Grocer and Rob Gardner, Vital Information/Local Beet, procurer of pig heads.

Of course, for the in-depth version, you know where you have to go!