Sky Full of Bacon

1. Okay, it goes on forever because it’s on a discussion site, but this is the most fascinating, thoughtful and sometimes hilarious LTHForum thread in a long time. A foodie blogger bigshot (at least he considers himself so) and some friends went to Chicago’s hoity Asian-fusion place L2O and were disappointed with the service… or, as populist LTHers saw it, were disappointed that they didn’t get their heinies kissed sufficiently after attempting to throw their weight around. The result contains a lot of good discussion of blogger ethics, diner tactics, the cult of chefs and how much personal attention you could or should expect, and many other fascinating topics… along with some absolutely killing snark. Two prominent Chicago chefs turn up to weigh in along the way. Start here on page 6 and read at least through page 12, and don’t miss this hilarious parody in another thread.
2. Sky Full of Bacon pal Helen Rosner charmingly asks chefs what they pack in their kids’ lunches. Grant Achatz’ kids arrive at school with sushi.
3. David Hammond’s radio pieces about food have always been good, but his new series— about how sound works in cooking— is exceptional, getting chefs to think and say really interesting things about how the sense of hearing helps them know what’s going on. They air every Wednesday, with three so far (another one by the time you read this, probably); go here.
4. This is a 5-minute video about Oregon’s 70-year-old artisanal cheesemaker Rogue Creamery, which was rescued from the brink of closing by new owners; it seems to be mainly a kind of inspirational piece about following your dreams more than a food piece, but has some cool shots of the cheesemaking process and so on.

5. Monica Kass Rogers tries to hit half a dozen Chicago-area farmer’s markets in one day, at The Local Beet.
6. The journal Foreign Policy is not normally a place I look for food stories, but I happened to spot an interesting, and also (warning) graphic, story on Japan’s unsavory hunger for whale and dolphin meat.
7. For a slice of baby boomers born in the 1960s, as soon as you see what this is for… you’ll smell that indelible artificial grape flavor. The rest of you will just be freaked out by the clown.

I’ve been sort of down on Chicago street festivals, whether it’s Koreanfest or Finnfest you somehow wind up seeing the same pork skewer vendors and insurance company booths at them, but I had a great time earlier this summer at Pierogifest and so that inspired me to finally take David Hammond’s advice and go to Taste of Melrose Park.

Meet famous Italian celebrities at Taste of Melrose Park.

I don’t know a lot about Melrose Park, but having bought a couch there once 15 years ago (since sent to my alley where couches often go to die), it’s definitely an old school Italian-American suburb, the New Joisey of Chicago. Taste of Melrose Park is full of families and church organizations running booths making their family specialty to sell at $2/serving, maybe $3 at most, and though a lot of them are old school pasta and red sauce type dishes (perfectly likable, nothing special), more than a few are much better than that, and the whole event is packed, lively and full of boisterous Chi-town energy.

We hooked up with Hammond and his wife Carolyn Berg, surprised that no other LTHers had taken him up on his posted offer, and he led us to several of the best choices— there were some hearty, enormous arancini (rice balls), and I really liked Melrose Park Peppers, apparently an old local specialty but hard to find now, basically Italian sausage and sauteed green pepper in a bun with marinara sauce.

Others, even if I wasn’t 100% wild about them, where else are you going to go to a street fest and find artichoke casserole in a styrofoam cup?  Try to get that on the north shore. I certainly liked it better than the bread bowl with pasti e fagioli, which threatened to take up way too much valuable stomach space for its fairly ordinary Italian restaurant flavor.

Hammond had more of an adventurous palate than myself, he tried both the clams:

and a stand offering, curiously, soul food-style neckbones, which were pretty rank, he couldn’t get anybody else to try a bite.

We tried other stuff— one kid nursed a pizza slice for about a half hour until a fried Twinkie came his way— but the two things we were really out to try were the famous sfingi, eggy donuts made by an order of nuns, which had at least an hour’s worth of line waiting for the sisters to get each batch out of the fryer:

And the famous fried bologna sandwiches, showcased in Hammond’s article linked above.  He and I stopped by their stand as the others waited for sfingi and he was embraced as a celebrity for having driven traffic to their booth from as far as Glenview.  They also said they wanted to meet his wife (read the article, you’ll see why) and so we relayed that news as we took bologna sandwiches back to our line-bound compatriots.  I was really surprised how good the bologna sandwich was— the combination of fried, slightly blackened and crispy bologna, mustard and sweet caramelized onion, and white bread was great, like a minimalist Chicago hot dog flattened out.

Once we had our sfingi— likewise wonderful, the egginess making them like something between a donut and French toast—

—we made our way back to the bologna booth and Carolyn was embraced as a long lost sister.  In gratitude to Hammond for the article, they invited all of us into the back of their booth for a slice of homemade cheesecake.

As much fun as the fest itself is, as true as it is to the warmly outgoing Italian-American spirit, it quickly became clear that the real fun, the real neighborliness, the real spirit of the fest is in what goes on in the back alleys of the booth rows, where the different stands— mostly amateurs— trade food and recipes and goodnatured jokes back and forth.  And that cheesecake!  It might not have been the best one I ever had in my life, maybe only in the last 20 years, light and creamy and made with love.  I couldn’t have been prouder of my younger son when she asked him how he liked it and his eyes rolled back in his head and he just said, “Soooo gooooood.”  Right answer, Liam, if you want to be invited back next year.  Seriously, I don’t know how you swing an invitation into the vendors’ social lives, but Hammond did so on our behalf, and it was one of the highlights of my summer.

Better photos than mine of much of the food can be found in this LTHForum post.

Note: This is a customer dissatisfaction rant, if you want food stuff, go to my latest video podcast, In the Land of Whitefish. Or click Video Podcasts at right.

Like a lot of folks in creative pursuits, I’m an Apple partisan going back to the dark days when it seemed to be hanging on by the skin of its beige plastic teeth in the face of imminent annilhation. And like a lot of Apple fans, I may have enjoyed seeing The Dictatorship of Steve fire missiles at the lumbering Microsaurus, but I also knew that if Apple ever had me by the short hairs, it was unlikely to be a fun experience. Though Apple vs. Microsoft may be a duopoly, it’s one made of, basically, two individual monopolies; they’re competitors the way Christendom and Islam were competitors during the Crusades, not a lot of free flowing traffic between the two sides to make a real marketplace.

Surprisingly, the place where Steve has applied the iThumbscrews to me is the one that ought to be one of the shiny happy places where they convert you to the cult: the Apple Store. (Woodfield mall in the Chicago suburbs, specifically, if you want to know where.) Apple software I mostly revere, Final Cut Express for $99 is like getting a BMW for $150, but the much-admired Apple Store is actually a pretty poor user experience, beautiful… but dumb. Because Apple’s too cool for things like nametags with job titles and clear directional signage, you have to go in and find someone with an orange shirt who finds you someone with a blue shirt to tell your troubles to who then has to get you someone with a yellow shirt who’s not already helping three other people, to actually get anything done. All I can say is, I’m sure glad I don’t have to go through that to get corned beef at Paulina Meat Market on Saturday morning.

Oh, but I found a user experience within the Apple empire that is even dumber than that— maddeningly so. And in the process it revealed other, deeper dumbnesses in the Apple experience that had me thinking, for the first time in a quarter century and probably $20,000 of Apple purchases (not counting what ad agencies have purchased for me to use), what alternatives might possibly exist.

It’s the process of getting to the Apple Store— that is, of getting an appointment with one of the geniuses or, as non-pretentious human beings call them, repair guys. You go to, you click a few choices to narrow it down to your area and your equipment, and then you select times. Because it’s a widely-held opinion that Apple build quality has slipped as the prices have gone down, they’re very busy and you’re always at least a day (if not two or three) out from an appointment. Apple can get away with that in a way Best Buy could only dream of.

And here’s where Apple’s website team made an absolutely staggering, shoot your own foot and kill your customer when it ricochets bungle. Let’s assume you’re on your laptop, since it’s your desktop computer that up and died, like mine did. You’ve picked your time and location, and—this is very important—you’ve clicked a button called Confirm. Sounds very final, doesn’t it? Here’s what you see next:

What do you conclude from this? That you have an appointment for this time, right? After all, you Confirmed, no? You are “scheduled,” no? No and no, as a matter of fact. Scroll down, past the border of the box that seems to be the bottom of the meaningful content, past the border of the box it’s within, to an area beyond both of them:

You don’t have an appointment until you’ve both Confirmed, and clicked Done. Confirm was, in fact, Hmm I Don’t Know, Maybe, Let Me Think About It Some More.

And lest you think I’m the only person who would miss that button, realize that this was on a bestselling size of Apple laptop using Apple’s default browser. Probably 40% of all people who ever go to the page see it the way I did. How many never scroll down on that final looking page and thus miss that final crucial step the way I did? All of them, or just nearly all? It’s an amazingly lunkheaded bit of misthought-out user experience for a supposedly in-tune, online-leader company like Apple. 10 years ago Amazon put up a prominent message that says “Stop! Your order is not placed until you press ‘Place order.” But Apple thinks you’ll happily poke around for more buttons to press all night long. Everyone will.

But it can always get worse! So like me, you go to the Apple Store and find an orange shirt. And you discover that you don’t have an appointment like you thought, and the default response to that is the latest upgrade of Apple’s iDon’tGiveaShit ’09. Their only product at that point is 31 flavors of Start Over And Click the Right Invisible Button This Time, Dumbass. You might as well be asking the TSA if you can carry your timebomb collection on a 747 as to try to get any information about your screwed up Apple product from the Apple Store at this point, or to get moved up in any way from their next availability, which is Christmas morning at 6 am. You have qualified for a free upgrade to iHaveNoMouthandIMustScream.

The irony is, customer satisfaction in my case was amazingly close at hand, and yet Apple has deliberately designed their system to frustrate it. I pretty much knew my problem— a crash had farbungled my OS, and my question was, could I run Disk Utility etc. and try to repair it if the computer had the old operating system (Mountain Goat, I think) and I used the new one (Blue-Assed Baboon, I believe) to do it, since I couldn’t find my old Mountain Goat discs. In a restaurant, in a clothing store, even in freakin’ Best Buy, I suspect, the system could have worked like this:

Customer has no appointment, is turning purple with rage —>
Say “We’re really booked, but let me see if I can get someone to see if we can do something”
=Blue shirt comes out, answers my one question, sends me away happy

Instead it was:
Citizen has no appointment —>
=Say: “No appointment, comrade! Back to end of line!”

Apple makes a big deal out of training these geniuses in Cupertino but it’s clear that much of the training is, in reality, focused on making sure none of them ever deviate from the scripts to perform real problem solving on their own initiative. Your local geniuses are no more free to act to keep you happy than a call center in Mumbai. It is, in its own way, an oddly inhuman, binary-thinking kind of approach to customer service— if I fit the needs of Apple’s system perfectly, I will get service, but the slightest deviation and I’m ejected as a bad cog in the machine. It is an experience that not only belies the hippy-trippy atmosphere so carefully created in the Apple Store, but more crucially, the brand promise of Apple as a computer for creative individuals thinking outside the box. Not if you’re trapped in this box:

The biggest “premiere” I ever had for one of my videos was when I showed Raccoon Stories to a dozen guests at one of my Southern parties.  Monday night, the venue was a little bigger than that:

But let me back up.  So as you could either tell or guess from my last two, fish-oriented videos, A Better Fish and In the Land of Whitefish, my involvement with fish came about, first, because Carl Galvan of Supreme Lobster invited me to poke around their place, and second, because during the making of the first one, he said “Hey, you wanna go on a whitefish boat?” and set it up for me to go out with one of their suppliers, Susie Q Fish Co.

Supreme is certainly the biggest company I’ve dealt with in any of these, many times larger than La Quercia, for instance, and initially I wondered if there might be some hesitation or sensitivity about a guy running around with a camera in their company.  I wondered, in fact, if they’d demand some sort of editorial control.  (Which on a formal level I wouldn’t agree to, though I’d certainly listen to any comments, just as I gave La Quercia an opportunity to watch the final cut and tell me if there was anything proprietary they didn’t want shown, which as it turned out there wasn’t.)

But his bosses trusted Carl and he trusted me not to do some kind of hatchet job, and I think I honestly portrayed what they are— a big, efficient and busy company where sustainability is on their radar, and they’re moving things in that direction where they can, but change doesn’t happen overnight either, and so much of it depends on the consciousness of their customers and their customers’ customers as well.  That’s a realistic picture of how progress happens, each piece in the supply chain— fishermen, brokers like Cleanfish, distributors like Supreme, restaurants like Vie and Chaise Lounge, diners like me— helping nudge the others along, making it economically possible to do what’s better.  That’s especially why I was so happy to be able to include Cleanfish, who are really committed to market rather than governmental solutions, protecting non-sustainable fish by driving the market toward other more sustainable fish; and I think it’s obvious that their commitment has had a pretty rapid and direct ripple effect through to distributors and then to chefs and diners (as shown in my Reader piece on their Nunavut arctic char).

Anyway, after they saw the first one and felt it was a good picture of their operation (even if it did reveal that their sales reps sometimes use bad words!), they had the idea of planning an event to raise awareness of the quality and versatility of Great Lakes fish and sustainability more generally, built around a screening of the first video and the (at that point, unfinished) one about whitefish.  And, well it was quite an event— they got the Shedd on board as a venue (and it doesn’t get much snazzier than that):

and Paul Virant of Vie and Troy Graves of Eve, plus the Shedd’s own in house team, cooking with fresh and smoked whitefish and smelts, alongside Goose Island beer.  The invite list included over 200 chefs and media folks, and I talked to many of them, Paul and Troy of course, Jean Joho, Todd Stein, Cary Taylor, Radhika Desai, etc., though they were just as many I missed (I never did catch Geno Bahena, who was there with the madonna of moles, Clementina Flores; or Michael McDonald of One Sixty Blue, Bruno Abate of Follia/Tocco, etc.).

I think that one’s going to be an ad for Goose Island, or maybe Colt .45 Malt Liquor.  (Photos, by the way, are by Supreme’s Reed Shallenberger if they’re any good, and were taken with my camera if they’re not.)  Here’s Carl working on the playlist for the party at the Shedd’s loading dock:

The food really showed the versatility that Great Lakes fish can have, with the biggest eyeopener being Troy’s surprisingly flavorful whitefish cake, which didn’t miss crab a bit.  Here’s Paul bringing in some escabeche:

After about an hour of mingling (and me running around checking on the AV) we gathered in one of the  exhibit rooms as a repurposed screening room.  The president of Supreme and a couple of folks from the Shedd talked about the fish biz and how Shedd works to promote sustainability (including as a big buyer of seafood for its own animals to eat), and then, this guy got up there:

Since I try not to yak-yak in my movies, I tried not to do so before them for too long, either.

Paul Virant, Mike Sheerin (Blackbird) and Jean Joho watching the videos.  I have to say, it was a real gift to finally get to see some of my work with an audience, like a real movie, not just because of the ego boost (though that was certainly gratifying) but also because, I think I know where the laughs are, where the “Hmm, never thought about that”s are, and so on, but you don’t really know until you can hear and feel a whole audience reacting.  It was really great to hear that everybody else found Robert Schuffler as delightful a character as I did, or roared at why lawyer fish are called that.

Afterwards Carl, who had really made everything possible, was thanked by his boss for his dedication and passion to the business of selling fish, and got a big round of applause, well-deserved, for making the event happen.  I really hope that some of our city’s best chefs came away thinking of new ways to make use of Great Lakes fish, and sustainable fish generally, in a way that’s better for the oceans and lakes and for all of us.

It may not be the deadliest catch, but come with me as I go on a whitefish boat to catch one of the classic fishes of Great Lakes dining, and explore the history and prospects for this very local and sustainable fish.

Sky Full of Bacon 12: In the Land of Whitefish from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

True Great Lakes whitefish are one of the classics of midwestern dining— and a local and sustainable choice to boot. In the second of my two-part exploration of fish and sustainability, I go on a Lake Michigan whitefish boat to see how they’re fished, talk with the family that runs a fifth-generation, 130-year-old Wisconsin fishery, and talk to chefs and fish sellers (including a 92-year-old “retired” fish seller who still comes in to work every day) about what makes these fish special—if, sometimes, a hard sell to diners looking for the latest thing. It runs 19:54; be sure to also watch the first in this series, A Better Fish.

Here’s Susie Q Fish Co.’s site.

Here’s Robert’s Fish Market founder Robert Schuffler’s gefilte fish recipe:

Here’s a nice video I found about very local fish in Montauk, New York.

And be sure to read Art Jackson (SFOB #7)’s observations in the comments section.


About Sky Full of Bacon

Sky Full of Bacon #11: A Better Fish
Sky Full of Bacon #10: Prosciutto di Iowa
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?

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