Sky Full of Bacon

Chicago’s Healthy Food was the oldest Lithuanian restaurant in the world when it closed in late 2009. I was on hand for the last days of this legendary South Side restaurant, one of the last survivors of a once-flourishing ethnic group in Chicago, to talk to the owner, staff and customers as they said Goodbye, Kugelis.

Sky Full of Bacon 14: The Last Days of Kugelis from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

The history of Lithuanians in Chicago is the history of the twentieth century— from immigration and work in the Chicago stockyards in the early years of the century, to the racial tensions of the 1960s and, ultimately, assimilation in the suburbs. One of the last examples of Lithuanian Chicago closed in late 2009: Healthy Food, a 71-year-old restaurant serving good hearty Eastern European food in the Bridgeport neighborhood. I was at Healthy Food during its last few days, talking to owner Gina Santoski about her life in the restaurant (which her parents bought in 1960) and to the staff and customers who made it one of Chicago’s classic old neighborhood spots. And, for the first and only time, I captured on video the complete making of Healthy Food’s signature dish, kugelis— according to Gina, she never let other journalists shoot the full process, because she was concerned that the traditional ways of making it would attract unwanted Health Department attention; but since she was closing anyway, she let me shoot it all. The video runs 15 and a half minutes.

I reviewed a visit to what is now the city of Chicago’s only remaining Lithuanian restaurant here.

Here and here are some LTHForum posts about the decline of the Marquette Park Lithuanian neighborhood in the past decade, and mentions of surviving Lithuanian stores and restaurants in the suburbs. (Probably the newest and most accommodating to visitors is Grand Duke’s, near Toyota Park in Summit.)

Another Lithuanian enclave that has disappeared in the last few years was around 47th St.; I visited Baltic Bakery during this LTHForum event in 2006, and Julia’s Lithuanian during the Chowhound Westernathon in 2003.  (Both are now gone.) The map showing where Chicago ethnic enclaves were around the time Healthy Food Lithuanian opened can be seen here; it actually predates Healthy Food by more than a decade (1926), so compare it to this one from 1940, which shows Marquette Park as the new destination for Lithuanians seeking to own their own homes. Interestingly, though, there’s no mention of Lithuanian food at all in John Drury’s 1931 Dining in Chicago, the primary source for information on Chicago ethnic dining of that era.

One of the things I’m happiest about in this video is that I was able to use authentic Lithuanian music of extremely high quality in it. I found the Lithuanian folk ensemble Sutaras online and contacted their music director, Antanas Fokas, and told him about my intention to help educate Chicago about our Lithuanian heritage. He gave me permission to use several cuts by Sutaras; I highly recommend checking out their recordings at their site.


About Sky Full of Bacon

Sky Full of Bacon Short: Making Illegal Cheese
Sky Full of Bacon #13: Pie As a Lifestyle
Sky Full of Bacon Short: Edzo’s Burger Shop
Sky Full of Bacon #12: In the Land of Whitefish
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?

Please feel free to comment here or to email me here.

Continued from here and here.

And so we come to our last two nominees— both of them pretty straightforward.


Breadtopia is a site devoted to demonstrating and teaching how to make bread, run by a guy named Eric who looks (and dresses) like Clint Eastwood, but thankfully seems more easygoing as a teacher. There’s no great entertainment value here, it’s just solid as hell at teaching you breadmaking techniques; he speaks well and to the point, and the simple videos show what to do clearly and at some length. You can also buy a lot of the tools he uses from the site. Nobody will watch these for fun, but as someone who makes bread, I’m glad to have found them.

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Crash Test Kitchen

Husband and wife from former British colony nation who make oddball snacks in their kitchen on video— haven’t we done this once already? Crash Test Kitchen has an Australian couple rather than a Canadian one, and in the video above they’re making an Australian monstrosity called a sausage roll rather than an American one (Frito pie), but otherwise, the similarities are striking. The filmmaking is noticeably more fluid; the couple is less adorable (nothing against them, but they’re not as cute as the Food Tease pair). They do a nice job of showing the details you really need to see to do things right, as in this Christmas duck video:

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So who would I vote for? Maangchi is still my favorite, with runner-up honors going to Breadtopia for the high quality of its instruction, and Food Tease because the people are charming, although it’s only fair as an instructional video per se. That said, I know I’ve seen many other fascinating videos out there beyond the cooking instructional genre, more colorful in their depiction of our food world than these mostly kitchen-based videos; and even given its focus on regional cuisine, it’d be great to see Saveur push the boundaries next year and take in wider turf… maybe even a video series devoted to the variety and culture of a specific region, say. If only I could think of one!

Continued from here.

Food 52

From obscure folks working in middle America, we go to the media big leagues with Food 52. Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs are two women who write for the New York Times and various other publications… including, in Hesser’s case at least, Saveur, hmm. Even more indicative of their place of privilege in the bloggy world is the list of folks helping them on their blog, which is longer than Beyonce’s entourage— including two videographers who recently graduated from NYU.

So this better be good.

Your Best Bread Pudding from Food52 on Vimeo.

Oh my, bread pudding made with stale baguette and $30 bourbon in a copper pot— yes, we are in New York now.

There’s this thing that happens these days where a newspaper or magazine, who puts out a dignified and thoroughly professional product, decides to let its people dabble in other media online— and the result is not nearly so professional. Hesser and Stubbs (sounds like a cop show) are pretty good presenters, they speak articulately and with a little media training they’d learn how to talk to the camera more than each other. But the videography keeps them at too great a distance, it shoots the sides of bowls when one of them is trying to show what’s inside, or can barely see a pan over the edge of a counter. Not to mention a use of shakicam bordering on tidalwavecam. (The point of handheld cameras is that you get in close, so you put up with the jitters. This gives us jitters without actually getting the shot.)  I’m not saying it’s terrible, but on a site where everything bespeaks an image of genteel upscale professionalism, the videography is the thing that lets the rest down and seems very homemade.

The strength here is that Hesser and Stubbs show obvious comfort with sophisticated recipes, and you believe you can do it because they do it so relaxedly. In the end, the recipes are contemporary and appealing, so the technical shortcomings that are obvious to me (look how dark the still image in the Vimeo window is! That takes two seconds to fix with a levels filter!) may seem unimportant to you.

Here’s another video, about mashed potatoes, which had a different director— let’s just pause to savor that notion; this blog post had a different director— and it seems to solve many of my issues with the one above; the two-camera setup makes it livelier visually and we actually get to see the food in this one. (Nine minutes seems loooong, though, for such a simple subject.)

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If I had one personal issue with the blogs so far, it’s that I don’t really need a video to teach me to make most of what I’ve looked at. That changes with Maangchi, devoted to Korean food.

What makes this such great web video is that it’s a solid cooking show about genuinely novel (to me) dishes, and yet at the same time it has a kind of unintentionally daffy edge that comes from the star’s perky personality and her big false eyelashes and the fact that half the time, you can’t understand what she’s saying; she’s like a Korean Zsa Zsa, or Andrea Martin doing a foreign cooking show on SCTV. But even if you didn’t catch what she just said or did, you know she’s excited about it all the same (and thankfully, the important info is on screen).

Production is fairly rudimentary (it’s all shot from one position, for instance, like 50s TV) but you can see the food fine, and the editing keeps it moving briskly. Here’s another one, about a soybean stew. I don’t have any further points to make from it; but I like watching these more than any of the ones so far.

Tomorrow: the last two nominees, and who I’d vote for.

So one of the weird things that happens when you do this kind of thing is that you have the rollercoaster-drop sensation of first learning about an award in your field… at the same moment you learn you’re not up for it. I had no idea Saveur was giving out Saveur blog awards for the first time this year, including a video blog category, but as soon as I did find it out, I found out that I wasn’t one of them. No reason to think I should have been, especially, but rationality has little to do with the Cyclone in your head at such moments; I’m sure the instant the Oscar nominees for Best Actor were announced, everyone from Jason Statham (Crank II: High Voltage) to Shia Lebeouf (Transformers 3) was wondering, why not me? Couldn’t they see? (Or, in Jason Statham’s case, Couldn’t they fookin’ see?)

Actually, truth be told, it looks like they are mainly interested in recipe-driven video blogs anyway, so I wouldn’t really have fit the bill. But in the meantime, I’m always interested in quality food video online, and don’t necessarily run across it as frequently as I wish, so taking Saveur’s six nominees, I thought it might be interesting to watch a couple of their videos and see how they stack up. Who knows; we might just learn something, and it seems quite likely we’ll find a new blog or two worth following. The first two will be today; more to come in the next few days.

Food Wishes

“Chef John” writes and does videos demoing pretty straightforwardly all-American food. I watched two, one about smothered pork chops and the one above about “King Ranch Casserole,” which is the sort of recipe that involves not only tortillas but two different kinds of Campbell’s cream-of soup (mushroom, of course, and chicken). Given that he brings up not wanting to use sodium-heavy commercial soup, I wish he’d taken it further and figured out a recipe that actually didn’t, but no, we get the pure, authentically middle-American recipe in all its glory.

The videos are admirably clear, you definitely will not screw these dishes up after watching his simple, step by step cooking. That said, I found them a bit generic; more of his personality comes out in the posts:

I love posting about these regional culinary favorites, especially when no one knows for sure where the name came from. It allows me to put forth my own, often ridiculous, theory. There is indeed a King Ranch in Texas – they say it’s one of the most famous ranches in the world, but as far as claiming credit for inventing this casserole goes, they’re not interested. You can’t really blame them…a legendary cattle ranch the birthplace of a famous chicken recipe? I don’t think so.

Here’s what I bet happened. You don’t build a cattle ranch without making a few enemies along the way. To get revenge, someone invented this dish and called it the King Ranch casserole just to annoy them. It was a brilliant plan. Without firing a shot, or bloodying a knuckle, they inflicted the ultimate cattleman humiliation.

Without compromising the usefulness of a short, simple instructional video, I’d like to see a little more of that voice and personality slip into it. That said, a well done, useful series— if this very middle-American food is something you’d actually want to make.

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Food Tease

Well, and after King Ranch Casserole, how could I not watch a video recipe for Frito Pie? Food Tease is done by a Canadian couple living in Dallas, so you can imagine how exotic this seemed (think of it as Mexican poutine, I guess). “They serve it right oot of the bag!”

Actually the first video I watched was one chronicling their trip to Chicago to eat at Alinea and other famous spots. Their enthusiasm is admirable but I have to admit I only got as far as a shakicam inventory of dinner at Topolobampo, course by shaky course, before deciding that this probably wasn’t a fair example of their best work.

The Frito Pie recipe actually uses Rick Bayless’ ancho paste, so it was interesting to see them do a recipe I’ve actually made— though it looks like they failed to split and clean the seeds out of the anchos like you’re supposed to. (The husband does say it’s really hot at the end.) This is very homemade video, not nearly so well paced and certainly not as slickly presented as Food Wishes; I suspect if you’re charmed by their somewhat shy and awkward Canadianness, you’ll find it useful and very sweet (they do seem very happy together, exploring the strange world they’ve moved to), and if you aren’t, you’ll be watching the timer.

Frito Pie hardly being a culinary challenge, even if Baylessfied, I gave them another chance with a video involving a subject dear to my heart— a pig head:

Partly because it’s more of a stretch and more exotic than Frito Pie, this one communicates their enthusiasm better, and seems better paced; there’s also more dry humor in their sweetly earnest cooking of something that, to judge by the comments at their blog, grossed out much of their readership.  I’m kind of torn about this blog; the people are likable as heck, but the shooting and editing is amateurish enough that it doesn’t always serve them as well as it could.  (Mike’s film school in a sentence: take the time to get nice shots of the food, so you can use them to cover edits and make everything smoother. Don’t shoot every shot from eye level, either.)

A tighter version of this, that got more of their chemistry without going to Food Network levels of cutesiness, would be better— but it would require a third person in the kitchen, I suspect, and this is very much a blog between two people.

More to come…