Sky Full of Bacon

James Lemons at Lem’s Bar-B-Q.

So I’ve got a couple of things in the new Time Out Chicago, or at their site, that you should check out:

I did interviews with four leading barbecue pitmasters here.

Me being me, I took my video camera along. A fun two-minute video on one topic with those four barbecue pitmasters is here; I’ll be doing more with that material and other BBQ interviews in the next Sky Full of Bacon.

I also wrote a piece, I believe for the same issue, on the “aquarium” smoker seen at most of Chicago’s best BBQ establishments, but I can’t find it online as yet. Here it is. Thanks to Peter “Rene G” Engler for fact-checking that one (since the facts probably came from him as much as anywhere in the first place).

Two ideologies, one American and individualist, the other rooted in a pitiless foreign dogma, challenging one another not via arms, but through a peaceful competition, to achieve a dream that mankind had known since its earliest days…

…I refer, of course, to online debates as to whether plain American road food made by democratic ordinary joe cooks can be considered fine cuisine, or if that honor is to be reserved for the products of severe, hierarchical French kitchens.  Not long ago Steve Plotnicki, that up-to-the-minute bellwether of the state of hoity-toitiness in America, fired a Sputnik of absolutism across the night sky of LTHForum by stating:

Fact. Hamburgers and steaks aren’t art. The closest you can get to a hamburger being art is the DB Burger as it is a composed dish. Toppings on a hamburger just don’t rise to the level of being an actual culinary composition.

In short, a hamburger can’t be art unless it’s so Frenchified that it’s no longer recognizable as itself.  On the contrary, I believe that a well-made hamburger and fries is as perfectly constructed and balanced a peasant meal as any product of rustic French tradition— combining the rich pagan satisfactions of beef over fire with a delicate combination of sweetness (ketchup), salty vinegariness (mustard, pickle), umami (ketchup again), onion bite and dairy lushness (cheese).  Add potatoes (more saltiness, more friedness, more ketchup) and you have the meal which rightly defines America.

Which is not to say that its virtues aren’t often observed in the breach.  Last year we drove the Family Truckster to Wyoming, a state where lunch could be summed up with the single phrase “Where are we going to eat a hamburger today?”  Without exception, the hamburgers were as indistinguishably functional as the gas we bought at the gas stations, sheer fuel made with frozen patties and served with a side of pale blond foodservice potato-stubs.

The first three days we were in Kansas, we also ate hamburgers— but this time it was by choice, and what a difference it was to be in a state where frying a hamburger is a noble calling.  Kansas and Wyoming are both cattle country, but for whatever reason, it’s the beef states of the midwest which take the hamburger most seriously.  60 years of fast food has taken its toll; you wouldn’t say that every small town still has a drive-in where the meat is ground fresh and patted by hand.  But a lot of them do.

When I was growing up in Wichita, my two favorites, arrived at by a long process of sampling, were Bill’s Big 6 and Livingston’s Diner.  Bill was a survivor of the Bataan Death March, which earned him indulgence for whatever racist or crackpot stuff came out of his mouth in later years, not to mention the unbelievable jet black toupee perched atop his head; it was his place and if you didn’t like it, you were free to go somewhere else.  Bill and Mary Lamb retired some time back and, in all likelihood, Bill has joined his band of brothers in Valhalla; Livingston’s is still around, but I didn’t make it there and, if I did, it would probably be for a chicken fried steak anyway (for me, the standard by which every one in the 30 years since has fallen short).  Instead, my first visit was to a mini-chain which first appeared while I was in high school, Bionic Burger, and quickly formed the third of the great burger triumvirate of my youth.

Bionic Burger actually had its origins in Oklahoma, the rude and untutored wilderness to civilized Kansas’ south, and its Okie origins showed in those days in the sketchily ramshackle restaurant on the dirt-road south side of town where the fat, overalled cook would sit rolling balls of meat and setting them on squares of paper.  When a burger was ordered, he would slap the paper onto the grill with his hand, and peel it back to reveal a jagged-edge patty on the grill.

Bionic Burger has cleaned things up a bit since then; the one I went to, besides being located in an old Long John Silver’s on the tonier northeast side, now puts the burger-making process out of sight (and to judge by the results, uses some kind of patty-forming device).  Still, this is an exemplary burger by every standard, fresh-ground meat with a bright taste of salt and pepper. the right kind of white bun (springy top but not so much bread that it interferes with the meat; few bakeries seem to get this right in Chicago), and thick fresh-cut fries which came out with a little too much vegetable oil sticking to them, and in much too big a quantity (word of advice: almost anywhere in Wichita, a regular order for one is enough fries for two), but still better than a Five Guys’ franchise’s best day.  Though Kansas and Oklahoma may be distinct political ecosystems (Kansas is libertarian Great Plains, Oklahoma Bible-belt Southern), on burgers they are of one mind.

The next day we went to Hutchinson, about 45 minutes to Wichita’s north.  For being the closest town of any consequence, it’s surprising how rarely I ever went to Hutch in my childhood, but it didn’t take long to see why: it’s a pretty depressed place, dusty and out-of-date looking like a lot of Rust Belt towns in Indiana or Michigan.  But then you’re driving in a neighborhood of modest houses and beatup cars, and suddenly come upon this:

Believe it or not, obscure and rather down-at-heel Hutchinson is home to the second or third best collection of space stuff in the world, ranking with the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  How, you ask?  Well, back in the 60s the director of the local planetarium started collecting stuff that NASA had discarded, and consulting for space movies and TV programs (often in exchange for the props after they were done with them), and later, as the Soviet Union crumbled, he began wheeler-dealing with the Soviet space program, too.  Sadly, he eventually went to jail for mixing his official and personal space junk dealings, but the result is a museum you’ve never heard of that has both a genuine German V-1 and V-2, the exact replica of Chuck Yeager’s Glamorous Glennis from The Right Stuff, a full size lunar lander they helped build for NBC’s space coverage, spacesuit and camera replicas from Apollo 13, a Soviet Vostok space capsule (used), Gus Grissom’s Mercury capsule that sank when the hatch blew and was recovered 30 years later, and much more, a surprisingly comprehensive tribute to the greatest battlefield of the Cold War.  Really, it’s astonishing how good a museum this is for being in the middle of nowhere (quite literally, given that we’re talking central Kansas), I can’t recommend a detour here highly enough for anyone crossing the US on I-70, say.

Along the way, Hutch decided to make an attraction out of its only other point of note, the massive salt mines located 650 feet below the surface which, besides providing road salt to Chicago for decades, are also used for safe underground storage by Hollywood of treasures like the negatives of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.  The only thing more improbable than finding a Vostok space capsule in Hutchinson, then, is to find the Batman suit with nipples from the George Clooney Batman movie 650 feet below it:

The kids, frankly, loved the subterranean creepiness of the salt mine even more than the space stuff. Anyway, back to burgers.  In between Bruce Wayne and Yuri Gagarin, we came into town along an industrial strip, and were immediately smitten by a place called Oliver’s Burger and Bait:

This was no cutesy cracker-humor name, either; the actual bait shop is located in a shed out back, and at one point during service the waitress had to go open it for a customer.

I wouldn’t say Oliver’s was a great burger (I actually had a chili burger, for variety; the chili was canned), but it was a perfectly decent one, and more than that, it was a demonstration of what is so appealing about the midwest.  From the moment we walked in, city slickers all, and found the staff and the regulars joking good-naturedly, we were made at home, inquired after (“Didn’t think I’d seen y’all in here before”) and quickly included in the friendly joshing by which they pass the day.  In the end, we walked out not only cheerfully fed, but in possession of the gift of a T-shirt for my 8-year-old (“Burger and Bait: If we’re not cookin’ we’re hookin’”), last one in stock, on the house.  Thanks, guys, for making us feel at home.

The last burger I tried while in the greater Wichita-Hutch area was one that apparently has been around for decades, but which I had never heard of.  As the name suggests, Bomber Burger is located way down south in the heart of Wichita’s military-industrial complex, near the Boeing military plant that’s the city’s largest employer, and McConnell Air Force Base, no doubt serving burgers and brewskis to the crews who literally built and flew the bombers that were the other side of the aeronautical struggle with the Russkies.  Well, someone growing up on the white collar east side of town had little enough reason to ever go to that part of town, though I might have recognized one or two of the old roadhouses (the kind with dancers) down on K-15.  (For more information see my friend Scott Phillips’ crime novel set in the 70s Wichita demimonde, The Ice Harvest.) If the Cold War comes dressed in noble aspirations at the Cosmosphere, here’s the Kansas blue collar democratic ethos in its most raucously independent-minded mode:

Spangles, incidentally, is a local burger chain of no particular distinction.  Not sure why Bomber Burger should have chosen them as an enemy to replace the Soviets, but it’s so typical of the redneck-libertarian Kansas spirit to do something like that, and if you were going to be offended by Bill’s Big 6, you really don’t want to go to Bomber Burger and start reading the walls, where ex-wives, non-Phillies fans (maybe the owner’s from there originally?) and President Obama come in for equally sardonic treatment. Me, I had a great old time, not least because I dragged my sons and their girl cousin there and sat them at the bar (“Now children, this is what we call a ‘shitkicker’ bar”).  Much of the conversation, rougher (note the “no guns” symbol above my son’s head there) but still in its own way as welcoming as at Oliver’s, had to do with how the fellow seated next to me had acquired the nickname “Dirty Amish Hippie.”  (Somebody called him that in a fight in a bar, and he laughed for ten minutes straight, ending the fight.)

Ah, to be back among my people.

Anyway, the Bomber Burger is a real bomber, a fat 1/2 pound or so compared to the thin patties typically served in the area, but it was made with the same automatic, why-would-you-do-it-any-other-way freshness and handmadeness of the other burgers we ate, and the burger and fries were every bit as good as the atmosphere.  After three days of burgers, there wasn’t time or stomach to try Walt’s or Takhoma Burger or Ty’s or Livingston’s or West Street, here’s a guy with a whole list of burger joints which I mostly haven’t tried yet, but at least I was certain that the iconic American meal continued to be in very good hands in my hometown— and, whether or not it was art, to certainly represent a high level of craft.

Thanks for the burgers, and the welcome.  Dos vedanya until next time, y’all.

Bionic Burger
6121 East 21st Street
Wichita, KS 67208
other locations

Oliver’s Carry Out: Burgers and Bait
228 E 4th Ave
Hutchinson, KS 67501

Bomber Burger
4860 South Clifton Avenue
Wichita, KS 67216-3066

WELCOME, EATOCRACY READERS! First thing you want to do is check out my latest video, Big Chef Small Farmer, just watch it above (if you’re at the main page) or click here. Then check out recent posts below.  If you’re a regular reader wondering what Eatocracy is, it’s this and I’m here.

Well, the Usinger elves are coming with their big plate of sausages, and so it must be Sky Full of Bacon’s second anniversary, that is, the second anniversary of the first video (a few posts predate that).  Actually tomorrow, but I’m sure you have better things to do on a Saturday, so we’ll celebrate today.

I’m less inclined to ramble extensively than last year but that’s because I’m busier in ways that were part of the point of doing all this.  I’m coming off a bunch of food freelance work, some in last week’s Reader, some in next week’s Time Out, preparing the next video, and continuing to try to keep up with the city’s heedless-of-recession expanding restaurant scene.

There are a few milestones to note.  Total views of my videos are approaching 40,000— and it’s remarkable that even the ones that are close to two years old continue to draw viewers steadily, only a couple each day admittedly, but still, it’s great to see that the foraging one has passed 7000 views, the Texas barbecue one is over 4000, and others have passed 3000 and 2000 months or even years after they were first made.  (The one for which I risked my life on a whitefish fishing boat, alas, is taking a long time to reach 1000, though.)

Another milestone is that the new version of the site, a long cherished project, is up, if still in the process of refinement.  But its main goals— highlighting the videos, adding a proper blogroll, keeping me from having to manually turn all the type from dark gray to black, etc.— are already accomplished, big thanks to my friend and collaborator Wyatt Mitchell.

And one of Sky Full of Bacon’s goals, to help establish my name as a food guy around town, has certainly worked.  That doesn’t mean everything I pitch gets bought (or even acknowledged) but it certainly helps, and it also means that editors come to me with things they need done that they know to be up my alley, which is the freelancer’s dream, surely.  I thank all those who have taken me seriously since I went from defiant, sometimes obnoxious citizen media at LTHForum to trying to be a pro, and have included me in many different kinds of projects and events.

Above all, I thank you, viewer-reader-commenter dear.  I’d do this if no one read it— the hypothetical there may be self-delusion at times— because to no small extent, this is where I keep my notes, but I wouldn’t do the videos if no one watched them.  I might do them for a lot fewer people than actually do watch them, though, so to know that something like the population of Naperville has watched them, that I could have filled the Chicago Theater 10 times over with all the viewers of my videos, is pretty cool.  Thank you for your visits, your support, your comments and retweets and Facebook and Vimeo Likes, and please, help yourself to the sausages.  The elves worked on them all morning.

Meanwhile, since it’s almost the end of the quarter, here are the best things I’ve eaten in the past few months, following up on the list at the end of this post:

• Burnt ends at L.C.’s in Kansas City (post to come)
• Bionic Burger, fries and cherry limeade, Wichita (post to come)
• Strawberry rhubarb pie made by me with Green City strawberries and rhubarb
• Hoosier Mama asparagus/lemon/ricotta handpie
• Rib tips at Mary’s BBQ, 606 S. Pulaski
• Collard greens at Fat Willy’s, which was way better than I remembered from, uh, 5 or 6 years ago
• Wild boar naan’wich, Gaztro-Wagon
• Thai-lime-cilantro ice cream at Jeni’s in Columbus
• Oil-poached halibut at Everest
• Pea soup at LM Restaurant
• Sturgeon and spongecake dessert at Blackbird (that’s two separate dishes, by the way)
• Cranberry-orange teacake at Bleeding Heart Bakery, first thing I’ve really loved there
• Scallops served on braised oxtail at Longman & Eagle
• Gin, Great Lakes Distillery, and Maria’s Pizza, Milwaukee
• Jared Wentworth/Longman & Eagle’s waffle with dehydrated bacon and ice cream, Baconfest

I will be more ubiquitous than Michael Nagrant in local food media over the next week or so.  For starters, on Wednesday at noon I will again be was a participant in one of those Vocalo Lunchbox discussions; the link for the transcript is here.

The next day, I’ll have some items in the Reader’s annual Best of Chicago issue, including Best Macarons.  I’ll link them here when they exist. UPDATE: here are my choices for macarons, cheese and Supermercado Taqueria, and there are plenty more from the likes of Hammond, Sula, Kate Schmidt, Philip Montoro, etc.  But be sure to look for the print issue, where my supermercado and my picture of it get the splash treatment right at the beginning:

You’ve seen that one here.

Speaking of macarons, Sula wrote about these macaroons (the coconut kind) and they’re awesome.

More to come next week…

Actually not my second voyage to Columbus, Ohio by any means— I go every year, almost, for a silent and classic film festival— but the second one I’ve posted about here with the finds I found in between obscure 1931 Paramount films.  (My posts go back even further here, here and here at LTHForum.)  Columbus is actually a pretty good food town, a university town with a number of ethnic cuisines (along with lots of fast food and bland American bars and restaurants to satisfy unadventuresome undergrads), and every year I poke around and find new, interesting things.  If you have any reason to go there… go there!  It’s a fun place.

Japanese is oddly big in Columbus.  I don’t know if there’s really a Japanese population there or if they’re just especially fond of the 1970s Benihana-type steak places.  But I heard there was a good izakaya (bar food, basically) place on the far northwest side and so I hunted it up.  It’s called Kihachi and, indeed, it’s a really pleasing place that feels like an authentic family restaurant, not tourist bait, and made me some very nice simple dishes.  I basically ordered off the specials list, with a little guidance from my waitress, and I was very happy about a plate of tender grilled pork cheek meat; an eclectic combination of things like mountain yam and baby octopus in soy sauce; “box sushi” (sushi pressed very very square in a box; it reminded me of the Thingmaker I had as a kid) made with mackerel; and a very interesting special in which a shrimp paste was pressed in between pieces of lotus root and deep fried.  It was sort of like a cross between Chinese restaurant shrimp toast and eating a bar of soap, but past the first, Avon-y bite, it was quite good.

When I last posted about Nancy’s Home Cooking it was a few days from closing.  About six months ago a woman with a catering business reopened it and if it’s not quite the place it used to be, either in terms of dead-on country diner food or the crowds that once thronged there, well, it’s still a perfectly fine place to have breakfast in a town surprisingly short on such.  I also visited Buckeye Donuts one morning, the place that every college town has where you can get your late night post-drinking carbs (at least until you realize you’ve put on a double helping of the Freshman 15), and the doughnuts are pretty good old school examples of the art.  As for the greasy spoon breakfast— well, the clientele is probably in exactly the right state to appreciate it, most of the time.

One of the things I’ve been meaning to check out for a long time is Columbus’ North Market. Though the new building it’s in doesn’t have the charm of Cleveland’s West Side market, the food choices are exceptional, a handpicked selection of meat shops, bakeries, ice cream makers, Vietnamese banh mi stands and all kinds of stuff that really represent the best of Columbus.  My only chance to go there was after a lunch, so I only managed to try the locally-acclaimed Jeni’s Ice Cream, but I was pretty much wowed by it.  There are lots of gelato and sorbet makers out there doing interesting things with exotic, tart and pungent flavors, but it’s much rarer to find someone doing flavors like Thai Lime-Cilantro in an ice cream.  Yet Jeni’s does great things with these flavors that take full advantage of the mouthfilling creaminess of dairy as well; I loved the Thai and very much liked a lavender berry one and a salty caramel as well.

As much as I try to take advantage of the festival’s meal breaks to try new places, though, I also use them to, you know, see other human beings, old friends who I pretty much only know from, and see at, this festival.  And sometimes that means I go where they want to go.  Frankly, it’s a pleasure sometimes to go off the foodie clock and just enjoy whatever they choose… which is how I wound up at the Columbus branch of Buca di Beppo, the dreaded, Ed Debevic’s-style cartoon concept version of Italian-American cooking.  Actually, you know what?  I thought the food was pretty decent, definitely better than the travesty of blandness that is Olive Garden.  Yeah, the red sauce is too sweet, but that’s true of a lot of Italian grandma’s red sauces too.

But the concept… mamma mia, what a shonda for the goyim!  Every square inch is covered with tacky photos, Sophia Loren next to Vic Tayback next to Pope John XXIII; the WASPy Ohio-born servers affect a high school theater My Cousin Vinny-esque chumminess as they try to upsell you (as you might expect, the menu starts out fairly traditional but the newer specials emanating from Laboratory Beppo are increasingly heading into Spicy Cajun Chicken Chipotle Pasta On a Stick territory); and the meal starts with a Goodfellas-tracking-shot-like trek through the warren of small dining rooms and into the kitchen where one family sits at the chef’s table, mortified to learn that their special honor means being displayed like wax figurines for every shlub entering the restaurant, while they sit there wearing the same expression Joe Pesci had in his last scene in the same movie.

I literally physically cringed several times in my first few minutes in the place at the overwhelming shtickiness of the concept… and then I thought, get over yourself, Mr. Foodie Snob, and just enjoy that you’re there with friends.  So I did.  And silently thanked the gods of Rome that none of us had a birthday, because if the clean-scrubbed college kids had come out to sing Happy Birthday to us to the tune of “Funniculi, Funnicula,” I really would have gone all Luca Brasi on their asses.

2667 Federated Boulevard
Columbus, OH 43235-4991
(614) 764-9040

Nancy’s Home Cooking
3133 North High Street
Columbus, OH 43202-1125
(614) 265-9012?

Buckeye Donuts
1998 North High Street
Columbus, OH 43201-1165
(614) 291-3923?

North Market
59 Spruce St.

Buca di Beppo
60 East Wilson Bridge Road
Worthington, OH 43085

Thanks to Serious Eats for mentioning the new podcast. Watch it above if you’re at the main page, or here!  UPDATE: Thanks to Chicagoist, too!  AND: Grub Street! AND: Gapers Block, who did it weekend before last but I missed it, being on the road.

*  *  *

Not too long ago I stirred the pot at LTHForum by making an impassioned plea to people who were talking about Burger King pork tenderloins, the impending openings of Culver’ses and Chick-Fil-A’s and Sonics, etc. to stop posting about fast food and go try a neighborhood joint that nobody had written about. I won’t rehash it, or recommend you waste 20 minutes there, but Wendy Aeschlimann summed up the argument just fine:

People can post about anything they want. That said, I find it exceedingly odd that the food that is “capturing the imagination” of this board lately is mass-produced, of inferior quality, involves CAFO meat, “prepared” by a teenager trained by corporate, and available on every toll road. I don’t get it. One of the reasons we all live in a big city is precisely so we don’t have to regularly eat that stuff — much less discuss it.

Along the way I noted that far from the woods being picked clean, there were new places to try all over the area— for instance, I had just spotted two unposted-about Italian beef places on Mannheim Road near Bellwood and Melrose Park the other day.

A couple of weeks later I was coming back from a business meeting in a western suburb and rather than face the under-construction Ike, I decided to try one of these places. I actually meant to try Mickey’s in Bellwood, which has the more 50s-hot dog stand look (and is apparently mainly a hot dog rather than a beef joint). But I must have missed it and spotted Jack & Lou’s first, in a nondescript building next to an adult book store (rather typical of that commercial stretch, actually). So I popped in. To the former.

Jack & Lou’s feels like the kind of restaurant you find attached to a bowling alley. It’s not— it seems to be attached to more of a cocktail lounge— but it has that feel, I guess because it’s been shoehorned into a funny, nondescript, deeply beige space off of a larger, emptier room, whose vast nothingness makes the restaurant seem rather forlorn. Making the restaurant seem even more quixotic as a venture, though, was the notice posted prominently by the front— Restaurant Closed Friday and Saturday Night. The mind reeled at what mysterious economic logic could make sense out of this policy— did the cavernously vacant lounge fill up so much on those nights that they could barely keep up the flow of gin and tonics, and didn’t have time to make hot dogs or subs then? (The menu is quite elaborate, taking in everything from pizza to weeknight specials like Baked Lasagna.) Was all their business concentrated at lunchtime because of some nearby factory? (Hard to believe that, based on the traffic while I was there.) Was there some other activity that took over the place on those nights? That wouldn’t be out of character for this part of Chicago, I suppose, but it was hard to believe of the friendly woman (probably not Jack, possibly Lou) manning the counter and calling me “hon.”  So no, probably not something dubious, just some decent folks who got a deal on a location with some curious preconditions, I guess.

What wasn’t so mysterious was the Italian beef combo I ordered, which was quite good. Actually, I should say that the Italian beef was good, and the sausage was very good. The beef was good quality, the broth had a nice flavor to it, it was a creditable if not life-changing beef. But the sausage had some real character, a little organ meat-y tang to it, clearly the product of a good local butcher shop or meat company with genuine Italian-American roots, and it lifted this sandwich above the crowd. If you’re ever in… well, you’ll never be on Mannheim Road looking for lunch, and even if you were Jack & Lou’s is one of those places that seems like it won’t be there the next time you go, or will be a completely different business, or something. Here it is, noted on the internet for one brief moment, to prove that it actually happened, even if I’m not exactly sure why.

Jack & Lou’s
2001 N. Mannheim Rd.
Melrose Park, IL 60614

P.S. Inspired by this post, Da Beef posted about a visit to Mickey’s Drive-In on LTHforum; check it out.

1. Okay, I have to admit that I was slightly skeptical when Kevin Pang’s first report on the ChiTrib’s Cheap Eats beat was about ramen… at Takashi. I did worry that he might be using Cheap Eats to invade Phil Vettel’s expense-account-exalted turf. But all fears are dispelled by this dish-by-dish account of what to eat in Chinatown and where to find it, the sort of thing which in the pre-iPhone age you would have paid cash money to get laminated and keep in your wallet.
2. From Reason, the actual Pentagon specs for a US government brownie.
3. This represents some kind of perfect convergence of online foodie obsessions: Jonathan Gold writes about a secret menu Thai burger at Jitlada, the LA place first sussed out by Erik M.
4. Fan of geometry? Fan of Subway? This story is for you: Subway To Tesselate Cheese.
5. What happens when smorgasbord meets gastric bypass surgery, from Dinosaurs and Robots.
6. The Old Foodie is a blog devoted to historical (Victorian and Americana, mostly) recipes and foodways. The pseudo-old fashioned writing might be a little tough to take at times, but I enjoyed reading about sweet chicken pie, bitters, the origin of “Pig and Whistle” as a tavern name, and so on. (There was a chain of restaurants in the mid-20th century of that name; my great-uncle Earl worked for them as an accountant, and I have his Pig & Whistle retirement watch. I couldn’t let this go by without mentioning that.)
7. Guess the 100 games which inspired these 100 cupcakes. Your boss won’t mind if you do this instead of work.

Besides the new podcast, you’ll notice that Sky Full of Bacon has a new look!  This time it wasn’t rain at Kinnikinnick Farm but wrestling with WordPress upgrades that held it up, but my friend Wyatt Mitchell has manfully beaten WordPress into submission.  There are still things to adjust over the next few days, secondary pages don’t always work right yet, but I like the general idea of stressing the videos at the top of the main page (soon I’ll get the new video up there, and it will always display the latest), as well as various other features (including, at last, an actual blogroll) that will come in the next few weeks.  Comments and suggestions welcome, hope you enjoy.

Farmers and chefs, can’t live with ’em, can’t… In this Sky Full of Bacon I look at the question of whether quality, sustainable agriculture can scale up to meet the needs of our modern food system by talking to a bigtime Chicago chef and one of the local, organic farmers he buys from.

Sky Full of Bacon 15: Big Chef Small Farmer from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Mark Mendez is chef of one of Chicago’s largest restaurants, and certainly the biggest restaurant with any kind of commitment to organic and local foods, Carnivale. David Cleverdon of Kinnikinnick Farm near Clarendon, Illinois is one of the many farmers who supplies Carnivale with high quality, organic produce. I talk to the two of them to get a sense of how chefs and farmers are both trying to work their way toward a system that supports better food and forms of farming— and deal with the challenges imposed on them by the realities of the other guy’s business. It’s a literally down-to-earth look at the issues too often discussed mainly at the 10,000-foot level in books and documentaries about the industrial food system.

With the irony that this podcast (delayed for over a month by heavy rains that prevented planting, and thus shooting of planting, at Kinnikinnick Farm) became notorious for to me, I finished it just as Mark Mendez announced that he would be leaving Carnivale in August. It may be tempting to read some signs of dissatisfaction into what he talks about here, and certainly you can sense that he was increasingly interested in running a smaller, more chef-driven restaurant, but for me the real story remains how restaurants like Carnivale and chefs like Mark are helping nudge the food system toward better ways of working, even when many would consider it just too big to even be able to care about such issues.

Here’s Carnivale’s site, and here’s Mark’s own blog; there’s not a lot there but this is a nice post about some of the same issues he talks about in the video. And in terms of previous Mendez-Media, Helen Rosner did this slideshow last year of Mendez showing you what to buy at the Green City Market— including Kinickinnick arugula.

Here’s Kinnikinnick’s site. You can buy their products at the Green City Market and the Evanston Farmer’s Market.


About Sky Full of Bacon

Sky Full of Bacon #14: The Last Days of Kugelis
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.

Within every first-person food essay is a deeply buried lede, and that lede is, “God I love talking about myself.”

A well-known local food writer retweeted that yesterday (I’d say who it originally came from, but Twitter Is Over Capacity and so I can’t find out who the original author is). We would never wish to disappoint those looking for evidence of solipsism in blogging, so here is my fascinating life in food over the last few days…

That was last week’s Green City Market summed up in a photo. I made, it will come as no surprise, asparagus soup and strawberry-rhubarb pie that night.

One thing they’ve been working on at Green City is having more meat vendors, so it was exciting to see Dietzler Beef and Becker Lane Pork available there. Dietzler Beef is widely used in local restaurants (you’ll hear about it in the next Sky Full of Bacon video) and Jude Becker’s pork, of course, becomes La Quercia Acorn Edition pork, among other things. That said… the Dietzler prices were not insane ($7/lb. for beef… well, it’s really good beef) but Becker was charging $12/lb. for pork belly and into the $20s for some cuts. Sure, if you’re going to roast a little piece of belly, Blackbird style, it would be worth it for meat of this quality, but that’s way out of my range for making bacon, say. (I pay about $5— with shipping— from another Iowa producer, and am very happy with it.) I don’t fault them for this, and I’m happy to see more suppliers, but that’s just the reality of what I, for one, will spend.

Those were purple radishes from Kinnikinnick (which I’m finally spelling right). The next day I went to visit these radishes at their home— yes! I finally shot the last footage for the next video at Kinnikinnick Farm! Actually I took the boys along, and Dave Cleverdon’s granddaughter was visiting, so what started as a 15-minute stop to get some establishing shots and B-roll, turned into an afternoon of farm fun for the boys, including a picnic lunch on the farm. (There’s no such thing as visiting a farmer for 15 minutes and not eating anything, I’ve found.) So anyway, a really pleasant day on the farm, the rain held off until just as we were leaving, and you should see some of that footage very soon, I think.

Now then, here’s a test of how much of a Chicago foodie you are: how many of these backs of heads can you identify? You should be able to get at least three between the two photos:

I was invited, courtesy of Mr. Steve Dolinsky, to an event honoring Grant Achatz for Alinea placing #7 in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants thing. (#7 makes it the highest-ranking restaurant in North America.) It was accompanied by a lunch at Everest. Given that the list tends to favor Old World places and virtues (though Dolinsky talked about working to change that), there was something oddly fitting about our most avant-garde four-star restaurant being feted at perhaps the most classical.

I’d only eaten at Everest once before, more than a decade ago. I think Chef Joho is one of our local heroes— pun intended; he was buying locally before local was cool— and I like Brasserie Jo a lot, where he gets down with the tarte a l’oignon and other Alsatian everyday food, but I have to admit that whenever I was going to drop an Everest-sized wad in the years since then, I was always more inclined to spend it on avant-garde novelty than classical French, however accomplished. Nothing against it, just not my sweet spot for where I’d spend my own money, I thought.

In my La Quercia video, Joho talks about the first time he tasted their prosciutto, and says, “It was the closest to perfection that you can do, even though perfection is nonexistent.” (I like that comment because the second part of it shows that he’s thinking seriously and discriminatingly in the first part, and not just handing out compliments casually.)

So you see that piece of halibut, poached in oil, with morels and asparagus and a butter sauce? I mean, morels and asparagus and butter, what could be more traditional, expected, breaking-no-paradigms French food, right?

Well, what Joho said.

So there, that wasn’t even me talking, let alone about me.

(By the way, the backs of heads you should have been able to ID were Tony Mantuano, Jean Joho, Steve Dolinsky, and Grant Achatz. And if you’d like to taste Joho’s food for free, he’ll be at Paulina Meat Market this Saturday.)