Sky Full of Bacon

Go behind the scenes of one of the midwest’s liveliest and tastiest ethnic food festivals.

Melrose Park, Illinois has been a traditionally Italian-American suburb since the end of World War II, and though it’s starting to change, every year the old neighborhood gets back together for the Labor Day weekend festival Taste of Melrose Park. My friend David Hammond has covered this festival, with some 70 mostly amateur, mostly Italian-American vendors serving up family recipes for three days straight, for several years, so he was a natural guide for this journey behind the scenes. Every dish here has a story about the family who makes it, and we talk to ten of those families about their recipe and why it’s important to them to share it with others. It runs about 19 minutes, but it’s a party, so you won’t notice the time!

Here’s my post about my first visit to the Taste of Melrose Park last year. Here’s David’s very first LTHForum post about it, a post about this year, a Tribune piece, and a WBEZ radio piece about it.

Alternate ways of viewing this video: see it or subscribe to Sky Full of Bacon at iTunes here, or view it at Vimeo here. There is also a family-friendly version (which deletes one off-color bit of humor) here, for institutional or other use. To embed either version, go to that Vimeo page and click on the Embed button to acquire the code to place on your own site or blog.

To see previous Sky Full of Bacon videos, click here.

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Come See Me Do a Talk Show in a Bar!

I’ll be a guest on You Me Them Everybody, taped for audio podcast at The Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont, Monday night at 9 pm., Oct. 4. And I’ll be giving out weird foods to try. Be there!


Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the screening of my own video at the Chicago Food Film Festival, but there are reports on the evening here at LTHForum, and Happy_Stomach/Sharon links to several of the other films so you can see some of them.

I did a shortened version of Pie As a Lifestyle for the festival, focusing on Hoosier Sugar Cream pie and the whole issue of our pie heritage. Here’s my 6-1/2 minute abridged version, which you can compare with the original here.

“Pie As a Lifestyle” Cutdown from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Before I attended the Taste of Melrose Park last year, I think I had been to that near-western suburb exactly once, to buy a couch.  I don’t remember how we wound up there, but we found this furniture store where everything looked like it was designed for one of two people: Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (remember those weird buttoned collars that went on the outside of the jacket?) or Joe Pesci in Casino.  (I don’t imply any sort of criminal connection, merely that Scorsese in those movies was such a fabulous anthropologist of 60s and 70s fashions among his people.)  Somehow, amid all this loud taste, there was one weirdly preppy-looking couch covered, as furniture sometimes was in the 80s, with blue pinstriped ticking material.  It was sedate enough— I later realized that between it and my oriental rug, basically I’d decorated my living room with a dress shirt and a tie— and so we came home with it.  The couch went away a decade ago but a similar chair, to give you an idea of how my tastes have changed, was subsequently reupholstered in vintage Tiki barkcloth.  Color me Pesci.

In any case, the Italian-ness, or rather the Italian-Americanness, of Melrose Park was etched in my mind.  (More specifically, Sicilian-ness; that seems to be where most of the people I talked to trace their ancestry to.)  And certainly visiting Taste of Melrose Park, which as a food event is basically 90% Italian-American, last year didn’t alter that point of view.  What did was shooting the next Sky Full of Bacon, shortly to appear, there.  As we drove there, I saw that there seemed to be more Mexican food businesses than Italian ones; but that’s true of all but the most concentrated Asian neighborhoods, any more.  Plenty of Poles are eating at taquerias in Avondale; that doesn’t mean Polish Chicago is over.

But as David Hammond and I interviewed the vendors at Taste of Melrose Park, I began to realize that for many of them, this was a nostalgic event.  Maybe even 20 years ago, when I was couch-shopping, Melrose Park was still the suburb that you moved to from the city.  But by now the Italian enclaves in the city are virtually extinct— Taylor Street is an Italian-themed drinking strip for UIC students; Noble Square and Heart of Italy are but shadows— and the first, visibly Italian suburb families moved to from the city is beginning to give way to the second suburb, where the Italian-American community assimilates… and disappears.  Melrose Park is “the old neighborhood” now, and the Taste of Melrose Park is where you come— from Naperville or Buffalo Grove or Bolingbrook— to see the people you grew up with and eat the food you grew up on.  Once a year.  Many of the vendors are of an age that you can imagine them moving as children to Melrose Park just after WWII; there are some adult kids working with their parents now who will likely carry it on, and there’s certainly many more happy years of this event to come, but the demographic handwriting is on a distant, but plainly readable, wall.

A little to my surprise, then, this video’s theme turns out to be strikingly parallel to my one about Lithuanian Chicago earlier this year.  Lithuanian Chicago was much further along the process, but basically, the story was the same— the immigrant community near the center of the city moved to the edge (in this case, Marquette Park within the city), then dispersed into the suburbs where it is only kept alive by organizations, not by an organic community with restaurants and other commercial activity.

If more Italian-ness survives than Lithuanian-ness, the reason will likely be because of Italy’s great contribution to American culture (well, along with Columbus and Marconi, I suppose): Italian food.  Lithuanian food is a very tiny specialty of food geeks like me, but Italian food’s contribution to American food is more in the nature of a wholesale takeover— not only that Italian foods are so common no one thinks of them as foreign any more, but that the Italian ethos— of seasonality and freshness and simplicity in preparation— has so influenced American dining.

That’s the thing that amazes me about Taste of Melrose Park, more than anything.  Though some of the vendors are restaurateurs, many must have normal jobs selling insurance or working at the Navistar factory or… well, there’s a hell of a lot of city workers who also happen to have booths.  Yet whatever they do the other 362 days a year, they seem to have almost a genetic capacity for dropping it and picking up running a high-capacity restaurant, by themselves, for three straight days in the hot sun.  I mean, my family cares about food a lot, I’m merely the most extreme, but I can’t imagine us doing this competently for half a day, let alone three.  Yet the Italian-Americans who run the 70+ stands at Taste of Melrose Park all seem to have a fanatic interest in food which translates into competency in serving it at this festival.  Bring food up at all, and twenty minutes later they’ll still be talking about it.  All of my videos are about the degree to which food matters culturally to somebody, but this one, mamma mia, it’s about a culture where it really matters, to everybody. And that intensity about food will keep restaurants alive, and the restaurants will keep the culture alive… if only as shtick in many cases, but still.

Anyway, the video will be up next week.*  Unfortunately, you won’t be able to follow up on it and eat the food you see in it for about 11 more months, until the next Labor Day rolls around.  But in the meantime, there is one survivor of the old Italian Melrose Park still operating on Lake Street, which was once Italian row (and is now all taquerias).  It’s called Scudiero’s (they have a booth in the Taste, but I didn’t interview them).  It’s a little Italian deli, with subs and sheet pizza.  I stopped in on Tuesday while getting a few last establishing shots and grabbed a couple of slices; it’s not great pizza (the short crust— i.e., made with shortening— is a typical Italian-American touch that may turn off Neapolitan pizza purists, but it does last longer before getting hard in the case), but it’s simple and tastes of exactly what it is, bread, tomatoes and cheese.  What do you want for a buck fifty?

2113 W Lake St
Melrose Park, IL 60160
(708) 343-2976

* Yes, I know I said the next one would be about barbecue. But that one’s gotten more complex, and this one meanwhile was simple by comparison— the shortest shoot I’ve ever done, in fact. (Two days, 4 hours of raw footage. It’s no trick to get Italians to talk.) So it got done first.

1. When Chuck Sudo tweeted that his report on the Great American Beer Fest was getting long, I knew it meant one thing: Multi-Part Series! Yesterday’s was about Goose Island entering his Sai-Shan-Tea in the Fest, today’s will be beer in the farm-to-table movement, and tomorrow’s will be about Chicago’s growing beer community.
2. Chris Cognac is a good guy who had a one-season Food Network show (The Hungry Detective) doing sort of what Guy Fieri does… with less shtick. (Draw your own conclusions about the Food Network’s priorities.) He was also an LA cop working the grimmest beats… and now he’s telling that side of his story on his blog. (h/t Louisa Chu)
3. Even if I’m not convinced that the burgers all look that great (some do, certainly), this LTHForum thread on The Burgers of Wisconsin is worth it for the Americana and the signage.
4. If you haven’t read it, this is just weird. The Goats Who Stare at… Trademark Attorneys
5. I know there is such a thing as the Tet festival among Vietnamese this time of year, but I know nothing about it. This blog talks about it and has other good articles and photos on Vietnamese food.
6. There’s something hypnotic about both this photo of a recursive pizza, and pretentious art-world theoretical language being used to describe a pizza (“My work is typically about the structure of an art environment so pizza was a perfect template to exercise visceral enjoyment mashed with layers of intellect in a way to start talking about the social as material in a shared art experience.”) I think he’s being tongue in cheek in this Serious Eats piece. I pray.
7. This vaguely food-themed clip from a 1940s musical, featuring three singing contortionists, was apparently an internet meme at some point, but I missed it (and I’ve even seen it on screen, since it’s in That’s Entertainment III, but I don’t remember it). Stick with it till they start doing the contortion part and you will be amazed:

Chicago Food Film Festival 2010 Trailer from George Motz on Vimeo.

New York’s smash hit food film festival comes to Chicago next weekend, with some of the most popular films screened in New York as well as Chicago’s own Sky Full of Bacon… and food provided by some of Chicago’s coolest food providers.

Specifically, my “Pie As A Lifestyle” will be shown in the Friday night program, which will be followed by tastings… of the Hoosier sugar cream pie talked about in the video, among others.

The festival is at the Museum of Contemporary Art warehouse, 1747 W. Hubbard; doors open at 7, movies start at 8. Friday’s program, “Savory and Sweet,” also includes “Eat Your Fill,” in which a man plans to eat everything that’s either deep-fried or on a stick at the Wisconsin State Fair, and “The Perfect Oyster,” among others. Saturday’s program includes clips from “Hamburger America,” the Chicago premiere of “Beer Wars,” and burgers by DMK Burger Bar.

Find out more about the fest here. And use the promo code “BACON” to save when you order tickets.

Crispy pig ear.

Izakayas suddenly came out of the woodwork this year, like everyone was issued the latest trends and this was near the top of the list. What’s an izakaya? It’s basically a kind of Japanese restaurant built around drinking foods. Or to put it in American restaurant-ese, it means small plates rather than entrees, along with your beer or whiskey. It’s the same appeal that had tapas restaurants popping up all over a couple of years ago— for the diner, you get the fun parts of dinner (meat, spicy stuff) in small portions that let you try a lot of things at fairly low prices per item; for the restaurant, you get to sell lots of little things alongside alcohol, and it’s entirely possible that lots of little things will result in a higher ticket than a few bigger things. Or at least higher margins, since the small stuff is often fairly cheap cuts.

One of the friends I dined with last night said New York has 30 of these places by now, but they’ve been slower to take root here. There’s some place downtown that has the name (Izakaya Hapa— is everyboda hapa?) but hasn’t seemed to impress anybody, and there was the short-lived Masu Izakaya, which seems to have picked too stodgy a part of Lincoln Park to open in and closed way too quickly. Now, accidentally riding a crest of sympathy for Masu dying too soon, comes Chizakaya, a little up the street on Lincoln in a very 70s building that used to house a Mexican wedding cake bakery.

Well, I’ve eaten tapas in Spain and though I liked a number of the places here that served what they called tapas, I thought they rarely rose above a metaphorical resemblance to anything I saw in Spain. I haven’t eaten at izakayas (or anything else) in Japan, but I did eat at one in Columbus, Ohio, a few months back, and before you laugh at that unlikely claim of authenticity, know that Columbus has a big Honda plant and a small subculture of fairly authentic Japanese places for Japanese businessmen visiting or working in the area. I can’t tell you how authentic to Japan Kihachi truly was, but it was certainly at the more authentic end of any Japanese dining experience I’ve had in the U.S., and I’m not the only one who was impressed by it.

And Chizakaya’s resemblance to anything I had at Kihachi is mainly metaphorical. If Chizakaya is authentic to anything, it’s the present gastropub trend with its emphasis on oddball meats, salty fatty things that make drinking that much easier; it’s an Asian-themed version of The Purple Pig or something, basically. And on that level, I had some very tasty things, greasy and easy to like. But I had something else in my head, a place where deep-fried lotus root or pickled plums or such unexpected, alien-looking things would challenge me during my meal. And I’m still kind of eager to go eat at that place, which isn’t what Chizakaya turned out to be.

Octopus salad.

That said, we were pretty happy with the first wave of stuff we ordered from the various parts of the menu (whose distinctions between different kinds of small plates, frankly, I can’t reconstruct the next morning). A skewer with beef cheek on it was terrific, tender, soul-filling beefiness; I liked the brightness of an octopus salad and some marinated vegetables and fruits, though the octopus was diced to the limits of my ability to manipulate chopsticks; there’s a small choice of sashimi and one of hamachi lightly touched with citrus and a little bit of intoxicatingly fatty bone marrow was really beautiful.

For that matter, the simplest thing of the night, little grilled turnips, was pretty wonderful too (and the closest, perhaps, to what I had in my head going in, The Japanese Delicate Touch With Vegetables I’d Rarely Eat Otherwise):

As one friend said about the crispy pig ears (shown at top), “It’s a potato chip that’s chewy,” and the vinegary sauce you were supposed to dip them in was too harsh. Another fish, marinated in kombu, overdid the citrus thing, and some clams in a beer broth seemed to have been sent over from the Hopleaf or something, they just seemed out of place and the broth was one-dimensional and harsh. I liked the delicate frying of the chicken thighs (with a BP-spill of mayo on the plate), but likewise couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that they belonged at a different restaurant, a bright cartoony Asian fast food place.

All in all, we were fairly happy at that point. What we weren’t, was full, and so we kept ordering, and our success average went steadily down as we dug into our second and third tier choices off the menu. The best were some gyoza stuffed with duck (and foie gras, supposedly, of which there was the tiniest livery hint). They were well made, well fried, well worth it. Beef tongue was tough and no comparison to the beef cheek, a chicken skin skewer was all right in a trashy, there’s nothing good for you here kind of way, but the tininess of the portions was really driven home here— yeah, at $3 I don’t expect much, but on the other hand, chicken skin, you’d be throwing that away if you couldn’t put it on a stick and grill it, there’s no reason to parcel it out like it’s jamon iberico. Pork belly was more generously portioned, but I’ve had a lot of pork belly by now, and a lot of things with egg on them, and this only scored about a 60 on the 100-point pork belly salty-sweet-unctuousness meter.

I don’t really have that much complaint about the pricing or the portions. It’s fairly remarkable to see “$3” on a menu in an upscale-ish place at all. But our total tab for three (with a couple of drinks for each) was $138 before tax & tip, which seemed high to some of us for what we had (though I pointed out that if we hadn’t ordered the three somewhat more expensive fish/clam plates, or had managed only to order the one good one, the total would barely have broken $100, which seems pretty fair). Speaking of drinks, they have a few beers, some Asian-tinged cocktail creations which seemed okay (but mostly on the sweet side), and a very nice sake list put together by the former sommelier of L2O; I ordered one (which they have exclusively, apparently) called Azumaichi, which was like good wine instead of the usual lighter-fluid-mixed-with-chalk burn of standard big brand sake; both of my friends tasted it and ended up ordering it for themselves. Not that I have anything against a nice tall Hitachino beer, but I’d say play to their strength and check out the sake list.

In the end, I had a number of things I liked quite a bit— almost all at the start of the meal. But in the end, I was hoping for a new kind of experience, surprises of flavor and texture like I had in Columbus. Instead I went to a bar-restaurant kind of place and I ate a lot of meat… not that unusual an experience for me on a Tuesday night in Chicago. Chizakaya is a better than average addition to the scene, but I’m still waiting for an izakaya in Chicago.

So when I was doing Grub Street Chicago last month, I went into Black Dog Gelato (that almost rhymes) with my kids to do a quickie interview. And while we were there, a video crew from the local ABC affiliate came in for a magazine show about stuff going on in Chicago called 190 North

I’ve read an entire book on North Carolina barbecue and I still have trouble keeping track of which part likes ketchup in their sauce and which doesn’t, and which part is whole hog and which shoulder, and what the hell the damned Piedmont is. This site tries to explain it for me:

The big difference between eastern barbecue and western – or Lexington-style, as it’s sometimes called – barbecue is that ketchup is commonly added to the sauce of western barbecue. The other difference is that in the east they use the whole hog, both white and dark meat, while in the west they cook only the pork shoulder, which is dark meat and thus more fatty, moister and richer.

All that said, though, the truth, says me, is that – contrary to the mythical status of this east-west “rivalry” – most casual barbecue eaters probably wouldn’t even notice the difference between eastern and western North Carolina barbecue if you put one of each before them.

Certainly, if you compare the two styles against the whole panoply of American barbecue styles there’s far more similarity than difference. The unadorned chopped pork meat is distinctly different from, say, Memphis chopped pork covered in goopy red sauce and slaw, let alone from brisket in Texas or ribs in Kansas City.

Anyway, we were in Richmond for a few days, which was just close enough to North Carolina for a totally insane person such as myself to drive for eight hours down to North Carolina, across the center of North Carolina for three or four lunches, and back up to Richmond with lots of leftovers for the rest of the family to share. Seriously, I drove more for lunch (es) that day than we drove getting from Chicago to West Virginia. But when else was I going to get to North Carolina? I’d gotten this far in life without ever going there, and there seemed little enough reason to expect that to change otherwise.

With the help of the North Carolina BBQ Trail I plotted out a number of candidates and took off. The first one I knew I wanted to hit was Allen & Son near Chapel Hill:

Looks like a great old barbecue place, doesn’t it? (That was it at the top, too.) I wouldn’t know, though, since it was closed for two days for no particular reason. I’d been Faidley’d again! Given that Aaron Deacon at LTHForum had roughly the same experience, I think we have to regard the allegedly great Allen & Son as having passed into an unreliable phase of its existence where you’d best have a backup at the ready.

Allen & Son Pit Cooked Bar-B-Q
203 Millhouse Road
Chapel Hill, NC 27516-8101
(919) 942-7576 (calling first strongly recommended)

Which I did; another 15 minutes of driving brought me to this place:

A&M Grill in Mebane looked and felt less like a barbecue spot than it did any old family restaurant in the South. But don’t let the comfortably padded, honey-voiced waitress who greets you fool you; a glance in the kitchen revealed serious barbecue equipment:

I ordered sliced pork, per the BBQ Trail’s guidance, then felt regret as I contemplated the probable result, gray CAT-scan-slices on my plate. Still, I was cheered by the first thing that arrived at my table, a freshly-fried platter of the best frickin’ hush puppies I’d ever eaten in my life. Okay, I was hungry enough that if I’d eaten the napkin it would have gotten two Michelin stars, but still, I ate four places’ hush puppies on this trip and these were easily the champs, light and yet complexly spiced. Really great.

My plate came, bearing something large and brown on it— a bun? Damn, I’d meant to order a plate of meat, not a sandwich…

No, it wasn’t a bun. It was an enormous sweet potato, fresh from the oven, what I’d imagined would be a little scoop of orange mash but was, instead, practically a meal in itself. While the “sliced” pork was what anyone else would call pulled, nice long strings of supple, lightly but definitely smoked pork flesh, moderately doused with a ketchupy, heat-laced mop of sauce and accompanied by a peppery slaw. A&M Grill doesn’t normally make the top tier of Carolina barbecue places (the trail site was the only place I’d seen it mentioned), and I grant I was hungry enough at that point to love anything that came on a plate, but this was first-rate in every way, the waitstaff and my fellow diners were friendly (when my sweet potato came a weatherbeaten old boy smiled at me, minus a couple of teeth, and said he wished he’d ordered that), it’s clean and bright, I absolutely recommend it as a backup to Allen & Sons… or on its own.

A&M Grill
401 E Center St
Mebane, NC 27302
(919) 563-3721

The next stop, Hursey’s, was another 20 minutes away in Burlington, which was the main thing that recommended it.  The three smokestacks set the atmosphere— except for one thing: no smoke coming out of them.

Not a good sign, and between that and the somewhat overly clean and professional look of the place, I decided not to spend too much time here and get my order from the only marginally friendly to-go counter.

Chopped is a legitimate style for North Carolina barbecue but this was chopped so finely it was practically liquefied; it was chopped to the kind of no-teeth-necessary consistency one associates with other Depression era foods when people couldn’t afford dentistry as the Maid-Rite sandwich or Russell’s BBQ in the Chicago area. That said, with some of the (perfectly standard) cole slaw and some sauce on it, this wasn’t a bad sandwich, really (and they did have the best fries of the day). It’s just that with smoke apparently existing only in this place’s memory, it isn’t barbecue in any sense I’m willing to recognize. This place seems to have been yuppified out of its roots, and isn’t worth the travel for the barbecue tourist.

1834 S Church St
Burlington, NC 27215
(336) 226-1694

Thankfully, you could spot the smoke easily at my fourth and final stop. Despite my geographical confusion, I’m pretty sure that the Lexington Barbecue in Lexington is an example of the “Lexington style” referenced above— though the only sauce I saw was a vinegary red dip as clear as raspberry Kool-Aid, without a trace of ketchup gooeyness to it.

As I came around the side to see where the smoke was coming from, I found a window into the kitchen and a cook hard at work chopping the meat. When I asked permission to snap a picture, he invited me inside for a closer look:

Lexington cooks only shoulders, round as hams, with cardboard flaps over the meat to keep the smoke in and ash that flies up from falling down on the meat. The firebox was roaring away just a foot or two to the right:

Lexington gives you a wide variety of ways to order your meat— coarse chop, medium coarse, with brown (outer skin), etc., and what makes this possible is that the shoulders are disassembled and neatly organized in the kitchen:

When I was finished snapping pictures he asked, “You gonna have somethin’ to eat?” When I said yes, he escorted me through the kitchen to a side door which put me straight into the dining room. I ordered a plate of coarse:

Not that I needed much to eat at this point, but the meat was tender and full of flavor— though still not that smoky, even though this had been the smokiest place I’d visited all day. The cole slaw was way too strong, almost like eating cocktail sauce; only that night, when I put it on a sandwich, did it really work as the condiment, rather than a side dish, it is. The people couldn’t have been nicer and so I ended my day by ordering some more food to fill out my assortment of leftovers (have the peach cobbler), and took off for Richmond. I couldn’t wait till dinner in about 3 hours, and another chance to eat barbecue.

Lexington Barbecue
10 US Hwy 29 70 S
Lexington, NC 27295
(336) 249-9814

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Barbecue was not the only pork-related adventure I wanted to have in this part of the world, however. If North Carolina was for barbecue, Virginia was for ham in my book. I imagined seeing hand-scrawled signs for country ham by the side of the road, and kept my eye out for same, but I didn’t spot any, at least not in the middle of the state— maybe in a seriously ham-oriented area like Surry County, but not up Richmond way.

I did find one place online that was on the way back to D.C., however: Calhoun’s Country Hams. It was in Culpeper— where I have a couple of friends at the Library of Congress’ new film preservation center— and ironically enough it’s the one ham producer who comes to the Alexandria farmer’s market, just blocks from my sister’s house where we’d be staying. But it worked for us to visit him in his natural element, and I was glad I did— the sight of these beautiful hams hanging on a plywood wall was worth the drive alone:

Mr. Calhoun, as you might suspect from someone selling in the city, aims for a more natural-tasting, less salty product than many old time producers, and even uses refrigeration during part of the curing process to allow him to get away with the minimum salt necessary. (This is no blasphemy; prosciutto producers have always done the same, beginning the curing process in winter to take advantage of the cold.) Besides the hams, there was a variety of other bits and pieces sitting, cured and unrefrigerated, on display. I picked up some fatback, of which more anon.

I had dreams of talking my way into a tour of the smokehouse, or curing rooms, or something. Unfortunately by the time we got there it was straight up noon, and a lunchtime crowd ordering sandwiches made it impossible to schmooze my way into special treatment. So we bought our ham— the young woman stressed the price (around $55) to make sure I knew what I was getting into— and in the meantime ordered sandwiches to eat in the car. As we waited, a man getting his lunch struck up a conversation with me about country ham, how to cook it, etc. He seemed even more excited for me to be getting a Calhoun ham than I was.

We had our sandwiches in the car; the meat was milder than others I’ve had but it had the full flavor of true country ham, and it’s hanging proudly in my basement right now, awaiting an occasion for soaking and cooking soon.

There’s just one thing I’m still left wondering about. I bought the fatback, which looked very much like the bacon I make. And I started to fry some up last Sunday morning. But I could tell as it fried, it was going to be very, very salty. Too much so, in fact, for any of us to eat with pleasure. So what is this fatback for, exactly? It would have to go into something, where it would add salt to the dish and lose some of its own, I guess. Has anyone used this kind of true country fatback, extra salty, and what did you use it for?

Calhoun’s Country Hams
219 South East Street
Culpeper, VA 22701

Here’s part 2 of my DC-area trip… the part in which this Kansas-born inlander attempts to develop a greater appreciation for the seafood Marylanders grow up eating.

We had one day in Baltimore. Plan was, take the kids to the aquarium, afterwards my wife would feed them at something kid-friendly in aquarium area (I believe they went to Potbelly), I would hike over to the Lexington Market to try Faidley’s.

Faidley’s, here I come. Oh boy, this is going to be good. But wait, it’s strangely quiet at the fried foods counter…

All the rest of Faidley’s, raw bar and seafood counter and so on, is operational. But the part why someone would come there during August which is, you might notice, a prominent tourism month… it’s closed. Without a word on the website, which I had visited the night before.

Thanks a lot, Faidley’s.


The rest of the market doesn’t look that great but I decide, hell, I have to eat something. I get a crab cake from another stand, foreboding hanging over me. If I knew my crabcakes, if I loved crabcakes, I could rail against the pathetic thing I was given in artful literary fashion. Let’s just say, it tasted like a ball of Stove Top Stuffing, deep-fried.

I found another stand and ordered another one, just to complete my humiliation. It was all right, actually. It actually had crab in it, for one thing.

Given more time, I could have done better than this, I’m sure, but I had to meet up with the family again, so this was all I could do, and hope for gelato or something to wash away the taste of betrayal.

* * *

I also had dreams of a day spent toodling around the Maryland countryside. The reality proved to be racing across it as fast as we could to spend a day at Rehoboth Beach, where most food seems to come in $15 tubs. (Grotto pizza isn’t bad at all NY-style; the much-heralded French fries taste exactly like Five Guys.) So my ideal of the little, rickety crab shack in the middle of nowhere eluded me. We did manage to visit picturesque, just-interesting-enough-for-half-a-day Annapolis and hit the popular, by no means small and untouristed, but still reasonably authentic and reliable Cantler’s:

This still seems a stranger way to eat than we experienced at Queen Makeda’s, and by the end of it I had a long gash in my thumb full of Old Bay Seasoning, but I guess once a decade, this is fun and reasonably tasty.

Cantler’s Riverside Inn
458 Forest Beach Road
Annapolis, MD 21409-5912
(410) 757-1467

Top Chef would have us believe that Washington, D.C. is a great restaurant town, but foodies I know have some doubts on that score when it comes to high end dining, and my own suspicion is that it’s the kind of city full of people who pay little attention to what they’re shoveling in, though being seen in the right places to do so may matter a lot to them.

Step down from the high end, though, and I fully believe it’s one of the best food metro areas in the country, simply because it’s an immigrant magnet— and that’s the D.C. I explored over part of the last couple of weeks. I had some help from LTHers including Dominic Armato (whose Skillet Doux is the Top Chef blog, speaking of that, and who though now in Phoenix, spent a few years in Baltimore wisely exploring the food in the region every chance he had); nothing I checked out was terribly new to folks in the area, in fact most of them had enough Washingtonian and City Paper clippings on the wall to start a Five Guys franchise. But it was new to me, and their help, and the occasional Road Food or Chowhound post, guided me well, mostly, on where to go and what to have there. The following covers most of what we ate in DC itself, though I’ll have at least two other posts on other parts of the trip.

One thing for which I certainly needed little convincing was that I should finally try Ethiopian food in D.C. Five years ago I’d walked past the Ethiopian restaurant row on Utah going between my first lunch at Florida Avenue Grill and a second one at Ben’s Chili Bowl, but it wasn’t the right time for it– it’s not something easily ordered solo, but my kids wouldn’t have tolerated it then. Since then, though, they’ve eaten Ethiopian in Chicago– they dig ripping up the injera bread and eating it, or sometimes, making things out of it, as Cousin Olivia did:

So one morning we did the Natural History Museum on the mall (not as good as the Field, but it has two ace attractions, the Hope Diamond and an Easter Island head) and then headed up for Ethiopian at Dom’s suggestion of Queen Makeda.

We were directed immediately to a kind of salon on the first floor where, this being Washington, C-Span hearings on gulf shrimp droned in the background. That aside, the service was tremendously warm and welcoming, and the food was, indeed, the best and brightest Ethiopian food I’ve had. I wouldn’t say it altered my perceptions of things, since most of it simply tasted like really good Indian food, bright curries, except for the doro wat in the middle, which was more like a Mexican mole in its dark richness and complexity. But it was a terrific meal, and has encouraged me to give African (one of my own dark continents when it comes to ethnic cuisines) more of a try.

Queen Makeda
1917 9th St
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 232-5665

Afterwards, we went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This has a nice collection of American folk art, Elvis icons, religious art made of tin cans, etc., but amidst it all there is one magnificent work that jumps out at you like a deer on a highway:

The wall tag refers a bit condescendingly to the amateurish perspective. Well, amateurish in the same way that all pre-Renaissance Italian painting is, say. But that only adds to the intensity of this portrait, which throbs with a kind of neurotic energy in every brushstroke. It’s called Stag at Echo Rock, and it instantly became one of my favorite American paintings— and no one knows who painted it, nor has any other work by the same hand apparently been identified.

There was also a special show of Norman Rockwell paintings, from the collections of a Mr. Lucas and a Mr. Spielberg, and I finally got to answer a question I’ve always wondered about. In Rockwell’s painting of the man standing in front of the Jackson Pollock-type drip painting, did he do a Pollock-type drip painting himself— or did he fake it, carefully outlining and filling in each blob? The answer is, he dripped the Pollock (you can see the three-dimensional drippings), and painted the Rockwell part (masked off before or after the dripping was done).

On the way back we spotted a gelato place. Not just any gelato place, but NPR-approved gelato! Pitango gelato makes organic free-range cruelty-free gelato, or some such, there were various magazine articles and such on the walls about the farms the stuff comes from. All I really cared, though, was that the flavors were very fresh and very tasty (oh, and cold and wet, which matters in DC in August). I had mojito with flecks of mint, and I think white grapefruit with it, and it was first-rate.

413 7th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20004

Speaking of curry-like things, another place we tried was an Afghan kabob joint in Crystal City (Arlington), Kabob Palace. By sheer dumb luck, we happened to arrive five minutes before the sun went down on a night in Ramadan, so we got tables (there were nine of us) before it filled up and got to partake of the various Ramadan freebies being set out as we waited for our food.

These guys know which side an Afghan restaurant whose delivery area includes the Pentagon’s naan is buttered on.

We got all kinds of kabobs, goat chops, etc. as well as some vegetable sides, and all of it was of very high quality, fresh spices and well-grilled. We stuffed nine people for less than $50. No wonder this place is as busy as an Afghan bazaar (once the sun goes down). There are actually two places of this name in the same block, I think the other one is a slightly nicer, more upscale version, but the action is at the brightly-lit, 24-hour one we went to.

Kabob Palace
2315 S Eads St
Arlington, VA 22202

Finally, several people mentioned Eden Center, a mostly Vietnamese strip mall in Falls Church. By myself, I might have eaten my way down one side and across the other, but with a party of nine, I settled on Huong Viet based on the recommendations for dishes I could find online— and except for one caramelized fish dish which weirded my sister and brother-in-law out, overall it was a fine meal, as good as any Vietnamese meal I’ve had here; a tamarind soup with canteloupe and other sweet notes in it was especially fine and novel to me. We wandered a few of the shops afterwards but they were all closing up kind of early; we just had time to freak the kids out a little with durian candy and the likes, and to buy them chocolate pockys to keep them sugared up.

Huong Viet
6785 Wilson Blvd
Falls Church, VA 22044
(703) 538-7110

So I would call it a successful venture into the mostly ethnic side of the DC area. Posts about Baltimore, crabs, country ham and North Carolina barbecue to follow.