Sky Full of Bacon

The Key Ingredient with Mark Steuer of the then-not-yet-opened Bedford is one of my favorites, because the challenge (by his old boss Mindy Segal) really hits him where he lives and he rises to it cleverly. But something else was notable about that shoot, which was, it was the only one to date where a PR person was on hand, making sure nothing was said out of turn (and in fact stopping Steuer at a couple of points). At the time I just attributed it to owners whose place wasn’t open yet and were thus a little overcautious about their concept leaking out prematurely. After eating at The Bedford, I begin to think overcaution is more like the theme of this restaurant set in a former bank, complete with (very cool) dining room inside a vault. Your money’s safe in a bank vault, and at The Bedford, so’s your menu.

The menu hit all the notes of dining c. 2011– house cocktails with ingredients du jour like cachaca and Templeton Rye; bacon scattered on half the dishes; comfort food starters like deviled eggs (“We’re becoming famous for them,” our waiter claimed), Cobb salad and frites; entrees like hangar steak, duck confit and gnocchi, the inevitable burger and mac and cheese. Even as I recognize that I, and everyone who dines out in Chicago at this moment, is a spoiled bastard who deserves a whipping (oh dear, not duck confit again), I have to admit that this menu, exquisitely of the minute but not one second ahead anywhere, seemed perfectly fine but did not set my pulse racing.

Fortunately there’s the menu, and there’s the execution, which on the whole was first-rate. We started with some very good Chesapeake Stingray oysters, served properly on ice, and the deviled eggs with Tabasco and bacon powder, very nice, velvety texture and all that, though I still feel like deviled eggs ought to be a Methodist grandmother’s signature dish, not an upscale restaurant’s. (But then, I remember when fries were a side, not an appetizer, at least for anyone over the age of 16.) The Cobb salad was the most serious misstep— first, it was served iceberg wedge style, which I know is an old school presentation trick but seems a lousy way to dress and eat a salad to me; second, its resemblance to a canonical Cobb salad was vague at best, what with cheddar cheese curds present and egg, avocado, bleu cheese, etc. absent. (Also, I think we were stuck unannounced for an extra two bucks at the end for sharing a plate, which would have been more acceptable if they had, in fact, brought us other plates to make sharing easier. At $15, that better be one hell of a head of iceberg lettuce you’re eating.)

Entrees, on the other hand, delivered to the full of their expectations. Grilled halibut with bacon and favas was cooked textbook perfect, and the brightness of the fresh favas and other bits and dribs of green stuff on the plate made it a nice spring dish, if not one that had me running up to strangers in the street. The one dish that went beyond technical perfection and really had some sparkle and decadence to it was the duck confit, served in a gooily lush bowl of grits and dotted with psychedelically-green, brightly minty salsa verde. Imagine Next’s L’Escoffier meal crossed with the bowl of Malt-O-Meal your mom made you one time when you stayed home sick, and topped with pesto whose ingredients you picked moments before. Can’t imagine that? Well, that’s why it stood out on The Bedford’s menu, where everything else we had can be imagined exactly from its menu description.

Actually, there was one other thing which might suggest some hope for The Bedford loosening up and taking the occasional bank holiday. We didn’t have it, but there was a special of rabbit (which Steuer also tweeted about). And you know, one special like that— rabbit, a dish which had Chicago diners going “eek!’ just a few years ago— goes a long way to overcoming your immediate impression that The Bedford, whose room reminded me of downtown places like Trattoria No. 10 and the late Powerhouse, is aimed too conservatively at a suit-and-tie Loop crowd who haven’t felt entirely comfortable in the Ruxbins and Longman & Eagles and other slacker-vibe weird-animal-parts restaurants that have been where you had to go eat on the near northwest side lately. Two or three more specials like them, some more unusual fishes than halibut and more unusual cuts than hangar steak, and The Bedford’s executional expertise might be matched by a menu that makes you feel curious as well as merely comfortable.

My dining companion’s take, with photos.

This week’s Key Ingredient presents a chef I didn’t know about, Marianne Sundquist of Andersonville’s In Fine Spirits, making a ragu from pork cheeks. The article is here.

“That’s so cool, that you won a James Beard award,” one of the 4-H moms said to me.

“And now you’re cleaning out pig poop like the rest of us,” one of the dads said.

That about sums it up. If you have pigs, you have work to do. And it probably involves poop.

* * *

But first we gathered at the farm to meet our pigs, purchased in the auction shortly before. This was pretty much a day of pure kid and pig joy, the kids making themselves at home with the pigs:

At the end of our pig meet and greet, Julie gave us a little talk about the responsibilities ahead and what it would take to have a good showing at the fair in July:

Behind the kid fun, though, adult things were happening. The moms busily coordinated the feeding and pen-cleaning schedules, keeping it all on a webpage. Julie also told us that one of the pigs was small and underweight, apparently unable to compete for feed with the other pigs; he was being kept separate in what she called “the bachelor pad” so that he would get enough to eat. We were encouraged to bring treats for our pigs when we visited— they love peanut butter-based snacks, but it’s important not to give them such things while they’re eating their feed, because they’ll want to only eat dessert, not the main course. (They also get a special supplement of “18 egg omelets made with 10 pounds of butter” from time to time.)

Our pig, Thor.

* * *

The news started coming in emails from Julie a few days later, giving us all a taste of the hard side of farming. The pigs had lesions, possibly signs of an infestation, which kept getting worse as the pigs rough-housed in the pen and scratched each other up. They were dusted with insecticide.

It didn’t clear up. The theory turned toward a staph infection called erysiperlas, even though they were vaccinated against such things. They were given penicillin.

Most of them seemed to be doing better, but then:

Dear Livestock Families,

Unfortunately, today we lost Jessica and Jayne’s pig. He appeared well as of last night but was dead this morning. The vet came and autopsied him- he was quite ill with many infections throughout his organs. Most likely the cause was erysipelas. All the pigs have had penicillin and other antibiotics since arrival, but this infection overran the medicine.

The doc gave all the pigs additional antibiotics and an extra boost of selenium.

I am so very sorry this happened and hope you will not all become too discouraged and will be especially kind to our newest pig show persons who got a run of bad luck so early.

Thank you,

* * *

By the time we came to clean the pens, there were two new pigs— the heir and a spare, as Julie said— from the Foltzes being kept in quarantine for their first few days from the other pigs. Because one of them has blue eyes, Julie declared that we had to name him Frank. Then the question was, what to name the other? Dino, I said. I’m pretty sure the kids had no idea what either one of us were talking about.

There was also even stranger news. “One of our pigs is half boar,” Julie said. At first I thought she meant something about its breed parentage. “It still has one of its testicles,” she clarified. This is a big problem, because a boar, like a bull, gets meaner as it grows. It wasn’t clear how the animal had half-escaped castration, but whether one testicle was undescended, or it was just sloppy work, the Foltzes were embarrassed and the vet would be coming in a few days to finish the job. (It actually wasn’t one of their pigs, but another farm’s pig sold at our auction, but even so, they felt bad about saddling 4-H kids with a surprise problem like this.)

The quarantine (formerly the littlest pig’s bachelor pad, which only made the names Frank and Dino that much more appropriate) added a little wrinkle to our training in pen-cleaning. Because of this spring’s absurdly cold weather, the pigs were being kept in the sheltered pen to stay warm, but to clean the pen, we had to drive them out into another enclosure.

Pis, unlike lambs, will happily go out given the chance, but getting them into the other enclosure is trickier. Pigs can’t be led, they can only be kept moving until they go where you want them to go, kind of like one of those games where you roll the tiny balls trying to get them all into holes. Temple Grandin’s comments about what encourages and discourages animals from moving came back to me as we used large plastic barriers to give the pigs no choice but to run into the enclosure.

It was easy to see which corner the pigs had designated as the toilet, so we scooped up the clumpy stuff from that area and put down fresh sawdust and straw. The girls cleaning the quarantine area had to be especially careful about lifting scoops of poop-soaked hay high enough to pass over the wall.

My boys dug in fearlessly. At their age I was a hopelessly prissy city kid, but they have no such qualms (and, indeed, later in the week Liam would shovel horse manure enthusiastically on his 3rd grade camping trip, telling everyone proudly that this was the second poop he’d shoveled that week. You’ll notice that cleaning up after the dog was not on his list.)

While we cleaned the pen, the lamb 4-Hers began training their animals. See if you can spot the difference between a bunch of lambs and a bunch of pigs.

As if that were possible. First up, Cleetus Friedman is the chef in this week’s Key Ingredient, with housecured ham…

While over at, a piece of mine with photographer Huge Galdones is up taking you behind the scenes of the great west side Italian deli Riviera.

I especially like how the author bio line (the only part not by me) sounds…

In the 90s, work took me to New York enough that there was a time when I at least knew the pizza scene (which never impressed me that much) and the deli scene (far better; I never came back without a swing by Zabar’s) and a few other things. But kids came and suddenly leaving one big city to visit another made a lot less sense, so I actually had not been back to New York since, I think, 1998. (That’s me, waving the Statue of Liberty good bye with a bag of lox and bagels under my arm.)

But I had to go there for an award recently, as you may have heard here, and I decided to drag the whole family along. Of course, the big question was, what to eat? Except for deli, maybe, I felt completely out of the scene (is Luchow’s still around?) Needless to say, it was essential that I maximize my time in NYC to the utmost, eating exactly the things most different and unique from whatever I eat here. Expertise in about 10 meals total, that was my goal.

On the other hand, I wasn’t there to drop the big wad and eat fancy-schmancy; why spend college tuition at Per Se when you haven’t even been to Alinea here at home yet? So first off, I wanted a couple of nice, not too expensive meals. The kind of meal for which, in Chicago, I would have suggested Mado a year ago. Which made me think, who better to ask for a Mado-like recommendation than not-that-long-ago-New-York-line-cook Rob Levitt, at The Butcher & Larder?

“We’re always happy at Lupa,” Rob said in his laconic way. So that was dinner our first night, and you know what? I will always be happy at Lupa from now on, too. I get the feeling some New Yorkers consider this longtime entry in the Mario Batali empire to be a bit past its prime, but I couldn’t disagree more— this is the laidback neighborhood restaurant par excellence, as good a meal for around $200 for four as I’ve had anywhere. Warm and inviting, but with an Italian menu seriously devoted to doing great and authentic things and not being afraid of offputting ingredients.

I loved a pasta with bottarga, the slight fishy-brine cast it had. Myles had a flank steak that he declared the best steak he’d ever eaten. Glazed carrots, snap peas with mint and wild mushroom, bacalao turned into an awesome piece of panko-crusted fried fish, a delicately jiggly panna cotta with pineapple soaked in something… everything was simple, superbly executed, singing of its fine ingredients and no froufery.

Rob’s other recommendation that we took, Peasant, was more problematic. On paper it seems a Madoesque no-brainer— simple direct-from-farmer ingredients prepared in a woodfire rotisserie or the like, letting the clean flavor of the ingredients shine.

And things were prepared beautifully— in the sense of being cooked exactly right, to the perfect texture and consistency. The problem was, most of it was just kind of bland. I couldn’t help but think that at Mado, they would have found the sprig of something while it was cooking or the twist of something as it was plated that would have taken it to the next level, but nothing here seemed quite sharpened in that way. Starters were very good— one of burrata and tomatoes, one of calamari in wine and vinegar— but after that, seemed to lose their way, with a pizza of nettles and ricotta, roasted pig, roasted sea bass, and two desserts all kind of lacking something.

And the restaurant seemed to be lacking something, too. That shot of the guy next to the oven may look like your dream of buon’ Italia, but the dining room itself was weirdly cold and a bit unwelcoming, with those damn aluminum Navy chairs from the Design Within Reach catalog, dim lighting (and absurdly tiny type on the menu), a chill in the air I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Service was pleasant but distant— a kind of dipping oil arrived, for the fish I think, and there wasn’t so much as a word about the fact that you might actually want to use it for that purpose (where it helped the fish enormously). Compared to our warm embrace in the bosom of Lupa, this wasn’t one to treasure and remember— and measure Chicago by.

Those were our two high-end meals (my third was at the Beard Awards) but we ate many cheap eats things gleaned from Chowhound and the like, and even I didn’t have this soup dumpling or that pizza like I’d hoped, I felt very good about how many different bases we touched in a very short time and the extremely high batting average of what we ate. Arriving around noon, I needed a place near our Times Square hotel, and if there was nothing great near there that I could find, the diversity of choices along Hell’s Kitchen’s Ninth Avenue strip was pretty exciting. We grabbed our first lunch at Empanada Mama, whose empanadas range from classic to Hot Doug’s-esque (I liked the seafood-based Viagra Empanada; my 9-year-old loved the peanut butter and banana Elvis Empanada). Only an arepa, with which you could have won a Stanley Cup, disappointed. (We would have a much better arepa at an otherwise okay roasted South American chicken place called Farmers Rotisserie Chicken.)

The much better arepa from Farmers.

I heard that Zabar’s had a cafe now, so for breakfast before the American Museum of Natural History (good new dinosaur exhibits, some unique things, but overall I’d give the Field the nod, especially for having more spacious dinosaur halls and much better direction/signage), we popped in there. Turns out the cafe is basically aimed at getting commuters in and out; they won’t really make you a bagel and lox fresh, and point you to a refrigerator case where a premade bagel and lox is sitting there getting cold and rubbery.

Not the refrigerator case in the cafe.

I did not return to Zabar’s after close to 15 years to have an experience like the cafeteria in a highway rest stop. Quickly, I figured out how to force a decent experience that would work for breakfast with no means of, say, spreading cream cheese. I ordered the requisite number of bagels, fresh, sliced, with cream cheese. We took them and then I went next door to order lox by the pound. Here, instead of the impersonal rush of the cafe, we enjoyed the full Zabar’s experience, the deli guys sweet-talking 85-year-old ladies and Dominican nannies in their inimitable way (“Dolling, have some sable, just for you I cut this because you’re so beautiful”). It’s one of my favorite places on this earth, for me the essence of what the big city, the urban and urbane, deeply Jewish big city I read about in Mad promised to a Catholic kid in Kansas. I have been away from you too long, Zabar’s, but I have never forgotten you. We put our ethereally supple belly lox on our bagels and sat in the park watching dogs go by. It was one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had.

The high end burger craze has hit New York like everywhere else and Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack seems to be the one that everyone has fallen in love with. I hadn’t planned to make a special trip there, but when we came out of the museum at about 12:15 and it was right there on the corner, well, the logic with two kids in tow was pretty much inescapable. Maybe we just hit them at an executional off moment, but I was not overly impressed, which is to say, sure, it’s better than hitting a fast food burger, but— you know how somebody will tell you that Oklahoma City finally has a really great French restaurant, and you know it wouldn’t be make the top 50 in New York? Well, the reverse is true, too, with hamburgers. My handformed burger was medium, if medium means the average of one charred side and one nearly raw one; even more strangely, the shakes were not really cold enough and kind of runny. (I will give the deeply crinkly cut fries high marks, though.)

Oh, and one other thing, they say they have Chicago style dogs, but the dog itself is nothing like a Chicago dog— and neither is cutting it in half and frying the insides.

On the other hand, a place that did live up to every bit of its hype was Doughnut Plant. I confess to doubts as I stood in its very slow line and prepared to pay $2.50 per yeast-raised doughnut, while our reservation at the Tenement Museum (fascinating, terrific, reserve your tour in advance) creeped closer. But all doubts went away when we bit into the toothsome, almost brioche-substantial yet light and chewy doughnuts. The creme brulee doughnut, at $3.00 for a small little ball with an admittedly excellent custard inside and a crisp crust on top, seems more like a gimmick, but the straight up doughnut was worth every penny of its ridiculous price, assuming that you’d pay $2.50 for what might well be the best doughnut you’ll ever have in your life.

Doughnut Plant was, truth be told, our second breakfast that morning; the first was a newly opened little place we spotted just down the street from our hotel on 49th between 8th and 9th called Donna Bell’s, a Southern bakery with things like crusty drop biscuits. Not sure I’d go a long way out of my way for them, but we certainly enjoyed finding something so down home Southern in the middle of Manhattan, and they seemed very eager for us to enjoy their products.

With two breakfasts in tow and dinner at Peasant not that far away, we just needed a snack for lunch. I had printed out this Chowhound guide to a post-Tenement Museum Chinatown tour, and took the first advice on it: chive dumplings at tiny, grungy Prosperity Dumpling, along with two orders of scallion pancake (more like focaccia, but whatever), for a whopping $4. These would be great cheap eats anywhere but especially in Manhattan, wonderfully flavorful dumplings fresh off the wok and swimming in grease. Yum!

NYC Chinese food was something I wanted to sample, and so was Japanese food; since my meal at Sankyu, especially, I’ve been really interested in trying Japanese places that offer something other than the typical American-Japanese restaurant fare. Unfortunately, with so many of them hot tickets to get into (like Ippudo for ramen), I didn’t have much hope of being in the right place at the right time with family in tow and patient enough to put up with the wait. (For the same reason, I didn’t even mess with the whole Momofuku empire and the gyrations required to get into any of its places.)

But after the Beard awards, the group I was with (Reader editor Mara Shalhoup’s Atlanta friends, mostly) suggested that if everybody wasn’t completely full, maybe we could pop by for a late snack and drinks at Yakitori Totto, a popular Japanese bar-restaurant located on a second floor in Midtown which I had jotted down as one I hoped to try… yes I said yes I said yes. It took a lot of standing around and phoning other restaurants while we waited, but thankfully none of them could take us and Yakitori Totto finally did and so, at midnight, we placed a hurried last call order and sat down with, in my case, a shochu-yuzu jam cocktail.

Most of the food comes from a tiny grill where a single cook keeps flipping skewers— everything from the expected pork and chicken to shisito peppers and something made from ground rice turned into a sticky ball on a stick. Add a couple of bowls of fantastic savory congee-type porridges and this was a great meal in a kinda hipster, kinda divey late-night atmosphere. If there was a place like this in Chicago I’d become an alcoholic just to hang out there every night. Or a yakuza.

Finally, one of the places I was absolutely going to visit, no matter what, was Russ & Daughters, legendary for its sturgeon. Even if it was Mother’s Day, and Sunday morning, and it was going to be absolutely packed:

I left the kids outside to fend for themselves with a couple of black and white cookies; taking a cue from the Tenement Museum the day before, they immediately declared themselves to be orphaned street urchins. But they were still there when I came out, and hadn’t joined the Dead Rabbits or some other alley gang, so I guess everything was okay.

Now, Russ & Daughters is famous for sturgeon. It was good, the lox was good, but I didn’t love it more than Zabar’s. The sturgeon, in particular, seemed like it didn’t quite have the meatiness of sturgeon I’ve had elsewhere. A nice place, lots of character, but Zabar’s remains my love.

Except… I never had the sturgeon.

I think. I just discovered this looking at their website. What we ate as “sturgeon” had a distinct orange cast from seasoning (paprika?) on the outside. I don’t see that here, on the sturgeon. But I see it here… on the sable. I’m 98% sure that he cut me sable, not sturgeon (and hopefully charged me the sable price).

Jesus, now I have to get nominated for another Beard award next year and have the sturgeon.

So, fantastic eating in four days, covering the globe from South America to Eastern Europe to Japan. Several things that were arguably the best of their genre that I had ever eaten, or top 5 material at least. Does that mean New York is better than Chicago? I don’t think of it that way; both are capitols of eating. But what it does show is how you can zero in on the really great stuff in a distant city these days, thanks to the internet and all the food content on it. That’s why we all do this stuff, that I was lucky enough to win an award for.

Permanently behind the times on new movies now, I watched Julie and Julia courtesy of a Starz preview a couple of nights ago. Streep was a hoot, a caricature of Child that nonetheless captured the woman bursting with life in a Muppet’s voice; as her husband, the normally sharp Stanley Tucci was so sweet and supportive you eventually wanted to smack him with a hammer (he also looks too Hollywood-fit for 1946); while Amy Adams and Guy Who Played Her Husband struggled to have more to their characters than the sloppily-dressed slacker couple in a cellular phone commercial. (I’m a blogger! Can you hear me now?) Still, this was better, and more likable, than I expected, even ever so slightly formally inventive for second-generation chick flick auteur Nora Ephron (whose parents wrote Desk Set for Tracy and Hepburn back in Julia Child’s day).

By giving us a lush 1950s story and a much more cramped and neurotic modern parallel, it’s basically a deconstruction of one chick flick subgenre, the career gal movie. Back in the day, a career gal movie was about a young woman who goes to New York, pursues a career and independence in some field open to women like magazine publishing and advertising, fends off some powerful but married wolf, and winds up happily ever after with some lesser hunk of 1950s actorly cheese. (The masterpiece of the genre, of course, is The Apartment. This is of course because it transcends the genre with a career that sucks, a wolf who isn’t fended off, and an ending that only barely manages to seem happy.)

But Ephron, aiming at a better educated female audience than the latest Matthew McConnaughy rom-com, switches the tables around. Both Julie and Julia are married as the movie begins; the real prize at the end is something a mere husband pales next to— a book contract. (I will assume that spoilers are by definition impossible with this movie.) So this is a romance about two women groping their way toward the greatest of all loves, of an author for her name on the cover of a book.

Except one of them is reading and cooking from the life of the other— so one is basically living in a movie which the other is watching. (They can never meet on the same temporal plane, of course, not least because Child lived long enough to sniff disdainfully at Powell’s blog— accurately, to judge by the banal excerpts we hear or read onscreen.) Julia and Paul Child live in a Paris where there’s room to park a motorboat of an American car, buy whole fish at the market in gloves and pearls, and throw parties in your vast apartment managed by a smiling, welcoming concierge. That they may have actually lived this life (except for the welcoming Parisian concierge, a detail I refuse to believe) doesn’t make it any less movie-like, and as fantasy Europes go, it’s as confected and irresistible as Mary Poppins’ London. There is some modest struggle for Julia in getting to her consummation with a publisher, but basically, the movie Julia Child goes through life like a parade float.

Where Julie has all the struggles of the modern caricature— a comically dilapidated Queens apartment, comically awful more-successful friends who use cell phones at the table, a comical encounter with live lobsters. (All credit to Amy Adams for whatever real feeling she can bring to this sitcom life.) The blog will be her way out, and frankly given Hollywood’s typical portrait of technology (all those high tech intelligence agencies still using c. 1988 green screen monitors that type one letter at a time) I feared how badly this movie would get blogging.

Not badly at all, actually. There’s an early scene which exists only to explain what blogging is in the simplest of terms to the older ladies in the audience, but once she’s online, the details seem pretty right. The problem I had was with the purpose the movie purports for the blog— which is to provide a new way in which someone whose pathway from editor of the Amherst literary journal to authorial fame had flamed out can mount a sideways assault on the publishing world.

And so while Julie’s rise is tallied in terms of her readers (“I got 55 comments today! From people I didn’t know!”), what’s dramatized are her encounters with the institutions of the New York publishing world— Child’s own editor Judith Jones (who jilts her), The New York Times (via Amanda Hesser, who comes to dinner playing herself), and finally, an orgasmic cascade of phone messages from big media brand names, Simon & Schuster and Food Network, this movie’s equivalent of the montage in an old musical in which we see the marquees of Alice Faye’s hit shows (“Lois Lovely in Damaged Woman… Lois Lovely in Hearts Over Montana… Lois Lovely in A Kiss For Princess Maria”).

Although plenty of people blog to get a book deal (or even, I’ve heard, to help attract freelance writing and videomaking gigs), by focusing all of Julie’s attention upward toward bigger fish in the New York media pond, her story ultimately misses all the other cultural shifts and implications of blogging in the course of leading her to the exact same publishing climax Julia Child (or Shirley Maclaine or Doris Day or whoever) would have enjoyed 50 years earlier. Some readers send her food items, but there’s no sense of bloggy interaction with her readership; she never learns better from them how to pull off a technique in Child’s book, she certainly never invites a learned reader to join in any of the meals she makes for her same batch of old, pre-internet real world friends. (The real Julie in fact did have events to which readers were invited.)

In short, there’s no sense that blogging might not be a way to crack the old media world so much as a way to get around it— to build your own audience free of media gatekeepers and editorial interference, a new form of communication entirely in which writers and readers interact. For the movie Powell, there’s nothing about blogging that wasn’t true about using your trust fund to publish a “little magazine” in Greenwich Village back in the day— it’s just a way to try out for the only show that matters, the big publishing show in midtown Manhattan.  The irony is that Julia Child, who found herself in Paris and became famous in Boston, is less parochial in the 1950s than the woman who has the whole internet at her fingertips in the early 2000s— but never once thinks that if she hates her tiny apartment over a pizza parlor and her careerist friends, maybe she could try Portland, say, and do her blog just as well from there.  Julie and Julia offers a curious picture of the evolving media landscape in which you can now publish yourself to the whole world— but you still have to do it from the 212 area code to be anybody, just like in Shirley Maclaine’s day.  

Barry Sorkin of Smoque and a hot dog star in the newest Key Ingredient, read it here.

As close to the podium as I thought I was going to get.

Having been nominated in the “Multimedia Feature” category for the James Beard Foundation Awards, I went to New York with a firm conviction that I was not going to win. (And by “I,” I mean “we,” my fellow nominee Julia Thiel who writes Key Ingredient in the Chicago Reader and myself.) Partly this was a defense mechanism— if I actually thought we would win, I’d be nervous; being convinced we would not, I was nonchalant, kind of. But part of it was that I really thought Andrew Zimmern would win, being famous, or Katherine Shilcutt, the lady from the estimable food section of the Houston Chronicle, whose editor is Robb Walsh, famous in his own right for a barbecue book I clutched throughout several trips to Austin. Illustrious company to be nominated in, who the heck are we to really compete with them?

Anyway, so Friday evening comes, my family who traveled with me to New York is off to see a play and I stroll over to the event space in Hell’s Kitchen… and the first thing I see is that animal rights protesters have set up stuffed animals in cages to protest the cruelty of fine dining. I notice that they also have what looks like a spray bottle of fake blood— if you’re going to spray that, I think, it’s going to be on the dress clothes of someone better paid than me.

I check in and get a little badge which says Nominee, which serves as a great icebreaker— throughout, people come up to me, or I to them, and say, so what are you nominated for? I catch the eye of the distinguishedly sturdy fellow on the right with salt and pepper goatee and he introduces himself.

“Robb Walsh,” he says, thrusting a hand at me. I can only repeat, dorkily, “Robb Walsh!” In an instant I realize that the whole evening is going to be like this, meeting people whose names I know, but whose faces are professionally hidden most of the time. It’s an odd social situation, but I make the best of it I can, and I think this is my awkwardness low point, which he handles graciously, wishing me luck even as he acknowledges that he’ll have a grieving reporter on his hands if Katherine Shilcutt loses to us. (Besides being Shilcutt’s editor, Walsh is nominated with two others for a story on oysters which appeared in, of all things, Garden & Gun, whatever that is.)

I’m a little suaver when I spot and zero in on Andrew Zimmern, who has a crowd around him, as most of the recognizable TV celebrities here do. I push my hand forward and say, “Since I’m going to lose to you in about 90 minutes, I figured I should say hi.” That disarms him and we talk for a few minutes about his recent Chicago episode. He manages to combine down to earthness with a celebrity glow and high voltage persona that makes you instantly understand why someone thought he’d be a natural for TV.

We take our seats— Julia, myself, and Mara Shalhoup, the Reader’s new editor, right up front (though my best view of the event will be the projected image on a side wall). More celebrity glow is on hand when Ted Allen and Gail Simmons take the stage; on Top Chef, Gail may play the more approachable Mary Ann to Padma’s exotic fashionista-dominatrix Ginger, but she’s quite glamorous in real life, and that wasn’t a faraway observation since she sat at our table when she wasn’t needed on stage.

The chair of the awards committee comes out and explains the changes in the awards this year, which have greatly expanded the number of categories to reflect the much more varied and, importantly, online basis of the profession of food writing these days. This doesn’t actually affect our category, which has existed for a while (Mike Sula and I were nominated in it two years ago), and I’m sure Beard cynics like Anthony Bourdain would say it’s just to increase the number of people sending in their entry fees, but compared to the way many journalism awards are still hopelessly hidebound (the Pulitzers just gave their first prize for reporting to a purely online story, which to my mind is sort of like giving the first Oscar to a talkie in 1940), it seems to me progressive and smart. Likewise, where the Beards could be awards from New York publishing for New York publishing, the regional sweep of the awards, taking in everywhere from Minneapolis to Seattle, is admirable.

Many, many awards follow— nerve-wrackingly, ours doesn’t come till after the second course— but some particular hero-worship highlights for me included Jonathan Gold winning the M.F.K. Fisher award for distinguished writing. Gold was chronicling grungy taquerias in L.A. before Chowhound was a gleam in Jim Leff’s eye, he’s right up there with Calvin Trillin as far as I’m concerned for the guys who first turned attention from haute to hot-n-greasy cuisine.

The Edible Communities group of publications won a special award for pioneering their model of hyperlocal coverage.

While Wylie Dufresne gave a thoughtful appreciation of a book that has had enormous influence on his generation of molecular gastronomists: Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. McGee in turn said that he hears all the time from young chefs in culinary school who can’t find out what they want to know from their traditionally-trained teachers, so they go direct to the source— him.

Somewhere in there our batch of awards comes up. At some point Julia and I realize there is actually a nonzero chance that we might wind up on stage— we don’t know what to make of the fact that we seem to have been seated quite close to it, for no good reason we can see— and we talk about what we might say if we do. It’ll be short, we agree on that much. Ted announces our category and I start recording video as the computer system slightly botches a clip from our very first Key Ingredient, starring Grant Achatz:

The moment I hear “Mi—” I mutter “oh my god” and flip the camera off. Julia and I look at each other with a bit of shock and she leads the way. There are, thankfully, two medals for us (they got that right in the multimedia category), and Ted Allen, who used to be at the Tribune, warmly says “Welcome, fellow Chicagoans” as he puts them around our necks.

Julia takes the microphone and offers both thanks and a memory of the late Cliff Doerksen, who won a Beard award last year and died a few months later. I’m not expecting this but it’s absolutely the right thing for her to do and she does it beautifully. There’s not a lot more for me to say, so I just make a quip to the effect of “Thank you for supporting regional work from small obscure places like Chicago,” which gets a mood-lightening laugh (but does represent my genuine appreciation that the Beards look beyond New York for great work), and we exit to go have our portraits taken in front of the obligatory wall of logos.

We return to our seats, but two or three times later we will turn to each other and say some variation on the theme of, “Holy shit, we won a Beard award.”

And the awards continue. Ruth Bourdain wins the first one to go to a Twitter account, or to a nonexistent person, leading everyone to immediately start murmuring— will we finally see who Ruth Bourdain is? No such luck, a Beard committee member accepts it (though since it was nominated, it does mean that the person behind it broke character long enough to actually enter it him/herself). Another hero of mine, Southern food writer James Villas, wins for his fine cookbook Pig and says one of the night’s most memorable soundbites: “To quote Dorothy Parker when she received an award late in life, it’s about goddamn time.” The applause indicates general agreement with the sentiment.

Grace Young, author of Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, gives maybe the night’s best speech. As she explained, before her book of family Chinese recipes and lore was published, her father (its inspiration) died, her editor left after 20 years, her agent quit the business, her publicist quit… but she stuck to it and had her reward, in what struck many as a surprise win over Diana Kennedy. (If they put the full video up, you should definitely watch her speech, and Dufresne and Harold McGee.)

A few minutes later, part of the reason for the surprise win over Diana Kennedy was revealed— the committee had decided to create an award honoring one cookbook as best of the year, clearly (given the way it was presented) with an eye toward giving a boost to important, but not entirely commercial, projects. And the inaugural winner was Kennedy’s Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy, which even after her pioneering role in all the Baylessian Mexican food that has followed, couldn’t find a commercial publisher and was ultimately put out by the University of Texas.

And so the awards wrap up. Monica Eng, the only other Chicago journalism nominee this year (who totally should have won last year for her series about going to see slaughter), comes by and congratulates us. Julia calls her the Mindy Segal of journalism, in reference to the great Hot Chocolate pastry chef’s perennial also-ran status, but I prefer to think of her as being our Deborah Kerr, eight Oscar nominations, no wins, but always a class act.

Emboldened by the big piece o’ bling hanging around my neck, I decide to go say hi to a couple more of my heroes. Villas is nowhere to be seen, alas, but I do find Jonathan Gold and introduce myself. Looking at my Sky Full of Bacon business card, he says “Oh, I know this blog. I like this blog,” and immediately we go into a discussion of Alinea, where he just ate… and how he wished he’d been off sampling Chicago’s Mexican or Indian food at several points during it. (Let’s just say that he thinks that there’s no injustice in Noma being several rungs above Alinea on the San Pellegrino list.) When I make a witty observation about Alinea from one of my shoots, he says “Oh, I’m so stealing that,” which I can only beam at.

That in turn leads to a discussion of the food scene in Chicago. “Chicago has a great food community, there’s that, what is it, HRM Forum or whatever,” he says. “There’s nothing like that anywhere else.” But the rise of amateur online foodies has made his job harder: “There are so many people who have it in for me now, who’ve drilled so deep into something like Thai food or ramen and they go around saying I don’t know anything.” He just kind of shrugs amusedly at this— after all, he won the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing award, not just the Distinguished Discovery of Strip-Mall Carnitas award— but of course I know exactly who the Thai food reference is in regards to. “You mean like Erik M.?” He smiles and nods and asks me about him.

As we’re talking Andrew Zimmern comes over and congratulates me very graciously; he goes home 0-for-2 tonight (though he won last year). And that’s sort of the perfect moment that encapsulates this great journey from early days posting at Chowhound and then helping start LTHForum to this night— Andrew Zimmern congratulating me while I talk with Jonathan Gold about Erik M.

Thanks to the Reader for this great opportunity which I hope did them proud, thanks to Julia, my partner in chef-torment, and thanks to you, dear readers, some of whom I’ve known online or in person since those very first days to now.

More: Chicago Reader Chicago Tribune Eater Grub Street The Feast Crain’s

I always knew someone would pick Hot Doug, eventually, for Key Ingredient. And I knew it would be one of the funniest episodes ever. They did, and it is. The piece is here.

An old LTH friend tweeted about my Grant Achatz post and video series the week before last that it was a nice tribute to one of his culinary heroes. Yet ironically enough, Achatz wasn’t the biggest culinary hero of mine that I met, listened to or even shot video of that week. (Or, as my wife points out, the only one on the Time 100 released a few days later.)

That title would belong to Temple Grandin, and if you haven’t seen the HBO movie about her starring Claire Danes, which won a small herd of Emmys, you should. I first heard of Grandin from an Oliver Sacks book maybe 15 years ago; a high-functioning autistic with a powerful visual memory but awkward human social skills, she came to realize as a student that her form of autism in many ways mimicked the ways animals experience the world— as visual and aural stimuli which are instinctively processed as threatening or soothing, and just as instinctively reacted to. Over time, despite difficulties with human social situations, by sheer force of will and insight she conquered an ultimate man’s world— the meatpacking industry— devising new ways to handle animals humanely and efficiently on their way to slaughter by creating an environment which directs them to slaughter in a way they find calming and non-frightening. Her ideas and designs are in practice today at more than half of all US slaughterhouses.

Not everyone easily sees her work as a good thing— an anti-meat activist could paint it as deceit to lure animals to death by exploiting their instincts to imply safety ahead, and she apparently gets plenty of those— but Grandin is a powerfully blunt advocate for the notion that we owe the animals we eat a decent experience under our care, and that any notion beyond that (such as that we might all stop eating meat) is simply pie in the sky which would get in the way of being humane here and now. As she said at one point, with characteristic lack of soft-pedaling, getting killed instantly by an electric stun gun is a lot better way to die than wolves dining on live sheep guts. For her, it’s that simple— probably, again, in part because her autism focuses her on immediate, real world responses to events, not utopia.

Grandin was in Chicago for the American Meat Institute conference; she came to Wagner Farm, where my kids are in the 4-H program, for an entirely different set of reasons. Julie Tracy, who runs the 4-H program, is a communications therapist often dealing with autistics, and has an autistic son who has been in 4-H in past years. As she described it in her introductory speech at lunch, at one point when she was having a difficult time, she got to thinking about Grandin’s areas of expertise— animals, autism, communication— and decided that everything in her life coincided with them. So she called Dr. Grandin up in Colorado and left a rambling message, asking for any insight she could offer into the troubles she was experiencing. Grandin called her back within an hour to offer her insights, and was made even more interested in our 4-H program because of the problems we had experienced with animal rights protesters last year. Grandin plainly believes that getting more kids involved in 4-H is the solution, not the problem, to animal rights issues, and that protesters like we had need to be confronted head on with a positive message about the program— and, by extension, the reality of a meat-eating world and how to make it decent toward animals.

The luncheon was a private talk, largely addressed at the farmers and other supporters of our 4-H program, and Dr. Grandin requested that its content be kept private. But I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying it basically followed her stated philosophy about the meat industry in her books, which in the Facebook and YouTube age basically amounts to— meat’s a necessity and a reality, so don’t be afraid to show the public what you’re doing… and if you are afraid to show it, maybe you need to change what you’re doing so you aren’t. Grandin is, in a sense, an industry insider, but she’s incapable of being co-opted by the industry; she’s the voice for a personal view of the ethics of animal treatment which she has forced on a vast industry by sheer force of will and intellect.

And we heard that voice, oh yeah. As good as the HBO movie about her is, just by the nature of the medium, you’re put in her perspective as she fights the industry as a young woman to be heard; you internalize and sympathize with her viewpoint as she harangues stick-in-the-mud dumbasses who screw up her solutions and get animals needlessly killed in a pesticide dip. But when she’s speaking to you directly in real life, my friend, you are the thick-headed one who just doesn’t get it yet. I don’t mean that she’s rude or contemptuous as celebrities can be, not at all— in fact, she’s a surprising advocate for old-fashioned manners and respect, and credits her somewhat strict 1950s upbringing with a big role in helping her function and be successful. (I suspect clear rules of conduct are a help for someone without an intuitive sense for the subtleties of human interaction.) It’s just… she’s the cow and your question is the fencepost that needs knocking down, I think. And she heads straight for it.

Which made her address to the kids (and the general public) afterwards all the more surprising. Having gotten used to the idea that she had one way of interacting, she was suddenly much warmer and friendlier with the kids. Admittedly, on a relative scale I’m sure she’ll seem blunt about certain realities that may seem too harsh for kids to handle (but not 4-H kids); her work, after all, is built on facilitating slaughter, and even though she was talking about how to show your animal at the fair, you didn’t long forget where she got all this insight about how to make animals do what you want them to do. But she presented to kids wanting to know how better to treat their animals in an entirely different way than she had to the adults in the meat business.

And listening to her, there’s something almost magical about her understanding of animals. We’re used to people putting human emotions into animals, every cartoon ever made has done that for us, and even the most serious-minded of animal authors, like Jack London, has been unable to completely escape putting human thoughts and feelings into the animal mind. Grandin does something entirely different— she helps us understand the animal as machine, takes the often puzzling outward signs of animal behavior and explains the syllogisms that produce them. (If A is in my path and reflecting light, I must have response B, flight.) In some ways it strips away the sentimentality of our relations with animals— and as a dog lover secretly convinced that my dog understands English and would express his devotion to me in full sentences if only he could form words with his tongue, this can be a little hard to accept. But it comes with a great gift which these kids, the dedicated and thoughtful kids of 4-H, accepted hungrily— actual insight into your animals’ behaviors and feelings. The cool logic and honesty of her explanation of animal behavior is bracing.

I especially liked what they used to prop up her books at the signing.

Myles gets his copy of Humane Livestock Handling autographed.

A question from the audience.