With every meal we eat, we betray ourselves. Our politics and our personal history, our deepest longings, our most private loves and hates — all of this is laid bare every time we open our mouths and shove something in.
Think about it. What beer do you drink when the choice is yours alone, and why? What's in your refrigerator right now? What food do you turn to when you're in need of the kind of comfort that cannot come from another human being; when, in defiance of Thomas Wolfe, you go home again and quail in the face of onrushing memory? And what do you look for, right away, on your first night in an unfamiliar town?
I drink Corona, Harp when it's available (which is never often enough). My last name notwithstanding, I've never been a fan of the Guinness; it's too thick, too heavy, too much like a meal in itself. I like cheap piss-water lagers and pilsners, ice-cold, and prefer the glass bottle to the imperial pint, and both of the above to the can. My father, born and raised in Rochester, was a Genny Cream Ale man, and the first beer I ever drank was one of his, filched from the fridge, drunk down fast and promptly thrown back up again into my mother's azalea bushes in front of the house. That was the last GCA I put to my lips for more than a decade. After having a similar experience with a bottle of Southern Comfort at the tender age of way-too-young, I have never again tasted a drop of that vile, cough-syrup-tasting stuff.
My refrigerator is always full of milk because, when I was growing up, we never seemed to have enough milk around. And the milk that's in my fridge is all organic, all hormone- and antibiotic-free, because it just tastes better and I am willing to pay the difference for the good stuff. At last count, Laura and I also had 23 different boxes of breakfast cereal lined up on the counter — most of it complete junk, most of it tooth-rottingly sweet and full of additives, chemicals, preservatives, what-have-you. My comfort foods are Laura's meatloaf, white-trash chicken crusted with Ritz crackers and butter, sushi, Southern barbecue, breakfast burritos and Entenmann's chocolate fudge cake that, if you leave it cut and sitting for more than a day, will literally bleed palm oil. "Pizza" means only one thing in my world: a New York thin with cheese and pepperoni. The only soft pretzels I will eat are the ones we fly back with from Philadelphia, where Laura's from. And when I go home, the only places where I really want to eat are a little bagel place in Irondequoit Plaza that makes the best bagel dogs in the world and where I got my heart broken once; Gitsis, on Monroe Avenue, where Laura and I met on the morning she arrived in town to move in with me and where I once nearly took a bullet during a fight; and Schaller's, where I spent many strange evenings during my formative years and which serves a hot sauce with its cheeseburgers that I sometimes still dream about the way a recovering alcoholic dreams of the bottle.
Like Brillat-Savarin said, "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are." Not who you are; that's complicated. But what: an easterner or westerner, liberal or conservative, brave or cowardly in your appetites, a child of class and privilege or (like me) a no-account punk who got one lucky break and has been milking it ever since.
A no-account punk who could never be happy in Chicago. Tokyo, sure. Mexico City, absolutely. And there are days — bad ones — when I still fantasize about collapsing back into my Rust Belt youth, getting a shitty apartment in the Flower City, a bag of bagel dogs, a stool at the closest Mick bar and a girlfriend who works the pole part-time down at the Klassy Cat. But Chicago? No way. The food would kill me. I would either explode or wither and die.
I know this because after getting a "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" letter from Biker Jim (read it in my "From the Gut" blog), I was inspired to check out Chicago, the joint opened a decade back by Luanne and Joe Margotte — uprooted Chicagoans who, after coming west, realized they couldn't live without the particular and highly specific charms of Second City cuisine, and so opened a restaurant based completely on the idea of transplanting a few hundred square feet of Chicago in the fertile soil of West Colfax Avenue.
At Chicago, the game on the radio is the Cubs or the Bears. At the counter is a stash of Fannie May candies under glass, boxes of jelly stars, boxes of Salerno butter cookies, signs for Gonnella bread (as vital to Chicago eaters as Amoroso rolls are to Philadelphians or Entenmann's cakes are to me), Jay's potato chips, Vienna Beef hot dogs. The place is less a restaurant than a cramped, cluttered, plastic-wrapped museum of Chicago paraphernalia that just happens to have a really killer snack bar attached. You can eat here, sure. But the real feast for Windy City expats (who, if the guestbook is to be believed, make up the vast majority of the Margottes' customer base) is one of the eyes and ears and chilly memories.
Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.
The menu, too, is an artifact — as carefully catalogued and rigorously authenticated as any dinosaur bone or Neolithic stone ax, offering bottles of giardiniera (apparently requisite in the construction of any Chicago-style food item, from breakfast to dessert), Cubs DVDs, giant logs of salami, Chicago flag stickers and knock-off Interstate signs. And the description of the actual food — all cryptic allusions and provenance (Vienna, Usinger, Dominick's, Gonnella) — is as alien as just about anything I've come across. I've been to Chinese lunar new year parties where the menus were less foreign, eaten with Russian gangsters in rooms where I got more of the references.
I have no doubt that had I grown up in Chicago, I would've wept at the profusion of hometown product and ruthless boosterism. But I didn't grow up in Chicago. And though I have no doubt that saying this will probably catch me a beating the same way I'd offer one to anyone talking about chicken wings without a Buffalo connection, I just don't get it.
Let's start with the hot dog: a beautiful, snappy, steamed Vienna all-beef on a steam-damp and chewy poppyseed bun. Love it. Mustard and onions? Of course. And I could even get behind the zing of celery salt dashed over the top. But relish? Slivered tomato? A whole pickle spear? Chicago-style sport peppers (actually dwarf serranos that are used extensively by Chicagoans, presumably to keep their insides from freezing during the winter) and sweets? Jesus... It's like these people are afraid of the hot dog and must, for comfort's sake, ruin a very good thing by dragging it through the garden. They do the same with their pizza, burying it under unnecessary toppings and pounds of dough until it becomes deep-dish dreck.
After the dog, I tried braunschweiger on Rosen's rye with yellow mustard and raw onion. This was familiar; this I could live on. The German part of my mother's family were fans of the best of that country's wursts, taught her the taste for the stuff. And I do occasionally like me some liverwurst, because the taste, the smell, the texture of it reminds me of her more indulgent moments — standing in front of the open refrigerator, eating the stuff off the blade of a knife. Besides, pork liver sausage (really more a pâté in this case) and raw onions just taste great together. And after the braunschweiger, I went for that archetype of the Chicago eating experience: the Italian beef sandwich. Sliced beef (not too thin, not too thick) on a beautiful Gonnella roll (one excellent piece of bread, worth the trouble that Chicago must go through to import it) with sweet peppers and giardiniera (an Italian antipasti turned into a condiment by these Midwesterners, with a mix of chile peppers, carrots and pepper flakes, pickled in vinegar and then marinated in oil). If you ask nice, the ladies working the open kitchen at Chicago will give it to you dipped — dunking the bread in beef jus, which serves both to add flavor and radically speed the dissolution of the bread into a soggy mess that will inevitably end up in your lap. But even un-dipped, the thing is a mess, easily soaking through two layers of waxed paper in minutes. Still, it's delicious — a French dip gone squirrelly with competing influences, harsh with peppery heat and as filling as eating a big, well-done steak wrapped in bread. On my second attempt, a veil of provolone helped hold the thing together. So I was learning, thinking that maybe Chicago wouldn't kill me after all...
Until I got to the barbecue pork sandwich: sliced pork on a roll slathered in Open Pit barbecue sauce — another regional fave, sweet and spicy and originally native to Detroit. I understand that anywhere there are pigs, fat men and football games, barbecue is going to flourish. But if this sandwich — with its dry pork and too-spicy sauce and smell of Liquid Smoke — is the default barbecue of choice in the Windy City, fuck it. I would die without regular airlifts of smoky pulled pork, Carolina mustard sauce and cheap, squishy hamburger buns from the Piggly Wiggly.
What you eat is what you are. What you crave is where you're from, what you know, what you love in your most private moments. While it makes me happy to know that those who long for Maxwell Street and bleed ice water even in the height of a Colorado summer have a place to call their own, I ain't from Chicago. I'm gonna keep getting my pizza flat, my barbecue smoky and my dogs elsewhere.
But I might look into ordering some of that Gonnella bread. I think those Windy City folks might be on to something there.
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