By Michael Nagrant
“Seriously, just give me 15 minutes alone with that sandwich.”
You know you’re in for it when the business card for a group of local food bloggers contains a double entendre that can be construed either as a commitment to serious eating or a potential sexual encounter with a sandwich. Welcome to the Internet trough that is Chicago Gluttons, chicagogluttons.com.
Assuming you’re not a total anal-retentive, or in the parlance of the Gluttons, a total ass-bag, there’s a good chance you’ll probably pig out on their posts till you pop the staples on that recent gastric bypass.
Don’t worry about bringing a fork to this literary meal. The Gluttons’ writings are so infused with the braggadocio of bling-era hip-hop that the only utensil you’ll need is an Internet browser open to urbandictionary.com. The Gluttons are also the bastard Internet writing stepchildren of Richard Pryor, Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman: aka equal-opportunity comedic destroyers of all or anything one might hold dear.
Their humor is sexist:
“We also had the baconed pork chop, which looked like it was going to be the most flavorless piece of meat this side of Greta Van Susteren.”
“This wasn’t just the normal LTH scene either; this was the Deerfield contingent. They were easily 6 bottles deep in vino tinto and the DSLR was getting heavy use as hot pies arrived. As they talked about ‘The Best Pizza In Chicago’ and Fox & Obel (poor folks, no worries if you don’t recognize the name), their bratty kids sat at a two top taking their money market portfolios for granted. I noticed that Timmy had a better cell phone than I did.”
“The lamb was fatty and succulent as a Southside White Sox fan.”
“Five guys [burgers] ran a train on my mouth”
Indulgent in the occasional racial stereotype:
“This was the type of music that brings out the Gloria Estefan in even the most Jeff Foxworthy-like cracka.”
Conversant in homosexual slander:
“I thought I loved Twinkies until I ate one again a few years ago. The cream inside those things is cloying enough to make even George Michael gag.”
And sometimes, just straight-up tasteless. Consider the most disgusting moment in Glutton’s history: the posting of a picture of a morbidly obese half-naked woman with a champagne bottle stuffed in her belly button used to enlighten folks as to the nature of “Bama” culture in a review of Little Italy’s Sweet Maple Café. According to the Gluttons, “Bama”‘s are Southern white fatties who get their “culinary shine on during breakfast by supplanting typical lunch and dinner foodstuffs [such as fried pork chop and fried chicken] to fortify an [sic] normally lackluster meal.”
That post was also their tipping point. A current Google image search shows the Gluttons’ photo as the most relevant image for the keyword “bama.”
What’s compelling is that, despite the consistent bluster, Chicago Gluttons is not totally irredeemable, perverse, salacious, scatological digital candy for Mancow males and the mouth-breathing set. Just beneath their Crunk and crack-culture-cloaked dialogue is a real passion, knowledge and conscience about food and restaurant culture.
The Gluttons’ collective voice is the progeny of an orgiastic gang-bang between the shock jock Howard Stern, Vogue’s curmudgeon critic Jeffrey Steingarten, sensualist storytellers like Ruth Reichl and MFK Fisher, and a smart beefin’ rapper like Jay-Z. The Gluttons drop references to Shakespeare’s “Othello,” political knowledge about French Indochina and factual asides about KFC founder Colonel Sanders.
Chicago Market editor for Menupages.com Helen Rosner says, “I don’t know how they do it. It’s some of the most hilarious, cutting, brilliant food writing I’ve ever read. Maybe the most hilarious, cutting, brilliant writing of any type.”
The Gluttons are apt pupils of the current state of restaurant-reviewing culture. Their review of the Bucktown restaurant The Bristol includes the following colorful rumination on the debilitating speed at which critics review restaurants these days.
“In the mad rush to be the first to rhapsodize over Chef X’s whale blubber fries w/ aioli made with Paul Kahn’s [sic] ball sweat, it’s easy to forget that it takes restaurants a while to get their shit straight.”
You’ll also find a solid parsing of food trends in their review of Spiaggia:
“Chefs are major celebrities (even the ones who are so creepy I wouldn’t put anything in my mouth that touched their hands). Food trends come and go as fast as runway fashions. Butchering whole hogs is totally in, but the pork belly backlash has already begun. Kimchee, I guess, is the new beet? Communal tables, pickling, Cuban sandwiches—all fresh. But molecular gastronomy? Not unless you wanna look like you just stepped outta June 2007, fool.”
There’s even a set of useful menu-ordering philosophy peppered in other posts such as:
1) Always order the most expensive thing on the menu. Its [sic] expensive for a reason.
2) Always order something that can’t be replicated at home.
Though, not everyone feels this is good advice. Local gourmet godfather Gary Wiviott, founder of Lthforum.com and co-author of the recently published BBQ Book, “Low and Slow,” says, “Trying too hard is the first thing that comes to mind, followed by gratuitous boob shot crosses the T in trying too hard. Plus they give bad advice. … That said, at least the guy is actually eating, and commenting, on the food. …Further reading of the site brings me to the conclusion that, even though there are interesting food-related snippets, the signal to noise ratio settles just above my tolerance limit, but I am not his intended audience.”
The Gluttons relish this criticism. Big critics and hardcore “foodies” are their enemies. In the parlance of pro wrestling, the Gluttons are the “heels” or villains sent to destroy what they see as the smugness surrounding traditional food-reviewing practices.
And in that role, the Gluttons would be the Iron Sheik or Andre the Giant to ABC 7 Hungry Hound Steve Dolinsky’s Hulk Hogan. Gluttons founder Roy Palondikar says of Dolinsky, “We hate Dolinsky. I want to declare war on him.”
Palondikar’s Gluttons co-writer and girlfriend, Marilyn Lee adds, “If I wanted to get made fun of for the rest of my life, I’ll put an 8×10 photo of myself in the restaurants around Chicago.”
Fellow Glutton John Honkala, a career bartender and former columnist for the University of Michigan student newspaper, the group’s only “trained” writer, clarifies the animosity, saying, “You’re not supposed to put a big picture next to your column. Food reviewing is not about becoming a big celebrity. You’re not supposed to announce yourself.” He adds, “Dolinsky is like the Wal-Mart of food reviewers. What doesn’t he like?”
Dolinsky responded, “I have never read their stuff, but from the looks of it, doesn’t appear that I will be doing so.”
In addition to acting as a foil to mainstream reviewers, the Gluttons’ writing also counteracts the trite descriptors creeping in to citizen journalism and lesser Web sites, and pushes back at the witless “phenomenal and to die for” adjective-laden reviewing culture.
Whatever vitriol the Gluttons may sling, though, is entirely part of a grossly exaggerated characterization similar to Kanye West’s outsized ego (then again, maybe West really is a super douche-bag) or Eminem’s serial-killer rap archetype. It’s a role play. As Honkala says, “We’re the least hard people in the city of Chicago.” All of them agree that that they’d be horrified if their mothers read the Web site, and some thank god that their parents don’t “even know how to use the Internet.”
Not only are the Gluttons not hard, but they are a multicultural stew of true humanitarians. In addition to the Indian Dominican Palondikar, the Mexican and Chinese Lee, and “token white boy” Honkala, there’s Sarah Lee, the group’s Chinese graphic designer, local personal chef Alvin Yu, also of Chinese descent, and its profane poet laureate, the African American Darwensi Clark.
Clark, a cool cat who favors sharp Versace eyeglasses and a rakish Kangol fedora, runs a local resettlement program to help refugees get started in America. Clark met Marilyn Lee and Yu while working at the Chinese Mutual Aid Association, a community-based social-service agency. Through Lee, he met her cousin Sarah, and Palondikar and Honkala, friends who shared twenty-five-cent gravy bread (buns dipped in Italian beef gravy) as students at UIC. Polindakar, Lee and Honkala now do contract Web site work, but Yu still runs a multicultural youth program for the association.
In person, Clark is the measured antithesis of his loud posting persona. When I ask him why he’s so hardcore online, Honkala chimes in, saying “Because he’s black.” Clark agrees saying, “I think that I get away with a lot of stuff and I have the ability to tap in to my African-American heritage.”
But his and the group’s work on the Web site, just as it is now in this interview, isn’t an angry baiting banter, but a jocular indulgence in stereotypes as a means of busting through uncomfortable racial differences. Honkala says, “We don’t want people thinking we’re someone dropping n-bombs from the suburbs in our basement.”
Clark himself has only used an edited version of the “N” word in his posts once, saying, “Yeah, I mean, we don’t have a line per se, but as the only African-American writer in CG with a predominantly Caucasian reader base, I don’t want people to get the impression that that shit is okay to say in passing. If it was a food blog created solely by black folks and had a large African-American reader base, well then that shit is free game. Fucked up, but true.”
Clark’s Gluttons co-writer Alvin Yu is a quiet, thoughtful presence and also the group’s food snob. He says, “My family had the same Zenith TV from 1978, even today, but we’d spend five hundred bucks on shark fin. Our motto was: You work to eat.”
Sarah Lee, whose father opened one of the first Chinese restaurants in Green Bay, Wisconsin (Lee’s Cantonese), barely utters a word during our meeting. Her cousin Marilyn, however, doesn’t mince words, saying “If you’re from a Chinese family, everyone’s a free labor source.” Lee’s also recently stepped up her posting style to match the guys saying, “Well if these guys are going to be posting pictures of [naked fat chicks], why not.”
She’s the perfect foil for site founder Palondikar, the intense provocateur, a guy who estimates he spent five grand last year at the Korean BBQ spot he calls the greatest restaurant in the world, Lincoln Square’s San Soo Gap San. He’s an obsessive streaky eater who allegedly ate Qdoba’s poblano pesto chicken burrito thirty days in a row, because as he says, “If I love something I’m not gonna cheat on it with another meal. A good taco al pastor is like a good woman. I’m gonna nail that thing forever.”
Palondikar is also the ringleader for the Glutton’s celebration of all food high and low, chain or independent. (They group cites Outback Steakhouse’s Awesome Blossom, Olive Garden’s breadsticks and Red Lobster’s Cheddar Bay biscuits as favorites, though they eschew Hot Pockets, which “suck” on their Web site.) He suggests that people who don’t like McDonald’s don’t eat it right saying, “You gotta take one bite of the burger and two fries, chew, and make a mixture. A chemical reaction occurs. We’ve dubbed it ‘wondrous splendor.’ It doesn’t taste like burger and fries. It’s like crack.”
Honkala, who had his food epiphany while chomping on a Whopper, is firmly in that camp. He says, “Every day in high school I had a plain peanut-butter sandwich. All of the sudden I was eating this burger with mayo, and thought, ‘wow, mayo’s not gross, I should try everything,’ and I started eating anything, pigs and shit.” Make no mistake though, Honkala’s also a sophisticated cook and hosts an annual dinner party called “The Deliciousness” where he serves ambitious courses like chorizo, shrimp and chicken ragout and smoky acorn squash soup.
Palondikar doesn’t quite share Honkala’s affinity for Burger King saying, “The chance of you running into a convicted felon at Burger King is so much higher, especially in the suburbs. That’s why I have an aversion. Everyone’s got teardrop tattoos at the Burger Kings I go to.”
But Palondikar’s inciting nature belies a soft heart. He says, “We generally don’t do negative reviews [on the Web site] because people’s livelihoods are on the line.” He’s also leery of the racist culinary Disneyland that occurs late night at Lincoln Park’s Wiener Circle, saying, “I don’t like going there after 8pm. But it sucks that they have such great cheese sauce, because sometimes you have to put up with that stuff.”
Like many creative endeavors the Web site spawned from the angry energy of a jilted lover. Coming off a bad breakup, and with lots of free time, Palondikar started scanning every takeout menu he had and put it up on the blog. After that, he created the Gluttons site as a repository for the personal off-color food banter amongst the group since they spent “fifty percent of their time” jawing about food anyway.
There was no agenda for the site, which runs no advertising, except to indulge in fun amongst friends. And despite an evolution which had them recently coining the phrase “flavorfuck” to describe the fare at West Town’s Mexique, the Gluttons’ first post from Honkala was a ridiculously tame passage that called the pastrami sandwich from JB’s Deli in Andersonville “delicious.”
Clark’s no-holds-barred posting style, however, quickly spurred the group into a Nas-versus-Jay Z-like battles for literary supremacy. The site filled with traded barbs, outlandish adjectives and inventive metaphors, a joust grounded in competitive one-upsmanship amongst the friends.
While they had no agenda, the Gluttons movement has started to rock the elitist cabal of gourmandism and is making dining, and reading about dining, fun again. Their work celebrates the communal gathering power, the raw entertainment and the soul-bolstering movement of a great meal.
Food writing these days has far too many old white dudes navel gazing and writing yawn-producing course-by-course descriptions that only enlighten a reader to a reviewer’s expense-account largesse. Like the late legendary unconventional music writer Lester Bangs, the Gluttons are smart misfit critics, a disruptive force who might change the establishment, or at least kick it in the ass a little.
Chicagoist food editor Chuck Sudo says of the gluttons, “If more of us food writers/bloggers tried to develop a style that fits for us like they have, the restaurant review might not be going the way of Latin.”
If you think the Gluttons as saviors of food media sounds far-fetched, consider that Time Out Chicago published a piece from Clark on where to find the best bacon in Chicago in their recent breakfast issue. Editor-In-Chief Frank Sennett says, “I was curious as to whether they could use that platform in a legitimate way in the mainstream. I felt what he [Clark] wrote was well researched and good critical opinion. After reading the piece, I thought I gotta go get me some of that bacon.”
Legitimate as it was, Clark’s Time Out piece pulled few punches and was probably the first mainstream review to suggest that Nueske’s Black Peppercorn bacon “possessed heat like chlamydia.”
It remains to be seen whether this legitimacy will extend beyond a narrow group of readers or gain wide acceptance. As Heather Shouse, food editor for Time Out says, “It’s juvenile, but I’ll admit it made me laugh. I think if you’re in a certain age demographic, you can’t help but be familiar with these phrases, cultural references, slang terms, etc., and to see someone strip away all pretension of food writing and write in terms that have previously been reserved for talking smack amongst friends is interesting, but I won’t go so far as to say it’s ‘smart fresh food writing,’ as you asked.”
She adds, “In terms of whether it’s harmless or offensive, that’s completely in the perspective of the reader. … If you don’t like Mr. Dibbs or Atmosphere blasting in your ear while you eat ‘fluff and foam’ (as some would call it) at Schwa, don’t dine there. If Gluttons offends you, don’t read it. Lord knows there’s enough food commentary on the Web that people of all preferences will likely be able to find something that appeals to them.”
No matter what happens, Palondikar confirms one thing for the Gluttons, saying, “We don’t know what that end goal will be, but we aren’t gonna stop eating. You gotta keep eatin’.”