Dining and food culture in Chicago

Dying for a Meal: Making a Hyde Park Outing of the Oriental Institute’s Exhibition

Events, Hyde Park No Comments »
Stele of Katumuwa/Image: Oriental Institute-Travis Saul

Stele of Katumuwa/Image: Oriental Institute-Travis Saul

When people say they’re going to Hyde Park, they usually mean they’re headed somewhere within a few blocks of the University of Chicago. My reason for recently going to Hyde Park was, of course, a UChicago-related event, an exhibit at the Oriental Institute (1155 East 58th) entitled “In Remembrance of Me: Feasting with the Dead in the Ancient Middle East.”

This exhibit brings together two of our favorite things—food and mortuary rituals—and it focuses on the use of food and drink to care for the dearly departed. At this ancient Turkish ritual, there would have been a stone representation of the deceased, along with directions regarding foods to be set before him. The stone representation, a stele recently discovered in Eastern Turkey, is for a man named Katumuwa. The inscription indicates that Katumuwa expected it to be rather dreary in the afterlife; he thought an annual banquet around his image would make things slightly more tolerable. As part of this exhibit, there are almost sixty artifacts related to comestibles of the ancient Near East.

This exhibit ends January 4, and Christmas break is the perfect time to make the trek to Hyde Park for some culture and some chow at one of the neighborhood’s classic bar/restos.

The Nile (1162 East 55th) complements the “In Remembrance of Me” exhibit. Having been featured on “Check, Please!” The Nile stands apart from just about every other nearby restaurant. Now in a new building, The Nile has served the community for years, with Middle Eastern standards including a much-praised chicken shawarma. The owner is Palestinian, born in the little town of Bethlehem. The food is value-priced: around $15/person. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Chef Edward Kim, Mott Street

Comfort Me, Contemporary Comfort, Wicker Park No Comments »

© 2014 Galdones Photography

By David Hammond

“When I was sick,” recalls Chef Edward Kim of Mott Street, “or when I came in from the cold after shoveling snow with my father, I might have a hot porridge of rice with a little soy sauce; chicken soup…or a Japanese curry pork over rice. To me, Japanese curry is synonymous with the colder days of fall and winter; it was a dish my parents would often make for me. Japanese curry evokes memories of the smell of stewed meat with curry in a kitchen comfortably humid in an otherwise brisk house. It reminds me of my childhood.

“From a strictly culinary perspective, Japanese curry is comforting because it’s thick, it sticks to your bones, yet it’s mild in seasoning and has a distinct sweetness to it. While the curry is indeed black pepper-forward, the spiciness is not aggressive. It pairs well with braised meats. To me, braised meats capture comfort because they’re simple to make, yet they take time—and time is important.” Read the rest of this entry »

Chicago’s Classic Restaurants: Won Kow

Chinatown No Comments »
Won Kow, courtesy Curt Teich Postcard Archives Lake County (IL) Discovery Museum

Won Kow/Curt Teich Postcard Archives Lake County (IL) Discovery Museum

By David Hammond

In Chicago’s Chinatown—long before any of us had our first taste of Szechuan, Hunanese or Yunnanese cuisine—there was Won Kow. Since 1928, Won Kow has served what was once known simply as “Chinese food” but is now more likely to be termed “American-Chinese.”

Won Kow, Chinatown’s oldest Chinese restaurant, is on the second floor of an old building designed, general manager David Hoy told us, by “the same Norwegian architects behind the old Leong Chinese Merchants Association almost directly across the street.” The two big brick buildings with covered balconies and Asian ornamentation are Chinatown’s twin anchors.

Walking into the Won Kow building, you’re confronted by a long flight of stairs ascending to the second floor restaurant. There’s a printout, taped to the wall at the bottom of the stairs, assuring potential customers that takeout orders can be brought down to them. Such notice would have been unnecessary when Won Kow opened, shortly after the first electric elevator was patented, long before we acquired a fear of walking up a flight of stairs.

The stairs open onto a big wood-paneled dining room. Al Capone’s table was once in the northwest corner, and two of his boys would usually be stationed at the doorway to stand guard over Chicago’s OG. The menu has changed some since those days: Big Al surely never sampled Won Kow’s tempura or sushi…which, of course, are Japanese. And that’s the thing about American-Chinese places today: they frequently serve a pan-Asian variety of chow rather than “authentic” Szechuan or even Cantonese cuisine. Read the rest of this entry »

Things to Do with Your Tongue: Speaking and Eating Chinese with Professor James McCawley

Chinatown, Chinese, Trends & Essays No Comments »
Photo: David Hammond

Photo: David Hammond

By David Hammond

When I studied literature and linguistics at the University of Chicago in the mid-1970s, I knew of James McCawley but never had him as a prof. He worked in generative semantics, and his work, focusing upon how meaning and logic affect syntax, created a well-known rift with followers of Chomskyan generative grammar.

I’d read a paper or two of McCawley’s in Joe Williams’ linguistics classes, but later in life the work of his I found most useful was “The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters,” a still-in-print handbook (University of Chicago Press) for deciphering Chinese restaurant menus. About this guide, Calvin Trillin wrote in the New Yorker:

“Unlike some of the rest of us, McCawley can enter a Chinese restaurant secure in the knowledge that his digestion will not be impaired by the frustration of watching Chinese customers enjoy some succulent marvel whose name the management has not bothered to translate… .McCawley does not spend half the meal staring at his neighbor’s bean curd with that particularly ugly combination of greed and envy so familiar to—well, to some of the rest of us… . McCawley endeavors to free the non-Chinese-speaking eater forever from the wretched constriction of the English menu.” Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Jon Keeley of Gemini Bistro

Comfort Me, Lakeview 1 Comment »
Jon Keeley/Photo: Neil Burger

Jon Keeley/Photo: Neil Burger

By David Hammond

For Chef Jon Keeley of Gemini Bistro (2075 North Lincoln), comfort food “warms the heart. When you take that first bite, you’re instantly transported back to a time of good memories. When you’re done eating, you have that feeling of ‘Wow, that’s good for the soul (and now it’s time for a nap).’ Comfort food for me takes you home. It transports you to a different time and place. You close your eyes and just fall back.”

Comfort food is often high in carbohydrates, so it’s not surprising that Keeley’s favorite comfort food is “Pasta, pasta, pasta—any way you can put it in front of me.”

Keeley’s Gemini Bistro, which for the past three years has received Michelin Bib Gourmand recognition, serves from a big menu that includes several pasta-based dishes. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Tom Van Lente of Two Restaurant and Bar

Comfort Me, West Town No Comments »
Photo: Shannon Marie Braniff

Photo: Shannon Marie Braniff

By David Hammond

One of the most adventurous and memorable meals I’ve ever had was at Alinea, Chicago’s only Michelin three-star restaurant. Chef Grant Achatz is a culinary artist of major significance, challenging diners and pushing into new frontiers of food experimentation.

The food of Achatz is almost as much about the mind as it is about the stomach. One thing you would not say about his food, however, is that it “sticks to your ribs.” It doesn’t, and it wasn’t meant to.

For Tom Van Lente of Two Restaurant and Bar (1132 West Grand), however, that’s what comfort food is all about.

“To me,” Van Lente says, “comfort food is rib-sticking good, with lots of fat and butter (that’s not a bad thing!). Comfort food has to be something that’s going to weigh you down—and keep you satiated—for hours afterwards.” Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Lee Ann Whippen of Chicago q

Comfort Me, Gold Coast No Comments »

Lee Ann Whippen on the line

By David Hammond

I write about food, so I’m frequently asked, “What’s your favorite restaurant?”

An impossible question to answer.

Owing to a number of factors that change daily or even hourly, it’s sometimes difficult to pin down a favorite restaurant. For instance, my favorite place for breakfast will almost certainly be different than my favorite place for lunch or dinner; one of my favorite places for lunch is Johnnie’s Italian Beef in Elmwood Park, but on a hot summer afternoon, no way I’m going to hunker into a mound of steaming beef.

A person’s comfort foods are also subject to change, and it’s not uncommon for people to have more than one comfort food.

“I have a lot of comfort foods,” said Lee Ann Whippen of Chicago q (1160 North Dearborn). “Each of these foods has their own quality that comforts me for whatever reason. Comfort food is not only for when you’re feeling bad. Sometimes you just want to feel good all over. You just want to feel… comfortable.” Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Nicole Pederson of Found 

Comfort Me, Evanston, Recipes 1 Comment »
Nicole Pederson

Nicole Pederson/Galdones photography

By David Hammond

We started the “Comfort Me” series in hopes of locating what might be the universal constants of comfort food, the characteristics shared by all consumables that we feel give us comfort. As we’ve talked to Chicago chefs, however, it became clear that, predictably, personal life experiences have a lot to do with our individual definitions of comfort foods, and comfort foods clearly vary by ethnicity.

Nonetheless, there are some recurring themes in comfort food. It seems, for many Westerners, comfort food is frequently characterized by high-fat/high-carb creations that are not aggressively spiced and are easy to eat: they’re soft, yield to an effortless bite, and don’t seem to require a lot of chewing. That’s certainly true for the primary comfort food of Nicole Pederson of Found (1631 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, foundkitchen.com).

“My comfort foods,” Pederson confesses, “are kind of strange. It’s not like I had a meal that was all comfort food. It was little things, like lefse, which is a thin, potato pancake thing. Norwegian. You eat it like a tortilla, except you put butter on it. We’re Norwegian, so we put butter on everything. We even eat raw butter. Lefse is like a big round circular pancake that you cook on a kind of crepe griddle. It’s made from potato and flour, almost like a gnocchi batter. You roll it out really thin with a textured rolling pin, and then you griddle it on both sides. It lasts a long time in the refrigerator, and then you eat it with butter, alongside dinner. As a snack, you can eat lefse with sugar…but my grandpa said only Swedes eat lefse with sugar.”

Our comfort foods seem, many times, to be linked to specific experiences we’ve had growing up. For Erick Williams of County Barbeque (1352 West Taylor), his comfort food memories revolve around sitting alone in the kitchen after high-school football practice eating his mom’s stew. For Mary Nguyen Aregoni of Saigon Sisters (multiple locations), she remembers eating pho, traditional Vietnamese soup, with her dad and other family members in Laos after they left their homeland following the Vietnam War. For Pederson, many of her comfort foods are linked to cooking and eating experiences with her grandparents. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Mary Nguyen Aregoni of Saigon Sisters

Comfort Me, Loop, Vietnamese No Comments »

PhoBy David Hammond

One of my earliest memories is being home from school, sick, slurping soup prepared by my Italian grandmother. As a kid, I thought this soup, pastina, was my grandmother’s invention, made especially for me. The recipe for pastina is simple: chicken broth with lots of garlic and, crucially, little pasta stars (tiny letters of the alphabet will not do!).

As I got older, I came to understand that pastina was a classic cold-flu remedy enjoyed by generations of the young and old…even non-Italians. That realization had no effect upon my belief that this soup was, beyond a doubt, magic.

As my cousin Karen used to say, “Pastina is to be eaten with Kleenex.” This soup is warm and salty, so it opens up the sinuses, relieving pressure and other cold symptoms.

My Aunt Rosemarie confirmed the power of pastina and told me she once “felt her fever break” while eating pastina. “It was very dramatic,” she added, convincingly.

Chicken broth and garlic are, of course, well-known folk cures for the common cold, but even if the pastina had no measurable curative effects, it did, at least comfort me in my illness. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfort Me: Erick Williams of County Barbeque

Barbecue, Comfort Me, Little Italy, Lower West Side No Comments »
Erick Williams, County Barbecue,  courtesy David Hammond

Erick Williams by David Hammond

By David Hammond

People speak of it fondly, and chefs say they serve it, but what, exactly, is “comfort food”?

The concept of comfort food is uncertain. It varies by geographic location, ethnic heritage and generation. The cherished comfort food of an Eisenhower-era Midwesterner is not going to be the same as the comfort food of an Eastern-European millennial. Some believe comfort food must be something one ate when young, foods that warm the heart with thoughts of family and home. Not surprisingly, many of our comfort foods seem to have been prepared, at least the first time, by our mothers or grandmothers.

Some commonly cited comfort foods—like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and noodle casserole—are all relatively high in fat and carbs, with soft texture and mild seasoning. Are these attributes common to all comfort food? Read the rest of this entry »