A few years ago, Monica Eng of Axios and I started writing a book about foods that were first served in Chicago, some of which are not to be found outside the city limits. The book, which comes out this month from University of Illinois Press, is “Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown Bites.” We investigate how many iconic Chicago foods came to be, where you can eat them, and even how you can make some of them at home. In this process, we uncovered some fascinating, strange and funny stories.
Who invented the Chicago Hot Dog?
We’ve seen menu items designated as a Chicago Hot Dog in Paris and Hong Kong. Though named after our city, this regional wiener is truly international in appeal. The iconic construction is the wiener (boiled, simmered or steamed) in a poppy-seed bun, topped with yellow mustard, chopped onions, neon-green relish, tomatoes, dill pickles, sport peppers and celery salt. Monica Eng dug up some information about this, perhaps the most globally recognized Chicago original food.
“My main source was the delightful Bruce Kraig, a retired food historian and author of “Man Bites Dog”?and “Hot Dog: A Global History.” Kraig explained that the hot dog was not really invented by a single person. Instead, it was shaped by a parade of cultural influences that tell the story of early twentieth-century immigration to Chicago—especially to the Maxwell Street Market area, around Halsted Street and Roosevelt Road. A popular theory posits that Abe Drexler, who founded the Fluky’s hot dog stand on Maxwell Street in 1929, came up with the canonical Chicago Hot Dog, but Kraig says, There isn’t really any evidence for that.’ Instead, the food scholar notes, specific Chicago-style ingredients took time to settle into their final combo—and evolved into a permanent style between 1920 and 1950 (though the neon-green color of relish may have been a later development).”
Kraig explains that the hot dog itself “descends from a broad variety of sausages brought by German immigrants who came to the States in great numbers beginning in the 1850s, and many settled in Chicago over the next fifty years.” Those early sausages, however, were mostly mixtures of pork and beef. But another immigrant group beginning in the 1890s were Jews from Eastern Europe (especially Hungary and Austria) who did not eat pork and they took up the sausage business, in companies like Vienna, making all-beef sausages. So, in Chicago—the beef capital of America (at the time)—that became the Chicago style.”
What did Anthony Bourdain deem “perhaps the greatest, most uniquely Chicago food invention”?
Short answer: the Mother-in-Law. Next question: What the heck is a Mother-in-Law?
Since 1972, Fat Johnnie’s Famous Red Hots (7242 South Western) has been housed in what is lovingly referred to as “the shack.” This tumbledown wooden building, with hand-painted signage and menu, looks as though it was hit by a hurricane; there are few right angles left on the grubby, wobbly-looking white building with the sloping wooden awning. It is not the most promising place to grab lunch. It is, however, a landmark of Chicago food greatness, being what some believe to be the birthplace of the Mother-in-Law: a Chicago corn-roll tamale in a hot dog bun, covered in chili, dressed like a dragged-through-the-garden Chicago hot dog.
Fat Johnnie’s also does a luxe version of the Mother-in-Law, which is basically the sandwich with a hot dog added; it’s called a Mighty Dog, and honestly, the hot dog helps mitigate the carbo-heavy Mother-in-Law.
Fat Johnnie’s is owned and operated by John Pawlikowski, who lives next door to “the shack.” Pawlikowski started the business by selling hot dogs (advertised on his street-side signage as “Fit for a King”). Pawlikowski explained that he based the concept for his restaurant on the kind of food that might be served from a hot dog cart, so no French fries or fancy stuff like that; just hot dogs and Polish sausage.
Hungry for one more Bourdainism about the Mother-in-Law? Biting into one, the great man confessed that it was “disturbing in design yet strangely compelling.”
Was Chicken Vesuvio named after Mount Vesuvius?
The thinking behind this notion is that the spice profile of the dish is smoking hot, like the volcano. But Italian food is traditionally not chili-hot, and chicken Vesuvio is composed basically of chicken on the bone, potato wedges and peas, baked with white wine, olive oil, oregano and garlic: it’s pretty mild.
What seems beyond doubt is that this dish was popularized by the folks at the long-gone Vesuvio Restaurant at 15 East Wacker who put Chicken Vesuvio on their menu sometime in the 1930s.
Chicken Vesuvio may be the most popular of all Chicago original dishes, found on menus across the country and even around the world. But did Chicken Vesuvio originate in the restaurant after which it is named? Maybe… but maybe not. According to food writer and linguist Dr. Anthony Buccini, the origins may be much humbler. “At the risk,” wrote Dr. Buccini, “of being attacked for a lack of appreciation for Chicago’s place in culinary history, I fail to grasp the basis of the claim that ‘Vesuvio’ chicken was in any meaningful sense invented in Chicago. There are a number of variants that can be legitimately called ‘chicken Vesuvio,’ and the kinds of variation allowed place the dish squarely amidst a continuum of southern Italian roasted chicken preparations.”
What the hell are Taffy Grapes?
Baba’s Famous Steak and Lemonade (344 North Laramie) is, like many other small takeout places all over Chicago, designed for a grab-and-go lunch, dinner, or early breakfast (the place closes at 2am, the better to snag stragglers from the night before). It’s not a terribly inviting space: you enter a big room hung with random, timeworn posters for branded food and beverages, order through bulletproof glass, put your money down and receive your food from a spinning plastic carousel. The room contains no tables or chairs. I usually order a steak sandwich with lemonade (basically Italian ice) and taffy grapes.
Taffy grapes are fresh, seedless green grapes dipped in frosting and sprinkled with nuts or candy. They’re usually served at smaller, non-chain quick-service restaurants and seem to have been created specifically to serve as a dessert or a side dish. Taffy grapes are handcrafted treats: each grape must be dipped and placed in the container by hand. There is no machine that will do that work, and it’s important to keep each dipped grape separate from the others so that they don’t all merge into one sweet—and difficult-to-eat—blob. Why “taffy,” especially as no taffy is involved in the creation of these treats? Probably because they’re like taffy apples. Affy Tapples, marketed as “Chicago’s Original Caramel Apple,” have long been a local and national favorite, and like Affy Tapples, taffy grapes are dipped into a sweet coating and covered with nuts.
How is it some “half-assed Mafia guys” started selling Italian Beef?
Evidence suggests that the Italian beef sandwich was first developed in Chicago to serve the many guests at an Italian “peanut wedding,” as a low-cost affair was known. Cut the meat thin, soak the bread with gravy, and you have a hefty handful of food. So many hugely popular foods of Italy, Mexico and elsewhere started in the family kitchens of people who used whatever they had to create something delicious. What pushed Italian beef into the spotlight was the emergence of the Italian beef stand, and Chris Pacelli, Jr. of Al’s #1 Italian Beef (1079 West Taylor) has a story about that.
“You got to remember,” says Pacelli, “Italians, in the thirties, late twenties, there were all kinds of gamblers, half-assed Mafia guys and stuff. My uncle Al was involved in all that, a gambler, dis, dat. Well, he gets in trouble, has to go to jail, comes out of jail and starts driving a truck. A friend says, ‘Let’s open up a bookie place.’ So, my uncle says, ‘Why don’t I do beef sandwiches? I’ll sell them as a front.’ There was like five guys. The original beef stand was on Laflin and Harrison. Couple of years go by, and my uncle is thinking, ‘I’m pretty good at this, and I don’t want to jeopardize it all by going to jail because I’m operating a bookie joint,’ so he talks to the guys and says, ‘I want to buy you out.’ So, he pays them what they wanted and hires a couple of people. This went on until the late fifties, and a lot of these [other] beef places, they all started out because of gambling. All these beef stands started because of my uncle. They were gamblers, and they saw him making money, cash money, and they figured that’s an easy way to make money and still gamble. They needed a source of money and instead of stealing, they sold beef.”
At Italian beef places, if you say you want your sandwich “sweet,” your beef will be adorned with some lightly cooked sweet peppers (almost always green, rather than red or yellow). If you say you want your sandwich “hot,” you’re going to receive it ladled with giardiniera, a blend of hot chili peppers, celery, sweet pepper, and sometimes other vegetables. In the Italian language, a female gardener is a “Giardiniera,” and this vegetable-forward condiment is appropriately named after those who garden. Giardiniera’s vegetable mix adds a fresh and bright crunch, as well as chili heat, and like the Italian beef itself, you’ll not likely find this Chicago style of giardiniera in Italy. You will, however, find a condiment that’s close: the traditional Italian version of Giardiniera contains the cut-up vegetables pickled in vinegar, usually without oil or hot chili peppers. According to Dalanti, a company that specializes in Italian condiments, “Common vegetables in the Italian version, also called sotto aceti, include onions, celery, zucchini, carrots and cauliflower, pickled vegetables in red- or white-wine vinegar. It is typically eaten as an antipasto, or with salads.”
How’d the Polish Sausage Sandwich become so popular in Chicago?
“Our top-selling item is definitely the Polish sausage,” says Jim Christopoulos, grandson of James “Jimmy” Stefanovic, founder and namesake of Jim’s Original (1250 South Union). Jim’s Original has been serving the Maxwell Street Polish since around 1939, when Stefanovic, a Macedonian immigrant, took over his aunt’s and uncle’s stand at the corner of Maxwell and Halsted, dead center in the historic Maxwell Street Market. Stefanovic claimed to be the inventor of the sandwich, and it’s generally accepted that he was, indeed, the man responsible for popularizing it. If you’d seen his stand in the old days, before it relocated, you’d notice that Polish sausage was the first item listed on Jim’s trademark red-and-yellow signage. Then as now, the Maxwell Street Polish was a popular item, and there are several factors that explain the rise of this early fast food.
“Hog butcher for the world,” as Carl Sandburg once wrote, Chicago and its Union Stockyards, which closed in 1971, were the source for much of the country’s butchered and processed pork and beef. Meat scraps from the stockyards could be used for sausage, and Polish sausage was popular in Chicago for many decades among Polish and other segments of the population. (We had it at home all the time growing up). Chicago had always welcomed Eastern European immigrants, due in part to the labor needed in the Stockyards. (Then, as now, meat processing was work for newly arrived immigrants). “The Halsted Street bus stop was right in front, so we had lots of traffic,” says Christopoulos. “The Polish sausage was convenient, cheap, quick, filling and delicious. It’s a one-third pound sausage, so it’s a sizable meal.”
There you go, five reasons for the continuing popularity of Polish sausage: “convenient, cheap, quick, filling and delicious.”
Testament to the continuing popularity of this sandwich is the fact that all over Chicago, there are other quick-service stands offering the “Maxwell Street Polish.” Christopoulos, who received his law degree from Chicago’s John Marshall Law School (now a part of the University of Illinois at Chicago), told us “I’ve had to sue three stores that have called themselves ‘Jim’s something-or-another.’ Once the University of Illinois shut us all down, we moved, and other stores with the same name started popping up, using the same colors, red and yellow. We didn’t trademark anything until 2004. Now we’ve trademarked ‘Jim’s’ and ‘The Original Maxwell Street Polish Sausage.'”
Why, according to law, can’t Garrett’s Popcorn sell Chicago Mix anymore?
Walking down any one of several main drags in Chicago—Michigan Avenue, Jackson, Madison, Randolph—you’ll slow your pace as you approach one of the Garrett Popcorn Shops. The atmosphere around these shops is heavy with an alluringly sweet-and-savory aroma, and the big seller is a blend of caramel-and-cheese-coated popcorn, which Garrett used to call Chicago Mix. A court order, however, compelled Garrett to choose another name, and they chose the convenient Garrett Mix.
As confirmed in court rulings, a version of Chicago Mix—a three-way blend of caramel- and-cheese-popcorn as well as “seasoned popcorn” (which tastes like simply salted and buttered popcorn)—had also been offered by Candyland of St. Paul, Minnesota. Candyland, however, trademarked the name in 1992, and now they are the only company that can legally sell anything called “Chicago Mix.”
A fascinating side-story here is that film critic Gene Siskel may have played a key role in the popularization of this snack. Friend and fellow food enthusiast Dr. Peter Engler brought to our attention an intriguing article from the Chicago Tribune, from December 12, 1986. In this article, the late film critic explains his strategy for mixing popcorn for a sublimely delicious snack: “Garrett’s is a gourmet popcorn shop… My recommendation to you—and it may sound disgusting to you as it did to me when I first saw someone order it; but don’t let that put you off—is to order a half-and-half mixture of caramel and cheese…You get a sweet-and-sour effect that’s fabulous. It’s not cheap, but the quality is very high.”
The rest is Chicago food history.
Who was the African American woman who helped engineer deep-dish pizza?
Go to the website for Uno’s (29 East Ohio, now called Uno Pizzeria & Grill), and you’ll find this claim: “We’re the guys who invented Deep Dish… It all began when Ike Sewell imagined a pizza unlike any other. Fresh dough with a tall edge, topped with homemade sauce and more cheese than you could believe. People have been lining up ever since.” Then browse Lou Malnati’s website, and you’ll see: “Lou Malnati’s Pizzerias have stayed true to the original Chicago-style Deep Dish pizza recipe that Grandpa Malnati helped create in 1943 at Chicago’s first Deep Dish pizzeria.” The “first deep dish pizzeria” mentioned here? Uno’s.
One person usually not included in the history of deep dish pizza in Chicago is Alice May Redmond, who worked at Uno’s for almost twenty years before moving on to Gino’s East. Redmond is believed to have perfected the all-important deep dish crust. Based on what we know today, both Malnati and Redmond played pivotal roles in what we now know and savor as the Chicago deep dish pizza. As with Chicago-invented dishes like Chicken Vesuvio and Shrimp de Jonghe, it’s also possible that Chicago deep dish pizza was inspired by homestyle dishes that were not initially made in a restaurant kitchen. Italian bakeries had long sold thick squares of “pizza bread,” topped with tomato sauce and cheese. Pizza bread came before Chicago deep dish pizza, but whether it inspired Redmond or Malnati, we will likely never know.
Shrimp De Jonghe was invented in Chicago?
Depends on what you mean by “invented.”
Like so many other foods, the popularity of Shrimp De Jonghe (baked shrimp with garlic, butter and breadcrumbs) can be traced to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. This massive fair was to prove a high-visibility venue for the introduction of innovative foods, including Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit and Cream of Wheat. Brothers Henri, Pierre and Charles de Jonghe came over from Belgium to serve food at this late nineteenth-century fair, and things went so well that they decided to stay in Chicago and open a restaurant. The brothers opened their first place in the basement of the old Masonic Temple at State and Randolph. In 1899, the brothers closed this basement location and opened the De Jonghe Hotel and Restaurant in the Loop at 12 East Monroe.
Emil Zehr was the chef at the De Jonghe Hotel and Restaurant, and it’s quite likely that he was the inventor of Shrimp de Jonghe, which is now considered one of Chicago’s iconic foods. It’s also quite likely that, over the millennia, home cooks—in other words, mothers and grandmothers—in countries like Italy and Greece figured out that cooking shrimp with garlic, butter (or olive oil) and breadcrumbs made for a wonderful dish. The De Jonghe brothers, however, were the first to put it on a menu, so they will forever be recognized as the people responsible for bringing Shrimp De Jonghe to the table.
Do you risk madness by drinking Malört?
No, absolutely not, not now and not ever, but we can guess why you might carry that misconception. Both Malört and absinthe contain wormwood. Malört, in fact, is Swedish for “wormwood,” and it was the wormwood in absinthe, and the chemical thujone in wormwood, which was the alleged cause for some of the ill effects—including blindness and madness—attributed to this green spirit. Absinthe was also believed to have psychoactive, hallucinogenic properties. As a consequence of these beliefs, absinthe with wormwood was banned in the United States and elsewhere after a French workingman, Jean Lanfray, allegedly hammered himself into such an absinthe-induced state of insanity that he murdered his wife and children. Since then, wormwood and thujone have been determined not to cause blindness or madness; Malört and even absinthe containing the herb may now be sold legally in the United States, and it’s better than ever. So, the stuff won’t blind you or drive you mad, but you might be mad—or at least embarrassed—when you’re visiting Chicago for the first time and a friend buys you a Malört only to snap a photo of your first grimace-inducing sip and post it on Instagram, #malortface.
Chicago-based CH Distillery, which had made a name for itself primarily with vodka, bought the Carl Jeppson Company and the Malört brand in 2018 and now produces Malört in its Pilsen facility. When CH founder Tremaine Atkinson had the chance to purchase the Malört name and associated assets, and move the whole operation to Chicago, he confessed, “I wasn’t even that interested in making money on it. I just thought that it would be so cool to do this. Of course, we make a little money on it, but I did it for personal reasons, I liked it, and I thought reputation-wise, it would be good for our business to make Malört.”
Do people in Greece dig Flaming Saganaki?
Most people in Greece have probably never heard of flaming saganaki, the cheese set aflame to shouts of “Opa!” and served as a starter at many restaurants in Chicago’s Greektown. Greeks enjoy haloumi cheese warmed in a pan, but setting it on fire is a Chicago thing, with people at several restaurants claiming to be the originators. The most vocal of these self-proclaimed originators of flaming saganaki was Petros Kogeones. We remember seeing Kogeones working the line at Dianna’s Opa! in the seventies, smiling and shaking the hands of men, kissing all the ladies, offering everyone a complementary shot of ouzo. He was a good-looking man with long black hair, shirt unbuttoned just a little further down than necessary, and a gold chain around his neck, an Adonis for the disco era.
Kogeones was a character, and the late Chicago author Harry Mark Petrakis related to me an interesting anecdote about this iconic Chicago restaurateur. “There was an episode at the restaurant when we arrived and Petros hugged us all and told us to sit and eat. I thanked him but told him we had just eaten. Petros pulled a gun from beneath his apron and put it to his head, exclaiming. ‘If you don’t sit down and eat, I’ll shoot myself!’” The Petrakis family relented, ordered some pastry, and Petros lived.
At Avli in Lincoln Park, we enjoyed a delicious un-flamed version of saganaki dressed with peppered figs and honey… but at their Winnetka location, they still serve it flamed. Old habits die hard—and we get that: people might be somewhat put out if they can’t start a Greek feast with a flaming cheese. According to owner/chef Louis Alexakis, “Winnetka opened twelve years ago; at that time, Chicago recognized flaming cheese as authentic Greek. Now we know that it was invented in Chicago. I traveled to many different areas to taste contemporary Greek dishes, and I tasted a saganaki in Sydney, Australia, with peppered figs. I decided to recreate a similar version in Lincoln Park. In our newest concept, Avli on The Park in Lakeshore East, the chef is topping saganaki with tomato marmalade.”
How is the Pizza Puff cousin to the taco?
Like a lot of Chicago’s famous treats, the Pizza Puff—a fried dough pillow filled with pizza toppings and other ingredients—is a snack born of competition, cross-cultural innovation and a lot of trial-and-error. Specifically, it was spurred by the mid-century proliferation of pizzerias and a need for hot dog stands to hold their own against them.
As Monica Eng reports in our book, “An Assyrian immigrant who fled Iran around the turn of the century, Elisha Shabaz came to Chicago and started a business selling condiments and ‘hot dog carts made out of old baby buggies with Sternos,’ according to his great-grandson Adam Shabaz. One of his customers, Adam says, was an Armenian immigrant who fell ill and couldn’t pay his bill. When he eventually died his widow said she had no money to pay off their debt. ‘She said, “All I have is our tamale recipe,” and she gave it to our great-grandfather,’ Adam Shabaz says. In 1927, Elisha used that recipe to establish the Illinois Tamale Company (Italco), which could now also supply tamales to his clients’ pushcarts.
“Elisha Shabaz and his family delivered tamales to hot dog vendors, and many hot dog (and Italian beef) vendors to this day offer tamales as a menu item. Shabaz was looking to offer vendors something like the Italian calzone or panzerotti, and the big difference between a traditional calzone or panzerotti and the Pizza Puff is essentially one thing: the wrapper or crust. The two Italian snacks use raw dough for the crust while Warren Shabaz, the grandson of Elisha, pragmatically opted for a much easier option: Mexican flour tortillas. And now Pizza Puffs many times contain—within a flour tortilla wrapper—much more than pizza toppings, with fillings including ham and cheese, pulled pork and… taco.
“Over the years, the company has aggressively guarded its name and logo, successfully winning a 2018 suit against a competitor who attempted to use both. Despite their expansion, Adam says they try to grow in a measured way as needed. ‘We’re always doing things out of need until it gets too cumbersome, and then we make the investment to grow on a larger scale,’ he said. ‘So, we make all our dough from scratch, and we press it out every day and make our fillings from scratch. We grind fresh pork and beef every single day. We try to get it as close to a natural product as possible, to make something we ourselves enjoy.’”
From “Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown Bites” by Monica Eng and David Hammond. Copyright © 2023 by Monica Eng and David Hammond. To be published March 21, 2023 by University of Illinois Press. Excerpted by permission.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org