Chicagoland: An AbbreviatedGastronomical Tour

Live from New England is temporarily posting from the greater Chicagoland area, where I am heavily engaged in the crash course gastronomical tour while I briefly visiting family and friends.

First, it is nice to be back on the soil of my youth. As much as I enjoy New England, I will always have a strong connection to Chicago. Many of my family and friends still reside in the area and I have always had a fascination with the city itself. That being said, I have been hitting all the haunts and eating my way through the local geography. As I have said, the “hog butcher to the world” is the place to get all kinds of food that will kill you. I heard Jim Belushi, another native whom I have met a couple of times, say something very close to this, “Food in Chicago shouldn’t even be served at a table. You should just be allowed to eat over the sink. Everything that’s good is messy with juice that runs all over the place, on your hands, down your arms toward your elbows. And you have to twist your head sideways to get it in. You should just be given a big napkin and a sink, so you can clean up afterwards.” This is a very fair assessment. In a recent phone call with Ali, she characterized the places similarly. “I don’t know where all the places are. You just put me in the car and drive all over the place. All I know is that whatever we eat is going to have meat and some kind of sauce involved.”

Immediately off the plane, my amigo Vince picked me up from the newly renovated Midway airport and we headed to Carm’s, in Westchester, for some of the best Italian beefs known to man. Either Johnnie’s, in Elmwood Park, or Carm’s are the places to go when you are in search of the beef. And you have to order them wet and hot, loaded with giardiniera. It’s the only way to go and I was not disappointed. I even got a jar of giardiniera to bring back to Boston.

I have been able to pack in a couple of Portillo’s hot dogs, with everything on ‘em. Portillo’s is a local chain that also serves up a decent beef, but their specialty is the dog and it is absolutely one of the best. Gene and Jude’s might be the top dog in town, but you can never go wrong with a Dick Portillo creation.

When it comes to cuisine of a more kosher quality, I made a stop at Siegelman’s Deli, in Arlington Heights, for a corned beef and pastrami sandwich, complete with potato pancakes. While Manny’s is a famous Chicago institution, now with a location in Midway Airport, Siegelman’s is a quiet place with a supremely better setting. If I were forced to pick, I would even venture that Siegelman’s is better food as well.

I also made a stop at the Harlo Grill, in Melrose Park, where I have eaten many a breakfast. Two eggs, over-easy, three strips of swine, golden hash browns, and a cup of joe, all for under $5.00, complete with the cast of regular characters that genuinely lurk about a twenty-four hour establishment. It remains my favorite basic breakfast place to date.

My hope was to knock down the double-decker cheeseburger from Hamburger Heaven, in Elmhurst, but alas I was thwarted by renovations. They will not be open until May. So, when I am back for my brother’s graduation next month, a must stop will be made for the all-American meal of cheeseburger, cheese fries, and root beer. This is a place that simply cannot be beat.

Next on the hit-list is some barbecue from the infamous Uncle Bub’s, in Westmont. Vince and I stumbled upon Bub’s some time ago and it has been a favorite dining establishment ever since. Beef or pork, even turkey, Bub serves up the BBQ with their own specialty sauces and all the extras, like cornbread, corn, potatoes, etc. Plus, on the weekend’s they even offer up musical entertainment at the family style restaurant.

All of these places I have been able to hit and I am not even heading back until Sunday. It may not be seafood, but hits the spot. The good thing is that living with Ali is extending my life, because I definitely eat healthier and not living in the Chicago area anymore eliminates a whole lot of temptation.

Springtime in Boston

Finally, the march toward the end of the third quarter at Waltham High is over. It might as well have been a death march, as far as I was concerned there, for awhile. Being a new teacher, I am prone to a number of mistakes, particularly in the realm of planning, anticipating, and scheduling. Up until recently, I had been doing a pretty good job in this area. However, all that changed this quarter. Somehow, I got myself buried up to my eyeballs in student writing assignments. But now it is over and my reward is this week’s reprieve.

Despite the pile of work I had to slog through, I did manage to partake in some of Boston’s finest annual events. For those of you across the country, last week was leading toward the Bay State’s distinctive holiday, Patriots Day. Beautifully timed to coincide with the opening of the new baseball season, the week began by welcoming the World Champion Red Sox back to Fenway. Complete with the ring ceremony during the home opener, guess who the hosts were to play? None other than the Evil Empire. The Sox capped the day with a thorough beating of the Yankees, as they flashed the bats and bling against their hated rivals and victims of their historic march toward World Series victory. It really was a beautiful day in Boston.

As luck would have it, Keri managed to procure some last minute tickets to the first night game of the year, Wednesday the 13th. The evening began with a picturesque sunset beyond the left field line. Fresh from his rehab assignment in Pawtucket, ace Curt Schilling was slated to start. I was fully prepared for the ground’s crew to anoint the field with the infamous bloody sock in preparation for the first pitch. The game was a good one through about five innings. Then the Yanks jumped ahead with a non-steroid dinger from Giambi that dropped in front of our right field seats, landing in the bullpen. After another shot that managed to reach beyond Pesky’s Pole, in right, Schill got the hook and the game went cold literally and figuratively. It actually got so cold toward the end of the game that we vacated a bit early. Leaving early on my own accord was a first for me, if that gives you any idea how cold it was.

Unfortunately, we were a night before the latest Yankee-fan altercation, this time involving Gary Sheffield. Nevertheless we were not short on entertainment in the stands the night we were in attendance. From the time we got off the Green Line and headed toward gate C on Yawkey Way, we were in step with one of Boston’s crazier Red Sox fans. Get a load of this guy!

Photo: Crazy Red Sox Fan

Never at a loss for words, this guy was one constant stream of taunting. Nary a person in our section was not moved to comment. He definitely had everyone’s attention and proved quite entertaining. My personal favorite moment was when he went crazy after a Yankee fan walked up the aisle in full regalia. “Do you believe this guy? What’s the matta with you? Get outta here! This guy is walkin’ aroun’ in a ’89 Yankee’s Stahta (Starter) jacket! You’re a bum!” was only the beginning. The one thing I’ll say was as much as he jawed, he never went blue, even though he was two fisting multiple $6.00 brews.

After finishing the last two days of the week, it was a welcome slide into the weekend. The weather couldn’t have been better and being that it was a three day weekend, spring had officially sprung here. All this led to the official harbinger of Persephone’s return from the underworld in New England, the running of the 109th Boston Marathon. Being daughters of a veteran marathoner, including Boston’s very own, Keri and Ali have a specific spot where they take in the action. We planted ourselves in Newton, on Commonwealth Avenue, near the base of the infamous Heartbreak Hill and the memorial statue of both the young and old Johnny Kelley.

Photo: Me eating a slush

It is amazing the number of people that turn out along the route to cheer the runners on to the finish. What is hard to explain to the non-native is how intense many of the Boston sporting events are. So many people, from all walks of life, pour out for the big sporting spectacles here. It is as if there is a civic requirement to make an appearance. Nearly the entire twenty-six mile course is jammed with a tunnel of supporters twenty feet deep on each side of the street. From friends and family members of the runners to the casual observer, it is quite a site. Of course, the irony of this lengthy race is that it is one long, snaking food fair. So while the runners are agonizing down the course, throngs of people are feasting on hot dogs, sausages, fried dough, and all variety of ice cream and candy.

Photo: Bostn Marathon Runners

My favorite moment had to be when the father of a family to my right approached. We were at the 19th mile and his brood of wife and four kids were cheering for him. He slowed and stopped to hug them all. Amazingly, he was able to get out of a portable chair after posing with the children for some photos. Although, he said he felt fine, I am not sure how he got up and keep going.

Fortunately, I was able to experience all the local color and fanfare, considering I am heading back to Chicago for the rest of the week. Yes, “Live from New England” will be relocated to the Midwest, as I visit family and friends for few days. Hopefully, I will be able to take in all the unique Chicago cuisine that can kill you. As much as I enjoy it on the coast, every once in awhile I still get pangs of homesickness for the “woman with a broken nose.” So, I will try to capture the journey for future postings.

Baseball Springs Eternal & More

So last night was the beginning of the new baseball season, where the boys of summer huff on their hands and suffer through the spring chill of the first month or so. Of course, most of us in New England are still basking in the historic highlights of last season, when the beloved Sox finally prevailed over the Evil Empire and hoisted the World Series Championship trophy to victory. As exciting as Opening Day always is, it seems almost too soon that the new season is underway. With the new major league tour, the Red Sox are just another team again, albeit this time defending their title. All the magic must be re-conjured. Hopefully, their opening effort against the hated Yankees is not an accurate indication of the campaign that waits. It would be nice to manufacture a Boston baseball dynasty, to compete with the legacy of the Celtics and the newfound prominence of the Patriots.

On the college hoops front, the last two weeks have to have been some of the best NCAA hard court hustle I have ever seen. I guess they don’t call it March Madness for nothing. Last weekend’s West Virginia – Louisville tile and Illinois – Arizona tilts were games for the ages. Both match-ups were the kind of action packed affairs that give you conversation material for the entire week. While this weeks Final Four duels were not as dramatic, each game offered a full half of tightly contested competition before the better side began to pull away for their Monday date. Being an Illinois native and having attended a University in the shadow of Champaign, I cannot help but pull for the first-time Illini contenders. However, after watching both games Saturday night, I think they will more than have their hands full and their run may be drawing to a close. The Tar Heels continue to look stronger with each game in the tourney. Moreover, their strength is inside and Illinois seems determined to take half their shots from beyond the arc. It leaves me with a queasy feeling that the men in orange are going to hear a lot for iron than netting, all the while trying to stop Sean May from becoming the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. We’ll see tomorrow.

As for the recent requests, I plan on penning a review of the infamous Dance 360. I have been getting hammered with student papers as the third quarter has been coming to a close and grades are due in just over a week. I’ll see if I can’t squeeze some of my thoughts into a thourough treatment. Although a preview might be “American Bandstand It is Not.”

Finally, a thought on the pontiff’s passing. Arguably a more important agent in the fall of Communism than any other international figure, he was a monumental man, if there ever has been such a thing. Despite being full of extraordinary contradictions, his leadership of the Catholic Church was inspiring not because he was merely the Pope, but because who he was as Pope. In a time when it is fashionable to downplay religion and certainly take shots at the Church in this country, it is remarkable to me to see the response to man’s death. The grieving seems forthcoming from all directions, regardless of faith. It is impressive that so many have shown respect and paid homage to the man from Poland, no matter what their beliefs.