That I hope to forget as quickly as possible in 2011:
A snack in New York is a meal in Chicago.
Middle American Proverb
The aphorism quoted above doesn’t mean that Chicagoans eat meals so insubstantial that New Yorkers would only consider them snacks. Actually, the meaning is something close to the inverse: Chicago is known for appropriating, embellishing, and augmenting New snack foods to the point that they must be called a meal. I have a theory that Chicago’s “second city” status has driven its citizens to assert themselves against the hegemony of Gotham in sometimes outlandish ways; it’s connected, I think, to the fact that Chicago is the American capital of comedy. I have read somewhere that being in a “second fiddle” cultural position (e.g. being a comparatively small country right next to a much larger country) creates a sort of collective inferiority complex that engenders a good sense of humility and humor. Canada, always drowned out by their loud, angry neighbors to the south, has also produced droves of famous comedians. I hear New Zealand is also famous for comedy, as is Osaka, Japan’s second city.
So, like being funny, perhaps turning ordinary New York food into bold, italicized Chicago food is a way for the Windy City to declare cultural independence. However, in truth I can only think of two foods that substantiate the proverb. The first is pizza. Both first and second city are famous for pizza, but Chicago deep-dish is so much more deserving of that fame. It’s two or three inches high, dense as a black hole, drunk with sauce and toppings, and it achieves a sort of Golden Ratio of crunch-to-chew. Chicago pizza is to New York pizza as a bowl of Ippudo Akamaru ramen is to Cup Noodle.
But of course, the Chicago specialty most distinguished from its New York counterpart is the hot dog. Hot dogs are fundamentally uncomplicated things, and this is exactly what makes people want to complicate them. Hot dog localization isn’t a Chicago-only phenomenon, of course. But as far as I know, the Chicago hot dog is the only variation that has any sort of reputation outside of its own metro area. The words “hot dog” follow “Chicago” as naturally as “cheesesteak” follows “Philly.” It is among a very select group of American local foods that are truly famous on a nationwide level (Wisconsin cheese being another).
Unlike burgers, I think hot dogs actually demand to be festooned with all manner of toppings. Hot dogs, even high-quality, well-prepared ones, are just too bland to eat on their own. The Chicago hot dog addresses this inherent flavor deficiency with the “Chicago Seven,” an arpeggio of tangy, lively fixings that harmonize with the mellow umami of the sausage: onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, a dill pickle spear, sweet pickle relish, yellow mustard, and celery salt all piled into a poppy seed bun.* These ingredients alone would actually make a pretty tasty veggie sandwich; the hot dog itself is just a foundation, a meaty gesso onto which crisp, zesty colors are painted.
Strangely, I have never had a Chicago hot dog, even though I grew up in Chicagoland and visit the city often. It has long been on my culinary to-do list, but for some reason it has escaped me every time I’m back home. It’s probably because Chicago offers an overwhelming abundance of dining choices, and I’m usually tempted by pizza or Mexican or Chinese or Japanese or vegetarian or Italian or whatever it may be while I’m down there.
But not this time. This time I was determined. I had always thought I would have my first Chicago dog at the Weiner’s Circle, a local institution where they serve a textbook sausage with a hearty side of profanities. Stephen Fry went there when he was touring the United States. But after consulting with local friends and perusing the internet, I settled on Hot Doug’s, consistently named Chicago’s best weinermonger – and it had a block-long line outside to prove it. Lines are always a good sign.
Hot Doug’s ain’t just a hot dog stand – they are a self-proclaimed “Sausage Superstore,” and much of our 45-minute wait was spent mulling over what to order from the surprisingly exotic and epicurean menu. For me, there was no question that I would have “The Dog” with everything. But I couldn’t leave without trying one of their specialty sausages: I considered the tequila and black bean chicken sausage, the cherry-apple pork sausage, and of course, the Salma Hayek (“Mighty, mighty, mighty hot!”). Ultimately I decided to splurge on the foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse, and sel gris (a recent re-addition to the menu following the repeal of a citywide ban on the king of offal).
The resultant feast – a Chicago Hot Dog and a Foie Gras Duck Sausage – was like a culinary odd couple, an utterly wrong combination that nevertheless must exist, if only to act as foils to one another. The Dog was brash, spicy, and snappy, but also humble and inviting. It does have something to prove, that’s for sure, but it can’t disguise its Midwestern geniality. The Duck was silken, ripe, and decadent – yet somehow just as loud as the Dog, an ostentatious display of conspicuous consumption. Both sausages were perfection, especially between sips of the perfect accompaniment: old-fashioned birch beer.
I cannot recommend Doug’s duck fat fries, which sound awesome and smell fantastic, but taste like nothing at all. But the fries are immaterial anyway, since the Dog really is a meal in itself. Certainly, it is one area where Chicago is second to none.
3324 North California
Chicago, IL 60618
Hold your judgement. If you are told ‘they are all this’ or ‘they do this’ or ‘their opinions are these’, withhold your judgement until all the facts are upon you. Because that land they call ‘India’ goes by a thousand names and is populated by millions, and if you think you have found two men the same amongst that multitude, then you are mistaken. It is merely a trick of the moonlight.
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Independence Day has always been my favorite holiday. Here’s why:
Of course, just about any Japanese summer festival also features this same happy quartet. And Japanese festivals are fun, too, but they just aren’t the same. I like Independence Day partly out of nostalgia, but I also like it because it’s uniquely American. It’s a holiday I can call my own.
We Americans don’t have a lot we can call our own. Apple pie? Dutch. Hot dogs? Austrian. Mexican food? Mexican. Sure, we have jazz, Pixar, and Mr. T, and as for holidays, we have Labor Day, Memorial Day, Martin Luther King Day, and a smattering of other minor holidays. But all of them are pretty lame. When was the last time you threw a party and lit sparklers for Washington’s Birthday?
So it’s nice have an American holiday that’s actually fun. Thanksgiving is fun, too, but it’s in November, a month that burdens the human soul with an inescapable air of doom and melancholy. Thanksgiving food is arguably better (and perhaps less ordinary), but Independence Day is no slouch when it comes to cookery: ribs, burgers, bratwurst, and potato salad are pretty stiff competition for turkey and stuffing.
When I lived in America, it was the specific customs of Independence Day that I enjoyed (like the food and the fireworks – the parade, never really excited me). Its Americanness was immaterial, extraneous, unnecessary – I just liked hanging out with my friends and family, stuffing myself and watching things explode in the sky. But now that I’m a minority in a strange, inscrutable island nation, the fact that the Fourth of July is a distinctly American celebration is suddenly crucial. I feel as though I must assert my culture against the indifferent shrugs of British hegemony!
It’s not like I’m some kind of patriot. Alright, maybe I am some kind of patriot, but I’m not the gun-totin’, Limbaugh-lovin’, “Never Forget” kind of patriot. This bit of Fry and Laurie pretty much sums up how I feel about that sort of thing:
I can’t even really say I’m proud of America, or proud to be American. I can’t take credit for the achievements of other Americans, and my nationality is mostly a geographical accident. I am also not proud of America in any political sense, although the Constitution is pretty brilliant, and this Obama character seems fairly capable. But if I’ve developed a certain affection for America, I think it is a direct consequence of my expatriation. For one thing, I’m just nostalgic for America – I miss it. I miss my friends and family, but I also miss very particular American things, like In-N-Out burgers, enormously wide roads, the LA skyline, honeycrisp apples, and cheap ska shows. So there’s that sort of homesick aspect to my patriotism, but then there’s also a defensive quality to it. America gets picked on a lot – rightly so, in most cases. But sometimes criticisms of American culture are provincially ignorant; I am reminded of those French girls I met who dismissed all American cheese as abhorrent yellow trash. (Then again, I suppose the fact that processed cheese is usually labeled “American cheese” doesn’t help our reputation.) When confronted with attitudes like that, my reaction is “Hey, wait a minute! America isn’t all bad!” But of course, what I’m really saying is “Hey, wait a minute! I like America!” or even “Don’t tread on me!”
So as I trawled the world wide web for Fourth of July celebrations in London, I was thrilled to discover an event that will let me celebrate American cultural autonomy, indulge in one of my favorite American specialties, and subvert certain misconceptions about said specialty all at the same time! I’m talking about beer, people. American beer. The White Horse, an airy, elegant, ale-centric pub in Parsons Green, is having an American beer festival this weekend, coinciding with Independence Day. They boast the largest selection of American draft beer ever seen in the UK – and while some pubs would be satisfied to fill their lineup with any number of InBev-distributed, mass-produced lagers, the White Horse has corralled an impressive lot of craft beers from across the USA. Some of the featured breweries are Stone, Flying Dog, Victory, Sierra Nevada, Goose Island, and Dogfish Head.
These are some of America’s finest breweries, and it’s exciting to have them represented in England not only because their beer is delicious, but because it provides an opportunity for Londoners to glimpse the innovation and diversity that have become hallmarks of American craft brewing. Like American cheese and American politics, American beer is misunderestimated abroad – few people are aware that the United States produces anything but Bud, Miller, and Coors. I see this festival as an exposition of beer that has the potential to change perceptions about American gastronomy, at least in some small way. I also see it as a chance to drink dangerous amounts of Stone Smoked Porter with Vanilla Beans… mmm.
American Beer Festival at The White Horse
3 July – 5 July 2009
1-3 Parsons Green
020 7736 2115
On my recent, brief trip to New York to visit family and friends, I had a checklist of specific foods I wanted to eat there; I wanted nothing but good food experiences – nothing mediocre, nothing mundane. To these ends, the trip was beyond satisfactory. Fork-tender Greek-style grilled octopus, colorful piles of Ethiopian curries on spongy injera, a lowbrow burger, a highbrow burger, and butter beans with bacon and crème fraîche all made their way into my gullet, washed down with a variety of uniquely American indulgences: high-gravity craft beer, bottomless cups of coffee, and the notorious Twinkie milkshake, which was probably conceived either by some mad genius chef, or somebody’s six-year-old child.
Yes, it was a five-day feeding frenzy on fantastic food – a very successful trip in my book. And though it’s hard to choose highlights from such a delicious holiday, my two favorite meals were probably a sampler plate from Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too and good ol’ Akamaru tonkotsu ramen from Ippudō.
Miss Maude’s sampler plate included fried chicken, fried shrimp, barbecue short ribs and baby back ribs, candied yams, black eyed peas, and collard greens, a burly plate of food that was so good and perfect it could be in a museum – an exemplary soul food meal, Harlem, circa 2009. The ribs fell off the bone as if they couldn’t wait to be eaten, and the shrimp had a brilliant, fresh flavor that burst through the solid crunch and spice of its breading. I was especially impressed with the humble greens, wilted yet firm and unexpectedly tinged with a hint of smoke, like they had been cooked over a fire.
And then the Akamaru – well, we all know how I feel about Ippudō. Or do we? Ippudō is legendary. It was among the first bowls of really exceptional ramen I had in Tokyo, and it remained a favorite – somewhere in my top three, I’d reckon – over the course of the two years I lived in Japan, even after countless bowls of worthy competitors. The creativity displayed in Ippudō’s kiwami shin’aji and the ramen en flambé at its sister restaurant, Gogyō, cemented Ippudō’s status in my mind as one of the greatest ramen shops in existence. It seems silly, in retrospect, that I even considered not going there while I was in New York – the only city outside Japan lucky enough to boast an Ippudō.
Both of these meals (and yes, a bowl of ramen is definitely a meal – welcome to the site!) are sold as soul food. Miss Maude’s is soul food in the typical American sense of the word (and pardon my glib definition here): simple yet hard-to-get-right cuisine with loads of fat, protein, and carbohydrates originating in Southern Black households. The literature on Miss Maude’s and other restaurants serving this kind of traditional soul food often play up its homemade history; menus and reviews alike deploy comfort-food clichés such as “like Mom used to make,” “home-cooked taste,” and “just how you remember it” so repeatedly that crackers like me almost think that we actually did eat really awesome soul food growing up. Don’t we wish.
With this homey image in mind, the claim on Ippudō’s website that “Ramen is Japan’s Soul Food” struck me as a misappropriation of the term. Ramen, while hearty, frequently full of lard, and often relatively simple, it takes too much time and effort to cook at home (except, obviously, for the instant version); this, I thought, disqualified it as soul food. A Japanese visitor to Ippudō New York who could truthfully claim that his bowl of Akamaru was “just like Mom used to make” would have been raised by a very outstanding mother indeed.
Then I thought: what if the idea of “homemade” is allowed to extend outside the actual, physical home? While ramen isn’t really something that is cooked in the home in Japan, it is cooked at home in the sense that every town in Japan has a ramen shop, and, importantly, every region produces a different version of the dish that becomes a part of local culture and identity. Also, ramen is accessible – it’s cheap, fast, filling, and warming, and it provides a wonderful mélange of textures and flavors that just seems to make people a bit happier; in other words, it’s comfort food. So while ramen probably won’t elicit memories of the smell of pork broth wafting out of their kitchen when they come home from school, it’s likely to evoke a more generalized but no less affectionate nostalgia for their furusato, their old home – which may be their town, their prefecture, or (if they’re in New York), their country. And, for what it’s worth, Ippudō NY was just how I remembered it.