Modified October 1, 2010
Times do change, and sometimes for the better. If you've been here, before, you notice that while the photographic walking tour remains, the material about those
crazy people I met online is gone. At this point, would anybody really miss those stories, and do they need to
be told? Some of the crazies have died. Others, perhaps no more sane for the passage of time are at least a lot
more busy, and have found other things to do, than rumor monger. But most importantly, the Internet has become
increasingly decentralized, as the number of places to be has increased and the offerings have, so often,
improved. People gather virtually in smaller groups, today, and the networks don't connect as well as they
once did. While that might sound like a loss, and perhaps in some ways it is, it does mean there is now a simple
way to deal with most online insanity: just get up and walk away, before there are any stories to tell. There's
a limit to how much noise one or two dozen people can make, on their own.
What you will be seeing on this site, instead of the drama, is cooking and photography, mainly cooking. No, not much
other than that, but does there need to be much more than that? I have over 300 recipes for chicken, alone, sitting in
one of my journals offline. Let's work on that. My main photographic interest is architectural photography. Yes,
sorry, that does mean that there will be no photographic figure studies on this site, ever.
I can't show you a lot of the things that I'd like to show you, because they've been torn down. In Chicago, many of
us hold a bizarre belief that the US constitution prohibits the protection of architecturally significant buildings
and districts. One might point out that the exact same federal constitution applies in San Francisco, where
architectural preservation has had great successes, but our locals just won't listen. At the current rate, almost
the entirety of the once considerable architectural heritage of this city will be gone relatively soon, fallen to
the wrecking ball and to the very large egos of some very small men. If you can imagine this, in at least one case
a landmarked building downtown was eminent domained after a developer decided that he wanted its location for part
of a shopping mall, and the owner refused to sell, wanting to keep the old beauty in place. Our local government
came in, took his building away from him, knocked it down, and then paid some tens of millions of dollars in subsidies
to the developer, who never did get the mall built. That was in the late 1980s; as late as the middle of the
millenial decade, several multimillion installments of good money tossed after bad, the location was still
a vacant lot, a huge gaping hole in the middle of the Loop, idling a large chunk of some of the highest priced real
estate for over fifteen years.
In some cities the population might have learned something from the fiasco, but G-d bless the Chicagoans, they just
never will. Conservative in truly the worst possible sense of the word, and you're hearing this from somebody who
used to call himself a card carrying Republican, before George Bush the younger made that label into something to
be ashamed of. What you already see in the new section (and will see more of in the future) could be taken as a
travel guide, but not for very long. It will be the best circumstances allow me to do, as I pay tribute to something
that is being lost forever for absolutely no good reason, because of the failures of a people who've come to confuse
passivity with maturity. I hope you'll enjoy seeing it more than I'll enjoy the need to create it, and that you'll
find it an interesting alternative to those cliched panoramas of the skyline, which always seem to be shot from
somewhere near the North Avenue beach house, and always in clear weather. I've acquired a digital camera, and while that won't get my Pentax images
online, it will allow me to start a stock photography page, just as soon as I get through this owner's manual.
Much sooner than that, though, I should have a Midwestern recipe page to offer you. I'm surprised that there is a demand
for this, but judging from the amount of fakery I've seen on the subject on a variety of sites, there seems to be.
The real thing tends to be simple, humble stuff. To take as an example something that became a recent source of
contrarian flamethrowing on another site, let's consider the so-called "Italian Beef" one will see recipes for on
a variety of pages. One, published by a "traveller in the know", has roast beef being fried with peppers and topped
with cheese, and dished up with "Chicago style giardiniera". While what he's reporting might be a reasonable
description of what one gets from a few fast food places on the Near North side, it is not the authentic item,
and should never have been assumed to be such. Common sense should point to at least one obvious problem with
drawing such a conclusion, the moment one sees who is working the grill.
Or, for the matter, the moment one notices that he is working a "grill", one of those flat, heated metal counters
one finds in fast food establishments; how many people do you suppose have those in their own homes?
"Italian Beef", which by the way isn't even remotely Italian, is old style home cooking from Chicago's south side,
from what was once known as "the Back of the Yards" down near Garfield and Ashland, something so extremely regional
that until the gang war driven diaspora of the late 1960s and early 1970s, wasn't something that families on the
Northwest side had even heard of. Take a look at the short order cooks behind the counter, and then listen to them
talk. They're from Mexico. Their boss, at one place that comes to mind, is from India, and at another came from
the East Coast. Not a native Chicagoan to be found in the bunch, and so how would they even know how to make the
authentic local article? The fact is, they don't. What you're getting at these tourist trap locales is a cross
between a Mexican Oaxaquena and a Philadelphia Cheese Steak. It's not bad, as fast food goes, but it's not the
real thing. It doesn't even resemble the real thing.
Nor does it resemble anything else that very many native Midwesterners grew up eating. Frying, either in a deep
fat fryer or in a skillet, is not a very big part of Midwestern cookery, which overwhelmingly tends to fall into
the category of "comfort food". It's never all that spicy, or only rarely is it all that rich or heavy. Think of
it this way - if you had just slogged through a few miles of wet snow, amazed that subzero temperatures had not
turned that to ice (and maybe a little relieved), a little short of breath from having breathed through your
scarf the whole way and various body parts feeling ready to break off at any moment all the same - what would
you feel like eating? Something that would make you sweat? You're about to go back out into that blizzard to
clear your driveway, so no thanks on that. Something to get your gastric juices flowing? If they were flowing
any more, you'd puke your guts out, gastric juices and all. No, you're probably looking for something gentle.
The "Chicago style giardiniera" myth can be debunked by walking to the nearest Jewel food store, going into
the Italian food aisle, and picking up a bottle of Dell Alpe giardiniera. Dell Alpe is a national brand. All
these nonlocal people did was go down to the grocery store, grab something off the shelf, and empty it into
a plastic bin back at their place. Nothing local about it; quite the contrary, nobody in our area, as heavily
resettled from the South Side as it was, had even heard of this alleged local speciality until the 1980s. To
this day, I know of not a single local who makes the stuff, and more than a few who look at me most strangely
because I'll admit to liking it, a little. Even I wouldn't dream of putting it on Italian Beef, though; who
puts something soaking in vinegar brine on a dish whose character is defined by its long simmering in broth?
It would be like pouring Italian dressing over a bowl of beef soup, especially because there is no such thing
as using a little giardiniera; those chunks of cauliflower are a lot bigger than those little peppers one
picks up in the same aisle, which are about as authentically Chicagoan, and why not? They're sold by the same
Other versions I could find were even more absurd, one of them calling for a mixture of Chili and Worcestershire
Sauce, believe it or not. The part that I loved the most, lurking during one of these discussions, was watching
the same people insist that Italian beef HAD to be Italian, but insisting on the authenticity of that recipe,
apparently blissfully unaware of the fact that Worcestershire Sauce is English, not Italian, and Chili Sauce
is TexMex. No, what one witnesses is some kind of Postmodern fixation that holds that Italian Beef has to be
Italian, because calling something Italian makes it Italian, even though the very people who've called it that
for years (us) were never under the impression that we were eating any kind of exotic foreign delicacy. But then, if one finds oneself in a fast food establishment in somebody else's hometown,
so unshakeably absolutely convinced one is getting authentic local home cooking that one is prepared to tell
the local folk that they don't know what they grew up eating, one probably isn't firing on all cylinders.
Now that I've told you what's fake ... what's real? The actual, real item, in the case of Italian Beef, is
something so simple as to keep fashionability at bay. It's nothing more than a mix of chewy, strong flavored
cuts of beef like chuck simmered in beef stock along with green bell peppers and thinly sliced yellow onions,
seasoned with nothing more than salt and black pepper. One then puts it on a small, cut open loaf of crusty,
chewy bread if one wishes, the bread picking up the flavor of the juice that it ends up being saturated with.
That's all, nothing more elaborate than that. Some might dress it up with a few more herbs, but that's about it.
Pleasant eating, but nothing fancy, which is precisely the problem. Nobody is going to look at that description
and be wowed by it. Could you really put something like that in a cookbook, without the buyer of the cookbook
feeling a little cheated?
A lot of Midwestern food is like that, and a lot more is ethnically specific. Nativism never really caught on
in our region, in part, I suppose, because the would-be Anglo-Saxon "natives" were never very numerous in our
area. There is a recognizable Indiana version of "Sauerbraten" (which actually is a lot closer to an Eastern
French Beef daube, but don't let a Hoosier hear you say that) and a sweet and sour version one is likelier to
find at a church dinner to the West of Chicago, lightened with sour cream. Both are thought of as being "German"
by the respective locals, but after a few hundred years of local residence, the dish has mutated into - what?
In Louisiana, these overseas branches of old world peoples that one finds have fully developed their own
identities; one is Cajun, one is Creole, and these identities are recognized regional versions of Americanness.
No ethnic subculture in the Midwest has found its own identity in such a solid form; it is difficult to even
speak of any sort of Wisconsin French cooking style without making reference to France, and where the New World
version has diverged from the old, there scarcely seems to be any kind of uniformity, even within a town. The
innovation has been happening on an individual and family level, not on a community level, largely because there
is little in the way of community remaining; even in a small town, one's neighbor gets little more than a polite
and friendly nod, and there's nothing natural about cultural diffusion taking place between those barely aware
of each other's existence. Is there, then, any kind of common Midwestern cooking style to speak of? Could there
Sort of, and you've probably seen the roots of it. Think of some of the "American" cookbooks that describe mild
flavored food that you've never seen an American eat. If you had grown up in Illinois or Missouri instead of in
California or New York, on the other hand, odds are that a lot of that stuff would look very, very familiar to
you. "Sort of", you say? Yes, only "sort of", because these things get individualized. Somebody's addition of
tomato (just a hint), molasses and caraway to a pot roast is most certainly not universal, but it doesn't really
blow minds, either. Underneath the individual or family touches, one can find common, familiar elements, which
I'm guessing survived from the less isolated times our elders tell us about, but which we only got a brief
glimpse of ourselves. It is that sort of dish you will see here, with my own individualized touches, the usual
mix of that which is French and Spanish and Jewish, which you might expect if you've seen me post elsewhere,
with maybe a little bit of Greek and Middle Eastern, overlaying what is basically mostly a very Germanic local
cooking style. If you wish to think of this in Classical French cooking terms, think of the gravies in the very
mild base dishes as being akin to mother sauces, which are given variation and flavor with the addition of modest
amounts of more highly flavored ingredients. Simplicity and mildness do not always imply tedium.
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