Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Baconfest Birthday (Please!!!!!)

Each April, the brilliance that is Baconfest comes to Chicago, and the 2012 date has just been announced.

April 14, 2012.

It's my birthday.

Not just near my birthday. The very day.

It's a gift from the bacon wizards. 

(I originally said "bacon fairies", but somehow "fairies" doesn't really seem to fit the Baconfest Triumvirate. "Elves" wasn't quite right either.)

At least I hope so. I'm begging and pleading. (Literally. I've written them a begging and pleading email.)

You see, I tried to go last year (when it was the Saturday before my birthday). I was on the mailing list for tickets and everything. And they were making tickets available to the mailing list before the general public.

I set an alarm in my calendar at work to watch for the email with the link that morning.

I got the email and clicked the link about 7 minutes after the special release.

And they were sold out.

So I did it all again a few hours later for the ticket release to the general public, only this time, I got there around 3 minutes after release.

And they were sold out.

And tickets were not to be had. (The Triumvirate did a great job setting it up so that scalping wasn't possible.)

I did not spend the Saturday before my birthday with over 50 bacon vendors and over 52 chefs crafting their (and my) bacon dreams.

And now we come to this year. It's on my birthday!!!!


So if anybody out there knows the Triumvirate, please beg them to help me get tickets this year! Please!?!?

(The text in the video is from The Bacon Manifesto, a bit of culinary brilliance from the Triumvirate.)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Dear Blog...

I haven't forgotten you! Really! It's just that we've had such a hot summer, sometimes I almost forget I'm not in the South (and with Chick-fil-A around and McDonald's hawking sweet tea, it's even easier to get confused). I don't have air-conditioning at home, so it's hard to work up the initiative to cook, much less actually eat anything hot, so the grits are still on the back burner, so to speak.

I do always remember that I'm actually up north whenever I notice all the people up here trying to keep up their normal pace of things. It's clear that they just don't know how to deal with this. When it gets this hot back home, we 1) slow down, 2) find an iced beverage (preferably sweet tea or lemonade), 3) find a body of water (or at least a sprinkler), and 4) let the heat and humidity act like a budget sauna and sap all of the stress out of our muscles and bones.

I have made a couple of recent ventures into southern Illinois (ie, anything south of the Chicago burbs) and discovered they've got a little better grasp on these things. I found Moon Pies, pimento cheese, Sonic, and some of the best fried fish I've ever had at a shack beside the boat ramp at Lake Clinton State Park. It even came with hushpuppies!!!!

So I'll just keep hoping to find somewhere to hang my hammock where my hiney doesn't drag the ground so I can keep Southern in a bit more comfort, and taking those Southern blessings where I can find them.

You do the same, y'hear?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Chicago feels a long, long way from home today.

Little Chickamauga Creek, Ringgold, GA
You’ve probably heard of Ringgold in the news over the past couple of days. It’s the small town in northwest Georgia, just outside Chattanooga, TN, where a monstrous tornado set down at about 8:30 on Wednesday evening and tore up half of town. It’s also my home town, and thank God, my parents and their home are fine.
But the Tennessee Valley is part of my DNA, and it’s hard to be so far away when so many people are hurting and so much will never be the same.
Ringgold is the kind of small town where the folks at the post office will work to figure out who a postcard addressed to “Mom, Ringgold, GA” that says “Here’s our new address. Please send the money,” goes to. And they got it right. It’s been over ten years since I’ve lived there, and every time I go home I’m the one who gets sent into the post office to pick up the mail, since “they’re always asking about you.”
Catoosa County Courthouse
Ringgold is the kind of small town where American flags line the roads of town for a full four weeks around both Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. The flags that line the courthouse lawn top crosses that bear the names of the county’s veterans who have died.
It’s the county seat, and for years, folks came out to picnic on the courthouse lawn and see the returns come in on election night. They used to pull flatbed trucks on the courthouse lawn with backboards loaded all across them, and as the returns came in election workers would write them up on the boards. These days the results get projected on a large screen, but the idea is the same. While the media is covering state and national races, folks want to know how the local elections are going.
From the video I saw this morning, it looks like the 1939 Catoosa County Courthouse survived.
Too much didn’t.
When you get off I-75 at exit #348, you used to see most of Ringgold’s businesses strung along Ga-151 (or "Alabama Highway," as that’s where it goes). Gas stations, grocery stores, a handful of motels, and a whole string of restaurants, mostly fast food. As best I can tell from the pictures, now you mostly just see debris. The Ingle’s looks okay, and I hope Aunt Effie’s, across the street from it, survived. The schools are a mess. One whole wing of the Middle School, they said, is “missing.” A whole wing of the building just “missing.”

The Sherriff is saying that half the Ringgold business district and a quarter of its residential area has been damaged.
Among the dead is a family – father, mother, 21 year old son, and 16 year old daughter. I suppose it’s a miracle there aren’t more than the eight who died. There are places it’s much worse.
Chattanooga was mostly spared a direct hit, but many of the communities that surround it are devastated. Trenton. Apison. Cleveland. Tiftonia. Bledsoe County. Flintstone. Northeast Alabama. The death toll for the Tennessee Valley is at 78 as I write.
It’s hard to drive around Chicagoland under sunny blue skies today. I was in the Wheaton Chick-fil-A for lunch, and the woman ahead of me in line was from Jacksonville, FL and had lived in Arkansas and Texas. The man beside me was from Memphis. It made me wish for a place we Southerners could gather and find each other. Just be with people whose hearts are hurting for home, too. 
If you pray, pray for Ringgold and the Tennessee Valley, and Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, and all the communities in the South that have been devastated this week. And if you can give, they need help. The Greater Chattanooga Area Chapter of the Red Cross relies solely on local donations, and you can also donate to their local partners, the Chattanooga Salvation Army, by texting the word "GIVE" to 80888.
Chow Time, on Nashville Street, as it was for decades

(I don’t have the heart to post pictures of the damage, but there’s raw footage of the area at

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Top Ten Tools for Keeping Southern - 5. Salt, Sugar, and Pepper

Thus continues a somewhat regular series in ten parts highlighting some of the basic accoutrements of keeping Southern.
I remember watching a chef who was cooking for a segment of some morning show several years ago. As they’re cooking, the host randomly asked him why what she cooked at home just never seemed to taste as good as what she ate in restaurants. Without even a pause, he answered, “You don’t add enough salt!”
It made me chuckle, because it was immediately clear that there was no way she was Southern.
There’s a “holy trinity” in Southern cooking, and after we ask Jesus to bless the food, the next thing you’ll hear is “Pass the salt!”
Salt, sugar, and pepper are the foundation for seasoning Southern food, and it’s the trick for making pretty near anyone like your vegetables. (That, and butter, but we already covered it.)
I learned about salt from one of my grandmothers, who I swear could go through a shaker of it in a week. When a diagnosis of congestive heart failure had the doctor putting her on a low sodium diet for a couple of weeks, she figured she’d just starve. (I did actually get her to eat and like it, but if I remember, it involved lots of lemon juice and pepper.)
I prefer sea salt, and it’s great to have both fine salt and course on hand, as the concentrated crunch of course, kosher salt is perfect for many dishes. I’ve become quite fond of my grinder of pink Himalayan salt that lets me adjust the grind from Trader Joe’s.
I learned about sugar (it’s not just for desert anymore!) from a wonderful black cook at the small college I used to work for in North Carolina. I went through the cafeteria line for lunch one day and got a bowl of ordinary looking black-eyed peas that ended up being one of the most amazing things I’ve ever eaten. Oh, my land, those were good! I’ve always loved black-eyed peas, but those were something special, so I asked who’d fixed them and then cornered her.
“How in the world did you make those black-eyes so good?!?”
“Well, I just fixed ‘em normal.”
“Really? So what did you do?
“Well, I soaked ‘em for a couple of days, and then I put some ham in and cooked ‘em all morning.”
“ You didn’t put anything but ham in?” (Not that ham isn’t a wonderful thing to put in, but that wasn’t what had made those peas special.)
“No. Nothing but salt and sugar, like I always do.”
“Salt and SUGAR?! How much sugar?”
“Well, enough so it’s right.”
“Hmm. So how do I know how much is right?”
“Just put the salt in your hand and mix in a little sugar, and taste it. Add enough so it tastes balanced.”
“Ah!!!! THANK YOU!”
And that little trick has made me a legend in one family I used to babysit for, where the boys will only eat “Jennifer’s” green beans.
It actually makes a lot of sense for vegetables, which have natural sugars which begin to deteriorate from the moment they are picked. Adding a touch of sugar is just adding the taste of freshness. It makes their natural flavor pop – especially beans. This is a great trick for any dried beans or peas, green beans, and corn. I use plain old cane sugar, but I also like the raw sugars and agave nectar in savory dishes. (Brown sugars are another animal altogether.)
And pepper. What Southern savory dish isn’t better freckled with black pepper? One friend described the appropriate amount of pepper in gravy by saying it should be enough “that the first bite makes you cough.” But pepper’s necessary for a lot more than gravy. Potatoes boiled in peppered water are always better. It’s as vital to grits as salt. And there’s no better way to cook cabbage than to sauté it in butter with a boatload of yellow onions and enough pepper to make you cough. The same goes for yellow squash.  Fried chicken. Bacon. Burgers. It’s all better with pepper. Fresh ground is best on the table, bet unless you've got a fancy electric grinder, it just takes too long for a lot of cooking. I keep a container of ground pepper by the stove (it stays fresher with a lid).
If you’re looking for a shortcut to Southern cooking, mix 3 parts salt, 3 parts sugar, and 1 part pepper and keep it in a shaker near your stove. It’s a start. Or better yet, add 1 part garlic powder, too.
Cooking up Southern goodness isn’t so hard. Just be sure not to serve a vegetable “crisp” unless it’s a cucumber (which is terrific, by the way, with a generous sprinkling of pepper).

Monday, February 7, 2011

Grits and Theology

Richard J. Mouw: The theological significance of grits

A post on grits from Duke Divinity School's Faith and Leadership blog. From Richard Mouw. Who lives in California. Priceless.

And I'm thinking I owe someone a post on grits...with two feet of snow on the ground in Chicago, it's the perfect time to be getting around to that...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Christmas in Chicago (Chicago Love - 2)

The week after Thanksgiving my folks were in the area (barely...Peotone is one town south of the last Metra stop) visiting some of their grands. That's how my step-father likes to come to Chicago: barely. I took a day off work to drive down and see them, and since the kids were in school, Mom and I decided to do something fun.

It was snowing (imagine that!), so we bundled up (including finding mom some layers of gear to borrow) and caught the train into the city.

First Chicago-Love item: the Metra. I love the train. My station is just about three blocks from my house, and only the absolute worst weather is going to make me do anything but walk to it. With the train, I can enjoy the city and instead of traffic, I get a couple of hours of reading in or focused conversation with a friend, and to top it all off, when I get there I don't have to find (or pay for) parking!

Our first stop was the Art Institute, where the lions had already been wreathed, and I decided to bite the bullet and get a membership. It's a better deal if you already live in the city, but I don't want to leave Chicago (not that I'm planning to) without having had the opportunity to see everything in the Art Institute, and now that I have the membership, I'll be sure to use it. (And on top of all the expected perks, members also get access to a cozy members lounge which features free Intelligentsia coffee and fancy hot teas!)

Second Chicago-Love item: The Art Institute is truly amazing. They have everything from armor (which we didn't get to) to amazing paintings (which we did) to ancient oriental jewelry (we passed it in a hall) to paperweights (a surprising, if too brief, highlight of the visit) to miniature rooms (think doll house rooms taken to the level of fine art and historical accuracy). The Institute even added period Christmas decorations to some of the miniature rooms. We also walked into the life-size reconstruction of Adler and Sullivan–designed Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room. It's wonderful that it's been preserved.

After several hours at the Art Institute, we braved the canyons of the city for a few blocks to Macy's.

Third Chicago-Love item: the skyscraper canyons. I love the Loop. The canyons work like a cathedral on me, drawing my eyes to the sky and making me feel tall. I get a rush every time I walk out of a building. I love how the Chicago River winds through it (more on that to come) and serves as a gentler counterpoint to the rivers of traffic.

At Macy's Mom and I made our way up the the Walnut Room to enjoy a late afternoon lunch at the foot of the famous Walnut Room Christmas tree, a Chicago tradition that goes back decades. I'd never been to the Walnut Room before, and mid-afternoon mid-week has got to be the best time to go. Every time I've been to Marshall Field's Macy's in the Christmas season before, the line for the Walnut Room has practically been out the building, but we had no wait at all.

I half expected this to be a tourist trap kind of thing, but everything was lovely, from the tree to the maitre d' to our server to the food. It was fun to enjoy a white-tablecloth "lunchdinner" with my mama. It's enough of a treat just to spend a day with her, but it's doubly fun to share beautiful (and yummy) things with her.

Our meal was delicious and not at all outrageous for the Loop. We both ordered the chicken sausages, a German-style dinner that was wonderful. And we finished by sharing a slice of Frango Mint ice cream pie. The Snow Princess even came by and sprinkled our table with glitter (she offered to sprinkle us, but we passed on that and just let her sprinkle the table). We were seated right under the tree, which was stunning (is it possible to overdo Christmas decorations?). I loved it that the decorations included full-size musical instruments.

After we ate, it had gotten dark, so we went outside to see the windows. Macy's did paper-art windows this year based on the animated version of "Yes, Virginia..." they sponsored a few years ago. The windows were lovely, filled with creative details. Even the wallpaper patterns in the scenes were cut paper art.

Fourth Chicago-Love item: Christmas. As much as I love Candle Tea and Christmas Eve Lovefeasts, Moravian stars and those impossibly thin and crisp ginger cookies (all Winston-Salem Christmas traditions),Christmas time is special in Chicago. People decorate their houses more, the public areas are bright with lights and decorations all around the area, and restaurants start to look like someplace the Ghost of Christmas Past might have decorated if he added strands of electric lights to his arsenal. But what makes it really work is the snow. We don't always have snow around Christmas, but we usually have it sometime in there. When yards are white and snow is drifting down on you as you stroll down city streets looking at Christmas lights and windows, it's just plain magic.

And to top it all off, there's Chicago's best Christmas tradition: The White Christmas Sing-a-Long at the Music Box Theater. It starts with a carol sing accompanied by the live organ, and then the stars in the ceiling twinkle as the show starts: "White Christmas" with an audience that sings along, rings jingle bells every time the word "snow" is heard, and applauds particularly great lines like it's live theater. I love it.

So here's to Chicago and a white Christmas next year and every year, with family and friends to share it all with!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Chicago Love - 1

I love Chicago. I really do.

Yes, it's cold in the winter, but then there's cross country skiing and amazing Christmas lights and Marshall Field's Macy's store windows and the White Christmas Sing-a-long at the old Music Box Theater (complete with twinkling "stars" in the ceiling). If you let it, Chicago knows how to redeem winter.

(And don't look so surprised. Do you really think a Southerner could live very long in a city as food-crazy as Chicago and not love it? I mean really, this is the city that invented the dark chocolate bacon bar, and now that we've got Hickory River and Chick-fil-A, there's not much missing.)

So I've been thinking about all the reasons to love Chicago, and a few recent experiences have risen to the top.

The first is a trip I made downtown to explore the French Market, tucked in the west side of Ogilvie Transportation Center. I combined the market with a few hours of exploring some of the vintage stores near the Ukrainian Village, but the highlight was definitely the market. Things weren't bustling as much on Saturday afternoon as I'm sure they are during the work week, but it was a treat worth the trip. Not only did I have an amazing chocolate croissant to enjoy on the train ride home, but lunch was a Bánh mì - an amazing sandwich that is the result of the pollination of Vietnamese cuisine by French colonization. The French brought the baguette, and the Vietnamese gave it their own twist as an amazing sandwich, which Saigon Sisters in the French Market specializes in. The genius of the Bánh mì is the terrific salad of garnishes that it adds to the perfect crunch and chew of an authentic baguette. I got "The Porky" which is based on braised pork belly, and what's not to love about some awesome pork? Especially when it's ensconced in an environment that embodies so many perfect contrasts - the softness of the inside of the baguette with the wonderful chew of the crust, the crispness of the veggies, just enough spice with just enough sweetness. Mmmmm.