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.