When it comes to culinary scenes, Chicago is second to none, but do people really know the origins of local dishesor even which ones have origins in this city?
Revered food journalists Monica Eng and David Hammond have joined forces to write Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown Bites (already in its third printing). In doing so, they have written a book that deeply delves into the histories of various dishessome that are well-known (the Chicago hot dog) and some that may mystify others (akutagawa and taffy grapes). In addition, there are recipes (in many cases) and even lists of spots that serve the selections.
Recently, they chatted with WCT/SAVOR with Andrew about the genesis of the book and, of course, some of the selected culinary items.
Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Windy City Times: Tell me how this collaboration came about.
Monica Eng: I've been covering food for a while and I've been doing these origin stories. I was having lunch with a friend named Bruce Craig and he said, "Your stories are fascinating. Why don't you collect them in a book?" I said, "I really don't have time to do that. I'm trying to be a mom and a journalist." Then I saw David at a party and told him about my plight and he said…
David Hammond: "Absolutely. That sounds fun." I had investigated some of these foodsbut not to the extent that Monica has. But I've been living in Chicago all my life but even for me (and I think this may apply to Monica as well), I discovered some new things along the way, like taffy grapes, to use a key example. But there were others, like the sweet steak [supreme sandwich]which [food writer] Louisa Chu did an article on that I really likedthat I was vaguely aware of but had never really tasted.
So the book compelled mejust as I hope it inspires readersto go out and explore foods they've never heard of in neighborhoods they've never been to. I think it's a wonderful way to explore Chicago, leading with your stomach.
WCT: And how did you narrow the dishes down to 30?
Eng: Well, we had certain parameters. They had to have been invented in Chicago with a credible story that proves it. They have to be served in more than one place and they have to had stood the test of timebeing at least a decade old.
Hammond: We probably could've done 32 but 30 seemed like a good number. And we didn't want to push it too hard. There are some that might be slight pushes, like the pepper-and-egg sandwich. You'll see it's called the Chicago pepper-and-egg sandwich more frequently than not. It was probably served in some other cities, too, but was it served in Chicago first? Well, it certainly was a contender but it's not conclusive, like a mother-in-law ["a Chicago corn-roll tamale with chili and traditional Chicago hot-dog condiments," according to Made in Chicago].
Then, there's what used to be called "Chicago mix" but is now called [Garrett] mix. Candyland in St. Paul, Minnesota bought the name right out from under them, which was extraordinarily careless of Garrett to have this winning product and neglect the trademark.
WCT: I know the dishes are listed alphabetically, but I thought I was already in trouble because I hadn't of the first item, akutagawa, at all. [Akutagawa is "hamburger meat with chopped onions and green peppers, bean sprouts and scrambled egg, served with a side of rice and gravy," per the book.] I asked several people and no one had heard of this dish.
Hammond: Great! [Interviewer laughs.]
Eng: We're glad to introduce people to new things.
I live near Rice'N Bread [which serves it], which used to be Hamburger King. But if you haven't been to this place or any of the places where fellow workers cook, you probably wouldn't have heard of it. It's in at least three places: Susie's, Rice'N Bread and Fullerton Restaurant. And I thought it was a fascinating story about the little-known Japanese population in Wrigleyville that was so strong in the middle of the 20th centuryand their quiet attempt to assert their culture during a time when they were told not to.
Hammond: The immigrant angle on this is probably something that, in retrospect, I should've emphasized more. A lot of these foods are the results of people from other cultures coming to Chicago, bringing their recipes with them and possibly adapting them to Chicago.
I actually had something quite similar to akutagawa my first time on Oahu, and many of the customers at Rice'N Bread [came from] Hawaii, where the dish is called loco moco. I love itit's just so comforting and easy to make.
WCT: And with Monica having written about akutagawa, I wanted to ask you, David, about one you wrote about: the mother-in-law, which I had heard of but have never tried.
Hammond: Well, that's good. I was kind of surprised by how many people have heard about it. I know Geoffrey Baer did a food program in which he tried it, and Anthony Bourdain got one the first time he was in Chicago. He described it as "disturbing, yet strangely compelling"and it kinda is.
It's not that awesome. It's a big fistful of carbs and, if you put enough chili and onions on it, it becomes more tolerable. No one knows quite where it beganprobably with push-cart vendors. Are you going to ask me how it got the name?
WCT: I was just about to, actually.
Hammond: Monica usually answers that one. Wanna do it again, Monica?
Eng: Because it also gives you indigestion.
Hammond: Boom! [Interviewer laughs.] I actually had a great mother-in-law, but the answer is: Who knows?
WCT: There are some obvious dishes, like Chicago deep-dish pizzabut isn't it considered kind of controversial now?
Hammond: Yes, in the sense that the inventor has, with the passage of time, become uncertain. It's either Ike Sewell or Ric Riccardo. A lot of people, like historian Tim Samuelson, think it was Ric Riccardo. The restaurant now called Uno's [Pizzeria Uno] was called Riccardo's Pizzeriabut you won't see Riccardo's name anywhere on Uno's website, although you'll see Ike Sewell's. I kinda agree with Studs Terkel that "Riccardo invented the fucking thing, for chrissakes!" [Note: Terkel talks about itand many other topicsat mediaburn.org/video/studs-interview-tapes-2-and-3/ .] And Studs was around when the first deep-dish was served, and he probably had insight into its invention that we who came later do not have.
Eng: And it's probably true that it had a few inventors and that Ric Riccardo probably came up with the first prototype. Ike Sewell was a good showman and he lived [longer than] Riccardo so he could say whatever he wanted. But also Alice Mae Redmond was one of the early cooks at Uno's; she was a Southern cook who was purported to say, "I got in there."
The deep-dish pizza was not a hit in its first few years. The place was not doing well and people did not like that pizza. [Redmond] came in there and said she lightened up the crust with her Southern know-now with biscuits. So I think she really contributed to the popularity of it. And then Rudy Malnati [Sr.] was a good marketer who ended up taking that recipe and moving on. So it may have had four major contributors to the success of it.
Hammond: Success has many fathers and a mother.
WCT: And there also seems to be this backlash against deep-dish pizza, as they opt for thin-crust. There seems to be some controversy there, too.
Hammond: Well, it's a matter of taste, of course. Steve Dolinskywho's facing some controversy of his own right nowonce said on a panel, "Go down the line at Uno's on any given night and you'll find that most of the folks there are tourists," which I think is somewhat true. Now, when I was a teenager, we would go to Uno's all the time but I think if you're a tourist, when you go to another city you want to try what it's [known for]like Cincinnati's [Skyline] chili. So I think people want to try it because they've heard about it. I think a lot of Chicagoans feel that deep-dish pizza is for tourists, but that might just be a stereotype.
Eng: This is anecdotal, but I was taping for five hours with Geoffrey Baer and Tim Samuelson recently [at Uno] and people at all the other tables around us were speaking different languages.
WCT: What was one surprising thing each of you discovered while researching? I'm sure you discovered lots of things, of course.
Eng: The origin of the pizza puff surprised me. It originated with hot-dog push carts and corn-roll tamales and the need to compete with pizzerias in your deep fryer. I tell the story of an Assyrian Christian immigrant who came here from Iran and started renting push carts. One of his clients couldn't pay his bill and died, and his widow gave the [seller] a tamale recipe. He used that to build an empire, Iltaco; then, his sonwhile delivering hot-dog supplies to a standwas told, "Hey! I need something that can compete with pizzerias." He then made something that could go into a deep fryer.
Hammond: [Monica] and I kept thinking, "How do these dishes represent immigrants?" A pizza puff was originally made from a flour tortillaso it clearly has a Mexican connection, although you may not think it does. I thought I had eaten pizza puffs, but I had mistaken pizza rolls for them. But pizza puffs are much more delicious, and Monica has had them with a salad and a glass of wine for a pleasant European-style lunch. And they come in 15 flavors now.
Eng: Reuben, corned beef, ham and cheese, gyros…
Hammond: What can you stuff in a tortilla?
And [of all the dishes in the book], my favorite would undoubtedly be taffy grapes, which I had not had before. I went to Baba's Famous Steak & Lemonade and got a little plastic clamshell container of these taffy grapes. Again, they're stunningly simple to makegrapes swirled in white or dark chocolate, sprinkled with nuts. They're a really nice way to end a meal with spicy or fried food.
WCT: So Monica, David revealed his favorite item. What's yours?
Eng: I like the jibarito best. It reflects my Puerto Rican heritage and my departed grandmother is the one who told me about it first. It includes a lot of my favorite foods. You can get the steak version, but I like the roast-pork one. It's got my favorite childhood food: a tostone, which is deep-fried green plantain that is smashed. So instead of bread, the jibarito is served on two tostones.
WCT: Is this anything else you wanted to stay about this book, like who you hope it reaches?
Eng: I just hope that it gets Chicagoans to not be so culturally segregatedthat it gets North Siders to try South Side dishes, and vice versa. Maybe if we try each other's food, we'll understand each other better and have a more peaceful citybut that may be the Pollyanna in me.
Hammond: But I agree, and that's a very noble goal.
My goal is probably a little simpler. The places on the North Side get all the attention: Michelin stars, awards, fancy chefs and expensive stuff. But I think the mom-and-pop places on the North and South sides deserve attention. Twenty years ago, some friends and I started LTH Forum (www.lthforum.com ) to focus on the little mom-and-pop places that were serving great food at [reasonable] prices; they deserve to get more attention.
Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown Bites is available at all major retailers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.