CHICAGO IS A FEAST for the senses – all 7 of them! Taste, touch, visually, sound, smell, kinaesthetically, and the essential one – hi-speed internet connectivity!
Aesthetically, Chicago isn’t a ‘tall’ city, it’s dense. Large square and rectangular buildings with glass facades slam against the city sidewalks in an architectural ‘high-five’. The city streets feel busy and buzzy.
People seem to walk faster and talk faster on the East Coast, maybe it’s the coffee. Size matters most in America when it comes to coffee. The small Italian espresso china cups of Sydney cafes might be taken as an insult here, where a cup of coffee is described by volume – ‘is that 10 ounces or 12oz to go?’
Despite Chicago’s reputation as a cold and windy city, I was lucky to feel the warm embrace of three of my Chicago facebook friends, who were as welcoming as the summer sun above our heads. And it was nice to fulfil a promise made ages ago to meet my friend Tim at The Bean – that wonderful giant stainless steel jelly bean for adults – in Millennium Park. Designed by Anish Kapoor, its proper name is Cloud Gate, and its seductive curves distort and consume skylines and people like a giant tardis. Everyone loves it.
While taste-testing for my soul food book I found plenty on my plate and for my palate… I ate health food, soul food, healthy soul food and became addicted to Blue Corn Chips – organic of course – with generous amounts of artichoke dip. My friends were horrified to learn these items are as rare as hen’s teeth back in Australia. This led to conversations about dry ice and air freight to Australia. Yes, they tasted THAT GOOD. But I drew the line on trying Oreo yoghurt.
There are as many soul food restaurants, diners and BBQ spots in Chicago as there are popcorn kernels in a bag of Garrett’s sweet and salty popcorn. See them all in four days? Not a chance. So my Chicago host Ms Marathon (so named as she is a frequent marathon runner unlike myself) and I headed to the South Side…
Here we found two of my favourite Chicago eateries – Pearl’s Place and Chicago Chicken and Waffles.
Located near Bronzeville, the atmosphere at Pearl’s Place is ‘down home’ and friendly and the food tastes homemade. I liked their grits, and I liked them even better served with prawns lying on top of them. I had to tackle the prawns and the massive plate of neck bones single-handedly as Ms M is vegetarian. Such is friendship 🙂
Dessert? Who can say ‘No’ when Red Velvet Cake is on the menu – yes please! Red is my favourite colour so why not a RED cake? Also known as Devil’s Food Cake, this cake’s history is a bit like the myth surrounding Australia’s Pavlova – everyone claims to have invented it. You can believe it was a signature dessert at Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York during the 1920’s, or an Eaton’s department store recipe invented by store matriarch, Lady Eaton and served in their stores during the 1950s. Supposedly store employees were sworn not to reveal the recipe. Or maybe the original red colour came about through a chemical reaction between the original ingredients.
The red in contemporary versions of the cake comes from baking with either beetroot or red food colouring. I cooked the food colouring version of the cake before I left home so I could compare my cake with the ones on sale in the USA – they tasted the same. I’m going to bake another cake using garden-fresh beetroot. What fun!
Chicago Chicken and Waffles
The next day Ms M and I took the Green Line out to Oak Park visit Chicago Chicken and Waffle and share brunch. Here we met up with my friend’s family who generously agreed to be interviewed for my book and offered me a bag of Soul Food cookbooks and a kilo of grits and Zatarains – which sadly I couldn’t take on the plane.
At CC&W the atmosphere was friendly and I was relieved to have my microphone working again after the on-off switch popped out. I’ve since found out that this is a common experience with this model of mic and have upgraded to a Roland.
As the Chicken and Waffles arrived I noticed that waffles served on the East Coast are thinner than those I ate on the West Coast. Maybe it’s simply ‘old skool’ soul food vs. ‘Nuevo gourmet’ soul food? Or maybe it’s a great excuse for me to research waffles!
No matter, these slim-line waffles and juicy fried chicken still managed to add to my waistline! Both were worth the ‘sacrifice’.
I was grateful that CC&W serve a batter-free fried catfish with vegetables as well as regular fried catfish. I also munched through a plate of truly delicious red beans and rice. And speaking of beans … who can say ‘No’ to Bean Pie?
“You can eat a lot for such a small person” probably describes just how many meals I sampled during my Chicago stay.
The Bean, Red beans, Bean pie – there’s a lot more to say about Chicago but I think you get the picture.