What Does Chicago Taste Like? Israel? Piedmont?

May 12, 2009 at 4:37 pm

Rob Gardner

I’ve been eating local for several years now.   For about ten months a year, I get a CSA box from Farmer Vicki’s Genesis Growers.  From this weekend to the end of October I will be a big buyer at the Oak Park Farmer’s Market.  I’ll make the crazy drive to Green City; and nearly as crazy a-drive to Cassie’s Green Grocer.  If I’m downtown I have to stop in at the Downtown Farmstand.  And that’s never enough.  I’m off to Monroe for cheap but but hardly cheap cheeses.  I might head in the other direction for local beans from Michigan.  If I can find it at Costco, I buy it.  I eat local.  Or do I.  Do I taste Chicago?

What does Chicago taste like?  There are at least two signature dishes of our town: pizza and hot dogs and I suppose a case could also be made for big steaks.  We can cite local ties, stockyards and all, for steaks, not to mention that most commercial beef is finished in the Midwest.  Hot dogs are derivative of European sausages, but the hot dogs we eat in Chicago are made in Chicago.  Pizza, well at least the formula, the styling is local.  This hardly makes a cuisine though.

A cuisine consists of more than three dishes.  It’s not just a few things to eat, but a lot of things to eat.  It’s when the food is eaten.  Would Spanish cuisine be the same without its 3 PM lunches and Midnight dinners?  It’s how the food is eaten.  Would Moroccan food taste the same with a spoon?  As Waverly Root divided France, a cuisine is more often than not based on its fat.  As you can probably tell, the notion of cuisine fascinates me.  I think a lot about the idea of a Chicago cuisine as I struggle to find it.

I started thinking about this again, or shall I say it bubbled up from further reaches of my mind recently because after months of drooling, I finally purchased The Book of New Israeli Food.  These are recipes for my locavore lifestyle.  From the “Everything Salad” from Orna & Ella, of Tel Aviv which rightly uses rocket instead of arugula to the shakshuk with spinach and feta I mentioned yesterday, I could make these dishes from my local foods.  Our summers produce ample supplies of eggplants and tomatoes.  Half the pages in my book seem to feature these two fruity-veg.  I believe there is a whole chapter on eggplant dishes.  Is a cuisine of eggplants, peppers and tomatoes Chicago cuisine?

Another cuisine I thought about as basis for my local cuisine is the food of Piedmont.   Why the hell did I pick this place most famous for expensive wines (e.g., Barolo) and equally expensive fungus (e.g. tartufo bianco).  Well, first of all, having never been there, Turin reminds me a bit of Chicago, with its combination of industrial basis, modern glamour and second city syndrome.  On top of that Piedmont combines, like Illinois, the most urban with the most rural.  And like Illinois, it is removed from the sea and too far north for olives.  Piedmontese cuisine, however, borrows, using olive oil, anchovies and salt cod.  Could not we?  We both use a lot of cheese.  We pot roast meats.  Make chocolate.  Should I base my local food eating on Piedmont?  Can Chicago taste like Torino.

I’d like to have the taste of Chicago mean something.  Can you all help me build a cuisine.