The Taste of Chicago Should Be Serbian
The Quest for True Local Cuisine
Yesterday, I was at my Mother’s house. She asked me to help promote a farmer’s market being held at her synagogue in April. I will, but my immediate comment was, it was nice for someone to throw a market in April. See, we have very few Spring markets. It reminded me, which I mentioned last night, that come Spring, I would likely re-post one of my rants about needing more Spring farmer’s markets. That made me think of another thing I’ve been meaning to rant. What our local food should really taste like.
We have lots of local food these days in the Chicago area. The Local Beet CSA guide should be up soon, and again should have over seventy-five area farms. Beyond the farms, there is all sorts of local dairy, meats, artisanal products, a very complete locavore diet can be had. Except what does it taste like. Of Chicago. The Midwest. Our area. What I see, mostly, is that we take all of our local food and use it as building blocks for making other cuisines. We do not use it to make food that is local. It really bothers me that there is no taste of Chicago. Luckily, I have an idea where to look.
A couple of weeks ago, I ate herring in a bathrobe with Mike “SkyFullofBacon” Gebert. Him being a worldly food person, I asked him a question I’ve long wondered. Why has not the New Nordic caught on in Chicago. After all, this is food based on it being very cold. We can relate. We need root cellars. Instead, over and over and over and over again, the restaurants that are opened in Chicago look South. Often South like Big Jones or Carriage House. Just as often, in Southerly directions, all those Italian and Spanish or Tex-Mex diners, and when those get boring, how about more Italian? I asked Mike, why when the big guns worldwide are clamoring for potatoes cooked in decomposed forest leaves, we’re putting another branzino on the table. Having only put one shot of post-schvitz vodka in him, he had no good answer.
My answer, however, as I thought about it, was that Chicago aint Sweden. We should not look to the North to make our plates as polar vortex-y as its been of late. First of all, polar vortex aside, we’re not that North. Stockholm is only 500 miles from the Arctic Circle, and Stockholm is way on the bottom of Sweden. They make our growing season seem like California in comparison. Second, and more important, all of those countries, Sweden and Denmark and such are surrounded by water. Their cuisine revolves around herring, salmon, shrimps and other sea creatures. How can we duplicate that in Chicago. Not with local food. Do you know what the Serbian National Tourism Board says Serbs eat for fish: carp, perch, and catfish. That’s some swimmers we can net. Want to know who we should be following to make a local cuisine? The Serbs. Look at that picture above, does that not look like something from around here.
Perhaps, you see my case, that we should continue to model our food after the Italians. I mean as much as Beet Reporter Robert Haugland tries, we’re not getting a lot of artichokes here. Now, they say that only Warsaw has more Poles than Chicago (not Googling to see if true…). Maybe we should take heed in the popularity of paczki day and make all our days Polish food days. Believe me, I’m tempted, there’s a lot more to Polish food than good donuts. We might look there for inspiration. Still, it’s food of the North. The leading vegetables in Poland are the beet, the cabbage and the carrots. Surely, we have more. The food available to Chicago is both cold weather and hot weather. We need cabbage and beans in the winter but lots of peppers in the summer.
That is why we should look to the Serbs. If you travel to farm stands and markets around the Midwest outside the big cities, you would think all the farmers were Serbs. What do you, often what only will you see: tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, and eggplants. The building blocks of Serbian food.
Except what do you see when you see a plate of Serbian food. Meat sided with more meat, right? That was dinner not too long ago at a Serbian restaurant in Brookfield. Where’s the peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, etc. Don’t scoff. They’re there. The Serbs just like to put them on their own plates and eat them as appetizers or side salads. Sounds a little suspiciously like the Italians and their antipasti and contorni, no? In fact, my proposition is that Serbian food tastes like what Italians would eat if they lived in Serbia (and had Polish Aunts). Need further proof, look at the cuisine of Trieste. Why Serbia over Istria? It’s all about the coast baby. Land-locked Serbia has as much access to fresh oysters as we do. Serbian food is our food, and we should make our food Serbian food. Eating local demands more than harvesting food from nearby soil. It means tasting dishes that taste of that soil, of the local forests, fields and streams. What Serbian food tastes like. Homework: start learning more about Serbian food. I’m not done here.