Chicago encourages aggressive eating.
During a recent visit there, it didn't take me long to catch the spirit of the town. I ate hot dogs, ice cream bars, deep-dish pizza, ribs, catfish, perch, red beans and rice, watermelon, prime rib, a multi-course breakfast, a fistful of Frango-mints, chocolate chip cookies with tea, enchiladas, tamales and two types of cactus.
Actually I only ate one form of cactus, churros rellenos. This was a pastry that looked like a cactus, tasted like fried dough, and was filled with jelly. I bought that at a little bakery, La Mexicana on West 18th Street, and ate it right away. The other cactus, a tuna or prickly pear cactus, I bought at a Mexican grocery, La Casa Del Pueblo, around the corner on South Blue Island. That cactus I brought home in my luggage. I am going to mix it with ginger ale, grapefruit juice and vodka to make a cactus cocktail.
Being able to get the fixings for a cactus cocktail at the grocery store is just one of the benefits of the Chicago style of eating that I picked up there. I was in town to attend the annual gathering of the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Association.
Like most professional organizations, this group's annual meeting is designed to increase the skills of its members. Accordingly, the group gives awards for good work, and brings in speakers on topics like nutrition, biotechnology, microwave safety, trends in restaurants, and how to run a taste panel. My mind expanded immeasurably and my waist expanded by about an inch.
In addition to picking up some professional poundage, I also picked up some impressions on the Chicago style of eating. Here are a few.
The city of big portions
Chicago portions seem to come in two sizes: Extra Large and Extra Larger.
While wolfing down a deep-dish pizza at Pizzeria Uno downtown was struck by two truths. First, this was the best pizza in the world, markedly better than any pizza served anywhere else, including the Uno franchises in any other cities. Secondly, when I lived in Chicago about 15 years ago I used to be able to eat this massive, layered, pizza by hand. This time I had to get help from a knife and fork.
At lunch at the Goose Island Brewery, a restaurant in the Clybourn corridor that brews its own beer, I got a piece of prime rib that looked like a scene out of "Lonesome Dove." It was big, red and fresh off the cattle trail. I attempted to subdue it with horseradish and salt, but couldn't eat the whole thing. I stayed with it about halfway through the slab, then had to admit I was whipped.
At dinner at Army & Lou's on 75th near Martin Luther King Drive, the "taste of soul" plate I ordered had enough food in it to feed the South Side of Chicago. After appetizers of fresh watermelon and banana, I got pieces of fried catfish, fried perch, ham hocks, fried chicken, barbecued ribs, plus bowls of greens, red beans and rice, and some sweet potatoes. Again I couldn't finish. My soul was willing, but my stomach said bag it.
At breakfast at the Le Meridien Hotel, a Near North Side hotel so stylish that the bathtubs look like sculpture, the chef served a breakfast so big only farm hands could tackle it.
First there was a plateful of four-grain pancakes that had more fiber than most wheat fields. Then there were eggs casserole, grilled Wisconsin apple-cured ham and potatoes, as well as baskets of scones, muffins, croissants and brioches.
I grew up in the Midwest so my stomach should have been ready for such an early-morning stretch. And for a brief time after the pancakes I felt ready to buck some bales. Once, in Kansas, I tossed some bales of hay onto a farm wagon. My farmhand career lasted about two hours.
But in Chicago, by the time the ham course arrived my former farm boy appetite had wimped out. I have been out East too long, eating toast for breakfast and "bucking" only rolled up newspapers off the front steps.
The city of healthy hips.
Noting the swagger of Chicago, Carl Sandburg once called it the city of the big shoulders. But when I was there I spent a lot of time staring at swaying hips.
I did this for professional reasons. I was following the advice of Mary Abbott Hess, president of the American Dietetic Association, whose national headquarters is in Chicago. In a speech to our meeting, she said that one of the ways to figure out if someone is really overweight is to look at the hips.
If you are a man, your waist measurement should not be larger than the measurement of your hips, she said. If you are a woman, your waist should be 20 percent smaller than your hips. Immediately I took Hess' remarks to mean I should work on widening my hips. All I had to do was make my hips fatter than my middle.