The Taste of Chicago
Convenience, Excess, and Sheer Bad-Assedness
Carl Sandburg wasn't kidding when he wrote in his poem "Chicago" that the city is a "Hog Butcher for the World,/Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,/Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;/Stormy, husky, brawling,/City of the Big Shoulders:/They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys..." Chicago is a tough town that famously runs on sinew, muscle, and corruption—all of which require serious calories.
Chicago is one of the baddest-assed cities on the planet. It's the only place I've lived in where I've seen a cop start making out with a stranger stepping off a bus. It's the only city where I've known someone to be politely and gently mugged (my friend Simon, a tough boy raised in tough parts of Dublin). It's the only city where I've been able to sit in a speakeasy (it was a small house converted to a bar on the South Side, with—I'm not kidding—some dude in a trench coat warming his hands over a trash-can fire on the sidewalk) and have the guy next to me at the bar say: "If we was 10 blocks north [meaning whiter] or 10 blocks south [meaning blacker], I'd have to kick your ass, or you'd have to kick mine, just on principle. Lucky thing we're here. Cheers, brother." And we clinked glasses of beer to the most beautiful articulation of the arbitrariness of racism that I've ever heard.
Chicago is a fantastic town. And while Seattle continues to figure out how it feels about "street food"—from city council debates to Seattle Times articles—Chicago has had it covered since the 19th century. If you're getting on or off the El pretty much anywhere, there is a cluster of places where you can find an excessive number of calories for just a few bucks: little carts and nooks everywhere serving pizza and hot dogs and shawarma and whatever. There will be a lady shoving fried chicken (with some grease-smeared white bread, for some reason—I never cottoned to that particular Chicago tradition) through a single brick-sized hole in the wall.
The tradition of "Chicago cuisine" has two major components: convenience and excess. The "City of the Big Shoulders" was built on industrial labor—stockyards, train yards, slaughterhouses. And industrial workers need food that is cheap, quick, and rich in calories. They don't have the time or money for anything else. Give 'em a bunch of fat wrapped in dough so that they can go build a train or chop up a hog—and do it stat.
So Chicago came up with the deep-dish pizza, which is cheesier than Oprah (who lives in Chicago, by the way—not a coincidence). And the Chicago dog, which is a beef wiener buried in tomatoes, peppers, pickles, celery salt, and tons of other stuff. And chicken Vesuvio, which Wikipedia efficiently describes as a dish that started as an Italian specialty in the 1930s, with roasted bone-in chicken cooked in oil and garlic next to garlicky oven-roasted potato wedges and a sprinkling of green peas. Plus, there's Harold's Chicken Shack (which specializes in the aforementioned chicken-and-white-bread combo, along with french fries) and on and on and on.
Now to the Weiners Circle. It was a late night shortly after 9/11, and the whole city seemed to be on edge. Soldiers in fatigues walked around downtown with automatic rifles. But people were still trying their best to have fun. This was America, after all, and the best way to show those shrill, sanctimonious, reactionary religious jackasses that we weren't cowed was to go out. So I'm out with some friends who know Chicago, and they think it would be hilarious to take me (arrived in town for the first time just a few days ago) to the Weiners Circle, a place notorious for its hot dogs and its verbal abuse.
Of course, they don't fill me in on where we're going.
I stand in line, approach the counter, and ask the young African-American woman behind the register for a hot dog.
"Right. So you want a boiled, skinny white dick like yours or a big, black charred dick?" she says with a smiling sneer.
It takes me a few seconds to acclimate to this unexpected tone.
"Um, a big black dick?" I say.
"Okay, big black dick," she says. "What do want on that?"
"Um, everything?" I say.
"Everything," she says. "Everything. Huh. You want my pussy juice on that?"
"How much does your pussy juice cost?" I ask.
"More than you can afford," she says.
"Well, then," I say, "one big black dick but hold the pussy juice."
She cackled and took my money, with everyone in line in hysterics. I wish I could tell you how the hot dog tasted. But in my memory, the conversation eclipses the cuisine.
And that's the way it is with Chicago food—the fact that it exists, and the way that it exists, is really more important than whether you use X or Y pickles on your Chicago dog or whether or not you put spinach in your deep-dish pizza.
Which brings us to Taste of Chicago, a little diner/cafeteria in the University District. They've got those Chicago-style things you can't find anywhere else. They've got a robust Chicago dog—tomatoes, green relish, diced onions, pickle spear, mustard, sport peppers, and celery salt on a poppy-seed bun—for $6. (While you can find variations of the Chicago dog at a few other places in town, they're all pretty anemic compared to the one at Taste of Chicago.) They've got pizza puffs—port sausage, mozzarella cheese, and pizza sauce wrapped in a tortilla and deep-fried—for $4.50. They've got pork-chop sandwiches ($6.50), gyros, Italian beef sandwiches ($8.75), fried chicken sandwiches ($5.50), chili-cheese dogs ($5.25), and other good stuff. They've also got beer, and they're open until 3:00 a.m. on weekends.
Nobody asked me if I wanted any pussy juice when I ordered my hot dog—but you can't have everything.