Friday, September 6, 2013

A Tale of Trustworthy Dudes

In a saturated cyber and printed word world (he said self-reflectively), there are a handful of folks whose opinion I truly trust when it comes to food; this list narrows when it comes to new pastry shops (talk about a saturated world). Today, one of these people, Michael Gebert, he of James Beard bling wearing, Sky Full of Bacon fame, wrote a piece on a 2 month-old pastry shop in the deliciously smoky environs of the Paulina Brown Line stop called Bad Wolf Coffee (check his article for lovely pictures and superior prose on the place). I was serendipitously in the neighborhood for once, and thus immediately went in.

I'm not going to say more about the pastry I ate--the kouign-amann--beyond that I was amazed and soothed by it's integrity--the virtue of good butter and purity of technique right in your hand. You've got to go try it yourself. The espresso that the one man show of owner Jonathan Ory pulls is crafted with equal care--get him chatting and perhaps he'll tell you a juicy story about that. But what ultimately won me over was an in-person example of the the following ethic, as written in Gebert's article:

Talk to him—which you should do as part of the coffee transaction, in his opinion..."The last thing I want is a place where I'm staring at the backs of peoples' heads with headphones on. People forget how to talk to each other. I'm afraid my generation doesn't know how to talk."

He's right, and that's why upon leaving, I was so damn pleased that we hung out and talked shop for some time, and to me, that is one of the tell-tale signs of a truly special place: you come for the food, you stay for the company it created. Of course, this was on a slow Friday afternoon. What would it be like on Saturday morning? Packed I'm sure, and the product backs that up and makes a visit worthwhile. But if you get a chance to stop in and taste some of Ory's pastry, do so. And you might luck out if--in the midst of a triple-digit hour week--he pulls his trick of making you feel as though he's got all day to talk. Dude is a true craftsman.

Bad Wolf Coffee is at 3422 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago, just next to the Paulina Brown Line stop.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Gibanica, Hamsicles and Other Earthly Delights

All photos courtesy Jordan Martins
We had a great potluck Sunday--starting with a flock of pigeons dramatically taking flight, vacating the Comfort Station island to make way for the crew as they arrived with an overload of toothsome food. To name a mere few: Tamale Pie, Peach Cobbler, a bucket of Romesco and Meatballs, and a crowd favorite, Gibanica--a lovely pastry layered with a cheesy custard--also labeled as "Serbian crack". Johnny Casserole himself even stopped by with a mountain of Hoppin' John. Good luck for everyone!
A new addition to the potluck: Bring tupperware! Everyone is so generous with what they make, we've got a lot left over to take home. My Comfort Station partner and I are getting plump as we refuse to leave the building after everyone's gone until we've eaten every last bite of leftovers. Rest assured there was nary a bit of pickle-ham-cream cheese roll up to be found left in the place.
The potluck isn't without it's conundrums. For instance, what to do with those who come in, bring nothing, donate nothing, eat and leave without talking to a soul. Clearly the potluck is not about gaining anything tangible for ourselves or the Comfort Station; rather we are looking for a cosmic drawing even of sorts. Ultimately, we've decided that the price these woebegone souls have paid in dignity suffices. On the other hand, at each potluck, we've had people walk in, take a look around, both chit and chat with us, and even if they haven't a penny to spare, we make sure they get something to eat. You see, we're not looking to make money, or to be prom committee tyrants telling people where to sit; we just want the potluck to be a gathering at which some kind of exchange happens. Think of a G-Rated version of the "cash, grass or ass, nobody rides for free" bumper sticker. One guy even came in and played piano for about an hour--and I'm not talking about that one annoying guy at parties where there's a piano and he saw The Sting once, so he sits down and kind of plays a hacked-up drunken version and just ends up embarrassing everyone--this guy was carrying around sheet music and sat down and rocked the walls of the Comfort Station with something along the lines of Chopin for nearly an hour, maybe more. When he was done, we asked him to eat; when he said "aw shucks, I ain't got no money to donate and I didn't bring nothin' to serve," we forced some Colorado Green Chile down his throat. But it's interesting to note the statistics evening out as we go along--each potluck sees a couple skinny Logan Square hipsters stop by, throw some change in the donation jar, and eat the squarest meal they'll have all month. But it's awesome, because they hang out and talk with us, and we love it.

A guest once asked us what our goal was with the potluck. It's important to have goals, sure. But I think our goal with the potluck is, well, to kind of not have a goal. We're not looking to put up numbers; we're not looking to light cigars with Andrew Jackson's after everyone clears out. If we had to name a goal, it's to give folks in (or out of) the area a spot to come, max and relax on a Sunday afternoon with some really good, unfussy, unprecious food and some extremely decent people. And, if you're lucky, some amazing classical music.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Comfort Food at Comfort Station

Last month we hosted the first Comfort Food at Comfort Station Potluck to great success--all told, about 30 people came through with a staggering array of top-notch food all the way from a deep, cool tray of citrusy ceviche to several dozen handmade tamales from first time makers, long time eaters. There was a lovely Filipino menudo, Frito pie, hashbrown casserole; chicken mole and skillet cornbread made the scene, too. A dude even strolled in, asked if he could play the piano, and dropped about an hour of Chopin on us.
photo courtesy Nando Espinosa
The point here is that there was a lot of great stuff, and you should be there next time. But the funny thing about a potluck is how food--siren song sung and job of getting people to gather complete--ultimately takes a backseat to things like meeting new folks and hanging out with old friends on a lawn in the middle of Logan Square on a damn near perfect early summer day. All this, then someone rides up with a couple huge containers of Italian ice.
photo courtesy Nando Espinosa
Wondering what the Comfort Station is? It's that funky little building on Milwaukee Ave. right smack in the middle of Logan Square. It was initially built as a shelter for trolley riders...then turned into a shelter for nothing...and was finally a shelter for the City's lawn mowers. Restored in 2010 by Logan Square Preservation, it became a community-focused art space in 2011. And it's been expanding its lineup of offerings every since.

That said, we’ve got more planned in the works for the Comfort Food program at the Comfort Station, something I’ll be curating alongside Jordan Martins--CS's Program Manager, a great Chicago artist, and one of the top food guys I know. Based around the once-a-month potluck series (which includes a visit from the Read/Write Library's clever BiblioTreka, a book bike with select cook/food books), Comfort Food will offer other food-related events with the goal of maintaining the Comfort Station's role as an intersection of culture, arts and living history. Stay tuned to F.o.t.D. or like Comfort Station on Facebook for updates. Meanwhile, come to the 2nd potluck, being held Sunday, July 14 at 3pm - 5pm, and bring something good to eat (if you are coming, won't you please let us know on the event page?). As always, there are no requirements beyond you making something (i.e. don't stop off at the gas station and get a box of snowballs or ho-hos) and bringing a utensil to serve it. We'll provide plates and bowls and cutlery, but keep in mind there are no facilities for heating anything up. The event will always be free, but if you wanna throw a buck or two in the donation jar to cover the costs of supplies, we wouldn't hold it against you. Any questions can be directed to me at hughamano{at}yahoo{dot}com. If you have any ideas for future events, we're open to submissions as well. Hope to see you Sunday--until then, eat & share well!
photo courtesy Nando Espinosa

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Sticky Skinned Thieves and The Mint Julep

It was blazing hot in Chicago this week, and looking at the 93 flashing on the bank sign alternating with the unchanged-since-daylight-savings-so-it-is-still-an-hour-off time, I cringed thinking of when it'll be really hot, and really humid. All I could think to do was slink over to the community garden down the street, steal some herbs and make mint juleps.

NOW, it should be said that I didn't actually steal the mint. There's a sign on this tiny garden of about a dozen plots that lists the DOs and DON'Ts, including things like "DO enjoy the garden" but "DON'T drunkenly vomit in the garden". Seems like "DON'T take any plants or herbs or vegetables unless you've grown them" is a given--but the sign actually has taking herbs along the side of the road as a DO! But still, I felt weird about it, like I'm being set up for the crime of crimes, taking a deliciously aromatic weed like mint. So, on Sunday, under the guise of walking a rambunctious wiener dog, I sauntered by in hat and sunglasses with the hopes of snagging some. Alas! The whole gardening club was out in full force, and I lost my nerve, certain that a dachshund trampling the lettuce patch while I sheepishly tried to snip mint would be frowned upon.

The next day I gathered my courage and returned--sans wiener dog--relieved that no one was there. I scanned the sign again to confirm that I wasn't being an herb-sucking leech of society, then bent down and started clipping. I'd gotten a decent load, when I heard a voice say, "what are you making?" I started, instantly transported to the mischievous lilac summer days of my youth, sure to see a scowl and a set of crossed arms in front of me. Half-written stories of excuse whirled through my mind, yet I somehow stumbled out "mint juleps" as I met the eyes of my exposer. Instantly I could see it was okay--everything was all right--and yes, in fact, the community mint meant community mint. Phew, I thought, and had an excellent conversation with her; she is one of the gardeners who has a plot there and was enthusiastic as all get out about my using the herbs. I confessed my apprehensions, and was assured no crime had been committed. I felt silly about the whole thing but then was told that there actually is a thief in the neighborhood; a mysterious, well-gardened lady who really knows her plants, stealing a fig tree and more. I promised to do my part and keep a look out.

At any rate, I shook off the social rust of wariness the city inevitably puts back on me over a long winter and learned a bit about what was being grown in the garden. A sack full of mint in my hands, I returned home and crushed a bunch of ice. I rinsed the mint and muddled it with sugar in a pewter cup and packed that ice over it, a mountain for the streams of sweet bourbon to run through. A slight stir and more mint for garnish, slapped one or twice to activate its mojo, I sat back on the porch with that layer of sweat, or humidity, or a combination of both sticking to my skin and let the julep do its thing. The below vision of the poetic bartender from our soulful south filled my head with the story of the mint julep; and the diesel air, concrete and fear of garden thievery flowed away.