Friday, July 10, 2009

Community, and, Do Compromised Ethics Really Count as Ethics At All?

I got into a lengthy conversation with a good friend of mine who is also a cook the other day, as we sat by the lake with another friend eating, among other things, braised pork sandwiches from Ba Le on Argyle and Broadway. Ba Le, if you don't know, has some pretty tasty sandwiches at extremely cheap rates. Definitely worth a try. If you do go, try the Pennywort Soda. I did. I can't say I finished it all, and something about the picture on the can and the taste made me think of geraniums mixed with a bunch of sugar, but hey, give it a try. It apparently has all kinds of digestive benefits. But I digress. The point I set out to raise is that my friend and I discussed, at length, the challenge of getting people into eating "good" meat, by which I mean to say meat that has been raised humanely and healthily, with a focus on the quality of the end product as well as the quality of life for another sentient being, as aptly described in the beautiful essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg here.

The challenge as chefs is difficult to meet due to cost restrictions and the public's willing to have the expense of good meat passed on to them. As consumers, the same problem exists. It is relatively tough to find good meat, let alone afford it. And what of the wonderful sandwiches at Ba Le? I'm not sure that that meat comes from a good source, and I'm certain the steak in my chimichanga at El Norte down the street doesn't either. Chicago dogs coming from a good source? Give me a break. Which makes me a hypocrite in my quest, as a food lover, to educate people on the importance of this good meat.

Doesn't it?

This is the internal conflict I have every time I eat meat, and perhaps I'm too weak of a human being to resist the qualities of much of the ethnic and street food that isn't using meat from good sources. The question always arises: do I eat a boring burrito at and support a mega chain like Chipotle, that uses meat from good sources, or do I eat a much more interesting, delicious and culturally important burrito at a tacqueria that surely uses the cheapest meat available? It's a huge conflict, one that I can't claim to be ethically pious enough to answer correctly every time, but certainly something worth considering and making moves toward answering, if nothing else, thoughtfully. (And to all the non-meat eaters out there rolling their eyes at this seemingly obvious non-decision, please bear with my weakness as a meat eater.) One small step is, when cooking at home, to only use this good meat. Simply put, it tastes better, it's better for everyone involved, and perhaps we can slow down and savor smaller amounts of it more, in order to reduce the cost and extend it's pleasure. That's not going to save the world, and it's a far cry from really taking a firm stand, but as we think about the importance that street food and food that doesn't always consider its sources holds in the history and culture of the world, it is a choice that we can make. Less meat of better quality all around. Do we really need to be eating 54 ounce steaks of questionable quality?

That said, the very friend I was talking with surprised me with a phone call asking if I'd like some meat from his freezer--an overloaded crypt of meat from a CSA he bought a share of earlier in the year, that he just can't keep up with. Shown above, I got a chicken, some ham hocks, a ham steak, a pork roast, and beef stew meat...all of which will be savored over the summer in a most appreciative manner. And it showed me that hey--community can exist, in whatever small dose, in the city, something I've been concerned about lately. And to speak further to that, I realized how much I had been given recently from friends and others in to food (again, you can click on the pictures for the full, huge versions):

Some of the best pickles I've ever had, and hands down the best escabeche I've been treated to, brought by a friend to the pie-off and now residing in my fridge...

Cherry Syrup brought to me by a friend after her trip to Michigan last summer, sitting in my cupboard, well preserved, until I decided to bake a chocolate cake with a good dose of the syrup in it, and whip cream cheese and nutella with the syrup to make a tangy frosting, topped with sour cherries I got from Edgewater Produce for something like two and a half bucks, that blow away neon red "maraschino" cherries in cocktails...

Limes as part of a drink invention spree by a friend and I (see the story within a story about Clementonics); recently he's been showing up at my place with the whole citrus family, and we've made a drink based on the Sidecar involving grapefruit, lemon, orange and lime juice mixed with brandy we lovingly dubbed the Wagon Queen Family Truckster...

Fresh Mozzarella in a bowl given to me by an old chef of mine, with a sauce of garlic, vinegar, mustard, parsley and olive oil I'd made to slather on the sandwich coming up next...

...french bread, the sauce above, fresh mozzarella, fresh torn basil, tomatoes, red onion, proscuitto di parma, with an avocado halved and sauced with the above mixture, and home made chips tossed in bacon salt, given to me by the same person who gave me the bowl above, shared with a good friend who'd brought over a beautiful bottle of wine...

I recognize that this is a meandering essay, but hey--that's how all good conversations evolve, isn't it? So thanks, guys, for all of your beautiful gifts, and let's all get out there and pickle something, or bake something, and take it to a neighbor or friend. You never know how much that just might keep them going.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


The great director Francois Truffaut said "It's a beautiful day! Let's go to the movies!" I say, "It's a beautiful day! Let's eat pie down by the lake!" On July 5th, 2009, a collection of 22 food loving folk gathered on the grassy shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago, braving amazingly difficult parking conditions, vague directions (sorry, Mike!) and 4th of July hangovers to enjoy an unbelievably beautiful evening, all in the name of, you guessed it, pie. Now, when the call went out to come together for the pie off, one of the most surprising responses was "Can I make a savory pie?" I'm not sure I've ever been in a pie situation where more people were interested, immediately, in making it savory-style, and I'm not sure if it's due to the recent proliferation of the clever pork pie hat everywhere I look, but I can say that I have absolutely no problem with the savory pie. In fact, I made one myself. But more on that later.

The real story here is the amazing variety that was provided, functioning as a complete meal in that there was an entree and a dessert available, and even individually packaged Frito pies serving, if one stretched the imagination, as a sort of amuse-bouche. A woman made crust for the first time, using her grandmother's recipe which included plenty of lard; someone took time out of a heavy baking schedule (a tropical iron cupcake challenge, I'm told) to bake a gorgeous pie; tarts were given a go; someone even braised pork butt in order to fill a pie. All in all, it was an absolute success, complete with live bongos and maracas one spot over, a delightfully boisterous and soft dog, perfect weather, and despite the obligatory harrasment from the cops, we were pretty much left alone the rest of the evening. We spread out a couple of blankets and pie'd it up, taking ideas in pie to strange new heights.

And so, without further ado, meet the pies (the pie pictured at top is a Peach and Caramelized Honey Pie). You can click on the pictures for ginormous versions of them:

The aforementioned Frito Pies

Vanilla Custard and Cookie Crust Pie

Apple Tart

Turtle Pie

Polenta, Sausage and Fennel Pie

Hot Mayo and Tomato Pie

Pecan Pie

Also brought, but sadly, not pictured as my mitts were too busy shoveling pie into my, um, piehole, included a Banoffee Pie (basically a banana cream pie with a lovely toffee), a delicious pork pie made with braised pork butt and a biscuit crust, a bourbon-cherry pie (and I tell you what, bourbon comes first in the name for a reason), a devilishly rich and decadent cheese pie (think cheesecake, then make it a pie), some market fresh blueberries not yet in pie form and one beloved pie-napple that became a mascot of sorts.
So, I'm thinking we keep the good grub rolling, and look ahead to a barbecue/grilling potluck of sorts in August. It'll be a good chance for all the bbq'ers who are certain there is only one way to do it to educate the rest of us on what we've been missing, and for those less, shall we say, passionate about the specifics to enjoy a good schooling on what makes different barbecue what. What the differences are amongst regions, and what makes a really good side dish. Of course, since we here at Food on the Dole are interested in removing the competition from food and replacing it with a more community-centric approach, it should be made clear that despite the name, The Smoked Meat and Sides Challenge '09 will not be judged, just like the Pie-Off was not judged. There are no losers, and there are many winners. You know, kind of like on field day in grade school, where everyone gets a ribbon. But you know, when it comes to pie and barbecue, is there ever anything other than blue ribbons?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Pork Pie Hat Optional

Hello! It's been awhile, and let me apologize for neglecting my dear Food on the Dole, as it's been a wonderfully busy summer thus far what with travels to Portland, Oregon and Bozeman, Montana. More on those trips soon, as they were culinarily heavy in a most delightful way.

But first things first.

The Pie Off is shaping up nicely and there have been several threats of many delicious pies, both savory and sweet, so things are looking good. That said, we'll start around 5:00 this coming Sunday, July 5th, in the park between Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan around Argyle Street. There's parking there, and it's easy access from the Argyle Red Line stop (get off, walk towards the lake, cross Lake Shore drive through the pedestrian underpass, look for a bunch of pie). Here's a good aerial map that I hope works for you.

What should you bring? A pie, first and foremost. A fork would be wise as well. I'll get some plastic plates. And if anyone has a folding table we could use, that would be awesome, just let me know. Beyond that, it's up to you. Someone teased with homemade ice cream. Bring moonshine, bring dogs, bring friends, anything else you might want; but for the love of all that is sacred in the world, bring a pie.

Let me know if you have any questions, and give me an email if you plan on coming if you haven't already, just so we can plan the tables and plates accordingly.

And stay tuned for delicious tales of doughnuts, mustard, and wood fired pizza coming soon...