It took me a few days to make my way through Mike Baruch’s sprawling, self-published Street Food Chicago, a 406-page cookbook/love letter to the city’s blue-collar cuisine. “Street food” is a bit of misnomer, since the overwhelming majority of items can’t be bought on any city thoroughfare (or have I managed to overlook an Uncle Tony’s Jumbo Canoli cart?). Tavern snacks, corner bakery goods, lunch counter plates, family recipes, and the canon of Chicago fast food–dogs, pizza, Italian beef–dominate, and the emphasis is on Italian and Polish food, though a goodly number of other ethnicities, from Greek to Korean, are represented.

Baruch, whose first book was The New Polish Cuisine, grew up on the north side toiling in a series of mom-and-pop bakeries and corner stores (many owned by friends’ parents) before taking on more classical-track culinary gigs. It was his early immersion in immigrant food that inspires his brimming enthusiasm for the simple unpretentious eats of the neighborhoods. Baruch, who now lives in San Diego, writes in a conversational neighborhoodese, even when discussing the major historical influences on the development of Chicago’s indigenous cuisine.

I’m not entirely comfortable with the rigor of some of his scholarship–his contention that the late Harold Pierce, founder of the Harold’s Chicken Shacks, launched his empire by feeding hungry University of Chicago students, doesn’t quite jibe with what the Fried Chicken King’s own children told me (PDF). And his recommendation of Gladys’ Luncheonette for soul food would have been better a few years ago, when it was still open. But Baruch really goes deep. I was surprised to learn that the Autodoner–the vertical spit used to rotate gyro cones–was invented here, and his familiarity with the challenges of making real barbecue on a commercial scale (in the “aquarium smoker,” another local invention) speaks to a nuanced understanding of local foodways. Much to his credit he doesn’t even mention the meat Jell-O emporiums many associate with Chicago barbecue. 

And there are tons of workable classic recipes–some nine just for giardiniera and other pickled vegetables. Many, like the one for the Maxwell Street pork chop sandwich, are so iconic it wouldn’t occur to me to try them in my own kitchen. But the depth of Baruch’s experience is really on display in his inclusion of less noted indigenous foods such as the jibarito, the Big Baby, and the mother-in-law, a tamale on a bun with chili whose profile in the national food media, I warn you, will rise a great deal in the coming year.