By 1000 BC, Greece has already established a distinct cuisine, which even then was viewed as an art,” says culinary historian Evelyn Thompson. She’s speaking from the front of a bus headed down Halsted Street, detailing Greece’s climate and topography, as well as the impact of wars and trade. “The Middle Eastern invasion brought cinnamon and spices, while the Slavics introduced yogurt and cheese.” Her audience is participating in the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ first Neighborhood Sampling tour: a four-hour taste of Greektown, Little Italy, and Pilsen. Stops on the tour will include Artopolis bakery, Conte Di Sevoia delicatessen on Taylor Street, Chiarugi Hardware (which sells wine-making supplies), and La Casa Del Pueblo in Pilsen. The group will wind up at the Mexican Fine Arts Museum, to sample sweets transported from the Paraiso Bakery on 18th Street.

Thompson has been leading culinary tours of Chicago since 1994, covering neighborhoods from Little Village to Ukrainian Village. A tai chi teacher by day, the energetic 64-year-old Kansas City native has been exploring and documenting Chicago’s ethnic markets and their unique ingredients since the early 1980s. She moved around the country frequently as a child, living from 1942 through 1946 in Garfield Park, then an ethnic Jewish neighborhood. In 1962 she moved back to the Chicago area with her husband.

Though Evanston residents, they frequently went into the city to visit “ethnic restaurants and markets where we never paid more than about $4.50 a dish,” she says. “When we started doing this, you couldn’t even find cilantro outside of the Mexican markets. While my Evanston neighbors were brown-bagging alcohol to restaurants [Evanston was dry at the time], I was brown-bagging cilantro into my kitchen from the city. It was my forbidden product.”

It wasn’t just the food she was interested in; she was on a quest for knowledge. “I would start at one end of a street like Devon Avenue and just go into every store until I got to the other end, taking extensive notes and buying samples.” She was passionate about learning the history and significance of different products and cooking styles, and by 1985 she had the entire city categorized by cuisine. “At that time, the big bookstore was Kroch’s & Brentano’s, and you could hardly find an ethnic cookbook that wasn’t on French or Italian food,” she says.

Her pursuit was thwarted in 1986, when she was struck with a severe bout of environmental illness. “I was out of commission for seven years,” she says. “I was extremely sensitive to everything from wood to formaldehyde, smoke, and cleaning supplies….I couldn’t go out, I couldn’t eat. I lost 30 pounds and was basically incapacitated.”

When she resurfaced in 1993, after years of holistic treatment that included acupuncture and naprapathy, all of her research was obsolete. The immigrant neighborhoods had changed. So she started over, trekking through the sprawling new Korean, Middle Eastern, and Jamaican areas one by one. That same year, Bruce Kraig, a professor of history at Roosevelt University, founded the Culinary Historians of Chicago, a group devoted to studying food and culture in various parts of the world. In 1995 Kraig asked Thompson to give a lecture to his group on “how the ethnic food scene had changed over the past few years,” she says. Unbeknownst to her, Tribune food writer Steven Pratt attended her lecture and published an article on it.

She found out about it when she started receiving calls from people who’d read the article and wanted to take her tour. The flurry of interest inspired her to print her first brochure marketing herself. She sent one to Lois Weisberg at the Department of Cultural Affairs, who kept it on file. Weisberg’s office had just launched a series of neighborhood tours, and Thompson became the Devon Avenue expert. Then this year, when the Neighborhood Sampling tours were launched, Thompson was asked to lead them.

These days, “I get all my participants by word of mouth and by press I’ve gotten,” says Thompson. Her tours have been mentioned in passing in Food & Wine and Cooking Light–“the kind of mention that real foodies clip and save, and when they know they’re coming to Chicago they call and set up a tour with me.” But despite her busy schedule, it’s strictly a labor of love. “Heck, I don’t make any money at this,” she says, laughing. “I know so little when you really think about it.” In the next breath, her eyes light up as she asks me to join her on a trip down to 187th and Halsted. “Did you know that’s a really established old Italian neighborhood? But next on my agenda is a stop into the African and Caribbean market at 89th and Commercial,” she says. “My car sees a market and it’s just programmed to stop.”

The next Neighborhood Sampling tour is June 15. It’ll visit Greektown, the Vietnamese markets on Argyle Street, and some of Andersonville’s old Swedish establishments. The four-hour tour costs $50. For more information, call 312-742-1190.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.