The Slow Food Guide to Chicago: Restaurants, Markets, and Bars

Kelly Gibson and Portia Belloc Bowndes, editors

Chelsea Green

As is the case pretty much everywhere else, people who live in Chicago have little idea of the culinary scope their city offers, lacking guidance beyond advertising by chains and writing by critics who push trendy openings. But this is one of the best places in the world to eat. That’s why the new city guide from Slow Food USA (its first was about NYC) is a valuable resource not just for visitors but for locals as well. Other publications have tried and failed: the thoroughly unsurprising Zagat Chicago Restaurants, like most democratically compiled guides, is a manifesto to the tyranny of the mob, and I can’t think of a single writer I’d trust to lead a comprehensive solo survey. So taking the middle approach–soliciting opinions from Slow Food members and other enthusiasts with a certain amount of knowledge (or at least the willingness to obtain it)–was a good idea. Covering 23 cuisines, with sections on various ethnic and culinary genres, nightlife, neighborhoods, food shops, markets, and producers, the guide offers a handful of reviews in each category on establishments that supposedly meet the organization’s standards of biodiversity, sustainability, and traditional and regional cuisines. Of course there aren’t enough of those places in Chicago to make a book, and many of them are priced out of the reach of most people, so it’s filled out with many restaurants where care and love is evident.

The most useful reviews are those that tell a story rather than recite a list of overreaching descriptors stuck to menu items. In these, the writer’s passion sells the restaurant, bar, or store far more effectively than any critical cliches could. The best example is the chapter on Italian food. Though there is no Little Italy in Chicago anymore, the work that went into this section underscores the overlooked fact that this really isn’t a bad city for Italian. The Indian and Pakistani chapter gives a great sense of the diversity of subcontinental food that exists on Devon alone–from Andrha Pradesh to Bangladesh–disproving the conventional wisdom that there isn’t much variety. Other chapters, like the ones on hot dogs, pizza, and barbecue, pull no punches on purveyors who fail to meet Slow Food’s regional strictures. My chief complaint about the book’s organization is that Thai and Vietnamese, both of which deserve their own expanded sections, are conflated into “Southeast Asian.” And just once I’d like to read a review in print by someone who thinks Arun’s is overrated.

The problem with the guide’s semidemocratic approach is that the quality of the writing varies wildly. Certain sections are so poorly written that it’s hard to sustain interest long enough to extract any information from the breathy press-release language and gooey platitudes. In particular the chapter on seafood is so awash in overenthusiastic chum–“be sure to save room for dessert”–that it’s impossible to take seriously. And the execrable phrase “to die for” shows up not once but twice in the Greek section. It’s too bad individual contributors weren’t credited for their reviews, but are listed all together in the front–there are some powerful smart eaters on that list.

Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey

Charles A. Cowdery

Copywriter, attorney, Maxwell Street preservationist, and honorary Kentucky colonel Chuck Cowdery knows a hell of a lot about bourbon. He’s also a former marketer for the whiskey industry, so he has special insight into the iconic drink, whose simultaneously down-home and badass image was birthed by canny distillers who knew the value of branding even back in the mid-1800s. Cowdery admires the myth as much as he does the spirit itself, but he penetrates the marketing hoo-ha that makes it so confusing to novices. He points out, for example, that the only difference between Jack Daniel’s and bourbon is that the former goes through a charcoal filter. “Distillers on either side of the Kentucky-Tennessee border will argue until the end of time about whether this improves or ruins the whiskey,” he says. The main difference between bourbon and other kinds of whiskey, he says, is that bourbon is aged in new charred oak barrels while most everything else is aged in used barrels, often used bourbon barrels. While a whiskey like Scotch might benefit from decades of aging, a bourbon more than 12 years old is likely to suffer from too much charcoal flavor. There’s lot of good advice like that in Cowdery’s self-published book, and his institutional knowledge of the industry is formidable. Just the tale of the Beam family, whose members have worked in distilleries all over the country, is fascinating (bourbon doesn’t have to come from Kentucky, though most does). In fact, the book would have benefited from a Beam family tree cross-referenced with a distillery family tree. In recent years Cowdery, who lives in Wrigleyville, has done a lot of critical work for Malt Advocate and Whiskey Magazine, and he publishes his own journal, The Bourbon Country Reader; the second half of his book is comprised of bourbon reviews. He eschews numerical rating and his style is down-to-earth and blessedly devoid of pretentious and indecipherable tasting notes. You have to pay attention to a guy that can compare a bourbon to Manny’s hot pastrami or “eating cotton candy while smoking Winstons.”

Mushroom: The Journal of Wild Mushrooming

Leon Shernoff, a U. of C. grad student, has been editing this quirky and fascinating amateur mycological quarterly for the past two years out of his Hyde Park basement apartment, though it’s been in existence for almost 20. He’d never read the journal before his dad called him in 2002 to tell him the founding editor, Don Coombs, was retiring. “He’d put an item in the summer issue saying unless someone volunteered to take over, the fall issue was going to be the last one,” says Shernoff. “My father said, ‘You have to do it!'” Though not exclusively devoted to the pursuit and consumption of edible fungi, or pothunting, each issue of Mushroom has a number of pieces on some culinary aspect of mushrooming. In the summer 2004 issue, Greg Michalenko, the on-call identifier at his local emergency room for suspicious mushrooms, tells of scoring two and half pounds of unusually large examples of the tasty Lepista irina species after assuring a toddler’s mother that her son hadn’t been poisoned by eating them. (He took them home, sauteed them in bacon fat, and tossed them into some spaghetti carbonara.) The same issue has tips on harvesting local huitlacoche, which means “divine excrement” in Nahuatl. Each issue is packed with culinary and nonculinary ephemera and practical lore. Along with beautiful color photos and a crossword puzzle, Shernoff has added more hard science to the mix, including pieces on recently named species, but that doesn’t mean Mushroom is drying up. You can read Lawrence Millman and Tonya Haff’s field notes taken upon ingesting the potentially toxic Amanita muscaria, which causes Millman’s head to “feel like foam,” as well as interviews with such mycological luminaries as one Pilobolus crystallinus, the prominent dung-dwelling author, of course, of Do We Need Mankind? A Fungal Perspective. The winter issue goes to the printer this month.