A few years ago, the food historian Bruce Kraig learned from his friend and colleague Andrew Smith that plans were under way for a food encyclopedia of New York City. The news bruised Kraig’s midwestern pride. “I thought, if those SOB New Yorkers can do one,” he says, “we can do one for Chicago!”
He e-mailed another friend and fellow Chicagoan, Colleen Taylor Sen, with whom he’d collaborated on Street Food: Everything You Need to Know About Open-Air Stands, Carts, and Food Trucks Across the Globe. Sen was equally incensed. “Yes,” she wrote back. “We’ll show them!”
Shortly after they finished writing their book proposal, Kraig was driving back to Chicago from southern Illinois, where he lives part of the year, and decided to stop off at the offices of the University of Illinois Press in Champaign. Kraig edits the press’s Heartland Foodways series of books about midwestern food, and he showed the editor in chief his and Sen’s proposal. The editor looked at it for about five minutes, he recalls, and then asked, “When can you get this done?”
That was back in 2015. They handed in the final manuscript in early 2017, several months ahead of their deadline (“an unusual phenomenon,” Sen notes proudly). The Chicago Food Encyclopedia makes its debut later this month with readings at Chicago Gourmet and the Book Cellar.
The book itself was a logistical beast. Kraig had previously worked on the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and knew that the best way to start writing an encyclopedia was by making lists of notable food people, places, and events. But he and Sen quickly realized they had significant gaps in their knowledge. Kraig felt most comfortable with the 19th century, while Sen’s area was the early 20th century and Prohibition. They recruited a third editor, Carol Mighton Haddix, a former food editor at the Tribune who was not only an expert in current food history but also knew lots of writers who could help with the writing. (Among them is Reader senior writer Mike Sula, who wrote the entry on Korean food and also insisted on contributing one for Jeppson’s Malort. “We said, ‘OK, as long as we don’t have to taste it,'” Kraig recalls.) Grants from the Julia Child Foundation and Les Dames Escoffier Chicago helped pay the contributors and cover the costs of permissions for artwork.
“Our idea was to show that Chicago is the central city of American food history,” Kraig says. They wanted to emphasize not just chefs and restaurants, but also Chicago’s role as a center of food technology and manufacturing. The city’s first restaurant, the Lake House, established in 1839, relied on the latest transportation to serve east-coast oysters to its customers, first off boats that traveled through the Great Lakes via the Erie Canal, and very soon after, the railroad.
The railroad, of course, made Chicago the capital of the meat-packing industry—which Upton Sinclair, in turn, made infamous in The Jungle—but the three editors learned that it was also an important city for candy and beer. (Charles F. Gunther, whose collection of Civil War memorabilia formed the kernel of the Chicago History Museum, was a candy man, specializing in caramel. “So Chicago history begins with candy,” Kraig says.) Much to their surprise, aside from Malort, there is no definitive Chicago drink, though Sen says she gave a talk recently where someone suggested the Mickey Finn; it does, after all, have local origins, since it was named for a State Street saloon owner who was in the habit of drugging and then robbing his customers.
The Encyclopedia also emphasizes the contributions of immigrants, with entries for all the city’s major ethnic groups, as well as some smaller but still influential ones, such as Hungarians. “Immigration is always changing the makeup of the city,” Sen says. “Even since we began working on the book, there have been new groups. More Somalis are coming in now, for example. That’s what makes Chicago great: it’s a point of entry. People are always coming in.”
One of the most important groups of newcomers is, of course, the African-Americans who came from the south during the Great Migration. “A lot of Chicagoans don’t think of African-American foodways,” Kraig says. “African-Americans are a very large population of Chicago with a lot of restaurants, but in many histories, they’re hardly mentioned. And now soul food restaurants are disappearing. Part of it is cultural: more black chefs are getting trained in classic cuisine, and they tend to do that. Then there’s the idea that soul food, if I can use that word, is perceived not to be healthy. That’s wrong. It’s how you make it. And, finally, there’s racism. We have a very segregated city. A lot of white folks don’t go into the south and west sides.”
Though they spent two years immersed in food, the three editors did very little eating, aside from testing a small collection of recipes for Chicago’s most famous dishes. These include Ann Sather cinnamon rolls, deep-dish pizza, and shrimp de jonghe. “It’s still debated whether some of these iconic recipes were created in Chicago or not,” Haddix admits. “For some there’s no definitive answer, like chicken Vesuvio. Maybe someone will find the answer one of these days.”
Even before the three editors finalized the list of entries—there would be nearly 400, from Grant Achatz to zebra mussels—they knew that, in order to keep the encyclopedia down to a manageable size, they wouldn’t be able to include everything. Still, they think they’ve assembled a book that’s informative and entertaining as well as portable. The best way to read it, they all agree, is a little bit at a time, skipping around. “I hope people read it in bed,” Haddix says. “It has so many short, quick entries that are really interesting. Turn to any page and you’ll find something new.”
“There’s so much rich history here,” Kraig adds.
“Yes,” Sen agrees. “Every city really should have one.” v