Maybe it was the weather. Having just braved an hour plus one way trip in a horrid downpour, I could have sworn it didn’t look like the apocalypse on my way out the door.
Maybe it was the truncated nap I took right before leaving. I woke up at 4:15 yesterday morning and biked to and from work for my monthly team meeting before the we opened for business, the latter trip soaking my first change of clothes. The afternoon provided little respite for my weary body and mind, as I took a quick 45 minutes of time in the snooze corral. I made sure to wake myself to give ample travel time, picking out items to bring for friends that I hadn’t seen all month, a good change of clothes from my mid-day lounging standby of pajamas, and a decent window for catching one of the last rush-hour busses west.
Maybe I didn’t give the restaurant a fair shake. When all is said, my dinner was still just a burger.


This month’s edition of Burger Club, a gathering of far-flung city friends with keen interest in what our area has to offer in terms of meat patties, found us at Lockdown, a hard rocking burger bar on the near North Side. It was half price burger night, invoking the veiled unspoken proverb as our host put it, “Money saved is a beer earned.”
We arrived in ones and twos- most, myself included, soaked through our Tuesday best with a cloud’s worth of Chicago HateWater®. Arriving somewhere in the middle of the group, 15 minutes before burger time, I sent my message with my head count for the evening. It was going to be me and a plus one, a newcomer to the group who lived closeby, loved burgers, and with whom I was due for a visit. (Hi, Niles!) We settled on a group of ten, and let the doorman know. Early in the evening, the place was finishing its first rotation of tables, but they assured us that the big table in the back was ours, and we bellied up to the bar for a pre-dinner drink.
While they had a decent drink selection, of which we all had one or two, as fifteen, thirty, and then forty five minutes had passed, we noticed that the place was approaching standing room, and over the chugging riffs of Metallica songs nobody had requested, you could almost begin to hear stomachs grumble.
An hour had passed. Someone whose name was not mine needed some food and quick, as the second or third adult root beer beverage was digging in and lashing itself to the bulkhead for a long and drunken night. We took a look back at our promised table. They had sat another party.
We’ve all been there. Many if not all of us had held positions in the service industry, so we could see how a large party of prompt and agreeable patrons could be forgotten abo…wait. No. That’s not how it’s supposed to happen. In the service industry, you agree on a fair service, you provide that service, and you complete the transaction with a profitable night for all involved. There are host books, failsafes, mouths and methods of communication to ensure that this doesn’t happen. It’s what professionals do.
We seem to have been left by the side of the road in favor of another party, a less agreeable (we’re all getting burgers. Easiest thing for a burger bar to do) group of folks. To one of us, this would not stand. She took a look at “our” table, back to the Doorman of Empty Promises, and stood up.
Reaming commenced, and our recalcitrant and unapologetic restaurant representative shuffled around for a bit, then gave us five to ten minutes before sitting half of us at a table. Not ready or willing to give our seats up at the bar, the remainder of us white flagged our way to a couple of menus, undernourished arms flailing to get the bartenders to bring us some food, any food. Any hope of a fair rating for the evening went out the window, as most of us wished to eat and remove ourselves as swiftly as possible. The four of us at the bar ordered burgers, some chili, some macaroni and cheese. And we waited.
Burger Club has been going on for over a year. In that time, every joint in the Chicago burgersphere, from Edzo to Mindy, from Naha to Nightwood, has been sampled. Last month’s offering, Pleasant House Bakery, had given us everything we had hoped and more. They knew we were coming, as all restaurants we sample do, and they went above our expectations while keeping their identity and quality standards intact. We had house-selected buns, signature chips, a well-seasoned and temped burger, and the addition of radish greens from their garden, English style bacon of their own recipe, and a British pub sauce topping the burger. The owner came out and talked to us, giving us a full explanation of the burger, why he chose it, why he LIKED it, and why he thought it would be a good match for their restaurant. He put a personal stamp on his business, and showed us why their style of food and service draw customers to Bridgeport from all over the city. More restaurants need to be as Pleasant.
We waited four minutes, or maybe it just seemed that short in comparison to how long we were without food. Out came burger number one, the Fat Elvis, Medium Rare. A Patty with Peanut Butter, Bacon, and Grand Marnier Flambeed Bananas, according to the menu. With a five bean dish of Ragu chili accompanying it, we got a burger that was cold in the middle slopped with peanut butter and two wet bananas in a pie pan. My burger of Bacon, Cheddar, Carnitas and Prosciutto came without discernable porkiness, aside from the languid pile of Cold Salty HamShredz® ready to attack my craw. It was also underdone. I’d expect CSHS® at Guy’s American Kitchen, but this here was a hand selected bar in CHICAGO, MEAT TOWN, USA, allegedly known for attitude and quality meat products. We couldn’t see past the grumbles escaping our mouths to see more than the attitude, I guess.
The receptiveness to the other burgers, by this point in the evening, was as cold as our burgers. I heard that the kimchi was “Cold Red WetSlaw®”, and our other half of the group, upon seeing that we had all-too-quickly received burgers that may or may not have had the special personal touches of a flipjockey who cared, began texting us with profanity.
YES. Profanity.
Our plates were cleared, and a woman curtly asked us if we were going to have another round. “Most likely not,” was our response. She went on about how she and her beau didn’t really care, but hoped that we’d be out of their soon because they wanted our seats.
Sure, lady. With pleasure. Good riddance, yeah?
A few minutes later, as we were settling up, another couple asked, nicely, if we were leaving. They were told, tongue in cheek, that they’d probably have to fight the rude woman and her boyfriend, but that they’d probably just be able to settle for having to sit next to them.
As we were unable to enjoy a meal as friends together, our half, finished and paid, offered to head to the lovely Sportsmen’s Bar down the street to secure tables for our party in short order. That offer was quickly accepted, and they joined us as fast as their full bellies and unsated appetites would allow.
On our way out, one of our group walked past the doorman.
“So you guys think I did a pretty bad job, huh?”
Not wanting to ruffle any feathers, he shrugged, sighed.
“Don’t cut me up too bad on your blog.”

I wasn’t going to, but…


I’m trying not to. I understand that for the night that it was, it most likely was an honest mistake, but that isn’t my problem. I’m blogging about this here because I don’t want to put a Yelp hit out on them. Comparatively, our experiences at other restaurants have been much better, and despite the low price tag, the added wait and lack of attentiveness detracted from the overall value and experience of our evening out. From me, this burger does not get a rating, because it could be seen as unfairly judged based on a bias that has little to do with the actual food. However, if as a restaurant you are known for one thing, and you have a promotion advertising this alleged great showcasing of your signature product, own it. Own it like you invented it. Do not make excuses, but make damn sure that you’re providing the same quality service that you’re allegedly known for and a product that meets or exceeds what the customer would expect. If you can’t achieve that, those Limp Boozy BananaChunkz® on the burger aren’t the only things I’ll write home about.


After we left the restaurant with the literal and figurative bad tastes swirling round our beef holes, we moseyed down to Sporty’s for a nightcap. Two guys behind the bar, mixing drinks, talking, working together, accommodating a full house of smiling friendly patrons on a rainy night. We played checkers, listened to a bit of Joni Mitchell, and unwound, putting a more pleasant bookend on our evening than our Lockdown experience alone could have provided.
To the anonymous doorman- Thank you for inspiring me to write again. May the remainder of your days at that establishment be filled with better experiences than ours, and may we both learn from that.

(Some photos may be unpleasant for some readers. Please just look at the words.)


“And there’s a chance that things’ll get weird.
Yeah, that’s a possibility. “

I sat up in bed and took a look at the clock across the room. The time read 8:45 AM, not an early hour by any measure, but after an early morning shift of 4 AM the day before and followed by an afternoon of travel to the farm, it came earlier than expected.

The whiskey drinking the night before didn’t help.

“I’ve already done a couple of chickens. I probably have about four more to do if you want to take part.”

I got out of bed, put some pants on over my longjohns, along with my balaclava, or as I had been calling it, “the executioner’s hood”. Covering my eyes with sunglasses, I had not an inch of skin exposed as I stumbled out to the barn.

My friend on the farm had gotten up a couple hours earlier sharing my same hangover, sent the kids off to school, and let the chickens out into the barnyard. Tucked away on the side of the barn away from the pasture was the stump, shielding a spray of blood across the previous night’s snowfall from the eyes of the ladies laying eggs.


This is it. I’m really going to do this, am I?

We walked into the henhouse and picked a sizeable Brown Leghorn from the flock, a 20 week old male destined from the beginning as a meatbird without rooster potential. There was a certain far-off look in the farmer’s eyes as he brought it to the stump, put its head between two nails, and took a single swing with his machete. It was done.

Except that it wasn’t. Head off and onto the ground, he maintained firm grip on the bird and held it along the far side of the stump as it flapped and bled out. It must have taken a good 30 seconds to a minute. It wasn’t pleasant.

We had discussed this over the previous weeks leading up to this event, even joked about it. The eventual consensus on ‘the act’ was that one person involved in discussion had no desire to kill a chicken, another had allegedly no problem with it, and I was somewhere in the middle. I stated my case for filling in wherever needed, as I know my way around knives and dead animals. I’ve visited a few slaughterhouses, and when the idea of being an assist on a Chickening was posed, it was something I felt strongly enough about to offer my assistance.

“You want to try your hand at one?”


I work in a model that is at its core “promoting a more sustainable and humane way to raise animals for human consumption.” What I so often see are women in fur coats looking to start an argument because we’re out of grass- fed beef tenderloin, or men who only like ‘the flat part’ of the chicken wing but estimate that they could eat about 30 of them. God help us for the Super Bowl. Despite the fact that we are acting as somewhat responsible stewards for our food, where it comes from and how we present it to our customers, there remains a fundamental disconnect between people who have the privilege of shopping at a premium and where their food actually comes from.

Why is it so expensive? Do they really feel good about buying a chicken for 6 dollars? What good does it do for them if we trim the miniscule fat line off of their boneless skinless chicken breast? The services that we offer as butchers do not always bring them closer to enjoying a quality, well-raised product but instead give customers license to, for lack of a more apt term, shake and bake. They ask you to package their meat so they don’t have to touch it, and all they have to do is take hold of one clean corner of your butcher paper package and unfurl with a flourish as their meat goes directly into a pan. You can tell who they are. They ask for the plastic bag around their butcher paper. They handle their packages by the corner like they’re reluctantly picking up their pet’s refuse. That’s not me. The more interesting the cut, I’ll be there. If you have a heritage pig, I want to eat it. If there’s a steak that looks fantastic and you can tell me about its breed and lineage? I want to eat that steak.


Back at the barn, I made the decision not to slaughter my own. The easy out is to say that I didn’t want to miss and have to retry, but it’s easier to say that I don’t think I had it in me. At the slaughterhouse, despite their outward casual approach, nobody takes their job lightly. With a healthy dose of understanding and in some instances reserved compassion, those involved realize that there’s a job to be done.

“This isn’t really my favorite part, either,” said my friend.


The Birds

The Birds

It wasn’t that I was never going to eat meat again, but my thoughts and feelings on the matter of slaughter fell on my meat case when I walked back into work the following Tuesday. As we slaughtered, scalded, plucked, eviscerated and hung our chickens to age, I came to the realization that even with a combination of a seasoned farmer and a skilled knifeman at a table, it’s hard work to process a chicken. Granted, on that morning it was 16 degrees Fahrenheit, but it wasn’t a small task. For six chickens, we spent close to an hour between the water pot and the table, plucking, dipping, replucking, spot checking, gutting. I came into this thinking that there would be a little fun, as it’s something new to add to my repertoire as a butcher. Fun ended up being the last word I would use to describe it.

Cold. Difficult. Morbid. Contemplative.

The Scalder

The Scalder

That was just the smallest part of it, too. My involvement in the fabrication of these chickens represented a drop in the bucket of what it took to raise them- the three times daily feedings, mending of electric fences, constant corraling and egg collecting. For what? In monetary terms, were these grocery store chickens, the most we could hope to get for them would be 12 dollars.

There’s the rub. 20 week chickens dressed out at 2-2.5 pounds. They were beautiful. They had full coats of majestic brown plumage, young combs, lean legs and breasts, but at best, they were being raised for a pittance. For chicken feed.

Over the next couple of days, conversation came back around to the chickens, to the industrial meat complex, and how things have gone so wrong. How people seek out a chicken without caring about the breed, how chicken is chicken and it’s all created equal.

Chicken is like bananas. You go to the store, and you find something that you like. You point at it, you pick it up, you buy it. You purchase and prepare knowing that every chicken is going to taste like chicken, or at least your idea of what a chicken tastes like. Why do all bananas taste the same? They are one variety- Cavendish. Why do all grocery store chickens taste nearly identical? They’re bred that way, to be the fastest growing, most efficient broadbreasted varieties that the smallest amount of money can buy- the Cornish Rock Cross. 16

As opposed to heritage breeds of chicken, (i.e. Leghorn, Orpington, Rhode Island Red/White), Cornish Rock meat chickens put on weight at a much faster rate than any other commercially available breed, making it an efficient yet generic choice for large scale industrial chicken producers. For the Perdue and Tyson giants, they have further hybridized this breed with their own genetic experiments- in the case of Tyson, with a chicken known as the “Cobb 500”, developed by one of their scientists around 30 years ago. Whereas in 1950, a fully matured broiler chicken would be ready for processing at 16 weeks, a commercial Tyson or Perdue chicken takes 6-8 weeks, with a case-dressed weight of 5-6 pounds.

Furthermore, as these chickens are raised in the industrial system, they are genetically bred with an inherent lack of attention to their physical being. They have plump livers and hearts that begin failing at 10 weeks due to rises in stress and adrenaline, but since they slaughter them at eight, that doesn’t matter, right?

Lastly, it’s monoculture. I’m not a scientist, nor am I an expert on anything, but along with lack of attention to biodiversity comes the revelation that we’re depleting our planet of the amazing natural plant and animal resources it produces, and doing so in a manner that shows utter disregard for the history and integrity of breeds of life that have existed for thousands, many times even millions of years. Seeing firsthand what a banana plantation looks like, with deep culverts and well worn gullies, and cornfields awash with half the topsoil of 50 years ago, it’s apparent that the well worn traditions of crop rotation and fertilization have fallen prey to Roundup ready hybridized varietals and salted earth cesspools of excreta where nothing will ever grow again.


We took the headless chickens on their last walk, so to speak, over to the scalding pot steaming by the side of the garage. A few quick dips and the feathers were loosened just enough to be wiped off or easily plucked, but it was the pinfeathers, those little quills the size of a sliver under your fingernails, that proved to be the bane of our collective existence. With the garage door open for easy access to the scalder, we stuck it out for a good ten minutes per bird, plucking, assessing, replucking, and taking our time getting the last of the nagging little bits out from under the skin. The plucked feathers stuck to the table, now covered in a sheen of blood and ice, and the minor moisture accumulated on my fingers, coupled with the temperature and windchill, left me numb, but we had a job to do.

Plucking Chickens

Plucking Chickens

An hour after the kill, we had plucked and dressed our birds, the residual tableslime to be dealt with at a later date. A neat little bowl of gizzards, livers and hearts and a plastic bag of heads and feet headed up the corners of the table, and we brought the birds in for a final bleed out in the sink.

Still not pleasant.


What about the killing of a chicken do I take issue with? It’s obviously a life, that of which we should consider every time we sit down to eat. I asked a friend, lifelong farm kid and backyard chicken farmer, how he reconciles the decision to kill a chicken. It seems that unless one is professionally involved, no thought is given to how that product came to be on their table. Although firm in his conviction that if a person is not ready to kill and prepare their own chicken, they probably should reconsider how often they eat meat if at all, he also brought up the more accessible viewpoint, one that I’m accepting of while at the same time coming to terms with my own ability to handle and process a live animal:

This chicken was born to sustain life. If we didn’t eat chickens, they wouldn’t be here in the first place…they’d have long gone extinct. In fact, the very existence of the domesticated chicken would have never happened had we not selectively bred them for centuries. Chickens exist to be eaten. If we suddenly stopped eating them, they would be relegated to zoos, fighting arenas, and a few people who find them to be excellent pets. Millions and millions of birds would die, and there would be none to take their place. A chicken’s sole function on planet earth is to lay eggs and then be eaten, both of which sustain life on this planet to a great extent.

Good point, there. At home, I don’t eat a lot of meat, but more and more I find myself with compelling reasons to become critically aware about what I eat. The meat that I do eat, I eat the majority of at work, where some of it is actually better for the environment (wild caught and sustainably harvested seafood) and to a lesser extent the barnyard meats. When I do eat meat from a commercial setting, I vote with with my wallet for what I want to see on my dinner plate. My favorite restaurants are those that have relationships with their farmers (Chicago’s Nightwood, to name one). Still, I find that for the future of food and what I can eat to promote a model for eating that sustains and nourishes me, with the ready access to farmer’s markets and fresh food, cutting out the middleman seems to be the best option.


The topic of conversation came around to the education of consumers in terms of what it takes to bring something like this to the table. You can walk into any grocery store and pick up a 6 dollar chicken, but through the process of procuring my own, I decided that I can’t in good conscience buy one. Granted, with volume comes ways to save money, but coupled with genetic engineering/large scale crossbreeding, it’s not a decision that was made with the customer in mind. Solely a business move, the idea behind the Cobb 500 was to maximize profits while moving commodities through the machine at a clip as fast as can be processed by human or machine.

So I come back to work, as I mentioned before, conflicted. Although we offer some higher end varieties of meat products, it’s the price point for most that steers them away from buying a pasture raised chicken. As we as employees are given the autonomy to promote sustainable practices and the highest quality food that the market will dictate, we’re allowed to tell the story and sample anything. Lately, I’ve been into telling the story of our pasture raised chickens, and encouraging people to try them as a whole bird rather than simply as a boneless, skinless option. They’re leaner than a conventional broiler, sometimes weighing in at 2.5-3# as opposed to 3.5-4. They’re still broadbreasted, so they look a little different than the chickens we ate down on the farm, but the taste is on the way back to what a good bird should taste like.

A beauty, ready to go

A beauty, ready to go


Two and a half days after butchering our chickens, we all gathered around the table for dinner. There was a giant bowl of mashed potatoes from the co-op, a green salad, and two platters full of half chickens that had been smoked on the grill. As opposed to your regulation size birds with the big boobs and bulbous thighs and drumsticks, these halves filled a plate with a little bit of spillover onto the placemat. Lean, long legs and a clean thin bit of breast meat, and a skin that was crispy with a flavor that was more than fat. The meat was moist and deceptively tender for how little fat was on these birds. The conversation died down, surprisingly after the weekend we’d had, and had I been listening, I would have only heard the odd lipsmacks and chompachompchomps of people enjoying a dinner. Together. The potatoes didn’t come out of a box. We had some leftover gravy from the last night’s turkey dinner. The dressing was, in fact, made in house, and was delicious. The chicken was amazing, not just for its flavor, but because I finally got to see and begin to understand what it means to work hard to put dinner on the table. Everything was how it should be.


I’ve wrestled with a lot of the words and thoughts over the week and a half since I went for a visit to the chicken farm. I didn’t want to make it seem like I took anything lightly, so I ran a lot of my thoughts by my friend, who had this to say. I think it sums it up nicely.


All I wanted to offer was the opportunity… It’s a hard thing to witness and a hard thing to do. But it does add to one’s understanding, doesn’t it? You already “knew” what is involved, but now you KNOW, and there is a difference.

After reading through a mess of different things that I wanted to do, I’ve buckled down the past couple of weeks and made a true go of it. In the fridge, there’s currently cod doing its thing with some salt, a fairly large piece of beef curing before hanging to eventually become bresaola, and a piece of salmon steeping in a bunch of stuff, readying itself to become lox.

My ambitions this summer have not been tempered, merely misplaced. Early in the season, I was really into spirits. I made some infused liquors out of which a few nice cocktails came about. I wanted to take it to the next level, though, and I checked out recipes on how to make my own bitters at home using aromatics. Easy enough.

At the store, I bought a bottle of vodka, simply some inexpensive, not too terrifying neutral alcohol. I got some orange peel, some cardamom, some lavender, and other things that would make for that added dimension in whatever was going to be the final product. 

I got home and reread the recipe. My bottle of 80 proof vodka was not going to be strong enough to set the aromatics for the bitters. Ugh. Vodka is not a drink that I care for, unless it’s proffered by someone who knows what they’re talking about. In that instance, I’ll join them in a toast or two, and then go back to my old standbys of something with bourbon. Whatever I’d drink in that company, I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to drink myself, and now with a bottle at home of something that wasn’t even good, I was at a crossroads. 

I know in dealing with booze that bourbon gives you sweetness and woody overtones, for lack of classic terminology. Gin is distinctly piney, and Scotch is peaty and sometimes smells like the inside of a pirate’s treasure chest. Vodka, though, there’s nothing to it. Cheap vodka, as well, is essentially gasoline-cheap, grain neutral spirits that you can add to something because aside from the burn, there’s nothing to it. Want cranberry juice, but want to get drunk? Put some vodka in it. 

That’s not my style. Oh, no. If I drink something, I want the flavors to blend, and the drink to be something that I can enjoy in a glass or a tumbler. I scoured my pantry at home for what to do with this beast, and I found a tin of green tea powder. 

A-ha. That’s a stronger flavor that will drown out the sorrow of this spirit. I added a couple of teaspoons, shook it around, and left it in the liquor cabinet to steep for a couple of days. 

When I returned, I opened it up and took a whiff. Smelled like grass, looked like wet, green sludge. Muddy, murky, mossy, not what I had hoped for. I strained it a few times, once through a sieve, once through a coffee filter, and it never lost the moldy aquarium look. I added a stalk of lemongrass wishing to leave it for another couple of days, hoping that it would temper this utter failure. 

I forgot about it longer than a couple of days. I found it last week, and it smelled about the same. The lemongrass did in fact mellow it out, but it wasn’t doing much of anything, so into the trash it went. 

Now, as I’ve been remiss in my summer mission to cure more meats, I’ve made a positive change to attempt more projects. The bresaola, the simplest of cured meats, is almost ready to hang after a couple of weeks in the cure, and I’ve done salmon so many times that once more won’t hurt it. 

The salmon will be my savior. 

Today, on the hottest of days, I picked up some seafood. Tonight’s dinner is going to be a hearty fish stew. I have lobster, and I got a handful of mussels, some shrimp along with a bunch of shells I’ve been saving, and used some of the cod and salmon trimmings, as well as a few tiny frames from some mullet that met their match at the end of my knife. I would have loved to attempt what I had in my head from a meal 15 years ago at the French Laundry, but after filleting one, I understand why top restaurants are renowned for their attention to detail. I just don’t have the patience to pinbone and skin two tiny fish for a total of 1/4# of meat. Into the soup they went. 

Back to the salmon, though. I still have all those aromatics, and I still intend to use them. For the salmon, I grabbed my salt and sugar, some dried orange peel, a small handful of peppercorns, and a bit of lavender. Mixed up and caked on, that was my cure. For my normal gravlax cure, I’d either use lemon juice or vodka, but hey. In the cabinet. Green tea vodka. Oh, sweet relief. Checking my ratios, I estimated I needed 1/4 cup for the piece I was curing. 

Only have to make 15 more batches before it’s gone. I’ll let you know how it is in a few days. 

I’ve been going through the meat apprentice program at work, where I’m learning how to fabricate different cuts of meat with the endgame of becoming a full fledged meat cutter. Over the past few months, I’ve gotten a good grasp on the breakdown of whole legs and primals to yield case-ready cuts of meat, but I’m still curious about where stuff comes from, and how it’s used.

The other day, I was breaking down a whole lamb, (you remember the lamb post, right?) and I was taking my time to seam out all the little flaps of meat. In doing so, I found the skirt steak, the flanks, and as I separated a layer of fat from an otherwise grinder bound portion of meat, the belly.

Neck, Shanks, Skirts, Bellies

Neck, Shanks, Skirts, Bellies

I’ve dealt with bacon before, curing it and smoking it a dozen times when I was working the smokehouse a few months back, but I’ve never done much with lamb belly.

As I’m prone to do when I get a food-related idea in my head, I scoured the internet looking for recipes on what to do with bellies. I stumbled upon From Belly To Baconwhich has been showing up lately in my searches at the top of the list. It seems that there’s another blogger out there with ideas similar to mine who attempts food projects on the regular that a guy like me would be interested in. I looked a bit closer, and it turns out that it’s a guy named Mark, who I’ve been in contact with through various Chicago-centric food events and tweets.

Reading through his post about making lamb bacon, I flipped through my mental Rolodex as to what spices I had in my pantry to make this happen. On our trip out east this Summer, from which we just returned, I picked up the sweetest fennel seeds from the madre, and I had some juniper berries available. Salt? Check. Pepper? Check. Cinnamon, clove? Double check.

I love being able to discover things that I can do in the kitchen or behind the meat counter, and with added knowledge and skills, I can fabricate and procure new and different cuts of meat with which I can experiment. Within about a week or two, I’ll have a couple of bellies that I personally trimmed ready for bacon or another application, along with a boneless neck for curing for coppa. I’m excited to find out the possibilities for a dish that I am eager to eat and share.

I’ve previously written about my friend Ben Starr, a former contestant on Masterchef.(1) Through watching the show, getting in contact with him, and trading ideas back and forth about travel, cooking and life, we’ve developed a kinship in our parallel existences. He has inspired me to further experiment with the aspects of food that I find fascinating, and I’ve been encouraged through meeting and hanging out with him to more actively pursue my goals in the kitchen.
In addition to being a friend of mine, Ben is also a travel writer, one who takes the greatest joy in combining his passions for exploration and food. Following along on his Youtube Channel, I’ve gotten glimpses of myself in what he finds so wonderful about life through his instructional videos on cooking with new ingredients such as Kangaroo Loin, how to quick thaw a turkey, (we’ve all been there), and the delight with which he hunts morel mushrooms and explores caves in Arkansas is infectious. Take a watch:

Ben is the reason why today’s post is titled thusly. Recently, he was shortlisted for a position with Tourism Australia, given the opportunity to compete for six months as Tastemaster of Western Australia, going around the country profiling where to eat and drink, foraging local bounty, and promoting Western Australia through their partnership to showcase the “Best Jobs in the World”.

When I first met Ben, he had come through Chicago on business, still maintaining ties with the cooking and television world. In between gigs, he was all over the map, and texted me from the far Northwest side of town at a pizza joint, in the loop at lunch, and a Brewpub around dinner time. Not letting the busy schedule stop him, nor the fact that he had spent the wee hours of the morning up talking with his friends and hosts, we met in Pilsen at Del Toro for a later dinner.  He showed up with a 30 lb. backpack and a phone almost out of juice. After exchanged hugs and pleasantries, he beelined to the bartender and talked his way into outlet access for a phone charge, just because that’s the type of person he is.

For the next couple of hours, we talked about all the places we’d been, all the experiences we’d had, and things that made us smile about our normal lives. The conversation flowed with ease, and there was never a dull moment, and this was a guy that we’d just met. What better ambassador for adventure than this new person who just walked in the restaurant, knowing neither me nor my lady personally at that point, but leaving the evening as though we were old friends.

A little over a month ago, he put out the feelers to find some great places to eat in New Orleans. I could have just told him what everyone else with no idea would say, “Get a Po’ Boy in the French Quarter, Go to Emeril’s”, etc. I told him to check out the restaurant where my old friend Tony was working. Sure, I hadn’t seen him in a year or two, but I hold Tony in high esteem, so anything he was associated with had to be good.

I got a text around dinner time one night when Ben was supposed to be down there, and through a little bit of wiggling, we found that Tony was indeed working that night. The messages I received from both Tony and Ben over the next couple of days were great. Ben and crew had tried everything on the menu, not wanting to miss a bite of all New Orleans had to offer, saying that Tony played a gracious host, and Tony said that they really enjoyed their meal and time there. It’s all about meeting new people and experiencing new things, from what I can gather.

We’ve kept in contact since then, talking about other endeavors, but this most recent opportunity he has is monumental. From a pool of over 600,000 people, Ben is a step away from getting a dream job, and I want to do something to help, so today I’m writing this and spreading the news. Go to his website, Youtube channel and read or view some of his material, like or comment on it, and if you’re on Twitter, further spread the word by posting something along the lines of “I hope @TheBenStarr wins #bestjobs #TasteMasterWA in @Australia! #Ben4TheWin @WestAustralia”. 

I like it when good people receive good things due to their hard work. Let’s make some dreams come true.

The last post I wrote had me zipping about town on my handsome new bike. Every one of my days off, I want to explore a new neighborhood. Today, what started as a light drizzle turned to a rain wet enough to thoroughly soak my jacket and pants. Why would I go out on a day like today? The only reason anyone else would go out: To return my library books.
Already taking a detour here. Folks, visit your local library. There are literally dozens of books to read, and if you’re like me, you can choose a good one based on title and book jacket color alone. Just get a library card. Read a book.

I had originally planned to visit Publican Quality Meats again, because I really enjoyed that sandwich. It came with a cute plastic ramekin of coleslaw and a pickle spear in a tiny ziploc bag that made me want to rinse and reuse it for more pickle spears. I’ve discovered that the fifth pocket in a pair of jeans is the perfect size for holding one emergency pickle spear.

Still, with the rain, my bike trip up north was not to be. I spent the morning indoors, making mustard and chocolates, just biding my time until the conditions were perfect. Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. With my books stowed away in my backpack, I made an early afternoon mad dash on the 3/4 mile sprint down 18th street to the library.
Keep the butt on the seat so it doesn’t get wet. That was my mantra.

Surprisingly, all the bike racks were full. My bike got parked on the street, leaning up against a stopsign. I ran in, passed my books off, and went back outside again. Of course, in the 30 seconds it took me to return my books, the seat was soaked.
The ride back down 18th was ridiculous. When it rains in Chicago, everyone forgets how to drive. People parked in the bike lane (don’t do that, jerks), a woman turned her car around mid-block, cutting off traffic in two directions (don’t do that either, jerks), and horns were blaring. I didn’t want to be part of this any more than they did, and I was getting hungry and cranky from the moisture.
About two thirds of the way home, after passing Don Pedro’s, Honky Tonk BBQ, Simone’s, and countless Taquerias, I remembered the new place, the one right by the tracks. We had seen it on our walk to the Pub Quiz the week before, just a tiny little storefront with a big picture window. Tamales.
Dia De Los Tamales just opened up what looks to be a couple of weeks ago. I’ve seen them at the Pilsen Community Market, but now that they’re so close and available at any given time, it spells trouble.

I walked in, and three smiling, eager faces greeted me. Two large screens with the day’s offerings shone brightly above their steam tables and drink coolers. They had about a dozen or so different kinds of tamales, most of which I’ve forgotten, but that included Cuban Pork, Buffalo Chicken, and a couple of sweet dessert tamales.
I went adventurous. I ordered an Atomic Pork (with spicy club sauce), an Italian beef tamale (with housemade giardiniera), and a Bacon and Goat Cheese tamale (with Bacon Leek jam). Really? COME ON! I love tamales, and I’ll eat them at any time, but most of the time, they simply offer the description of filling, either pork, chicken or beef. Here, I had many different options, and in fact too many to try on my first trip in. (Yes, there will be more.)
In the couple of minutes I was waiting, the man behind the counter explained a little bit about the menu, and gave me a sample of the house made garbanzo bean side option they had available. “From a family recipe,” he said. “It’s really good.”

He proffered a spoonful with a big piece of pork in it. I tried it. It WAS really good. I packed up my backpack with my tamales and rode the last three blocks home, ready to enjoy my lunch.
There are no pictures of this meal, because to properly capture a tamale in its deliciousness is impossible. They look the same, from the wrapper down to the filling, always that same shade of brown. I don’t care. From a picture, you can’t tell if it’s dry, or if the filling is savory or sweet. I’ll tell you- it’s fantastic. All of the tamales were toothsome and light, without being oversteamed. The giardiniera was pickled and crisp, and the bacon leek jam, it should go without saying, was a bacon leek jam.

I want to take people there, namely the lady in my life. I asked if the vegetarian tamales used vegetable shortening in the mix. Indeed, they were fully vegetarian. This spells trouble. I could end up eating here twice a week for the foreseeable future.
I’ve made a huge mistake.
A huge, delicious mistake.

Addendum: Next Friday, during Pilsen’s monthly 2nd Friday Artwalk, Dia De Los Tamales is having their Grand Opening. To see some artwork while you eat some delicious tamales, spend your time wisely on the beautiful and culture filled Near South Side!

As so many things do during the wintertime, this blog lay dormant, with not a word written. It wasn’t for the lack of ideas, but the lack of going outside, exploring around, seeing things related to food, and just making a big to-do about what I make and eat.
However, today happened. With my bright, shiny new bicycle, I took to the streets, inspired to see things, go to the market (as opposed to every other day of my life) and invest my thoughts in creating something new and different with the burgeoning bounty of the Spring Harvest soon to be upon us.
I stopped at Publican Quality Meats, scoping out their sausage and cured meats case. It was a recent decision to start curing my own meats. I’ve done fish many times, and have kept meat mostly separate from my main diet for the last couple of years, but as an activity that I want to pursue with other interested parties (fun summertime activities), making a super moldy piece of dried pork or beef is high up on my list.
They had the usual selection. I saw some boudin, some coppas and lonzas, and long links of ‘ndujas hanging in the case. In the back, by the lunch tables, they had some snack sticks, some smoked string cheese, a few bunches of ramps (we’ll get to those later), and tiny packages of caul fat for wrapping sausage crepinettes.
Although the ramps were tempting, I didn’t have any plans within the next few days, and admittedly, I was hoping that the price had dropped since my last visit. Still unjustifiable, I moved on to my next destination.
I peddled down Fulton Market, past the open doors of abbatoirs flushed out for the afternoon, past the city’s most expensive and fancy restaurants on the next block, and continued West. Today, my journey took me at a leisurely pace through the warehouse district, past the coffee roasters, craft breweries and artists’ lofts, to Ukranian Village, where I stopped at a place I hadn’t ever heard of before.
It was called Sprout Home, and it was a Garden Center full of flowering trees, tiny succulents and cacti. I spent a few minutes in there, scoping out their terrariums filled with ideas and whimsy. Over the Winter, I’ve taken a shine to smaller plants, ones that we keep around the house, and as succulents and cacti are the only ones that I know I don’t run the risk of failing with, they’ve become the most appealing to me. I’ve looked at the Green Wall concepts, self watering installations that are popping up all over the place. I even found a guy who made this his mission project, creating a Living Building in India.
My dreams aren’t that big. I just want to make a small terrarium with a few of those cool looking things.
As I peddled on, I stopped at another meat shop, The Butcher and Larder. I’ve been there a few times, and it has taken me a while to warm up to the place. They offer sausage making classes, and they do whole animal butchery, yet every time I go in, the case seems rocked. As opposed to my shop, with 60 feet of meat, their case offers about five feet of visuals, the rest cut to order from the back. One lone customer came in as I ate a house made salami sandwich washed down with a Sprecher root beer, and he ordered some pork to “rotisse”.
From the back, they brought out a massive untrimmed 15 pound pork shoulder with a two inch rim of fat. It had all the signs that it was in fact a shoulder, with the visible blade, but curiously, it offered two extra ribs on the end. From doing the butcher’s apprentice training this Winter, I learned how to break down whole animals for maximum utilization. When I saw the giant piece of pork, it kind of made me think that they were losing money where they could be selling two more expensive pork loin chops alongside their remaining ten pounds of pork shoulder.
They’ve got a giant chalkboard which, by 3 p.m. on a Friday was covered in red Xs denoting all the cuts of meat that they were out of. I feel fortunate and also slightly disheartened that we rarely run out of beef tenderloin at work. Out of a 1200 lb. animal, the tenderloin yields less than 8 lbs. As we don’t break down whole cows ourselves, we are not force to deal with the creative marketing it takes to push other cuts of meat to ensure proper utilization.
Left on the board were ‘Flatiron of beef’, ‘Top Round’, ‘Tri Tip’, and of the cuts that were out of stock, there were a few that I don’t hear very often, ‘Vacio’, ‘Bavette’, ‘Paleron’, ‘Baseball Steak’. Looking them up when I got home, I realized that Paleron is another cut of Flatiron, just a top blade roast, Vacio is from under the sirloin resembling a skirt steak, and Bavette is also of the skirt/flank variety. As for the baseball steak, the best answer I can glean from the internet is that it’s a thick piece of top sirloin steak that puffs up like a baseball when cooked. Curious.
I finished my sandwich and made my way back down south.

I’m going to get out more, riding my bike because it’s Spring. Fresh vegetables are coming soon, along with the Pilsen Community Farmer’s Market, meaning Sundays will be the day to stock up on things for culinary projects throughout the week. I’m pretty excited to start with the curing of meats, as well as pickling anything and everything I can get my hands on. Our neighbor gave us a bread starter the other day, so there will be fresh bread in our future, and that is something to be excited about.