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May 12, 2010

The ingredients to a good meal are not unlike the components needed for a good baseball team.  In a meal, like on a baseball team, you need someone to control the pace of the game, like a starting pitcher or a piece of halibut.  You need someone who can come in during clutch moments and swing a bat, surprising everyone and making things happen, like a power hitter or a jalapeno pepper or a bushel of asparagus stalks.  You need supporting players – a lead-off man or a right fielder with a strong arm – or a few garlic cloves, some olive oil and half a cup of grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.  And you need a stable, solid player that you can count on, like a veteran catcher who won the 1996 World Series or a handful of pine nuts.  In baseball, if you had all of the right elements, you’d have a contender; in the kitchen, you have white fish with asparagus pesto.  I’d rely on the asparagus pesto and fish over the Chicago Cubs any day.

In a city with sports teams as unreliable and unpredictable as those here in Chicago, you need something day to day that you know will be good.  If you take the freshest produce and the finest cuts of meat and treat them well, you’ll have a stellar dinner.  With a payroll of $146 million and some of baseball’s ‘most talented’ players, the Cubs are at best a prepared meal you’ve picked up from the grocery store; at their worst, they are no better than a couple items off the McDonald’s Dollar Menu that you bought last night after a few too many bottles of Schlitz, and regretfully ate this morning when you woke up.

No. 237: 5/11/2010

The sense was that she was not so much here in Italy but no
longer there in America.

– John Cheever, A Woman Without A Country

No. 238: 5/10/2010

We never really plan ahead.  If we don’t know what to do, there are always
eggs.  We love them.  Right now I have beautiful tarragon, chevril, chives,
and parsley coming up in the garden, the classic ingredients for a fine herbes
omelette.  With just some potatoes next to it, it’s the perfect dinner.

– Jacques Pepin


the duke

May 10, 2010

Reruns of Mad Men are on TV, and Mad Men makes me want to have a bourbon.  Ellington At Newport is on the record player and that, too, drives me to the glass.  It was summer a few weeks ago, and now it’s not, but summer deserves a pour.  So I sip bourbon and listen to The Duke with Mad Men on mute.  Don and Betty Draper are in Rome.  They arrive in the morning and don’t leave the hotel.  Betty visits The Hilton’s beauty parlor and afterward looks stunning, after dark, at the hotel piazza bar outdoors, wavy blonde hair up high over her head, black dress, shoulders exposed to the night.  The Drapers pretend they don’t know one another.  Two Italian men make crude remarks to Betty, Don sits down, orders a whiskey neat and acts as though he doesn’t know his wife.  They play this game for awhile: “May I join you?,” “What brings you to Rome?,” “Are those men making fun of me?,” “I’m only in Rome for a night and don’t plan to leave broken-hearted.”  They awake the next morning washed in sunlight and Don Draper kisses his wife like he never has before, and like he never will again.  The Duke scales up slowly to the high notes on his piano, then dances low, down lower, holds and then silence.

No. 239: 5/9/2010

His point is simple: censorship captures the imagination, but the
process of creation might be even more destructive.  In order to write
a story, and create meaning out of events, you deny other possible

– Peter Hessler, Oracle Bones

No. 240: 5/8/2010

Clarke’s on Damen     

No. 241: 5/7/2010

No. 242: 5/6/2010

Everything takes more time, money,
and effort than you think it will
Plus something you could never imagine,
until you’re completely immersed.

– Paul Madonna, All Over Coffee

No. 243: 5/5/2010

No. 244: 5/4/2010

lake atitlan

May 4, 2010

Lately I can’t stop thinking about Guatemala.  Over the weekend I became reacquainted with a great audio slide show in The New York Times that I had seen just before visiting, and I think it aptly conveys some of the places I stayed and why they’re special.  The slide show describes writer Joyce Maynard’s discovery of San Marcos La Laguna, as a place to visit and later as one to live.  San Marcos is a small village on Lake Atitlan, perhaps the most stunning place I’ve ever been to, that’s become home to a group of expats interested in spiritual healing and medicine who for the most part manage to coexist with the natives in a peaceful, prosperous way.  The city is enchanted, a true fairy tale of a place, accessible only by rickety wooden boat that chops its way across the deepest lake in the western hemisphere.

I’ve always been attracted to a life like Joyce Maynard’s, the life of a permanent wanderer who has made their own way in the world and made peace with their own path.  We probably all have a little bit of the cultured city dweller and the natural recluse buried in us, wishing to be a part of everything at the same time we want to slip away, tied to nothing.

San Pedro La Laguna, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

No. 245: 5/3/2010

The kind of adventure that most interests me is sinking one’s roots.

– Joyce Maynard

No. 246: 5/2/2010

Biscuits and Gravy – Jam Restaurant

Meat is overrated.

– Chef Jose Andres on 60 Minutes


May 3, 2010

It was an action-packed weekend during the day and very low-key at night, which was exactly what I needed.  Here’s a great music video for the first week of May.

Per the suggestion of a friend, from here on out I’m going to try to name what restaurant the food comes from in pictures if it’s possible.

She never left the airport.  She took the next plane back to Orly and joined those hundreds, those thousands of Americans who stream through Europe, gay or sad, as if they were a truly homeless people.  They round a street corner in Innsbruck, thirty strong, and vanish.  They swarm over a bridge in Venice and are gone.  They can be heard asking for ketchup in a Gasthaus above the clouds on the great massif, and be seen poking among the sea caves, with masks and snorkels, in the deep waters off Porto San Stefano.  She spent the autumn in Paris.  She was in Rome for a horse show and in Siena for the Palio.  She was always on the move, dreaming of bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches.

– John Cheever, A Woman Without A Country

Nos. 247: 5/1/2010

Shrimp Po’ Boy Sandwich – Calypso Cafe
Italian Ice – Annette’s Homemade Italian Ice

No. 248: 4/30/2010

No. 249: 4/29/2010

No. 250: 4/28/2010

No. 251: 4/27/2010

Pork belly & pineapple fried rice – Urban Belly

chicago is not new york

April 27, 2010

And 99% of the time, I’m happy about that.  There is nothing, after all, like the way the Chicago River twists through the sparkling city at night like a river gliding through a gorge, the glass and concrete and steel and limestone walls reflecting into the still, silent water.  Stand on the Michigan Avenue Bridge and gaze west just after sunset and you won’t be judged for believing this canyon to be as sacred as the Grand one itself.  Or hop on a bike and ride along the lake to the South Shore, stopping only for a moment to peer behind you and see the blue blanket of Lake Michigan cushion up against the skyline, the pattern of harbors and parks and beaches stretching miles into the billion-footed distance.  I’ve been to many of the great cities of the world, leaving each under the misguided belief that I’ll move there next, and yet I continue to grow closer to this old school metropolis – too cold and windy in the winter, too hot and humid in the summer – shivering with hope each time I pass Wrigley Field at dusk on the L.  For a long time, I thought I wanted to call New York home, and I still may.  But no matter where I head next, Chicago and the roaring sound of a train overhead will always be home; I don’t want to be anywhere else.

Except on Sunday morning, when I wake up craving a bagel.  That’s the only moment I find myself in a New York state of mind these days, for the bagels in Chicago – everywhere, really – don’t come a close second to an everything-with-chive in Manhattan.  Some say it’s the water but I’ll blame it on something far more accessible: Capitalism.  There’s a bagel shop on every block in Manhattan, and if yours are too doughy, too crusty, too salty, or too plain then you’re out of business.  It makes sense – Manhattan is about the size of the entire city of Chicago, and while that island has hundreds of shops, this lakefront city has but a handful.  Until a couple months ago, there wasn’t a bagel shop within miles of my apartment in Wicker Park.  And while it more or less does the trick, it’s not a New York bagel, which means it’s not good enough.

No. 252: 4/26/2010

You were right about the stars, each one is a setting sun.

– Wilco, Jesus, etc.

No. 253: 4/25/2010


April 24, 2010

Here’s a question: When was the last time you sat at a restaurant, saw the waiter walking down the aisle with a neighboring diner’s dessert, commented “that looks unbelievable,” and watched with delighted awe as the waiter made an unexpected stop at your table to drop off said dessert?  Surprise, this one’s on the house!   Never, of course, is the answer.  That’s never happened before, not to anyone.  It’s too good to be true.  Or is it?

Because this is, in fact, exactly what happened this afternoon at the now-holy burger joint R.J. Grunts.  I was on the bike, stopped to meet a friend for lunch (ate the onion rings, so tenderly crisp and savory – order them) and was preparing to pay the bill when the above chimerical scene took place.  It’s the dream of every diner everywhere, and the strangest part of all is we have no idea why.

Cheers, R.J.

Nos. 254: 4/24/2010

Food was always to be shared.  When my master sent out his untouched
dishes from the huge imperial repasts to the families of the princes and the
chief bureaucrats, he would send them only as complete meals for eight
people in stacked lacquerware.  Never any other way.  Always for eight.  The
high point of every meal was never the food itself, he taught us, but always
the act of sharing it.

– Nicole Mones, The Last Chinese Chef

No. 255: 4/23/2010

The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

sky gray sky

April 22, 2010

Last weekend I bought a new bike.  It wasn’t a light purchase; I’ve spent months researching the right kind of urban bike to get me around the city.  After a nice little joy ride on Sunday, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the coming weekend to get back on that two-wheeled beauty, but alas, the forecast does not appear to be cooperating, which is leaving me… a little relieved.  It’s got nothing to do with the bike – I want to ride it oh so badly – but with the fact that I was sick earlier this week and have been tired ever since.  A weekend of wet, gray weather sounds relaxing.  It’s funny, isn’t it, that we look forward to endless good weather and tend to forget that sometimes there’s nothing better than staying in or catching a movie, cooking a meal, wandering through a book store or gallery, seeing a band, staying up late and sleeping in without having to worry that come early morning the sun will be shining and we must get outside.  Here in Chicago, where nice days are often too rare, there’s a pressure to get outside all day and enjoy it all.  So while we all celebrate as the weather continues to warm up and the sun makes its final push to free itself from the white walls of winter, I’d like to nod my hatless head to calm, leisurely rainy days.

No. 256: 4/22/2010

No. 257: 4/21/2010

No. 258: 4/20/2010

There was a stillness to China in unexpected places, and once again
she had the curious sensation of being anywhere in time.  She felt
relieved of her life, of the world she knew, stripped away from herself.
It was a strange place, far from home.  She really didn’t belong.  So why
did the surprise thought keep rising like a bubble inside her that it
might be nice to stay?

– Nicole Mones, The Last Chinese Chef

i can’t sit still

April 20, 2010

I can’t sit still.  I’m all for relaxation and taking things slow, that’s for sure, but I’m terrible at forced relaxation.  This makes getting sick an issue.  For example, let’s look at last night, an evening when I arrived home early from work due to a pestering head cold and sat down for a night of recuperation.  It was great, for about 25 minutes.  And then I stood up and walked into the kitchen and made tacos.

I love Mexican food, and I’m apt here to say that I love most traditional cuisines of the world but I’ve noticed a different pattern as of late.  Rather than pronounce a mere affection for Italian food, or Mexican, Indian and Thai food, I’ve finally refined my own taste memories and feel comfortable saying that there’s nothing I like more to cook than a simple dish of fresh ingredients, seasoned lightly, with few steps involved beyond chopping, mixing and cooking over fire or over the stove.  My breakfast of choice says it best: a slice of country wheat, toasted, with a small chopped tomato and a slim pool of olive oil, pepper and grated parmegiano-reggiano to dip into.  Some of this may be a lack of extravagant culinary skills, but I prefer to think that with all the fresh produce, meat, fish, bread and poultry out there, there’s little need to spend your whole night prepping when you’ve only got so much time.  On the weekends, I’m thrilled to spend a day planning that night’s meal, but during the week I’ll take seasonal vegetables, a bit of fresh fish or meat, and some rice or potatoes nearly anytime.

Sometimes I am two people. Johnny is the nice one. Cash causes all the trouble. They fight.

– Johnny Cash

No. 259: 4/19/2010

No. 260: 4/18/2010

No. 261: 4/17/2010

No. 262: 4/16/2010

No. 263: 4/15/2010

what is and what should never be

April 14, 2010

This past weekend I went to Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, where I went to college.  I hadn’t been back in nearly 3 years, this being the first time I’d ever been in Iowa City when I didn’t have friends who lived in town.  I know you’re thinking – it’s what everyone thinks when I mention Iowa City – how boring that town must be.  But it’s not, and it’s that overlooked status that gives part of Iowa City its charm.  Iowa City actually has the most cultural events per capita of any city in the country, and is home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the most prestigious graduate writing program in the country.  I happened to be in town for a conference; as a senior I completed a year-long thesis on EL Doctorow’s Ragtime, and the professor I worked with is retiring.

This was the first time I’d ever returned to a place I had lived a long time and left.  It wasn’t like returning to my parents’ house after college, to which I had returned every break and summer and which therefore changed as a place in front of my eyes.  Returning to Iowa City felt like skipping through time, and I myself felt like my father when he drives through the streets of Chicago that he used to live in – I was constantly pointing out what had changed and what used to be.  There’s a real melancholy to returning to a place you used to know, a stark realization that the past has escaped you and that you’ll never again be in that place, with those people, dreaming about what’s to come.  It’s even more wistful to see the new students that have come through, taking your place in your apartment, your classrooms, your favorite bars and cafes.  Enough sappiness, though, as returning back to a place can remind you of all that you hoped to accomplish when you were leaving; reflecting on what you’ve done since then can bring a satisfaction as promising as the memories of what once was.

No. 264: 4/14/2010

Don’t go back to the old front.

– Ernest Hemingway, in coversation

No. 265: 4/13/2010

No. 266: 4/12/2010

The writer isn’t made in a vacuum. Writers are witnesses. The reason
we need writers is because we need witnesses to this terrifying century.

– E.L. Doctorow


April 13, 2010

I’ve been out of town and busy at work the last week, and my posts have been lacking.  However, over the weekend I got back to Iowa City, my former college town, which was filled with all the bittersweet, nostalgic glory one could hope for.  More on that later.  In the meantime, take a listen to Delta Spirit, they’re great.

More to come later.

I imagine that yes is the only living thing.

– ee cummings

No. 267: 4/11/2010

No. 268: 4/10/2010

No. 269: 4/9/2010

No. 270: 4/8/2010

No. 271: 4/7/2010