Chicago Food: The Best Game in Town?

I came to Chicago for the politicians, the buildings, and the sports teams, but it seems all anyone wants to talk about is what they’re eating. I’m getting used to it.

Last night I had the unexpected and still somewhat mystifying honor of being asked to discuss opinion writing with a college class. (“What’s your job?” “Still kind of figuring that out.") I was asked what I write about and why, and I said that I write mostly about politics and sports, two areas where my interests intersect with that of the city as a whole. And lit, too. The professor interjected: “What about food? That’s what everyone seems to be talking about.”

An excellent point. I said that I tried, and was interested in food (and drink) as a function of politics, economics, and culture, but that my experience as a gourmand was greatly circumscribed. Which is true. Out of the 22 best new restaurants in Chicago as determined by my colleagues, I have been to one of them, Sable (though I have been to four of 2010’s). I went when I was working across the street, and got a take-out burger.

It’s not that I don’t value restaurants, it’s just that my values are not widely shared. I think in terms like “best fast food joint for when you’re feeling sorry for yourself and don’t really want to feel better,” (Duk’s) “downtown bars that look kind of like a Shoney’s and as a result usually aren’t very crowded” (Cardozo’s, Frankie Z’s), and “best restaurant in Hyde Park” (I kid, sort of, but I swear by the soul/Indian food combination—not fusion, they just serve both—at Rajun Cajun). These are useful categories, mind you, but not for very many people.

And as a result I’m a little behind the zeitgeist. I thought interests in sports and politics would serve me in my quest to rule the city—they do call the latter the best game in town, right?—but right now, even in the wake of President Obama, Chief of Staff Daley, and Mayor Emanuel, Chicago’s cultural moment seems to be defined by food. There’s Alinea, sixth-best restaurant in the world; our wildly hyped new Michelin guide; the purchase of Goose Island; food trucks; beer laws; McDonald’s and McJobs; vertical farms; school lunches; trans fats; foie gras; and so on. Groupon? Grubhub.

This was not what I was expecting when I moved here, but I should have known better. New York is the financial center of the world, and they do crazy things with money; Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of America, and they do crazy things with fame.

Chicago owes its existence to food: the hog butcher for the world, where men spoke in hushed tones about grain elevators. When the infrastructure disappeared, we replaced it with traders, and then computers, and we’re still virtual butchers.

We still run Democratic politics, though our politicians actually have to go to D.C. now to do it. We still have great authors, including the best novelist that not enough people read, and good bands, though they don’t necessarily feel the love. Oh, and Derrick Rose. But it seems like all anyone wants to talk about is lunch. Which seemed funny at first, but it’s just a city grappling with its heritage.

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