* A Continuous Lean is a fashion blog that celebrates pricey Americana, so it was pleasing to see them write up something I can afford: Italian beef, the infamous Chicago foodstuff that consists of meat shavings between bread that sublimates into grease as you eat.
By some lucky twist of fate, I grew up a few blocks from the greatest Italian beef place in the Chicagoland area (and, therefore, the world). Johnnie’s Beef in Elmwood Park offers an ethereal sandwich that must be tasted in order to be fully understood, because in this case, looks can be deceiving.
Johnnie’s beef is not attractive. When made properly, and by that I mean soaked in gravy after assembly, it barely even resembles a sandwich. It is a beige, green, and brown mess that falls apart after your first bite and leaves your hands and arms covered in meat juice. But its salty, greasy siren song beckons to me from across the country and it’s one of my first stops when I go home.
Like all good nativist foods, it combines deliciousness with horrifying the outlanders. And somewhat true to the author Kate Dulin’s take, the “greatest Italian beef place in the Chicagoland area” is, in my personal experience talking to natives, whichever midcentury greasy spoon is closest to where you live or grew up.
* There are a lot of them: behold, Greasefreak’s gallery of Italian beef in Chicago.
I have just spent a day re-creating the iconic loaf of 1950s-era soft white industrial bread, using easily acquired ingredients and home kitchen equipment. With the help of a 1956 government report detailing a massive, multiyear attempt to formulate the perfect loaf of white bread, achieving that re-creation proved relatively easy.
Aaron Bobrow-Strain traced “USDA White Pan Loaf No. 1” to a Cold War-era “Manhattan Project of bread,” which did for bread kind of what the Manhattan Project did for the atom. Where did the USDA go for inspiration?
After two years of preliminary research, focus groups, failed loaves, and exploratory taste tests around the country, the project reached its culmination in Rockford, Illinois. In the early ’50s, all the whiz kids of market research flocked to Rockford. An industrial center built by European immigrants, daring inventors, and strong labor unions, the city was the stuff of middle-class dreams. Although its economy was far more industrial than the national average, it suited America’s self-image to think of it as the country’s most “typical” city, and sociologists obliged with the label.
Thus, in 1954, USDA investigators journeyed from Chicago and Washington, D.C., to the shores of the Rock River to select two test groups, each comprising three hundred families “scientifically representative” of a typical American community.
Thus making white bread the second greatest institution to come out of Rockford after Cheap Trick.
* Art exhibit title of the week: Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art.
* Tal Rosenberg’s five favorite covers of “Tracks of My Tears.”
Photograph: Joel Washing (CC by 2.0)