"You gonna kill some pigs?" a farm worker asked Michael Lenehan, the writer of Hello, Beautiful. He received the invitation in the slaughterhouse at Gunthorp Farms, a pig- and poultry-raising operation in northeast Indiana that supplies several upscale restaurants in Chicago, including Charlie Trotter’s and Topolobampo. In the end, "[a pig] goes from being an animal to being a piece of meat very quickly," says Lenehan, who declined the guy’s offer. Nevertheless, he participated in a frigid feeding of the pigs last winter and took home some pork and duck to taste-test. "I had two dinner parties with this stuff, and I regaled my guests with stories of where the meat had come from," he says. "I probably overcooked the pork." Lenehan’s work has appeared extensively in the Chicago Reader and The Atlantic Monthly.
Almost two years ago, Jennifer Tanaka spent five days working at the top-tier restaurant Alinea, researching a story on the cuisine of its chef, Grant Achatz. Last July, Achatz was diagnosed with advanced oral cancer. The recommended treatment, which would sound like formulaic fiction if it weren’t true, was surgical removal of most of his tongue. A senior editor for Chicago, Tanaka wrote Burned, returning to Alinea twice to interview Achatz after a successful new treatment spared his tongue (so far), and she saw the same dynamo she knew from her time in the kitchen, only slightly changed in appearance. "I do think he has this kind of superhuman drive," she says, "a monofocused ambition."
In Chicago‘s March 2006 issue, James L. Merriner wrote the cover story, examining whether Barack Obama would run for president. This month, Merriner looks at the now candidate’s Chicago associates in The Friends of O. "I talked to a lot of the same sources," Merriner says, "and some sources who said in ’06 that there’s no way he could run in ’08, they’ve had to do a little bit of reassessment." This month’s story limns an underreported aspect of Obama’s past: how Hyde Park incubated Obama’s early career. "The national media are doing roots-of-Obama stories," Merriner says, "but they’re still hung up on Daley and Rezko and they don’t understand Hyde Park." Merriner’s book on former governor George Ryan, The Man Who Emptied Death Row, is scheduled to come out in September.
Chicago asked five writers to pen reminiscences about Lake Michigan for this month’s cover story, Our Lake. Ana Castillo writes poetry, essays, stories, and novels—most recently the novel The Guardians. About her essay "On the Way," she writes, "The idea for the piece came instantly to mind when I thought of my earliest memories of Chicago’s beaches." She is currently working on a new novel from her home in New Mexico.
The short-story writer Elizabeth Crane recalls a stay in Chicago before she moved here in "The Turning Point," a moment when she was discovering her kinship with the lake and the city. "I was definitely in the right place," she says. Her 2003 book When the Messenger Is Hot was adapted for a Steppenwolf Theatre production last year. Her most recent collection, You Must Be This Happy to Enter, was published in February.
Stuart Dybek began what would become his essay "The Seiche" by listing lake stories he still wanted to tell and selecting just a few details to develop from the long list. "When you’ve written a book titled The Coast of Chicago, the lake is not a foreign subject," he says. After writing for Chicago, he fictionalized and expanded "The Seiche" for his upcoming collection of stories. Dybek is a 2007 MacArthur Fellow and a distinguished writer in residence at Northwestern University.
"The lake is the great equalizer," says Joe Meno, the novelist and author here of "Absolute Amateurs." By his lights, it’s a place where Chicagoans mix with one another and balance their individual experience with the community. In August, Meno releases his new story collection Demons in the Spring, with 20 stories, each accompanied by the work of a different artist. He teaches at Columbia College.
"I don’t think anyone has really explored what the lake means here in the city," says Bayo Ojikutu, writer of "Water Color Lines." His own memories are clear and profound: "I always recall the power of the lake." He is the author of the novels 47th Street Black and Free Burning. His next novel will deal with contradictions and hypocrisies in the upper economic classes.
Photography: (Lenehan, Tanaka) Joe C. Moreno, (Merriner) Brittney Blair (Castillo) © Robert A. Molina, (Crane) Ben Brandt, (Meno) Joe Wigdahl, (Ojikutu) Mylowe Wooley