Thursday, April 26, 2018

No One Says That

Yes, that relish is full of bright green food colouring but if you're worried about carcinogens in the relish you probably don't want to know what's in the hot dog.

Eventually, the boys tired of delicatessen cold cuts and wanted an "Authentic" Chicago hot dog experience. They'd already had an over-priced one at the ballpark (Though still less expensive than a place around here that has the nerve to charge something like nine bucks) which Danny doused in ketchup just to be contrarian. Chicagoans don't put ketchup on their hot dogs and you'll get a bit of teasing if you do. Still, there's nothing like a proper hot dog stand to really get the immersive experience, so I took them to Poochies in Skokie.

I hadn't been in Poochies since the late 70's because my dad had a falling out with the owner. Dad was a food distributor, so I'm pretty certain it was about money, but I'm also certain he was probably being a jerk. It was a shame because they'd been friends-he was at my sister's wedding for god's sake, but knowing my dad, it was probably made all the worse by his character flaws, i.e. being a jerk. After that we didn't go to Poochies, and had to make due with Fluky's or Woolfy's which really weren't the same.

One of the best memories I have from going with the old man to make deliveries was getting to Poochies because I'd leave with a giant handful of hot dog shaped bubble gum. Dad's customers were always nice to me because they knew how bat-shit crazy my parents were. I'd have to chew the gum before getting home or my mother would have killed me for eating sugar, so I'd pop three or four of those into my mouth at a time and chew like mad to extract as much sugar as possible before getting back. I'd have to keep my mouth closed until the dye faded or it would give it away. I'm not kidding about the sugar policing-she was the diabetic, but that didn't stop her forcing saccharine tablets on the rest of us.

Like many of the still operating businesses from my childhood, Poochies had a bit of a makeover. Instead of the cramped space where you had to stand at a counter in the window to eat, they now have ample space to sit down. Mostly, I remember standing in the hallway by the back waiting for Dad to get paid, and marvelling at the canisters that went into the soda machines. To my mind, you don't go to a hot dog stand to lounge about watching TV as you eat. It is efficient food that you should eat (preferably standing up) and then get the hell out. If you want to linger over a meal, go have a steak dinner somewhere. Clearly, I haven't spent much time in hot dog stands having been a vegetarian since 1983, but there's a way things ought to be done. That's why they're called traditions. ,The boys lingered over their lunch, the heathens.

I can't know for certain when it started, and I suspect it was a marketing gimmick by the hot dog manufacturer but somewhere along the way the phrase, "Drag it through the garden" came into being. A Chicago hot dog has onions, relish, sport (hot) peppers, tomatoes, mustard, celery salt (yeah, I don't know why either) and a pickle. A dog with everything has been "dragged through the garden" but really it hasn't because no one ever said that, at least not before the Internet. I lived in Chicago for 24 years and I never, ever heard anyone say, "Drag it through the garden". The phrase makes me cringe. My mistake was letting Danny know just how much it irritates me.

The only thing worse than hearing, "Drag it through the garden" from some dipshit that probably spent half a day in Chicago before going on Yelp to write an authoritative guide to the culinary history of hot dogs in Chicago, is someone, upon hearing I'm from Chicago asking me about gangsters. You can go anywhere in the world and someone trying out their English on a tourist will respond, "Al Capone, bang bang!" when they hear you are from Chicago. Yeah, bang bang, drag it through the garden. I have a teenage son. A teenage son with a phone and a generous text and data plan who kept texting me from the back seat of the car, "Drag it through the garden." and "Bang bang, Al Capone" for the entire drive between Omaha and Chicago. He won't think it's so funny when I throw him out of the house on his 18th Birthday.

If you're wondering why so many of these essays about Chicago feature food it is because I travelled with my husband and son. About twenty minutes prior to the hot dog, Mr. ETB had stopped at a Korean takeaway on the other side of Skokie for "a snack." That snack followed a trip to Touhy Ave. in Lincolnwood for bagels. It was as much a culinary tour of the city as anything else. And that's reasonable-Chicago(land) is a great place to eat interesting things. One evening I took them for BBQ chicken at a place in Niles (Booby's) that's been there since I was a child (and still packing in a crowd even on a weeknight). Another night we drove to Wheeling to eat at a tiny pizzeria (Joe's) we used to go to after work because it was cheap, and open late. These places have survived decades because they make exceptional food, I just didn't think the boys would want to try everything in the space of a week. Never underestimate the amount of food a teenager can consume! My one extravagance was a root beer float at The Bunny Hutch in Lincolnwood. I swear it had about a pint of ice cream in the giant cup. I was sick for a couple days from it...but I'd do it again.
That is a shit-tonne of ice cream.

bbq chicken from Booby's. That was the owner's name. No idea why, he's been dead for 40 years so we'll never find out. Nice man though. He'd be happy to see how packed his place was. 

Because you need to wash down that bbq with a tamale? 
So you get the idea. Anyway, as the boys were lingering over their hot dogs at Poochies, Danny decided to ask one of the kids working there if anyone ever says, Drag it through the garden. 
"Yeah, sometimes." She replied cheerfully. 
"Since when?!" I demanded. 

It seems in my decades long absence from Chicago people have started saying silly things. You know, I'm terribly disappointed, Chicago. I leave for thirty some odd years, I mean I barely turn my back and you what? You start saying, Drag it through the garden? What kind of crap is that?! I can't leave you guys alone for a minute-you can't be trusted. What's next, historic gangster tours? 

Fine. Some people (what's the word I'm looking for here? Douchebags? Tossers? ) might feel clever using faux diner slang at a hot dog stand, but I promise you, they sound foolish. Dont. Do. That. 

Al Capone, bang bang.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

One Point Four

Display at Heller Nature Center, Highland Park, Illinois

We moved to Highland Park when I was ten. Looking through eBird checklists from northern Illinois, Danny asked if I'd ever been to Heller Nature Center where there were a number of good bird sightings being reported. I had to confess that I'd lived just down the street from the place, had routinely rode my bike past it, and still never summoned enough curiosity about the world around me to bother going in.

We'd planned a day for hiking and birding, but the fickle Midwestern weather had other ideas. Alternating between sleet, freezing rain, and eventually snow, we tried braving the 40 mph winds but quickly understood it wasn't going to be a nice day for a walk in the woods. Earlier, we'd tried to explore the lakefront by the remains of what used to be Ft. Sheridan, but conditions were even worse at the shore. Defeated, but unwilling to just head back into Chicago, we stopped in the visitor's center at Heller.
Reading space well stocked with nature books, bird guides, etc.

After my initial shock at how nice it was, I understood that's what taxes go to in well-off towns. We spent some time birding from a window that looked out on some feeders and Danny managed a checklist, keeping the day from being a complete loss. As we were just a few minutes down the road from where I lived, Danny asked if we could see the neighbourhood. Not to see where I lived, but to see the monstrosity house built by one of our "famous" neighbours. We called him One Point Four, because that's how much his house cost in millions.

It had come up, as Danny was talking about a sports team outside of Illinois. "Our neighbour used to own that team", I mentioned casually. I'd never thought that was strange. Successful businesspeople (in this case, someone that made a fortune providing the most mundane service) often go on to buy  sports teams. I mean, why work so hard if you don't get to spend it on something you'd like?  Anyway, other than remembering the school bus stop was at the corner of his front lawn, and he always waved to us as he left for work, I can't say much about him as a person. Oh, there were rumours of wild parties, but I was never invited to those😀. Anyway, Danny had never seen a truly over-the-top posh neighbourhood, so off we went.

When we moved to Highland Park in the 70's it wasn't because my parents wanted to. After several heart attacks and eventually a triple bypass (a fairly new surgery at the time) my mother wanted to live in a home where she wouldn't be required to climb stairs. Unable to find an existing home they liked in Skokie, someone suggested they see a new subdivision being built in Highland Park where they could buy a lot and custom build the house they'd like.

At the time, Highland Park west of the highway was still rural. I mean, rural. Like horse farms, and fields rural. There were about a dozen homes already built in the newly developed area, and the street where we eventually built our house was only partially paved. The sidewalk wasn't even completed, ending abruptly in a pile of mud. The few existing homes were very, very, fancy. My mother caught sight of one, like a miniature version of the White House complete with white columns and a sprawling horseshoe driveway in front. "We don't belong here." She observed. We didn't, but went ahead and did it anyway.

In the decades since, the area has been completely built-up with newer, larger estates. As we turned in, my husband noticed the house that had so intimidated my mother back in the early 70's. He was struck by the state of disrepair and the pretentions that must have inspired someone to build such a horrible thing in the first place. The lawn was a wreck, the paint was all peeling, and the overgrown bushes, now trees gave it a Grey Gardens vibe. You couldn't possibly use that driveway without doing serious damage to your car.

The people that built homes in that subdivision weren't from "old money" families. They were newly rich in the era of WIN ("Whip Inflation Now") when the rest of the country was struggling. Where it might have been gauche to flaunt wealth in most places, no such social prohibitions existed there. I'd never encountered people that would start conversations with a stranger by asking how many square feet your home had, until I moved to Highland Park.

I've always been thankful that my personality was pretty much formed before we moved  to Highland Park or I might have had a harder time with the fact that I absolutely did not fit in. I'm not always in the right, but being the sort of person that is willing to believe I am, despite any evidence to the contrary provided just enough insulation to get through eight years of living on the North Shore. I'm always struck when I run into people that grew up in Highland Park how they end up in the extremes. One person became an investment banker, another a Catholic Worker. Highland Park does that to people, I guess.

The house I lived in didn't look too bad, and I noticed they built an addition wasn't already large enough?! The quince bush/tree was gone, understandably as unless you particularly liked quince it would quickly cover the lawn in fruit each autumn. The other trees that were mere twigs when we planted them were now fully grown and offered shade and privacy dwarfing the one-level ranch style house. I couldn't see the backyard, but I'm certain they didn't leave it wild prairie as my parents had. I'd guess there was a pool, and possibly a tennis court back there by now.

We drove through, looking at the homes that seemed so opulent in the 70's but had aged poorly and in another town with favourable zoning might have been divided up into several living spaces. Where older homes in established neighbourhoods can blend in without drawing too much attention, even being desirable housing stock, these properties, each more outrageous than the last and secluded in a subdivision appeared a museum of bad taste-and not in a kitsch sort of way. Not every home was in a state of disrepair, but enough of them were, to dissuade anyone from wanting to buy there when so many newer, modern McMansions are being built just down the road. What will they look like in 40 years? I wonder how long it will be before the subdivision is razed for something newer to be built atop all that 70's brick?

We found One Point Four's house. It still looked like a windowless office building, but someone had replaced the strange panelling on the outside to give it a bit of a face lift. It was raining heavily, and the outside looked like someone had splashed water on a slate and the chalk had smeared in places.

The interesting thing about the house was what you couldn't see from the outside and would only know if you'd either been inside, or had seen it being built, as I had. The entire structure, which I can only describe as a gigantic, multi-storey box, is built around an equally gigantic boulder. No, not a "rock." A giant, maybe 20 Ft. tall boulder.

I remember when it arrived on the site. Naively, I thought it was something they'd put in the garden, and that it arrived prior to building so they could get it properly situated. Nah, they were going to build their house around the rock, and still leave room for an indoor pool. In comparison, spending your money on a sports team seems like a more reasonable investment. They were runoured to have paid cash for the house as well, which might have been true as the stagflation years of the 70's weren't a good time to be asking your banker for $1.4 million to build an ugly house around a boulder in the posh suburbs.

These days, the homes in planned communities have very little to tell them apart. Working off a handful of floorplans, a few exteriors to chose from, and a standard landscaping design you would be unlikely to find a builder willing to build a house around a rock, or stick a swimming pool in a courtyard. As crazy as some of those homes were (40ft. gold lion statues at either side of the drive?) at least they were distinctive. They weren't especially well built though, and less than fifty years on they look ready to collapse. I wonder about the people living in those houses today. Would a Highland Park address really be worth living with a giant boulder in your living room? I'm willing to bet they couldn't get $1.4 million for it today. Imagine the real estate listing.
"Six bedroom, four bath home in Highland Park. Indoor pool, eat-in kitchen with updated appliances, giant boulder in living room."

A better writer could find a lesson in all this about the impermanence of wealth where all that remains is a giant boulder, but I'm struggling to do it without sounding like a moralising prat. If my parents were still alive to see the decay of the neighbourhood it would undoubtedly bother them. Being the least ambitious person I know, seeing the present state of things felt pleasingly levelling to me. Perhaps for the first time in my life I felt successful. Not in the financial sense, rather in that I've never been so full of myself that I would entertain, much less follow through on building a house around a giant boulder, just because.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Ryebread That Killed Elvis

 My only real concern with going to Chicago for two Cubs games was parking. I'd forgotten quite a bit after being away from the place for more than 25 years, but the trauma experience of trying to park in Lakeview isn't something that ever really leaves you. It hasn't improved any over the years. I really don't mind driving in Chicago, but parking is shit. We were spending the week staying in the suburbs, so it made sense to use public transportation. I spent the first ten years of my life living two blocks from the Skokie Swift station but I can't remember ever taking the train.

When I was a child, the Swift was only a commuting line that ran limited hours from Skokie to the Howard "L" station during the week. Today, it runs every fifteen minutes (or so) seven days a week. As a child, we played in the empty station on weekends and *cough* my sister might have let me "drive" her car around the abandoned lot on a Sunday afternoon (I sat on her lap and steered as she controlled the pedals) but these days children have to find other ways to get into mischief. The newsagent's next to the station that had pinball machines in back is gone, with a Target store standing in its place. The Greyhound bus station is now a Starbucks sharing the space with some sort of exotic massage parlour. The Yardstick fabric store, with their giant yardstick sign in front is gone as well, replaced by a sandwich shop. The clothing store, Just Pants (a name my mother found hilarious ,"It's Just Pants. Get it?!") is a currency exchange, and the beauty shop, Shear Genius in the beautiful Bronx building sits abandoned. The garage where my dad kept his truck is now an upscale ice cream shop, and the drugstore across the street is a matress showroom. One constant though, has been Kaufman's delicatessen and bakery. The original building burned a few years back, but they rebuilt in a way that kept the spirit of the original place alive while incorporating modern improvements such as seating and a public restroom.
Kichels (puffy egg biscuits) from Kauffman's

Living just a short walk from Kaufman's meant I spent a good chunk of my young life there, mostly taking a number and waiting to be served. The old store had a bench on the bakery side where you could wait (and it was always crowded, so wait you did) and some charity had a metal rack of paperback books they sold for a quarter. I bought a copy of Future Shock once, but it was boring, so I gave it to a friend😀.

My sister wasn't sent to Kaufman's much after she misunderstood my dad's joke of, "Tell the counterman to keep his finger off the scale", and she duitifully repeated the message. "My father says you should keep your finger off the scale...and can we please have a pound of roast beef also?" After that, it was my job to buy the cold cuts and bread.
Mr. ETB had a sandwich called, Moshe's Pupik. Or was it Zaydie's Heartburn? I can't keep track of the novelty names.

When we stopped in, the Eastern European woman working at the counter who probably had a real job wherever she came from but was now reduced to slicing bread for suburban idiots like myself, kindly offered me a sample of something. Perhaps overwhelmed by my first visit to my old neighbourhood in years, or more likely because I have a terrible habit of over-sharing not terribly interesting stories about myself, I blurted out, "That's how I found out I was allergic to cashews! The old woman behind the counter gave me a cookie and I got two steps outside on the sidewalk before grabbing my throat and throwing up. My sister was mad when she found out because the old woman never gave her a cookie." The woman, let's call her Masha because she looked like a Masha, nodded without expression and replied, "That is very interesting. Do you want bread with or without seeds?"

One day in the mid-70's, I walked into Kaufman's to find several people talking excitedly. "The king is dead" a woman told me. It took me a minute to figure out she meant Elvis, but I was struck by how upset people were. It occured to me that the last time someone important had died (Mayor Daley), I was also standing in line at Kaufman's waiting to buy a ryebread.

"Do you want bread with or without seeds?" Masha asked, jolting me back to the present. Wondering who might die as I stood in line ordering my bread, I replied, "With, please" before my mouth got ahead of my brain again and I cheerfully joked, "You guys make killer bread." Fastening the twist-tie with a flourish, Masha nodded, "Very nice bread. Pay at front."

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Fishwich in Hooverville

After enough hours on the road my culinary and ethical standards slipped far enough downward that a filet-0-fish sandwich in rural Iowa became my least-bad choice when measured against a hot dog in a gas station that had likely been spinning on that greased rotisserie for days. I used to think no one bought those sausages and they were just for show, then I met my husband.

You know that disoriented feeling you get after being on the road for a while where you pull off and just sit quietly before making certain your legs still work when getting out of the car? It was like that, but combined with the disorientation that comes with being in a small, midwestern farming community. Unless you knew better, it was just an exit along the Interstate with a gas station, a MacDonald's, and newly ploughed fields. Obviously, I missed the brown roadsigns indicating there was a historic site nearby.

My Ukrainian grandmother, Clara absolutely adored fillet-o-fish sandwiches. Granted, she'd lost most of her teeth by the time the sandwich debuted, and food you can mash against the roof of your mouth without risking damage to the remaining molar does have a certain appeal, but really I think it was the bun. Soft white bread from flour so refined and bleached it almost seems an entirely manufactured, highly engineered product of chemical origin was as far away from dark, chewy rye bread as it gets-in America the peasants can eat white bread-with a deep fried square of Alaskan pollack as a bonus.

I haven't been in that many fast-food joints in recent years. It was never my first choice for a meal, even as a child. We had a MacDonald's in our neighbourhood that began as a walk-up window. A few years later they added indoor seating, and my mum liked to have a hamburger now and then. I think it was something like 15 cents, so it was easy to justify on a budget. My dad wouldn't touch the stuff, and with a perfectly good delicatessen across the street serving sandwiches, he didn't feel obligated to try it. I'd go along, and because I was one of those kids with big eyes that always looked pathetic without really trying, someone would custom-make me a toasted American cheese on a bun so I'd have something to eat. It was a smallish-town in the 60's, I wouldn't try that today.

"Wow, this is a really nice MacDonald's" I blurted out as we shuffled in. And it was! Light-flooded from big windows, and a decor that had 1930's looking photographs on the walls. "Look at that guy in a fedora..." I started to say before the quote alongside the picture started sinking in. "Oh shit, that's Herbert Hoover."

I mean, I knew Hoover was from Iowa, even if I didn't know West Branch was his hometown. I wasn't really prepared for the irony of having lunch in a place with a big sign outside offering employment for a non-living wage of $10.10 per hour festooned with images of the American President at the time of the stock market crash that began the Great Depression. "I'm eating a goddamned fishwich in Hooverville" I thought, but didn't say aloud as the friendly locals tamping fistfulls of fried potatoes into their pie holes might have taken offense at describing their town as a Hooverville. Still, $10.10 an hour can't buy you much, even in small town Iowa and the hamburgers cost considerably more than 15 cents these days.

To be fair, Hoover didn't cause the Great Depression, and though his response to it was seen by many as, "Too little too late", the country had been through economic depressions before and he was following precedent in the way he dealt with it. Still, if it happens on your watch, you own it and in Hoover's case his legacy has largely focused on the economic suffering of the 1930's.

A few miles down the interstate on the Illinois side is the historic site where Ronald Reagan was born. I didn't bother stopping to check if the fast food offerings in town carried a Reagan theme as there's only so much irony I can take in the space of a few hours.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Here Comes the...Snow

2-4 inches of snow for us tonight with more on the way Sunday. Look how thrilled I am with that. You can just see the excitement in my eyes. We've been setting records for cold temperatures as well. I'm not too terribly worried about the garden as the only thing emerging yet is sorrel-and god knows nothing will kill that. I might put the fleeces out Sunday night if it really does go to 10 degrees F. I really hope that turns out to be wrong-I don't like running our furnace in April.
The sun was out today, so we made the best of it and had a quick walk around Chalco Hills. There's always deer roaming about, and we saw several but somehow I was unable to get any photos. I don't like to get too close-being charged by a deer isn't my idea of a nice afternoon. Anyway, I did write a song some time ago about the NRD (Natural Resources District). Imagine a blues tune with plenty of harmonica.

Oh the NRD they got deer all over the road
Oh the NRD they got deer all over the road
If you don't wanna hit a deer
Don't drive down the NRD road
You know there's deer in there.
 I'm wearing the world's ugliest comfort shoes, but they match. My foot is still painful, but I can walk, even if I limp a bit. I'm glad to have that stupid boot off but it will be quite some time before I can wear anything narrow or with a heel. That's okay, by this time tomorrow I'll be back in my snowboots!
First wear for the birdy bag this year. I need to re-glue some of the gems.

Outfit Particulars:
1950's raffia skirt-Etsy
1950's nylon shirt-Etsy
Enid Collins handbag-Antique mall
Bracelets-both Hand-Me-Ups
Vintage Avon brooch-Yard sale
Earrings-Thrift World

Easter was pleasant. Danny coloured some eggs, we watched baseball, and did laundry. I had a cold, but that's mostly gone now. It was strange-for about 24 hours I couldn't stop sneezing...then it was over. Just. Like. That. Believe me, I'm not complaining, but it certainly was strange. We never did get outside to throw our cascarones (coloured eggs that have been hollowed out and filled with confetti). Maybe we'll save them for the 4th of July-that ought to piss off the nativists😁

After trying to get Danny's medical stuff sorted, it looks like we finally have. The results are all very good, and I'm happy and relieved to no longer worry that nuts or an asthma attack will kill him, but I am honestly struggling with why his former allergist never tested for these things. I'm glad we switched doctors, of course but I'm more than a little pissed off that he's been loaded up with every imaginable steroid for asthma that he doesn't have. For years. I remember questioning why he never wheezed, only coughed and being immediately shut down by the doctor as not understanding asthma (despite having it most of my life). Right. No one ever told us there was a definitive test for asthma, and they likely woudn't have. I'm relieved, angry, and mostly sad about all the time he spent unable to play outside for fear of allergy-induced asthma. He can't get those years back. I feel tremendous guilt for not having switched allergists sooner, though I realise I couldn't have known. We did what they told us to, and it was absolutely wrong. Anyway, he's fine and I am going to celebrate by taking up smoking going on holiday. At least now we don't need to panic when he coughs for hours at a time. I always wondered why the rescue inhaler didn't seem to do much of anything! Uh, because it wasn't asthma. Right. Predictibly, it has been suggested he might have outgrown it...just like he might have outgrown the nut allergy. I understand doctors are reluctant to say someone made a careless diagnoisis, but... Anyway, he's a good kid and seems completely unbothered by it, and I'm glad. He doesn't dwell on stuff the way adults do. It is going to take some time for me to deal with the relief, guilt, anger and everything else, but for now I'm just glad he finally has some answers and can move ahead and go enjoy the outdoors in spring and summer...if it ever stops snowing.

 Some 80's clothing to finish things out. The gauze skirt required leggings beneath, but that just made it look all the more vintage.
The buttons are just sewn on.
Was still in the boot there, but my good foot was wearing a new velvet shoe.

Outfit particulars:
Skirt, sweater, and handbag-all Goodwill
Shoes-K Mart

Pesach will end Saturday at sundown and I am going to have a gallon of gin and tonic. Gin, being made with grain is off limits during pesach. Potato vodka is acceptable, but I really don't care for it. Anyway, it was an interesting year though I didn't make anything terribly special. We had a very nice spinach and feta omlette tonight, but that's hardly cooking.

I have to get the house ready this weekend for our house/pet sitter. I like her-she looked in the fishtank and remarked, "Well, I can see where Shitty got his name."

Now to get packing.