Chicagoans are known for their strong feelings regarding certain food items, and it doesn’t take much to get them to opine, often loudly. Which stand serves the best Italian beef? Do you put ketchup on a proper Chicago hot dog? Is Malört really disgusting? Every one of these questions has fierce — fierce! — partisans who will fight for hours, and even longer when drinking, in support of their vision of Chicago’s best foods. But not very many of those Chicagoans know the fascinating stories behind those foods. Luckily, Monica Eng and David Hammond have just released Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown Bites and it is jam packed with interesting stories and colorful characters that will make each bite just a little more enticing.
Eng and Hammond are both Chicago journalists, with long experience exploring Chicago’s hidden stories. Eng has worked at the Chicago Tribune and WBEZ and now works with Axios Chicago; while Hammond is a writer for the Tribune, NewCity and Better, he is also one of the founding members of LTHForum, the original website for Chicago food nerds. Between the two of them, it wasn’t hard to come up with 30 different topics — Eng and Hammond each took half of the stories in the book. You’ll recognize iconic Chicago items like gyros, tavern cut pizza, Chicago mix popcorn and giardiniera, but you may also discovery some new favorites.
As a long time Chicago food journalist myself, the most surprising part of the book is the number of food items I had never heard of before — and it turns out, I’m not alone. “I had no idea there would be so many I hadn’t known existed,” says Hammond. He thinks that a lot of this has to do with the separation between parts the city that is still a regrettable feature of Chicago. “This book really brought home the disparity between North and South sides,” explains Hammond. “I would say the South side has a higher percentage of Chicago-invented foods, going back decades, and sometimes a century. Those foods hardly ever go north of the Eisenhower [expressway]. The North side is known for great restaurants, and people come from other countries to go to Alinea or Ever, not to Fat Johnny’s for a mother-in-law. But on the South side, there’s incredible culinary creativity, fueled by limited resources.”
If you’ve never been to some of the South side destinations in the book, hopefully, you might be inspired to try them. That “mother-in-law” Hammond mentioned isn’t a difficult relative, rather, it’s a traditional Chicago corn roll tamale, smothered in chili and the condiments usually associated with a Chicago hot dog, and you can get it at Fat Johnny’s on Western Avenue. Interestingly, the Chicago corn roll tamale also gets its own chapter, and Hammond has long memories of the food. “I used to buy the Chicago corn roll tamales as a kid, but I’m not fond of it now, unless you put it in a bowl of chili and chop it up, and it’s very good,” says Hammond.
Some of the foods you are likely to recognize, like Chicken Vesuvio and Shrimp Dejonghe, are still staples of Chicago restaurant menus today, though there’s some debate over where they were actually invented. “It’s unlikely that Vesuvio’s Restaurant, in the whole history of food, was the first place that said ‘Hey, let’s bake chicken with potatoes and olive oil’, but they were the first to put it on a menu.” Others, like Saganaki — Greektown’s famous flaming cheese — have conflicting origin stories, and fans of the dear departed Parthenon, which claimed to have invented the dish, have already contacted Hammond, though his research shows that it seems to have originated at Dianna’s in in the early ’60s. Entertainingly, this thoroughly Chicago dish invented in the dining rooms of Greektown has now apparently made it to Greece.
My favorite story in the book is also one of Hammond’s favorites — the origin of the first Italian beef stand. The predecessor of Al’s #1, the original “Al’s Barbecue” was a front for a mafia-owned numbers racket, designed to distract from the gambling inside. After a while, the beef became so successful — and the owner didn’t want to go to jail — so Al Ferreri bought out the other partners to focus on the food. The rest is Chicago history.
One question that kept coming to me as I read this book: Why have these particular foods, among the millions of items served in town, lasted so long and become so iconic? Hammond has a very simple answer, “A lot of this is food that just makes you happy to eat,” he says.
Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown Bites, is available now.
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Anthony Todd is a Chicago-based food writer, and the author of the “Dish” column for Chicago Magazine. His work can also be found in publications like the Chicago Sun-Times, Eater, CNN, Serious Eats, Epicurious, Tasting Table, Plate Magazine and many other places. When he’s not writing, slurping oysters or sipping gin, he moonlights as an attorney.