There is currently a debate raging here in Central Illinois.
A young Italian woman who had recently moved to the area discovered the wonders of eating dinner at Cracker Barrel. Like Marconi, she broadcasted her discovery on her Facebook to the entire world. Her brother, who was living in the Windy City, was appalled. He raved at the shame that she had brought on their family name and threatened to disown them publically if they didn’t make a pilgrimage to the Vatican City and cleanse their bodies in the waters of the Tiber.
She defended herself well, arguing that there wasn’t much difference between Italian polenta and grits, and that she was a better person because she could now enjoy a chicken-fried steak, biscuits and gravy and corn muffins as well as spaghetti alla carbonara, which is basically pasta heated in the fat from guanciale (hog jowls) raw egg and parmigiano reggiano cheese.
The brother was inconsolable. For him, they might as well turn in their passports and take up bluegrass music.
I offered my own simple retort to this family squabble. There were two things that both sides should consider before they declared an all out vendetta: first, good home cooking, whichever where it comes from is most likely poor-people’s food, created from the ingredients that no one else wants to use. And, second, given that those of us in question live in Central Illinois, the mere fact that we could have a decent meal one hundred miles south of Interstate 80 is nothing short of an unadulterated miracolo, for which the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI would grant us an unconditional absolution and indulgence for a lifetime of sin. This of course makes us all happy and delightful that we are Roman Catholics, capable of the greatest and most wonderful sins, and we are still welcome in His church.
Let’s face it, Jews and Muslims that pray not to be led into temptation as they watch us eat extra-crispy bacon don’t have it this good.
Generally, if you reside, as I do, in the high plains of the Land of Lincoln, you become creative with your cuisine, or you fall into the burning hell fires of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Chevy’s, Chili’s and Carlos O’Kelly’s. Freshly cooked food around these parts is hard to find. Fresh bread is a day old and sushi is pure venom.
My wife and I, at first, tried to fight the trend. We searched low and high for restaurants worthy of our hard-earned money, but it was for naught. Our never ending search almost cost us our lives one evening when we went to a place around Urbana known as the Apple Blossom (this of course is not the place’s real name). All the way out to the restaurant, we broke into poetic rhapsody about the cuisine of our people, the real people, those who toiled the great prairies to bring us corn syrup and ethanol. As we pulled into the parking lot, I parked and opened the car door to get out. The stench from the boiling lard coming from the restaurant overtook me in seconds. My final words to my wife were: “Leave me to die. Save yourself!”
Nonetheless, she dragged me to safety and revived me by waving a jar of Grey Poupon, Dijon mustard, under my nose.
Since then, we have become accustomed to doing much of our grocery shopping online or in Chicago at Whole Foods. I believe that I can fully understand how Muslims feel when they enter Mecca: I have seen the fresh produce, organic chicken, aged beef, salami, cured ham, and imported cheese. We fill the car with as much as we can carry and drive into the Midwestern outback. That’s how we survive.
But every now and then, we too want something different. This week we booked a reservation at a new place in Chicago: Graham Elliot, a hip new place on west Huron, close to the Magnificent Mile. It is in a neighborhood where hipsters have been known to toss me the keys to their Beemers when they pull up for valet service. The place is full of art galleries and home design studios. We were able to park on the street.
My wife and I ordered the tasting menu: the bite-sized portions that consisted of seven different flavors. The amuse bouche was popcorn with a half a dozen spices and cheese. I had to ask Nancy, our waitress to take it away because I was starting to graze like a true Midwesterner. The second tantalizing morsel was a foie gras lollypop. When I first heard that they were going to bring us a goose liver lollypop, I was so horrified that I almost called it quits, but being that the stuff is illegal for restaurants to sell in Chicago, I couldn’t help but order it. Damn goose-huggers can’t tell me what I can eat! Anyway, the stuff was pretty good. It is like high-class liverwurst on a stick. Weird but no stranger than bacon fat-laced corn muffins at Cracker Barrel!
Then Nancy brought out the “Deconstructed Caesar Salad.” Well, I had my fill of Jacques Derrida in grad school and I am glad he wasn’t really in the kitchen. Who knows what we would have gotten? What really made this dish work were the fresh Spanish white anchovy and the lightly fried brioche that resembled a Twinkie. The only difference was that the brioche had cream cheese inside. Very well done!
The soup portion came out in glass beakers, as if they were straight out of Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, the Catalonian chef that has re-written the art of cooking. In fact, the waiters were all wearing lab coats and laughed manically when they walked through the dining room. The soup was butternut squash bisque made with a coconut milk base, ginger, lemongrass, a touch of curry and lemon. Not only did it clean the palette, but it was a nice change of pace from the greasy soups that usually abound this time of the year.
The surf portion of the menu had three king-sized fresh scallops, lightly fried and perched on gooseberry, vanilla and black walnut cream. The turf, which came soon after, was a marvelous combination of foie powder, root vegetables, and black truffle consommé served over medium rare strips of wagyu beef. The last time I saw a chef working with black truffles; he conserved them in a large plastic bag in the depths of his freezer and weighed them out on a triple beam. The stuff is heavenly.
The dessert was a variation of the classic American smore; the chocolate was made by an artisan at one of the specialty shops in the Loop, the graham crackers were bits of homemade cookies as were the marshmallows. The dish was served on a plate that had been painted with bitter-sweet chocolate and sprinkled with fire-roasted sea salt. On each side of the bite sized smore were spoonfuls of ice cream: peanut butter and vanilla.
It is indeed rare to have a meal that is excellent from start to finish. To top it off, I wanted a cup of espresso. We still had a two-and-a-half-hour drive ahead of us back to wilderness. My wife insisted that this kind of place wouldn’t dare serve such a vile drink as coffee. Starbucks had simply taken the style and taste out of it. But Nancy brought me a doppio of artisan roasted dark; some of the best stuff I have had for awhile.
Now that we have returned to the cornfields, we long to live in a place where the food is fresh, and every experience is pleasant. Someday we will probably move to a place where there is edible food. But in the meantime, I will look for the waitress with five stars on her apron at Cracker Barrel.