by Roger White
Salutations, my carefree cadre of cosmic cadets. Oh, mi amigos, sometimes the fates simply will not let you escape what you’re trying to escape from because there’s just no escape from the thing you wish to escape. From. Dig? I’ll give you an e.g. Take the heat. Spouseman had a quasi-business trip to Chicago recently, so I folded the family into the Samsonites and jaunted off in earnest hopes of glorious non-triple-digit climes. Hah. The Big Guy doth chuckle. We stepped out of the cab from Midway Airport onto the baking intersection of Grand and Michigan and promptly melted into the pavement. Seems I packed the heat wave in with the family and the underwear. Thus I believe we lent a new meaning to the term “packing heat.”
As we admired the downtown skyline, 29 cars, buses, and taxis immediately honked at us to get our Texas butts out of the road. Welcome to the City of Big Shoulders! There would be ample honking and sirens as the days progressed.
Actually, as the week went on the temps smoothed out a bit, and the constant Lake Michigan breeze felt downright nice. But Chi-town its own self was quite the learning experience.
Much of the Chicago scene involves eating. It’s good eating, too, but there are rules. Statutes and laws even. For example, under no circumstances may anyone in the greater metropolitan city limits put ketchup or any squashed-tomato-like product on a hot dog. It is strictly verboten. Vendors display large signs to this effect. Onions, relish, mustard, pickles, peppers, paprika, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme are all fine for your frankfurter, but no ketchup.
To wit, our stroll through Millennium Park near the hotel on our first day was jolted by the sight of two of Chicago’s finest cuffing a man lying face-first in the grass. Uh oh, we thought. We’d been warned to be wary of big-city crime.
“What happened, officer?” I asked a backup policeman standing nearby.
“K.O.D.,” the officer replied grimly.
“K.O.D. Ketchup On Dog. Stand back, please.”
“I swear, I thought it was the mustard,” the guy pleaded, his mouth and hands smeared a ghastly, guilty red. “It was a mistake!”
“Take him away.”
Chicagoans take their dogs seriously. There’s even a Wikipedia entry:
“A Chicago-style hot dog, or Chicago Dog, is a steamed or water-simmered all-beef frankfurter on a poppyseed bun. The dog is topped with yellow mustard, chopped white onions, bright green sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices or wedges, pickled peppers, and a dash of celery salt. The complete assembly of a Chicago hot dog is said to be ‘dragged through the garden’ due to the many toppings. Some variants exist, adding ingredients such as cucumber slices, but the canonical recipe does not include ketchup, and there is a widely shared, strong opinion among many Chicagoans and aficionados that ketchup is unacceptable. A number of Chicago hot dog vendors do not even offer ketchup as a condiment, while those who do often use it as a litmus test.”
Or as part of a police sting, as the case may be.
There are plenty of culinary delights besides the eponymous dog, including some of the best Italian food west of New Jersey, but, again, there are attendant rules and regulations. Please pay attention, because although the folks we met in Chicago were friendly and affable, when it comes to food they mean business.
Near the famous Lincoln Park Zoo, for another e.g., there’s a terrific pub/eatery called R.J. Grunt’s. And at R.J. Grunt’s, where the proprietors claim to have invented the modern-day salad bar, you can pile everything from aardvark shavings to zinnia petals on your scrumptious salad, but if you’re caught sharing with a non-salad-bar patron—even your mom—you will be hauled off on an S.S.B.
We’d been in town for a few days by the time we hit Grunt’s, so we were practically Chicagoans ourselves by this time. As they took away one particular crouton criminal, a wide-eyed tourist sidled up to me.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Sharing Salad Bar. Stand back, please.”
But far and away our most exciting brush with Chicago’s culinary commandments was at the one and only Billy Goat Tavern tucked under the bridge on Michigan Avenue. Yep, this is the place that inspired the classic Saturday Night Live “cheezeborger, cheezeborger, cheezeborger” skit.
It’s all true. Except it’s “no Pepsi, Coke” instead of the “no Coke, Pepsi” John Belushi recited in the SNL skit. Apparently, Belushi figured “no Coke, Pepsi” sounded funnier, and who can argue his comedic brilliance? All the rest you remember from the skit is right on, however. The waitress bullied us into not only “cheezeborgers” but double “cheezeborgers” at that—and they were worth it. I’m doing a Pavlovian salivation thing right now just typing about them.
And yes, there are no fries. No fries, cheeps. There’s a great big sign warning you, so you’ve only yourself to blame if you get hauled away on an F.F.T.
“French Fry Try. Stand back, please.”
Roger White is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, a very fat dachshund, and a self-absorbed cat. For further adventures, visit oldspouse.wordpress.com.