Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders …
– Carl Sandburg 1916
As “Hog Butcher for the World“, it’s a given that we hold the pig near and dear to our cholesterol riddled hearts. In Chicago, we do so love our bacon. In fact, we celebrate bacon and all that is wonderful and holy with its very own Fest. That’s right, BaconFest. And it was today. Oh yes indeed.
For those who say the bacon trend is dead, I say phooey. Bacon sticks around, year after year, for a reason. It’s good. It’s good on it’s own, it’s good with things, on things and in things. I can’t even tell you how many of my professed vegetarian friends, Jews too while we’re at it, slip up once in a while over a plate of bacon. To the devout, I know that can be horrifying but I’ve seen it too many times to deny that the power of the pig has an amazing pull. Bacon makes it better. And I’m not talking that weird, floppy British crap. That’s ham I tell you, and I don’t care what you say. Don’t get me started on Canadian Bacon. I’m talking about good ‘ol American, preferably thick cut, smoky fatty delicious bacon and fry those babies up crisp, would you? Yep, no two bits about it.
I’m not sure how many tickets were sold (looked like several hundred today) but I do know that when they went on sale a few weeks back, they sold out in 1 minute. As in 60 seconds. I know, I was online (for presales!) at 9am that day and the damn things were gone by 9:01am. Huh? What just happened? Later, I lamented this fact on the friend bitchin’ forum known as Facebook and one of my chef pals openly mocked me (rightfully so) with what he planned on making for the event. I kiddingly asked if he needed someone cute and funny to help (of which, may I say, I am both. True story.) His answer was yes and I was in, just like that. It’s good to know the right people.
But first, I had to work for my bacon. So this morning I met my friend, Chef Dan Smith of Hearty, at his restaurant where we loaded up and headed over to UIC Pavillion. What I love, absolutely love, about the restaurant community in this town is that they come out in full force to support each other. Today’s event benefitted The Greater Chicago Food Depository and 57 of the city’s best restaurants, bars and booze suppliers were there. It was an incredible turnout. Impressive actually.
Usually before these events start, there’s a lot of visiting, hellos and catching up to do. You see, in this town, everyone knows each other because they’ve all worked with and/or for each other at some point or another. They’re all friends; good friends. They share resources, eat in each other’s restaurants, date and marry each other’s employees. As big as Chicago is, the restaurant community is a small, tight-knit friendly group. There have been numerous occasions where a friend has referred to someone with the side comment “Remember? He/she used to work with us.” Half the time I don’t, but that’s not the point. That particular kitchen, where we all worked at some point, cuts a wide swath through the current crop of hot chefs. They’re a really cool group of people who I am always genuinely happy to see. One of these days I’m going to put together a flow chart and I fully believe that every single chef in this town is connected with at least a dotted line. I’ll do this, you know, in my spare time.
Though I didn’t taste all 57 dishes today, I managed to get my hands on quite a few. An important aspect of these events is the ever important “trading of food.” You break away from your table to visit friends and you bring your dish for theirs. You seek out some; others find you. I made the rounds early and tasted some delightful things. (Ideally, if you’re smart, you bring an extra helper just for this task to keep your team well fed and with a steady supply of drinks.)
Mainly, the things I ate were made by my friends and the folks at the tables surrounding us. A visit to Chris Pandel of The Bristol resulted in a delicious bacon bahn mi sandwich. If you don’t already know, that guy makes delicious food. Another hello to Jared Van Camp of Old Town Social and I was gifted with a phenomenal Tijuana dog that brought me right back to my college days. Get this – a housemade cheese stuffed mini hot dog wrapped in bacon with pico de gallo and his own pickled jalapenos. Now, that guy has a gift.
Another pal, Greg Biggers, the new Exec Chef of Cafe des Architectes in the downtown Sofitel, had a really fun idea. A make-your-own-sundae bar but like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Smoke ice cream, right out of a soft serve machine with a whole host of toppings in canning jars … and each and every one had bacon in it. There was a pineapple bacon sauce (yum!), a bourbon bacon butterscotch sauce, white chocolate covered bacon pretzel bits, bacon gummi squares, bacon coconut shavings, bacon cookie dough bits, bacon toffee, bacon fudge and god knows what else. I lost track. Topped with a piece of candied bacon, it was fantastic.
Let’s see the table next to us, Cafe Spaiggia, had braised kale with two kinds of housemade bacon – pancetta and a balsamic braised smoked bacon. Manning the saute station next to them, I was mesmerized several times by the pan of bacon reducing in a balsamic glaze. It was beautiful and smelled even better.
On the other side was Veerasway with a bacon and curried cashew truffle. When they weren’t looking – and even when they were – I would swipe little nibbles of their cashew garnish. Behind us was Piccolo Sogno with a lovely arribiata sauce on gigantic rigatoni. Next to them was Chalkboard, who I later heard (translation: I did not get one) was doing bacon manhattan shakes. Next to them was Candid Wines with a table full of white tulips and pink champagne. No bacon per se but I liked that table. Pink bubbles and bacon are a match made in heaven.
So what did Dan do? Oh yum oh yum. A bacon shallot spoonbread topped with seared mustard glazed pork tenderloin and cinnamon bacon brittle. It was three delightful layers of porky goodness is what it was. And I was sear-the-pork-and-plate-it-girl.
It was a great event – if you can get in, I recommend going next year. There was PLENTY of food, the drinks were flowing (bacon bloody mary’s and PBR folks!) and everyone was, well happy. I’ve done a lot of events and at this one everyone was just in a really good mood. The Bacon Nation is a happy group of people. Must be all that pork fat.
Stresscake Bacon Recipes worth another look:
– bacon waffles (one of my favorite things in the world)
– bacon wrapped dates
– bacon cheddar gougeres
– quiche lorraine (Ok, so it’s ham. But you could use bacon too. Or both. Yeah, use both!)