Last month, I made my annual visit to Chicago. I go back every year for an alumni function, just for two or three days. It’s a chance to catch a little rain, eat my favorite foods, and provoke a few memories. The memories I have of my time in college grow fainter year by year, and since memory’s best friend is documentation, I thought I’d put together a little slideshow, and let the present jog whatever it can of the past.
The best cookie I almost had
This is a picture of the cookie I ate in lieu of the best cookie I’ve ever had:
Raspberry-filled shortbread with icing. At their best, these are maybe the second best cookie I’ve ever had. Today, they were honestly a bit stale. These are sold at the Classics Café at the University of Chicago (in the Classics Building, naturally), and are generally found individually wrapped inside a plastic jar at the cashier, next to another plastic jar that generally holds the best cookie I’ve ever had: a shortbread cookie of basically the same shape and proportions as this raspberry one, but filled instead with caramel, topped with a thick mound of chocolate fudge (these are sometimes called “thumbprint” cookies). Biting into one of these was like having cookie, cake, brownie, and fudge all at once, but with none of the remorse. (The raspberry does what it can, given limited resources.)
I was introduced to both of these cookies by my friend, Caroline, who in my last year of college told me that these were the best cookies she had ever had. I’m sorry I was at the end of my collegiate rope when I finally found my way to them in that plastic jar, just on the other side of the main quad from my dorm room. But I am eternally grateful to Caroline for her great culinary service to me. Now every year, I return to the Classics Café to look for them and get my annual fix, but this year, I was denied my chocolate cookie. Ironically, a few years after we had both left Chicago, I spoke to Caroline about the cookie that changed my taste buds forever, and told her how I would never forget her introducing them to me. She had no memory of the incident or even the cookies! What a strange, amoral monster is memory.
How green was my memory
I always said that the University of Chicago is the most beautiful place in the world. Botany Pond in the spring is the living showcase of my words. When the ivy grows into full leaf over the entire façade of Erman Hall, you can take in a nearly 180 degree view where everything is green. Here, a couple of mallards add their plumage to the landscape:
I love it when the wind picks up and catches the ivy. The effect is like the rippling surface of the ocean, or a blanket being billowed over a mattress.
In a different season, in the fall of my second year, Botany Pond once played a crucial role in the house elections at my dorm, Snell Hall. My friend, Zach, had just been elected house president, a position of much esteem, and unbeknownst to him or me, the more senior members of the house had prepared for Zach the traditional coronation ritual. It began with many “hip hip, hoorays,” then everyone got on their feet and herded Zach out the front door and down the slate path toward the pond. I followed along, not knowing what was to come. When we reached the edge of Botany Pond, the leaders of the pack hoisted Zach up by his arms and feet and inaugurated him by heaving him into the pond. Ah, college.
On the boob tube
As I flipped through the TV listings at the hotel, I came across this gem:
“Humankind enslaved.” A very succinct synopsis of The Matrix, although it could also describe, oh, Planet of the Apes. The Matrix came out in 1999, the midpoint of my college career, just before the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Then and now, it seems, The Matrix was the more . . . critically appreciated(?) movie, but I found it to be just a chilly rehash of New Testament flapdoodle. It certainly wasn’t a movie that would inspire me to make a midnight run.
The best pizza I’ve ever had?
During my college orientation, we first-years were almost buried in free food, much of it Chicago-style pizza. Freshman 15? That’s for those svelte West Coast colleges. Chicago seemed intent on delivering the Freshman 30. The two primary chains were Edwardo’s, which touted its “natural” pizza, whatever that means, and Giordano’s. Though the latter was and is my favorite, both chains made great pies, the likes of which I had never even imagined back home in San Diego. I mean, chunky tomato sauce covering the entire surface? Oh, you Midwesterners! Here is a spinach and sausage stuffed pizza from Giordano’s:
Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the photo to show scale aside from the laptop charger in the top left. I estimate that the pizza was about ten inches in diameter, and weighed at least a pound and a half. Yes, it was the “small.”
I don’t know if Giordano’s is the best pizza I’ve ever had. Bella Bacino’s on Wacker makes a strong case. (The reason I don’t qualify it as best “stuffed” pizza is because anyone who’s ever had stuffed pizza knows that other pizza styles are no longer contenders.) I do know that after I left Chicago and returned to my hometown, I longed for stuffed pizza and wished that some Chicagoan would have the gonads to take it national. In the too many years since I graduated from college, San Diego has seen the birth of at least three pizzerias that purport to make Chicago-style stuffed pizza. The most renowned, I suppose, is a sad joint called Lefty’s Chicago Pizzeria in the North Park neighborhood. When I first heard of them, I wore out a good pair of sneakers running over there to try their stuffed pie. It looks like the real thing. It even smells like the real thing. And then I tasted it.
Before you read on, know that I reserve graphic language only for occasions that genuinely demand that level of rancor. So I reluctantly but justifiably say that if I were a less stoic man, I would have thanked the chef by urinating on his creation and not shaking his hand. Yes, reader, I warned you that my words had acid. Frown on me if you must.
The other two stuffed shirts in town don’t fare much better, though they try their darnedest. My first conjecture was that the failure was in the ingredients. The cheese is the primary criminal in the San Diego pies. In Chicago, the cheese oozes out of the pie like high-calorie molten lava. In the imposter pies, the cheese is solid and congealed, with a texture similar to that sponge rubber they use to make sandals. I swear I saw unmelted strands of cheese once or twice, which is a scandal.
And then I thought, maybe we don’t have the right ovens in San Diego. Maybe the pizzas aren’t cooked hot enough or long enough. They do seem to take longer to make in Chicago. The quoted time for my small at Giordano’s was 50 minutes, but it ended up taking about an hour and 15. In San Diego, they can pop out a large in under 45 minutes.
And then I realized that I was just making excuses for these petty crooks. It wasn’t the cheese or the oven or something special in that Chicago River water. Ingredients and equipment are a big part of cuisine, but not nearly the whole. A great pizza is made by a great chef, and that’s what Chicago has that San Diego doesn’t. You don’t just pay a pimply high schooler 7 clams an hour to slap cheese and sauce on flat dough, then call it a pizza. Without the care and knowhow, you don’t get a Giordano’s.
Ode on a Grecian pie
Pictures of partially eaten food may become my signature. Here we have a delicacy that takes me way back and way far away to my study abroad days in Greece. Back in the old country, we called this a “zambonotyropita,” which means, “ham-cheese pie”:
In my traveling life, there have been a few unforgettable regional foods, including sweet pork jerky in Hong Kong, mandarin oranges in Japan, and stuffed pizza in Chicago (see above). These foods can be found in various bastardized forms elsewhere on the globe, even in San Diego. But after leaving Greece in the spring of 2000, I never again saw my beloved “pitas,” the multifarious pies made in those superb bakeries found all over the land of Homer. These are not American dessert pies or pizza pies, but more like a pastry.
Among these was the tyropita, a regular cheese pie, the milopita, a kind of apple pastry, and my favorite, the zambonotyropita, which had all the things that were good in the world: a thick slice of ham, melted cheese, and delicate and crispy yet soft phyllo dough. Back before this Euro nonsense, you could buy one of these golden oldies for about 300 drachmas (about a dollar), making it one of the best bargains in that entire sun-drenched nation.
Until now, I hadn’t seen this delicacy in the States, not even in Chicago’s Greektown, so imagine my surprise when I saw it in the food court at Chicago’s Midway Airport! The product is not exactly authentic; it uses diced ham instead of a slice, and the cheese is a little different, but as far as variants go, it’s pretty close to what I had in Greece, and it’s pretty delicious. The $6 price tag is pure American larceny, but what's a hungry Hellenist to do? I’m not sure I like the idea of having to make a special trip to Midway every time I’m in the mood for one, but I suppose it’s easier than flying to Greece.
The man of many ways
On my annual trips to Chicago, I always try to cram in as many activities as I can. I especially try to see the things I never got to see when I was a student, to do things I never seemed to have time for. Every year I make a list of things to do, and every year, I’m disappointed that I don’t complete it. We all have regrets when we leave college, and I look at these trips as a chance to make up for lost opportunities. I always feel like my Chicago experience is incomplete.
But this year, I realized that every year I come back, I do exactly what I most enjoyed doing in college: I walk around and run into things I didn’t expect to find.
Here is a picture from inside the newly completed Modern Wing of the Art Institute, looking at a glorious section of the Chicago skyline at night:
The long vertical lines of the window echo the lines of the skyscrapers, which surely was architect Renzo Piano’s intention. Perhaps the two reed-like statues in the left part of the frame are placed to emphasize the lines, as well. I’m the dark reflection in the middle of the photo, with my arm crooked. This is the only photo of me from my trip, which seems fitting, just another shadow passing through.
On my last day in Chicago, it rained. At last.