Well, it’s been a while, but never too late for some news from Chicago. It’s late February and it’s winter. And when it’s winter here, it snows. After living here for more than 30 years, snow has become part of this Pretoria boy’s life, whether he likes it or not. In the deep hours of the night, I will suddenly sit up in bed and realise the city has gone quiet. And I know it has started to snow. The sudden absence of big city noise as the large snowflakes drift down, covering the city like a large blanket, is really startling.
When this happens, I usually get up and wander through the dark, quiet house, marvelling at the strange world outside. After all these years, the magic hasn’t worn off. Not really dark, because the snowflakes do strange things to light as well. They refract the street lights, suffusing the house in an amber glow. And then, every 20 minutes or so, faint eerie blue lights dance on our kitchen walls. The Blue Line train to the airport rattles by on its elevated tracks about four blocks from our house and the sparks from its wheels on the wet tracks get projected all this way by the snowflakes. Think Batman movies and you get the picture.
Chicago shares the role of Gotham city with New York in the Batman movies, including the new one, which my son hauled me off to see a few days ago. I’m not a superhero fan but it was worth sitting through all the dark and brooding stuff just to see how amazing Chicago looked. Afrikaans boy in Gotham City, what the hell. Come to think of it, I’m probably enough of a sourpuss to make an excellent Batman villain.
So last night, in the deep dark hours, I suddenly found myself wide awake, staring at the ceiling. Except this time the cause of my sudden wakefulness wasn’t the silence of snow but an anxiety attack brought on by a text message from my editor inquiring about my next column. Oh god. I had been living in a state of denial, until I heard that ping on my phone yesterday afternoon.
My wife of course thinks this whole situation is funny and that I should see it as an exciting challenge. Give me a break. What do those good people living happily on the far southern tip of the African continent care about my culinary opinions. Eventually the ceiling started resembling a blank computer page so up I got and started roaming the dark house, waiting for inspiration to strike. Nothing. Nada. Meanwhile Hugo the puppy was lying on his puppy blanket, gleefully watching my every move. I think I mentioned before that his malevolent little eyes glow in the dark. And being the spiteful little hound that he is, he carefully chose his moment, and barked, waking my wife who wanted to know why I was scaring the puppy.
“I’m not scaring the bloody puppy. I am pacing the house seeking inspiration. That is not scaring the puppy.”
“Oh god. Give them a recipe. What’s the big deal?”
Sleepy mumble mumble. Right, like Jill even reads food columns. But before I could think of an apt reply, she was happily back in dreamland, leaving me scowling at fur face, who was grinning his doggy grin, ear to ear.
“Proud of yourself, you little runt?”
Well, an idea finally came to me the next morning while making toast. Or at least, trying to make toast. What the hell are all the bread bakers out there thinking lately? Why is everybody baking blob breads? And sourdough blob breads on top of it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for blobby breads. I’m the proud owner of not one but two Opinel No 8 pocket knives, purchased in France nogal, so I can go out there and hack chunks of crusty blob bread and dried sausages and sheep’s milk cheese with the rest of them. But not in the morning when all I want to do is make a slice of toast.
Same with sourdough. I like sourdough, but it has a time and a place. Sometimes it’s just too overpowering. It’s like when craft beer brewers discovered hops a few years ago. Now, every dough puncher out there is on a mission to bake only sourdough blobs. There are round blobs, oval blobs, elongated blobs, everything but, yep, you guessed. Rectangular blobs.
So a few days ago, there I was in a fancy supermarket trying to find a rectangular loaf of bread. I’m not talking about the whole aisle of packaged bread, the stuff that you can ball up into the size of a golf ball and then it jumps back into shape. That’s not bread.
I asked for help and the young woman just couldn’t figure out what I meant by a normal, rectangular bread, not a blob, but with a crust. Something that I can make toast with. And not sourdough. Why should that be so difficult. I remember as a kid back in Pretoria we used to get a pretty decent bread called a Rock and Roll loaf. Every afternoon after school I had to go to the corner café and get half a Rock and Roll for four and a half cents. To make up the five cents, I got Chappies bubblegum in change. Anyway, I didn’t burden the poor girl with my childhood memories and it seemed that she also finally understood what I was talking about.
“Oh, you mean a Pullman loaf.”
“Okay, what’s a Pullman loaf when it’s home?”
It did turn out to be sort of rectangular and I decided to give it a shot. Pullman loaf? First time I’ve heard of it. Everything has to be called something fancy these days. The dough punchers are becoming like craft brewers, acting like they just invented the wheel. I googled it once I got home. Sure enough, it’s a fancy name for a sandwich loaf. In the old days they used them in the Pullman railway cars because rectangular loaves took up less space in small train kitchens than round breads.
Why was I not surprised when my slice of Pullman loaf was way too big for my regular, standard sized toaster. I mean, really way too big. Have those knuckleheads not seen a toaster before? So I had to trim it down which is when I had my aha moment. I will write about my favourite kitchen gadget which at that moment I was using to scrape up the trimmings from the slice of Pullman loaf.
Brilliant, even if I have to say so myself. My favourite kitchen gadgets. Maybe I can do a whole series. The only problem is that I’m not a gadget guy. I only have one favourite gadget and its called a dough scraper. And I do use it every time I cook. Okay, it is called a dough scraper but it has a nice thick metal blade and you can scoop up anything with it. Anything you chop. It has a very sharp edge and the way it’s shaped allows it to scoop everything, leaving nothing behind. There’s nothing like it, trust me. If you have a small kitchen with limited counter space, this is the tool for you. Well, that’s it I suppose. A dough scraper.
And then of course, a day or two after I had this brilliant idea, and before I got around to taking a picture of it, its handle fell off. There goes my kitchen gadget idea. Then it struck me that I was being mean. I’m not going to abandon the poor little gadget just because its stupid handle fell off. What the hell. I decided to take its portrait anyway. Nothing a little super glue can’t fix.
But my budding career as an enthusiastic kitchen gadget reviewer wasn’t exactly off to a roaring start. No wonder I get anxiety attacks at three in the morning and scare the puppy. Reminder not to take myself too seriously.
Speaking of scaring the puppy, a few days ago, on my way home from work and picking up said puppy from daycare, I realised I was driving through a neighbourhood called Ukrainian Village. I mentioned in one of my first columns that a lot of Scandinavians, North and Eastern Europeans moved to Chicago in the 19th century and created very distinct neighbourhoods. They probably moved here because it’s too damn cold for anybody else.
And right slap bang in the middle of Ukrainian Village is a Russian Church. Not just a church, but the cathedral of the Russian Orthodox church in America. Strange, because Chicago has never had a large Russian immigrant population. The building itself is interesting, because it was designed by famous Chicago architect Louis Sullivan and funded by Tsar Nicholas II, the one and only. For a cathedral it is really small, because Sullivan based his design on the small wooden churches found on the Steppe.
What is even stranger is that in the early Nineties I worked on restoring the interior of the church every day for more than a year. At the time I had just started working for a mural painter who actually got the job but lost interest after a few weeks so he palmed it off on me and a guy called Darek, freshly arrived from Poland where he trained as a sign painter in the shipyards of Gdansk. I’ve never met anybody since capable of free handing perfectly straight lines. I’m good, but Darek made me look like a three-year-old.
The thing about Darek though was that like most Polish guys I’ve met here in Chicago, he had only one goal in life, and that was to earn enough money to buy a Harley Davidson. So he was happy to just chill, dream about his Harley and do what he was told.
Like all Russian Orthodox churches, every square inch of wall space was decorated but back in the Fifties or Sixties the parish painted over all the intricate stencilling designed by Sullivan, so I just made it up as we went along, designing and cutting all these elaborate 12-colour stencils, and there we were, and Afrikaans boy and a Polish boy, redecorating the church, from the blue dome with gold stars, all the way down to the baseboards. Every square inch.
We weren’t, however, allowed to restore the icons, because icons are considered to be sacred texts. For that the Bishop, Father Grigory, brought two young ordained icon painters from Russia, Sasha and Boris, neither of whom could speak or read a word of English, a smart move by Father Grigory because they couldn’t figure out how little he was paying them. What a crew we were.
There were three Polish delis within five minutes walk from the church so every lunchtime, Darek and I feasted on all kinds of Polish sausages and pierogi. Boris and Sasha only ate Kellogg’s Froot Loops, three times a day, apparently, with added sugar poured on top. They couldn’t get enough of that stuff. They slept in the storage room on fold-up stretchers and washed up in the church hall restrooms. Old Father Grigory wasn’t exactly Mr Hospitality.
They got paid a pittance and they spent it on the weirdest junk to take back to their families, like inflatable plastic pools and beach balls, all of which they proudly showed us when we showed up for work on Monday mornings. I suggested they stock up on Wonder Bread because they could ball them up and fit like 30 loaves in a sock. Then back in Russia, the breads would just bounce back to their original shape. Magic!
Mind you, I think Darek and I finally got through to them that old Father Grigory was taking them for a ride because one Monday morning we got to work and no Sasha and Boris. They probably demanded higher wages and got shipped back to Mother Russia. Hopefully they managed to stock up on Kellogg’s Froot Loops.
Hey, Boris and Sasha, wherever you are in this big wide world, I hope your inflatable pools and blow up beach balls didn’t get punctured and your Wonder Bread balls didn’t get confiscated.
Needless to say, the rest of the icons somehow managed to restore themselves, assisted by two Polish sausage munching heathens, one of them dreaming of Harleys. (Who, me?! Don’t look at me. I didn’t touch those saints. I’m from the southern suburbs of Pretoria. From Valhalla, to be precise. What do I know about saints and stuff like that.) And the good Father Grigory turning a blind eye, of course. Oh well.
In a way I was fortunate being dumped in that situation so soon after I arrived here. Many people living in Chicago are totally unaware of the cultural and culinary richness of all the little neighbourhoods. People live here for years and remain totally oblivious of what’s right under their noses. I mean, when I arrived here from South Africa, I had no clue what Polish food was. Since those early days I’ve retained a fondness for Polish and East European cooking, specially on snowy days. It’s true winter food.
Anyway, all this made me think of parsley. What’s the deal with flat leaf Italian parsley? Every recipe I read lately insists on flat leaf parsley. What’s wrong with good old-fashioned curly parsley? Not fancy enough? Not cool enough? Too “Sixties”? Italian parsley tastes like nothing and it looks wilted even before you heat it up, then it wilts even more. It sucks, as far as I’m concerned. On the other hand, curly parsley may be uncool but it has a wonderful fresh taste and keeps its crunch. I just don’t get it. What the hell. Now there’s a cooking tip! Don’t listen to those recipe writers. Be a devil. Walk on the wild side. Use curly parsley. I’ll leave you with that thought. Later, dudes, as they say here. DM/TGIFood
The author supports Isabelo, chef Margot Janse’s charity which feeds school children every day. Please support them here.