Originally published on YoungManhattanite.com (without “Baby, What a Big Surprise”) in May 2008 by D.E. Rasso. She has grown to actually like Chicago in the past six years.
Chicago: The City of Big Everything*
Wow, the testosterone is thick in here…I halfway expected ASCII penises in the columblr.
Yeah, so, Lauren and I went to Chicago for the immensely fun Pilcrow Lit Fest. Organizer Amy Guth is a truly lovely individual, more together than I’ll ever be, and come to find out she’s engaged, Krucoff, so please change your cellphone wallpaper; it’s making me uncomfortable. Also supremely cool is Leah Jones, who openly admitted to sort-of knowing you, Krucoff. I take it your rep hasn’t reached as far as Chicago. Another cool thing about Pilcrow: The benefit for the New Orleans Public Library System raised $4,000. Lauren has a nice rundown of who was there and what went on. I’m pretty sure that none of the YM readership cares about real, genuine stuff, hence the small text.
This is why I’m going to launch into my philippic about the total crime against humanity that is Midwestern Food. I would liked to’ve posted a photo of one of the 27 deep-fried and cheese-dipped meals we ate while there, but my phone doesn’t have a wide-enough lens. The only thing to eat in Chicago is cheese and meat. I did see a sushi bar when we were in Wicker Park, but who knows what they really served. I’m getting ahead of myself here, though.
We were whisked through security at LGA, LC and I, and hustled onto an earlier flight because there were extra seats and, being obsessives, she and I had gotten there four hours ahead of time. How fortuitous! This means we arrived in Chicago in time to eat a bonus meal. On our way from the airport, I pointed out what’s left of Cabrini Green and we then passed the intersection of Hooker and Division, which became our spiritual center, and every time we passed it—during one of our many cab rides, which were both necessary and absurdly expensive—we’d shout, “Hooker and Division!” Did you know that Chicago cab drivers love it when their passengers laugh in a disquietingly loud decibel range about how much Chicago sucks? It’s true.
So our first meal was at a “French bistro” where they served me a piece of quiche the size of a paving stone. In NYC, one orders a piece of quiche when one isn’t feeling all that hungry, or wants to appear dainty, or old. This quiche was taller than Gravity’s Rainbow, and twice as heavy. For our next meal, my dear friend Tom, who’s lived in Chicago too long to realize anymore how much his city fucking sucks, came and picked us up and took us to his house in Oak Park, which—if I am to guess from the density of Volvos and retrievers and utility strollers—is sort of like Park Slope, but with giant plates of food. OK, so we ate at a Mexican fusion joint (one of the two best meals of the trip, and—ironically—the one with the lowest cheese-to-meat ratio) where they brought us a quesadilla appetizer the size of a VW Beetle hood. I don’t recall the rest, but LC and I made a pact when we got home that night: No more appetizers.
The next day it was 45 degrees out. No shit. What the hell? I heard it was 80 and sunny all weekend in NYC. We literally had to go to the store and buy more clothing to wear. The Marshall’s in Lakeview has cheap socks. We had purchased a fare card for the Chicago transit system, and while the red line was serviceable, we decided that in general it felt like what NY would be like if there were only the 7 and G lines and you had to get to the Upper West Side. (Tom was unimpressed when we explained this to him. “OK, why don’t you assemble a steering committee of your best and brightest planners and come to Chicago and explain to us why everything is better in New York City because it’s always BROKEN,” he retorted. Whatever dude, we spent over $200 in cabs this weekend and we have the receipts to prove it.)
There’s this joke: How do you get a Midwestern chick to blow you? Dip it in ranch. And let me tell you, when you go to a restaurant and ask for a salad instead of fries with your cheese-and-meat bonanza, they bring you a salad, and a tureen of dressing. Because clearly you don’t want to miss out on those extra calories. Oh, and when we noticed a dude going at his sandwich like a sockpuppet, Tom explained that Mayor Daley makes all Chicagoans watch an instructional video that teaches you how to eat a sandwich the proper Chicago way: Like a duck. Lauren asked if the city’s motto was Nom nom nom.
"Fuck you, does NYC have a flag? Chicago has a flag."
"Yeah, what is it? A Dunkin Donuts napkin?"
We went to some Italian restaurant in Lakeview (the locus of the lit fest) that night with fellow attendees Jami Attenberg, Timothy Schaffert, Laural Winter, and special guest star Wendy McClure. The Midwesterners among us seemed genuinely apologetic about the size of their food, and offered lame excuses, but yet—yet—they still ordered appetizers. Which LC and I ate (grudgingly). For my entree, I got a four-lb chicken breast served on a bed of butter-poached spinach (and let me tell you, the few opportunities this weekend I was able to avail myself of greens, my digestive system fully rejected them almost immediately, like, “Holy fuck, what is this fiber she’s sending down here? Better dispatch that right away.” Did I mention that Chicago restaurant restrooms are a lot nicer than their NYC counterparts?). Laural was served a plate of pasta on A TURKEY PLATTER. No joke. (See this photo here? That beatific smile is me fantasizing about a high colonic.)
Pilcrow began the next morning and we swore we’d never eat again. And yet, we did. After the morning’s panels, LC, Timothy and I headed to a burger joint on N. Sheffield. I called Tom. “Yeah, we’re gonna go get some deep-fried cheeseburgers with cheese and meat sauce,” I told him.
"Ok, but just so you know, in Chicago we call that ‘oatmeal.’"
Another interesting thing about Chicago dining establishments is that their menus are absurdly extensive. You can order just about anything, provided it contains meat and/or cheese. At this restaurant, they had a “Light Bites” section, which included hot wings and something called “Sausage Salad.” We ordered burgers, because it turns out that if you want to order something other than that at this restaurant you have to have a note from your oncologist.
One of the optional burger toppings was Alfredo sauce.
When our burgers arrived, nestled between the deep-fried lettuce and tomato and the deep fried kaiser roll was a small casserole dish of what appeared to be apple crisp. “Why the hell is dessert on the same plate as the burger,” I demanded.
"Well, in the Midwest, that’s what’s known as salad, actually," Timothy explained.
Fair enough. Thankfully in Chicago, they serve drinks in industrial-size paint buckets, because we laughed so hard during our lunch that I pert near choked to death on more than one occasion. (And I was worried that the waitress would interpret my frantic waving/death rattles as a demand for more cheese sauce.)
That night, Lauren and I ate pralines dipped in ranch for dinner, and a late-night snack of melted cheese slapped between two pieces of country ham. Nom nom nom. The next morning, we went to a diner where “Biscuit” on the menu translates to “Multiple Biscuit(s)” on one’s plate.
Another thing that’s strange (read: inferior to NYC) about Chicago is that it seems to be stuck in some 1998 time warp, fashion-wise. All the boutiques (and there are a ton of them, and they’re all called things like Monkey Jive and Big Bad Voodoo T-shirt Emporium and Super Mod 1999) sell creepers and bowling shirts and the chicks all have plastic plugs in their ears and the dudes all seem to have really interesting facial hair. When we passed Monkey Jive in the cab, I remarked to LC, offhandedly, that I didn’t think Swingers was such a bad movie, and she agreed, adding, “Swingers is an extraordinary snapshot of LA in 1992. And Chicago in 2008.”
Our 1998 wrinkle in time theory was confirmed when noticed a discarded flier advertising a Local H show. I didn’t even know Local H still existed. It reminded me of elementary school, when you set off a helium balloon with your address tied to it and you hope that someone four towns over finds it and writes to you. Do you think I should write to Local H to say that someone finally found their balloon?
After one last $900 cab ride (at one point, Lauren looked at the meter and was like, Jesus, is that in American dollars?) we arrived at O’Hare and impetuously decided to buy a first-class upgrade. First class is not really first class anymore, given that it’s essentially six rows of people just like me who opted to buy a last minute upgrade (or cashed in their frequent flier miles), but let me tell you, it’s so nice to have unlimited mini-bottles of bourbon and a fully reclining seat. Plus, if we hadn’t been in first class, I’d have missed the guy two rows ahead of me, who spent the first half of the flight reading Emily Gould’s article and the second half of the flight staring intently at her photo on the cover, first right-side up, then turning it sideways, as though it were a Playboy centerfold.
Aaaaaaaaaaaand we’re back.
*Originally the title of this post was gonna be “Chicago: The
Atlanta Albuquerque of the Midwest,” but that seems too cruel, even to me, in retrospect.