Food 2017

2017 was monumental. The best part has been watching my little guy grow into a person with language and preferences. As you can see in the pic above, he’s got good taste in quesadillas.

2017 was monumental. The best part has been watching my little guy grow into a person with language and preferences. As you can see, he’s got good taste in quesadillas.

Where we’re at

If there was one thing I ingested a lot of this year, it was media. Unfortunately, not enough of it was about food. In the sea of political hysteria, a culinary 140 characters here and there was often enough to take my mind off of environmental crisis, nuclear threat, the dissolution of truth, and roiling social hostility, if for just a sec.

Food is a great diversion and a soothing comfort.

On the other hand, food writing seems kind of indulgent to me with so many bigger issues to talk about. But everything is political. Including food. So while I won’t go full on think piece-y on you, this here food blog can’t help itself but address the mess we’re in.

Nation of Immigrants

Right out of the gates, business mixed with politics– my first catering gig of the year focused on a menu featuring foods of the predominantly Muslim countries on DT’s travel ban list– Iraqi kebabs, Yemeni braised lamb shanks, Iranian roasted eggplant spread, Syrian semolina cake, etc.

At the bottom of the post, I’ve included my version of Mirza Ghasemi, that aforementioned Iranian eggplant dish.

Cultural appropriation be damned, I say we learn the customs of these so-called enemies. I am for an America of immigrants, a cultural brew of diverse peoples, most of whom came to this country seeking the same basic liberties as many of our ancestors, whether German, Mexican, or Pakistani.

In April, I published a little guide book to Chicago’s rich tapestry of immigrant eateries which, I hope in its small way, encourages its readers to leave their comfort zones and embrace unfamiliar cultures. I make the case for cultural understanding through food over and over again, but there’s another wholly American motivation for patronizing immigrant-owned eateries– spending money to bolster small businesses. Putting money into local economies and supporting families trying to make the dream work for them, some of whom might have people back home in Yemen or Myanmar that need their help.

Here’s a handful of new (to me) immigrant-owned spots that can be addenda to my book:


White Pearl

Shout outs to Leela “SheSimmers” Punyaratabandhu, the internet’s consummate English language Thai food blogger and cookbook author who keeps an awesome Instagram account. She eats everywhere from Bangkok to Wheaton. It turns out she’s got family out near where we live in the west burbs, so I’m always paying attention to where she eats out this way. White Pearl in Elgin, one of the area’s only Lao restaurants, had been on my radar for years, but a post by Leela helped motivate me to finally get there. They offer a menu of Ameri- Thai staples which seem plenty popular with the locals. But, of course, we’re there for the real deal and order extra funky and tomato-y Lao style papaya salad, salty sweet beef jerky, garlicky Lao sausages, and a rather challenging salad– rare beef lap seasoned with beef bile. It’s bracingly bitter, but also complexly herbaceous, sour, and hot. Thank you Elgin, taste buds blown.

 265 S McLean Blvd, Elgin, IL 60123

Hong Ning

I spied this strip mall spot opening up last year across from the pretty great supermarket I shop at, Angelo Caputo’s in Carol Stream. Perhaps slower to catch on to the American imagination than say Thai, Filipino food can be hard to approach, even though a lot of it is meat centric with familiar flavors that skew pretty mild, influenced by the island’s history of both Spanish colonizing and American occupation (just check out the fervor over the Jollibee fast food chain famous for middle-of-the-road fried chicken and sweet red sauced spaghetti.) Hong Ning, on the other hand, offers some of the bolder flavors I’ve had from Pinoy cuisine– many dishes seasoned with Cameo-level funky shrimp paste and grilled meats heavily marinated in fragrant calamansi juice. The portions are huge and the menu is vast, but fortunately this gem is on my weekly path.

598 E North Avenue, Carol Stream, IL 60188


Aloha Wagon

A tip of the hat here to my bud Titus Ruscitti, aka King T, aka chibbqking, a man who I can say with certainty, gets to more places than anyone else writing about food in Chicago. The affable owners of this place relocated their Honolulu food truck to a cute octagonal shop at the low key, yet conspicuous location of Western at Ogden (not immigrants, though geographically & culturally Hawaii is smack dab in the middle of America & Asia.) Hawaiian food might be on the cusp of a moment, ushered in by the poké trend of the past few years. However, there’s much more to explore, Hawaiian’s a mashup of native staples like poi, pork, and fish; Japanese, Korean, and Filipino flavors; and a way with remixing mainland staples like Spam into nigiri (called musubi), burger patties piled on rice covered in gravy (called loco moco), and macaroni salad served next to rice with just about everything. Aloha Wagon takes their fusion a step further by appealing to the locals with tacos and sandwiches featuring island fillings. I’ve stuck with their more traditional offerings like kahlua pork which is super tender and surprisingly smoky and the undoubtedly Japanese chicken katsu, fried brittle- crisp, while juicy af inside. Fortunately, the very Hawaiian format of “plate lunch” lends itself to combos stacked up in traditional Styrofoam to-go containers, so you can sample a few things with each visit.

1247 S Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60608


I will lament the impending death of the West Loop in a sec, but there was at least one good thing that happened there this year, the opening of an outpost of the Roman pizza shop, Bonci. True to its zipcode, the media has been all about this place and the lines wrap along the building. I’m a big fan of the oily, crisp-on-the-bottom, thick, rectangular cut, sheet pan cooked, Roman style pizza. My go-to in Chi has always been the underrated rendition at D’Amatos. Bonci elevates the form though– uncharacteristically ethereal crust, crisp, and light as air, literally a matrix of super leavened air pockets. I love the organic nature of the ordering process, you never know what you’re going to get– they offer hundreds of topping variations, which seem to be prepared almost improvisational-ly, so European! Some are topped with fancy charcuterie and you’ll find combos with unusual (to us) toppings like scrambled eggs and bean purees. I gotta say though, my fave is the pomodoro, bright tomato sauce with a pinch of nutmeg, a judicious sprinkle of cheese, some herbs, and that celestial crust!

161 N Sangamon St, Chicago, IL 60607


A Place by Damao

This was an Instagram find, a post by strangefoodschicago, an “influencer”, whose taste I don’t always agree with (though who deserves much credit for his championing of Asian mom-and-pops.) Bridgeport is increasingly becoming a new Chinatown, with new eateries popping up and down Halsted. Unlike the OG dive in the hood, Ed’s Potsticker House, APbD is very millennial in its aesthetic (though still kinda divey) with cute design and a young clientele. This was the favorite new food I ate this year. They offer Chengdu- style street food, with an emphasis on bony, gelatinous off cuts of chicken, pig, and duck dressed in fiery Sichuan seasonings. I fucks with duck tongue, tho I didn’t think I fucks’ed with pig feet. But hot damn– those joints encased in jiggly skin and cartilage encasing meaty bits. So much gelatin that napkins are embarrassingly decimated by sticky fingers, though on my last trip they were served with plastic gloves! Damao also offers much more poised offerings such as spicy soft bean curd, as dainty as a good Japanese chawanmushi (but with chile oil and crispy soybeans.) And the best thing– the ambiguously named “wantons in hot soup”– supple dumplings filled with pork and veg bobbling beneath the surface of volcanic liquor electrified with Sichuan peppercorn. The future is Chinese. The future is Bridgeport.

2621 S Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60608


The Family House

Burmese cuisine is one of those holy grails to foodies (especially in Chicago, which up until now lacked a restaurant.) I’ve been thinking hard on that since I wrote about a pilgrimage we took to Fort Wayne, IN, where there is a Burmese population, on my top ten of 2015. The stuff is the definition of peasant food– it’s noodles and beans, not much meat, fresh vegetables. Not exactly cosmopolitan restaurant cuisine. Which brings me to Burma Superstar in San Francisco (where I first ate Burmese ten years ago.) I’m pretty sure we can blame their two hour waits for the fetishization of this food. Okay, all that off my chest, it is delicious stuff, with huge fermented flavors and intriguing creamy textures to make the most out of humble ingredients.

The Family House is a young, Muslim owned storefront, in the midst of the thick Desi economy on Devon. They live up to their best name ever, often full of families, cutie little ones running around. The owners hail from Myanmar and Malaysia, so they serve both cuisines. Malaysian is also under-represented in Chi, so double yay. Prices are eyebrow-raising-ly cheap (so much so, I hope they can stay open), everything is $5 or less! Their food is brightly flavored and eye-opening from the funky/rich fish noodle stew, mohinga, to a heavily sour version of the classic tea leaf salad, to paradigm-shifting, moist charred chicken satay with a rustic, aromatic peanut sauce that yup, will realign your opinion of this cliché 90s catering staple. Anyway, I really want this place to succeed, foodie fetishes be damned, so please make the trip to Devon and check them out!

2305 W Devon Ave, Chicago, IL 60659



Like Family House, I discovered this place on my old stomping grounds,, which has seen a bit of a drop off in traffic in the past few years, but surged with a handful of excellent discoveries later in the year. A long time poster, Habibi, shined the light of day on this hole in the wall. With its drab exterior and faded signage, Pakeeza has been hiding in plain sight on a windswept stretch of Orleans north of Chicago populated by a host of dingy eateries serving the multicultural coalition of the city’s cab drivers.

If not my very favorite tastes of the year, this certainly ranks as the best eating experience. They serve a limited menu of rotating Northern Indian/ Pakistani classics. Orders are placed by the whole or the half, though the main difference seems to be how high the platter is stacked with their best-in-city crackly-in-spots, chewy-in-others naan bread, each of which is about the size of a medium pizza. The cooking can be inconsistent. Frontier chicken, a Pakistani BBQ classic, chile-dyed-red morsels of chicken thigh, is succulent with slightly charred edges when cooked fresh, though sometimes you get a dry, likely-reheated batch. The bhindi might be heavily spiced with cinnamon on one outing, but under seasoned the next. It doesn’t make sense why the palak gosht would hardly taste like curry one day, but a similar goat stew would be popping with fresh ginger and mundu chiles the next.

Whether the food is excellent on your visit or merely pretty good, you will find the experience of eating at Pakeeza transporting. The place serves as a community center, of sorts, for Chicago’s Muslim cab drivers (seemingly hailing from the entirety of the Middle Eastern/ North African Diasporas.) One glaring thing you will notice is the absence of women. I’m not going to make guesses to answer why, but I’ve brought women friends who are greeted warmly and made to feel welcome. Its not just a place for fueling up, the guys post up in this place, settling in for games of checkers, reading Arab language newspapers over rounds of creamy chai, or shooting pool. There is even a mosque in the basement– if you happen to be there at prayer times, most of the clientele head downstairs. The sink is separated from the toilets at a station in the dining room. I make sure to respect the custom of washing my hands before I eat. This might all sound intimidating. Though in my visits, every exchange of words or eyes with staff and patrons alike (especially the staff), have been incredibly warm. This place helped me feel grounded in dark times this year and renewed my faith in transcending cultural differences.

1011 N Orleans St, Chicago, IL 60610


Running Through the 6

Nothing takes the edge off the anxiety of looming xenophobia like a trip up to our friendly, liberal neighbors to the north. Especially the melting pot that is Toronto. We have family up there and in June we packed up the car with the windows down, Comey hearing blasting. I’ve been three times now and while family obligations typically dominate our short trips, we always take a (much needed) day to ourselves to explore and indulge my global eating checklist. As is increasingly the case everywhere, the burbs are where newer waves of immigrants are settling, so we often brave traffic to head to far flung hamlets name dropped in Drake songs like Markham or Missausauga for Taiwanese beef noodle soup or Pakistani BBQ (the latter of which was one of the best meals I’ve had in my life in a run-down converted fast food hut called Bar B Q Tonite).

This summer, we stayed in a charming af artsy/hippie Air Bnb in the St Clair West neighborhood. We got in late and perused the handy neighborhood guide that the hosts had provided. Within a two block walk we had a chicken piri piri spot, a Persian place, a jerk chicken spot, and the common sight of Northern Chinese dumplings rolled to order in the front window of a store front. Decisions, I love all of those things! But the piri piri spot looked so real deal with its sooty rotisserie and Portuguese football regalia. The bird was just okay, but cheap and satisfying for our road-worn souls.

On our one free day, we fought the 401 out to Scarborough to check out roti at a joint I’d read good things about called Mona’s, a bustling storefront in a totally nondescript industrial court park off the highway. Trini food, which is under represented in Chicago, has complex creole lineage blending native Caribbean, African, Indian, and Chinese traditions. The patrons, snaking in a line around the tiny storefront reflected this multi-cultural pedigree, beautiful faces of all sorts. There was an army of women running the place, rolling out roti, tending to bubbling cauldrons of spicy brews, and taking orders. I love this food when I can get my hands on it– spicy, aromatic, and addictive. Goat roti and doubles (fried roti wrapped around curried chick peas) were on order. We took the food to go and ate it at a lovely park surrounded by families from all over the place.


What Would Grandma Do?

I’ve been learning to loosen up with the always from scratch/seasonal/farm-to-table ethos. I do like to put the best things on the table for the fam on the day-to-day. But when its party time, indulgence transcends righteousness. Salt, sugar, and fat all have their place and even mass produced ingredients can be integral to party foods.

In my Ox-Bow days we had a saying “What Would Grandma Do?” and for those of us with grandmas of the Great Depression & post-war eras, that often meant employing cheap convenience foods like canned mushroom soup. Following the “WWGD” credo over the years, I’ve learned that even great soul food mac-and-cheese recipes often use Velveeta. Spanish rice? Not the same without MSG-laden Goya Sazón. Liquid smoke, Pillsbury crescent roll tubes, Crisco, all of this stuff is integral, authentic even, to party food.

One of our biggest catering hits this year was definitely not something my grandma would make– Thai fish cakes, Tod mun pla. The inimitable SheSimmers has a great recipe that features two mass-produced ingredients, this crazy packaged fish paste and canned red curry paste, vouched for as the most authentic-tasting substitutes to hard- to-find Thai ingredients. The canned paste has that restaurant-authentic sweet heat and the bizarro smooth fish slurry, full of stabilizers and binders, gave it that appropriate squeaky/bouncy texture. Not stuff I would cook at home on a weeknight, but when its time to party, we will party hard!

Speaking of what grandma would do– my Grandma Tillie was a tremendous cook and she made this pumpkin pie that was unlike any that I’ve ever eaten then or since. Light as air, a chiffon to be exact, ethereally poised upon a dense buttery substrate of crushed ginger snap crust. And that simple crust always led me to believe it must have been one of those convenient 50s-y recipes. But no, this is no easy pie. There’s gelatin to bloom, meringue to fold in. After some failed attempts in the past, I did her legacy right for a dinner party in November. Jump to the bottom of the post for the recipe.

Generally, I overcame my aversion to baking this year, especially honing my pastry skills. I’d always dismissed baking as too methodical for my preferred intuitive ways of working, but there is a sense of touch that is essential to good pastry, a tactical knowledge beyond measures and scales. Getting your hands on the dough, you can feel for consistency. It’s easy to over mix with a machine. I like to pinch that butter in, but not too much, gotta have those pockets of butter for that flaky good good. This biscuit recipe was a go-to for a perfect application of the feel-for-it method.


A handful of dear-to-me institutions have closed this year:

Lucky Peach

My favorite food mag called it a day this year after a whirlwind, but content-rich six years. There was a lot to love, long form food writing from some of the best in the biz. Each issue had a theme, which would cover big issue stuff like gender equity & environmental impact alongside goofy things like frozen chicken nugget taste offs. The Gender, Apocalypse, & Gender & All You Can Eat issues were my faves. There was fiction. And A+ art direction. The occasional drift into bro-chef culture, but often sharing page time with some of my favorite women cookbook authors like Andrea Nguyen and Fuchsia Dunlop (that dick soup piece!)

Here’s a quick list of my other favorite things they did: Kevin Pang held it down for Chi-town with shout outs to tips & links, a piece about my favorite nearby suburban food mall Korean stall, hanbun, and an incredible long form about prison food at Westville prison in NW Indiana; cyanotypes of the foods of LA; learning the difference between southern & northern styles of phở; the in-depth international guides to stuff like breakfast, fried chicken, & sausages; phatty eggrolls on Dead lot; bunny chow; the quest for more easily digestible pizza; those old Korean lady shellfish divers; Mark Ibold from Pavement writing about Lancaster PA in every issue; eating at swinger parties; hermaphrodite sea creatures; cooking invasive species; interview with Martin Yan “Can Cook”; and Jonathan Gold & Robert Sietsema rapping what makes American food.



I started working in the West Loop in 1999 as an apprentice mosaic maker. The area was then in its nascent stage as a hot spot for restaurants and art galleries. Our studio was based out of my boss’s apartment on the second floor of 119 N Peoria, a building that a few years later would become a major art world hub where many friends ran, worked for, and showed at galleries. The studio I worked for made a bunch of mosaics for Red Light, which was probably the 2nd fancy restaurant on Randolph (after Marché.) As poor, young art students, we couldn’t afford to eat at those places. There were two spots we frequented, a dingy grill called S&S at Green on Randolph and a cheery Mexican spot at Peoria, Perez.

At that point in my budding foodie-ism, Perez was about as good as it got. On the table with chips, they offered this salsa negra, which to this day I’ve never been able to reverse engineer (La Pasadita makes a similar version.) Just a kiss of smoke, it was really rather bright and fresh tasting, just the best. I’ve always loved huevos dishes and Perez made my favorite in town, machacado con huevo, which is common in Mexico but not so much in taquerias in Chicago. Most versions employ a chewy, reconstituted beef jerky, which is tasty, but Perez used a pleasantly stringy but tender beef, almost like a ropa vieja. And big old chunks of hot jalapeño. It was my go-to order for 18 years! They did a few other things well– I ate my first goat birria tacos there, which still tasted pretty good on a recent visit to my now birria-sophisticated palate. Seafood was always fresh, shrimp in particular in ceviche or a big bowl of caldo.

Mostly, though, they were a serviceable gringo-type spot slinging big plates of cheesy enchiladas and burritos suizos and margs galore. The perfect post gallery-hopping haunt. As I got around more, I knew there was better stuff out there, but Perez remained a convenient stalwart. Even after prices jacked up, it was still the cheapest spot around there to grab a bite and a drink.

Alas, development took hold of the neighborhood. Every restaurateur with the capital opens there. Google, the fancy hotels. Many of the galleries my friends ran were edged out for tenants paying higher rents. At this point, I can’t even handle parking around there. RIP West Loop.

Perez was there 33 years. I tried to chitchat with the owner on my last visit and he seemed more than ready to go. He told me “never get into this business.” Sage advice from a veteran of the hottest restaurant neighborhood in the city.


John’s Buffet

John’s was originally going to be on my list for the-thing-I-ate-the-most this year– their Buffalo wings. It was really the only good thing they made (some decent 80s style bar nachos too) and rivaled the best versions in the city (though terrible blue cheese, Hidden Valley was the move.)

So I got a devastating text a few weeks back– this 96 year old institution in my adopted home town was closing its doors by Christmas. The land was bought by the neighboring hospital, known to the locals as a land-grabbing behemoth.

If you check out the Wikipedia page for Winfield, IL, this, the oldest tavern in DuPage County, is mentioned in the 2nd paragraph. John Karwoski, the first of three generations of namesakes, “was instrumental in the political and economic development of Winfield, and it was his guidance and leadership that took a fledgling prairie town clinging to existence after the railroad boom went bust, and turned it into a viable and livable village.” He was literally a founding father of the town.

When we were touring our future-house for the first time, our realtor mentioned a charming pub downtown with a great patio. So after a day of house hunting, we returned to Winfield to cruise past the cute mint green ranch one more time and have a beer at John’s to mull things over. We were pretty charmed by the divey old tavern that anchored the cute downtown. It was a factor, we bought the house.

John’s was a beer place with a rotating list of over a dozen drafts going. Quite an amazing tap for a village of 9000. The always-friendly bartender Jon typically had the new wave Pandora station playing and was great to banter with about records over woozy late night rounds of Underberg.

Their patio was a highlight of my summers. Craft beer in hand, looking out on our cute downtown with the Smiths playing, paradise. And two blocks from the house! And kid friendly! An added bonus, the patio had a great view of the traintracks for my train-obsessed toddler. The place was indispensible to cut the cabin fever after a long day with the tyke.

Our small town life will be a bit less idyllic without John’s.



Mirza Ghasemi

I learned how to make this from the partner of an Iranian artist, Ali Chitsaz, who I worked with at Roots & Culture. It is traditionally made with eggs, though I often skip this to make a vegan meze. I also add roasted red peppers, which I am not sure are traditional.

Olive oil

1 eggplant

1 large tomato

2 cloves garlic

1 red pepper (optional)

1 egg, beaten (optional)

Slather oil over all the veg and roast at 425 for 20-30 minutes, or until the eggplant has charred on both sides. Peel everything. Mash with a fork until chunky smooth. You might want to finely chop the pepper. A food processor works too. Depending on how long you roasted things, you might want to cook it down some more to make it thicker. Add a bit of oil to a shallow pot and simmer on low until you’ve reached a thick consistency. If adding eggs, you will want the mix in a pan on low heat. Make shallow pits in the surface of the mix with a spoon or your fingers. Pour in the eggs, put a lid on the pot. Without stirring, cook until the eggs are set.

Serve with crusty bread.

Grandma Tillie’s pumpkin chiffon pie

1 tbsp knox gelatin

¼ cup cold water

Mix these two and set aside.

Pumpkin filling:

¾ cup brown sugar

½ tsp salt

2 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp ginger

½ tsp allspice

1 1/3 cups mashed pumpkin

½ cup milk

3 large egg yolks

Cook the filling ingredients over low heat until the mixture boils. Boil 1 minute. Stir in the gelatin mixture and cool. You can stick it in the fridge to hasten cooling.

Make meringue with:

3 egg whites, 6 tbsp sugar, and ¼ tsp cream of tartar. Beat together until stiff peaks form. Carefully fold into the cooled pumpkin mixture. Refrigerate.


1 ¼ cups of fine ginger snap crumbs

¼ cup melted butter (1/2 stick)

Mix together, spread evenly in a pie tin. Bake the crust at 325 for 10 minutes and cool. Then fill the pie. Refrigerate until served.


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Easy Eats Catering

EasyEatsweb1I cater! I would love to help you host your next party with inventive, festive, and delicious chow! I do a wide range of stuff– from appetizer menus and party foods like tacos and Chicago dogs starting in the $10/per person range up to five course dinners and cocktails (in the $50/ per person range). I’ve done weddings & rehearsals, cocktail parties, open houses, birthdays, cookouts, lunch meetings, fundraisers, conferences and symposiums, you name it, no group is too big or small! Leave the menu planning to me– I have set menus to work from and am enthusiastic about theme parties. I’ve done far out and arty, conceptual menus (peruse this blog!) so if you’re down for something that will leave your guests talking, I’m your chef! I also offer rentals at my gallery, Roots & Culture in Wicker Park, so I can even provide the venue! Contact me (Eric May) at (773) 580-0102 or

Hearty apps

Hearty apps

Crawfish boil!

Crawfish boil!

Duck confit flautas

Duck confit flautas

Sichuan mushroom salad

Sichuan mushroom salad

Smoked brisket!

Smoked brisket!

Thai extravaganza

Thai extravaganza

Yeah, you know me...

Yeah, you know me…

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World Town: Global Eats in Chicago


World Town: Chicago is a carefully curated guide to eating (and shopping) the best of international cuisine in Chicago. With 64 profiles of restaurants spanning Korean to Peruvian, West Roger’s Park to Bridgeview, grocers categorized by culture, and more. This book was the natural evolution of a “secret” list of spots that Eric has kept for over 12 years that he would share on request with friends and family. Now this hidden knowledge has been unlocked!

$8.40 + $1.60 shipping. Pickup can be arranged with Eric at ericcmay at gmail dot com.

Buy your copy HERE (please be sure to enter shipping details on Paypal)

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Food 2016

The fam at MingHin

The fam at MingHin

In my Top 10 food list last year I warned that the 2016 edition might consist of nothing more than baby food recipes. The little guy just started eating in November, and I can sum up the past month of infant cookery for you real quick: I puree cooked vegetables, so far he likes sweet potatoes, peas, peas mixed with spinach, and carrots. And he loves it– he gets super excited, waving his arms up and down, jumping in place a little, grunting and laughing.

So what’s become of the top 10? Well, priorities have obviously shifted. I’m eating out less, traveling less, thinking about food less. My relationship to the internet is changing too. Again, less time, but also the election season just wore me the fuck out, 720 degrees of opinions, bogus or otherwise, social media has especially become a toxic waste dump, I’m over it (except you Instagram :)) It’s hard to filter good chat out of all that noise and I have reached a saturation point for commentary about much of anything. And I’ve been at a loss to indulge in writing about pleasure as I’ve grappled with more urgent feelings.

Well, we did have to eat though, so here’s a slightly-shorter-than-usual, not ranked recap of things I ate that made me happy this year.

What I’ve been cooking (other than baby food)

I eat breakfast now! Yeah its a having-a-kid thing. I’m up by 7. Only two years ago I was more of a 9 o’clock guy, at that time of day it usually took my metabolism a few hours to get warmed up and by then it was time for lunch. Breakfast food is one of my least favorite food groups (except big egg-y plates, but to me thats lunch by a different name)– I can’t stand bananas, fruity yogurt, milk, coffee and generally don’t prefer sweet foods, so no brown sugar in my oats, I’ll pass on granola, even most fruit doesn’t have a place in my diet. So I have to get creative and go savory– I treat my oats like congee or risotto: stirring in sesame oil and scallions or grated parm, topped with a fried egg. When I need big protein, its black beans and an egg. I also love that thin German pumpernickel packed with seeds with a schmear of cream cheese. Now I get hungry again by 10:30 and sometimes need a second breakfast.

I have a pretty locked down rotation during the week– low carb, veggie packed soups and salads. More often than not these dishes feature that much-maligned basic bitch of the protein world, boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Jessica wisely sears them like a steak, locking in the juices. I’ve come around and here’s a couple things I do with chicken:


Marinades are your friend when cooking boneless chicken. I’ve come up with a pretty mean shish tawook (chicken kebab) marinade for boneless skinless chicken:

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken (breast or thigh) cut into 1.5” cubes


The juice of one lemon

½ cup plain yogurt (with some fat in it, go Greek, at least 2 percent)

2 tbsp. tomato puree (optional)

1 tbsp. minced garlic

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. black pepper

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. oregano

1 tsp. ground allspice

½ tsp. ground cinnamon

Marinate chicken cubes 6 hours to overnight. Thread onto skewers and chargrill (preferred) or broil, then serve with grilled veggies, rice, and hot sauce (preferably homemade shatta or harissa).

Another favorite chicken marinade this year was my spin on this jerk chicken recipe by Serious Eats’ resident mad scientist, J. Kenji López-Alt. I use halved whole chickens here. I smoke the bird with my Weber Smokey Mountain using lump charcoal and cherry wood (pimento wood would be authentic. López-Alt’s complicated things by placing bay leaves and allspice berries directly on the coals, but I skip this). I smoke at a relatively high heat (as I prefer for chicken) 260-275 for about two hours. And I reduce all the leftover marinade into a high octane dipping sauce. Lord have mercy!


My creative cooking practices have taken a back seat with my new juggle, though I was able to conceptualize a few meals with kindred spirits. In August I worked with Roots & Culture’s first curatorial resident, Risa Puleo on a healing themed dinner. I contributed a Traditional Chinese Medicine-inspired soup featuring dried Chinese cloud ear and black funguses. I have a newfound appreciation for these mild-flavored, yet gelatinously crunchy ingredients, a textural thing prized by East Asian cuisine that hasn’t quite yet translated to Western palates.


My catering side hustle also kept me busy. I must have smoked over 100 pounds of brisket this year, mostly served Texas BBQ style, but also snuck into flaky emapanadas oozing with Chihuahua cheese. While I had my smoker out, I’d smoke portabella shrooms as a vegetarian alternative, though I found they really shine when employed as a filling for fluffy corn-y tamales. I’m big on corn season, so esquites was a staple on the menu for caters and entertaining on our deck in the summer months. How I do: roast corn and poblano peppers (maybe 1 pepper per 3-4 cobs), cut the corn off the cob and finely dice the peeled peppers, dress with mayo and a little lime, with a couple of glugs of Tapatio and a good sprinkle of pungent cotija cheese.

New to the ‘burban rotation

I was pretty stoked to find a breadth of diverse eating options when we first moved out west. I was really on the beat last year, but fell off, again due to less time (sick of hearing this yet?). And after exhausting many mediocre options, we’ve fallen into a rotation, though there have been a few promising additions this year.

A nice supplement for weekend brunch is dim sum at the Naperville outpost of MingHin Cuisine. The food is fine to good, nothing earth-shattering. Occasionally the dumpling wrappers bottom out. Though there can be on dishes like dead simple smoky fried sticky rice popping with little dried shrimpies or unctuous brisket and rice noodle rolls replete with gelatinous tendon bits. Its all about the vibe though– the space is downright palatial, all hardwood and polished stone, I even like the art. Seated at one of their private booths, it has an almost spa-like feel that transports worlds away from the harsh strip mall sprawl of Naperville.


While I might not be proud to admit this, we’ve found a place for certain chains in our mix. Of course there’s the two-piece spicy with those goddamned-good rice and beans from Popeye’s for my often-boozy late night Metra rides home. The big discovery was Jet’s Pizza. I was clued in by the ever-erudite Mike Sula during his round up of the recent Detroit-style pizza fetish spreading around Chicago. Damn though, that greasy, well-leavened crust with a corona of well-caramelized cheese. This chain has a leg up on about 90% of any Chicago style deep dish.

And finally, speaking of the commute, I have my spots that I hit to and from the city when I drive. My true love is Katy’s Dumpling House in Westmont, which should need no introduction. So it pains me a little to get off the Midwest Road exit to visit a new mistress. I was tipped off to Hanbun by the Trib’s Nick Kindelsperger (mad respect for the legwork this guy puts in on a story) where a fine dining vet was cooking elevated Korean-classics in a dusky food court. He and his wife also serve a tasting menu after-hours with a modernist spin on traditional ingredients, though I have yet to check this out. But the daytime menu also speaks to chef Dave Park’s attention to technique– balancing warm, rich flavors with cool, crisp compliments, all well-dressed with garnishes. Their black bean noodles are first rate, homey comfort food with complex depth. Their pork belly buns rival Momofuku’s with a coffee glaze and house kimchi. This place truly is a diamond in the rough and I’m curious to see if they stick it out at the obscure location (which makes me feel like an initiate in a secret club that, sometimes, we suburban gastronomes deserve.)

Pork bun at Hanbun

Pork bun at Hanbun

Return to the food court

One of the most hyped openings in Chicago this year was Revival Food Hall located downtown on Clark Street. The line up is a who’s who of hip, casual, cheffy eateries from around town, though frankly it’s easier for me to get to each of their neighborhood flagship spots. So, I haven’t actually made it there yet, though one of the best things I ate all year was a sandwich from Danke, a spin off of Logan Square’s Table, Donkey, & Stick, that happens to be managed by my buddy (and one of my favorite artists in town) Tegan Brace. She was kind enough to treat me to a doggy bag of a few of their sandwiches constructed from all house-made ingredients from the charcuterie down to the bread. The standout was the “Secret Sandwich”, topped with (among other things): creamy duck liver mousse, smoky German bacon, and lily-gilding smoked pickled onions.

Ogilvie Transportation Center offers more than late night Popeye’s. Their French Market makes for a pretty convenient stop to grab lunch to-go when I’m commuting inbound. Fumare is destination-worthy for their unique-to-Chicago Montreal smoked meat (pastrami)– succulent, fatty, smoky meat on perfect rye bread. Poke, in this case, a sort of Hawaiian chirashi, was a big trend this year and Aloha Poke Company led the charge at Ogilvie (they also have a location in Revival). The Chipotle-esque format doesn’t quite make for a dish that’s more than the sum of its parts, but those parts offer a healthful and flavor-packed lunch of rice, raw fish and vegetal toppings.

Food courts have their place in the bustle of a commuter lifestyle. Though I think Chicago needs a proper high energy hawker market with start up businesses offering unrestrained international street food. The Richland Center in China town might come the closest. Maybe the success of Hanbun will attract other promising stalls to the “International Mall”, which has the 80s throw- back look to match the concept.

South in the North Vs. the South

I have truly mixed feelings about the South, but what do you expect from a Northern urban elite type? I love Southern food, though, and apparently plenty of Northern urban elites do too. I believe that the essence, or for lack of a better word, the soul of Southern cuisine is indebted to Black culture– its about making the best out of scrappy ingredients with roots in African flavors and technique, the legacy of inventive slave cooks. Characteristically, all the food I’ll be writing about here, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon, is sold by white people.

Arnold's, Nashville

Arnold’s, Nashville

Two Nashville imports hit Chicago this year: meat-n-three (a la the fabled Arnold’s) and proper hot chicken. I thought the grub was pretty damn good at the 1970’s-vibed meat-n-three St. Lou’s Assembly in their first few months. The concept works like this: grab a tray and hit the cafeteria line– order a main protein and then three sides. I’ve heard reports that St. Lou couldn’t quite manage the format, so I haven’t been back. We also happened to dine at Arnold’s a few months ago on a road trip through Tennessee. The line was dozens-deep, though it moved at an efficient clip, leave it to the experts. Did the food stack up? It was good, though maybe a hair below expectations. I might have preferred the thicker cut of roast beef at St. Lou’s. Jessica ordered wiser than I with a crusty, creamy cauliflower casserole and the gooiest mac n cheese possible. We both agreed that the fudge-y dense, kissed-with-cayenne hot chocolate pie was the best part of the meal.

Hot chicken at The Budlong

Hot chicken at The Budlong

We should have stopped at (Black owned) Prince’s, originator of hot chicken, on our brief stop through Nashville. The main excuse was that we were in a hurry to get to our next destination. But also, after sampling a few versions around Chicago, I’m not sure how obsessed I am with this style– the heat is delivered by an application of cayenne-fortified lard or oil, which just adds more grease. I prefer cutting the richness of the breading with vinegar-y hot sauce. But after a few disappointing versions in Chicago, I tried at the bird The Budlong (currently with two locations– including Revival, notice a pattern here?) and despite my uncertainty of the hot style, the baseline fried chicken at Budlong is absolutely some of the best in town.

I had a second great plate of fried chicken up in my old stomping grounds of Saugatuck, MI. Area veteran chef Matthew Millar opened The Southerner last year in a space that used to house a geriatric brunch spot (which I kind of loved) with spectacular views of the Kalamazoo River. I might have had one too many excellent house bloodies, because I can’t quite remember everything we ate, though I can recall some respectable collards. But I was mostly distracted by the juicy-as-all-get-out bird with crackly crust.

Speaking of greens. I ate a lot of them this year and my favorite batch was made in my very own kitchen for a cater by the talented Brian Gallagher, a North Carolina native and chef at ACRE. Common procedure with collards is to remove the tough inner stem from the leaves. Brian saves the stems and throws them back in the pot as he gently simmers them in their “pot likker”. Apparently the stems are high in glutamate, aka MSG and add a savory depth to the likker. You’ll hardly miss those ham hocks if you keep the collard “bones” in the pot.

The goods at Old Hickory, Owensboro, KY

The goods at Old Hickory, Owensboro, KY

Finally, the best food we ate down south represented a corner of Southern cooking I have yet to see catch on in the North, Northern Kentucky fare, stuff like burgoo (also big in Indiana) and BBQ mutton. I had my first tastes of both dishes in Owensboro, KY at Old Hickory. Burgoo is typically a community affair, folks contribute any sorts of meat they may have on hand (perhaps hunted game in its origins) to the stew pot which cooks down with veggies, sometimes for days on end. The rendition I sampled was thick and nearly homogeneously textured, meaty-rich with a little tang. It was delicious. And the mutton was even better, my favorite type of gamy meat, slow-cooked to fork-tender with a subtle smoke and a Worchestershire-spiked jus (they call it dip). Some Yankee elite should hop on this bandwagon for the next trend.


We traveled to Indy four times this year! Our dear friends Michael Milano & Elisabeth Smith moved down there, who are brilliant curators and included Jessica and I into a project each, so we’ve had a few excuses to head down I-65. I already knew Indy as a foodie destination. My buddy Matt Zatkoff is from the area and his hometown buddies have tirelessly sought out all the best mom-and-pop ethnic spots. In my top 10 from 2014, I lovingly sang the praises of Jamaican Jerk, who moved to roomier digs this year, where they’re jamming out harder than ever on their meaty, smoky jerk ribs and chicken with zippy allspice-heavy jerk sauce. Bombay Bazaar is rumored to be moving too, but on my last visit they were still serving up the best biryani and deepest spiced palak gosht out of to-go containers in the back of the grocery surrounded by Bollywood DVDs.

Jerk Ribs at Jamaican Jerk

Jerk Ribs at Jamaican Jerk

I had two of my best meals of the year at new-to-me spots in Indy. Asian Snack came hugely recommended by Matt and Co. The place screams E-style, a cluttered stall in a sprawling international grocery store with various snacks out on the counter. The owners hail from Tianjin in northeast China and one of their specialties is jiangbing, a famous breakfast food, a crepe with an omelet and a savory crueler folded into it (the turduken of the breakfast world) wrapped with scallions, hoisin, and hot sauce, adding up to a far tastier concoction than you would imagine. Asian Snack also excels at fiery stir fries, their “spicy chicken” and “spicy tofu” would not be unfamiliar to fans of dry chili preps at Sichuan spots, though their rough hewn chunks of bone-in chicken are so meaty and succulent compared to the more typical chewy little dry nugs that commonly plague the dish. Another standout complex dish, the oddly named ”Chicken with spiced salt”, is a stew-like affair including tripe and soy sprouts and apparently fortified with baiju.

Great brunch at Milktooth

The great brunch at Milktooth

One of my favorite meals of the year was at the well-buzzed brunch spot, Milktooth. But dude, don’t I hate brunch at places with gross sounding names like that? On a return trip the place, we did experience all the worst brunch has to offer: we waited an hour beyond our quoted 45 minutes, plenty of time to witness all the bad white people attitudes, only to be seated to a menu with a breakfast sandwich as the most interesting option. The space is hipster cute, you know a little tatted up and punk, but that kind of overlaps with Cracker Barrel these days, no? Okay, on to that outstanding meal– the first visit yielded a menu stacked with seasonal, Southern-inflected choices– we had very good collards and a tomato and house cottage cheese salad. My main, though– expertly fried smelt served atop a generous pool of African peanut curry, which was bonkers complex and a combination I would have never dreamed of. That fish cray!

Shout Outs:

Sauce & Bread Kitchen’s Catering

Roots & Culture hosts a huge gala shindig every spring. Until 2016, I had catered the party myself, as if I don’t have enough to worry about. My board insisted that I outsource for our 10th anniversary and my kindred spirits Mike Bancroft & Anne Kostroski at SBK were the first people I thought of. And they killed it. I was too busy to eat, but the food looked beautiful and the compliments flowed. There were a couple of leftover quarts of one dish that was one of my absolute favorite things I ate all year, an Italian beef salpicón which was simply thinly-sliced rare beef dressed with giardiniera. After the party I headed back to the gallery for a celebratory nightcap and I ate about a pound of this stuff straight from the deli container blasting Drake’s “Views”. I had orange oil stains all over my white linen suit pants the next morning.


The Big "O"

The Big “O”

Jessica did a show this summer at the wonderful photography-focused nonprofit, Silver Eye. Firstly, Pittsburgh is a gorgeous city, the Paris of Appalachia. And the art scene there seems tight knit and supportive. I could totally live there. We mostly hit up the famous touristy eateries, so my brief glimpse of their food scene was perfunctory. Like other modestly-scaled rust belt cities, the delicacies of the ‘Burgh are big, cheap, meaty sandwiches built for working people. I was appropriately half-drunk when I dug into my first Primanti, but I thought the thing worked better than it should have. Fluffy bread stacked with spicy capicola, fresh cut fries, and cool slaw, I was a fan. The dog at the Big O was a snappy, smoky one, though they could perhaps use a signature topping, it was pretty plain to my Chi-dog tastes. The biggest sleeper was the fish sandwich at Wholey’s, a ginormous, flaky cod filet clad in well seasoned batter, simply stuffed in a pillowy roll.

Mikro’s Takoyaki


My old buddy, Mikronaut is a quite the vagabond, bouncing around the country throughout the year (though home-based in New Orleans.) Its been real sweet since he’s been spending more time in the Chicago area these days, hitting up lunches and going on weird adventures like looting sound equipment from a decrepit karaoke bar in a sleezy hotel next to the Chicago Executive Airport. Anyway, Mikro also frequently travels to Japan.  He asked me to help him record a demo video for a Japanese reality show that features foreign Nipponophiles who obsess over particular facets of Japanese culture. For Mikro, its takoyaki, little octopus fritters that are cooked in a special cast iron pan that has spherical molds to shape the octo-balls. The balls are then topped with yummy stuff like Kewpie mayo, pickled ginger, and katsuobushi. I can’t speak to my videographer skills, but Mikro’s takoyaki were the best I’ve ever had– piping hot, light, and ever so custardy.

“Little Palestine”

Kebabs, Al-Sufara Grills

Kebabs, Al-Sufara Grills

At least that’s what Instagram wanted to location-tag the strip mall at 103rd and Harlem around my home turf in Palos Hills. I knew a lot of Arabic kids growing up. But over the course of the past decade, long after I left for the city, the areas near Harlem Ave. from Bridgeview south all the way to Palos Heights have teemed with Arabic-owned businesses. And some damn tasty food can be found, almost Dearborn, Michigan-level and definitely surpassing the Middle Eastern enclave on Kedzie in Albany Park these days. A new spot caught my eye on the interwebs, Al Sufara Grills, an unassuming deli-like storefront that grills kebabs to a wonderful smoky finish over live charcoal while the call of the muezzin blare from a TV. America 2016, folks.

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Feelings 2016


This is a piece about male feelings. I just want to note that I am confronting a normative masculine paradigm that is traditionally cis-defined. My suggestions for a new “masculinity” are meant to be spectrum-inclusive. The definitions of masculinity in Part 1 can also be a stand- in for a broader culture of patriarchy, which certainly includes people of any gender complicit in preserving a world view of aggressive male dominance.


I knew we were in trouble when David Bowie died. In my formative late teens and early twenties, Bowie gave me the courage to flaunt my flamboyant tendencies, a love of dressing up, embracing a femme-y way of being a straight boy. Damn it, Prince too, though I discovered him as a fully-formed freak later in my 20’s. Masculinity will suffer without these two.


I grew up bullied. But I always had unwavering support from my parents to be myself. And by adolescence, I was able to accept the artistic sissy who I was as I found other weirdos to be myself with (hi Jakub). As an outsider, I embraced people for their differences and developed an inclusive worldview. So thanks bullies, you helped me become an empathetic person.

And I became aware of and resistant to the ways other boys behaved– a culture of aggressive and angry masculinity. I realized that the attitudes and postures of my bullies ultimately masked their repressed fears and insecurities.


Part 1

I first lost my shit after Orlando. My bestie Carmen posted this pointed piece about “toxic masculinity” in relation to the shooting and it explained so much of how I was processing the violent death of 49 innocent, beautiful people.

Fear did this. I could not see through Omar Mateen’s eyes nor understand the life narrative that brought him to this moment of terror. But I imagine he buckled under the anxiety of fearing those different than him. Maybe he resented people that he viewed as having found the courage to be themselves. He may have been influenced by radical jihadist ideas he read about online, but his fear of others drove this violence.

The dominant paradigm of masculinity does not want you to be yourself, it wants you to conform, to be a soldier, competitive and distrustful, angry and aggressive. This is how a lot of boys were brought up where I come from. This is likely how boys have been raised in so many corners of the world throughout history. Institutions preserve this order– religions of all denominations, schools, military, law enforcement, sports.

I say its time to evolve and become better men.

Yet here we stand, a month away from handing the reigns of our country over to an “alpha-male” narcissist bully. Toxic masculinity is winning! WINNING! WINNING! But are you really winning when you have to take petty shots in the middle of the night on Twitter against such nefarious foes as Alec Baldwin? Here’s what I learned growing up being bullied, bullies are the most insecure, self-loathing part of the pack. Their inner doubts and hang ups manifest as you being the pussy or faggot, when that’s really how they see themselves. This anger is fueled by a fear of appearing weak or feminine, less than.

And this brings me to the hot topic of “feelings”, a popular target of right wing internet trolls and their campaign against political correctness. Apparently Black people not wanting to be harassed (or worse) by cops without probable cause or Trans people using the bathroom of their gender is about their feelings, not basic human rights. And for us, white or straight or cis allies, it must be about our precious feelings and not our altruistic belief in equal rights when we stand up for our friends, people we actually care about. (Part of me truly believes that our current cultural schism boils down to exposure to different types of folks and the bubbles people live in. It’s a lot harder to hate someone you have to say hi to everyday.)

But actually, white supremacists, homophobes, trolls, and Breitbart readers, this is all about your feelings. 

I get that poor and working people of all backgrounds are suffering, unable to get their slice of the economic recovery pie that has been dished up for the elites on Wall Street and in Washington– um, guys like Donald Trump and his cabinet choices, the stinkiest filthy-rich fat cats imaginable.

You want to know where white culture has gone? Hardees and Exxon Mobile and Walmart. Big business has eroded not only working class job prospects, but also wiped out the culture of Main Street diners and homemade apple pie. In October, driving through small town Indiana, I spotted a rough-looking, young white dude sitting on his BMX bike waving a confederate flag in the center of the mostly abandoned and shuttered town square. What’s left of Middle America.

But the underlying anxiety seems not entirely economically motivated. There’s a fear that white is becoming a minority. White, which for so long was just the default culture, now has to be defined like “blacks” or “Mexicans”.

You know what all these fears are? Feelings. Feeling less-than, inadequate. Worrying you might have small hands, which means you must have a small dick. Toxic. masculine. feelings.

It creeps me out to type the word, but why do you think these right-wingers are so obsessed with the idea of cuckolding (which is super racially loaded, btw, Google for nasty contemporary examples but remember how many black men were lynched for this very reason). I get that it’s supposed to be us sheep, the “cucks”, following politics-as-usual, who are witnessing our wives get fucked by Trump. Once again, toxic men are projecting onto others what they deep down fear the most– losing what’s theirs to someone that threatens their manhood whether that’s (non-white) immigrants, black guys with big dicks, or liberals. That’s some nasty feelings.

Part 2

I’m riled up. This was the most intense year of my life. Jessica and I welcomed our son Avery into the world on May 6th. The stakes have suddenly become much higher. I do not want him to grow up in an increasingly hostile and divisive world. I wrote a thing on Facebook addressing toxic masculinity after Orlando and this is how it concluded:

“Jessica and I had a little boy six weeks ago. When we learned his gender, my immediate fear was that he would face the kind of torment that I did at the hands of raised-aggressive, masculinity-obsessed peers. But now I know that it is my imperative to nurture a tolerant, compassionate, diplomatic little person. And I can offer this as a resistance to toxic masculinity.”

I know that bringing a child into the world is actually quite un-extraordinary, and not a revolutionary gesture (and it speaks to my own privilege to even imagine this.) And also, how lucky we are to afford a structure in our lives where Jessica and I are able to equally spend time raising him.


I am absolutely committed to raising our little muffin to be an open minded, empathetic being. And these aren’t traditional father-son lessons, these are values that are deemed feminine, passed down by mothers.

The whole dynamic is much different than how most men-my-age were raised– we are fathers at home as much as we are at work. Fathers that cook, clean, and fold the laundry (no soap operas for me though). We are bucking normative gender roles and this will likely define our sons’ understandings of masculinity.

Being a dad is the most amazing journey I have made in life. But its not without sacrifice– life is not so much about me anymore or my pleasure or my identity (beyond papa.)

The biggest sacrifice, for me, is loss of community. So much of my identity throughout my extended 20’s (which lasted until like age 37) was rooted in my group of tight knit friends.

My family is my community now. A community of three.

But we are often not a whole unit for 12+ hours a day– one of us at work, one of us at home. Sure the little guy fills me with unbridled joy every time I look at him, but he and I obviously can’t do real talk. And in the harrowing last few months of this year, spending so much time alone has been real tough, frankly.


I lost one of my best friends, Ben Seamons, in late September. Ben was a model for a better masculinity. He was one of the most open, kind-hearted, generous men I know. He was patient, forgiving, and loyal. Ben was not afraid of his emotions, he was always upfront with them. I learned so much from him about being a good man and I will emulate him now that he has left this mortal coil.

Ben also had the best virtues of a more traditional masculine paradigm. He knew when to make sacrifices. He always made the harder, better decisions. He was the first to leave our community to start a family.

Ben was also brave. A friend of ours drowned at Ox-Bow in 2008 and Ben was the first one in the water. I hid in my office. I have always chosen a remember-the-dead-through-their-life approach to coping, rather than facing death head on.

Ben was the first loss of someone this close to me. I faced his death by channeling his strength, including the strength to let my own emotions flow.


I was lucky to survive and rise above the behavior of bullies. But that was a different time, a more face-to-face era. I worry that today’s outcast kids can hide behind screen names, becoming a different breed of bully themselves, trolling to seek revenge. Kids are the most susceptible to toxic masculinity, the pecking order is established early. Its up to us to lead by example and be righteous parents, aunts and uncles, big brothers and sisters, neighbors, kind strangers, and teachers.

If we are going to transcend the dark path that seems to lie ahead as a country, as a world, as men, I propose that we recalibrate the expectations of what it means to be a man. A holistic masculinity.

Its time to be in touch with our emotions, be open minded, flexible, and empathetic. But also loyal and courageous and know how and when to make sacrifices for the good of our families and fellow citizens.

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Greatness, Indianapolis 11/12/16


I was invited by my dear friends Michael Milano & Elisabeth Smith to participate in their Syntax Season project, hosting language-based art exhibitions at the PRINTtEXT periodical shop in Indianapolis. My show aligned with election week (though a few days after the big day) so I thought it would be appropriate to address issues of the campaign.

Here’s the press release (written on 11/1):

The notion of greatness in America has been was hijacked as an empty campaign slogan in the 2016 election cycle. For me, one of our greatest strengths as a country is our openness to folks from beyond our borders. Though portrayed by a certain presidential candidate president elect as criminals, rapists, and terrorists, an overwhelming majority of immigrants seek the same opportunities that were afforded to other generations of once-outsiders—a chance to make a decent wage or run their own business; raise their children in a safe neighborhood with good schools. And in turn, what makes us even greater is the awesome blend and variety of cultures that has come to be the face of contemporary America.

As a food writer and chef, I believe that a good way to find understanding and appreciation for other cultures is by exploring their culinary traditions. And from big cities to not-as-big cities to small farming communities, the tastes of America are expanding. By seeking out different foods, we can connect with neighbors and folks living on roads-less-traveled (to us) alike. This is a simple step, but it could help us find some cultural unity and healing that, frankly, we need in light of the turmoil of this current political climate.

I am fortunate to have a network of like-minded foodies with a strong base in Indianapolis. These friends have introduced me to Asian Snack, Bombay Bazaar, and Jamaican Jerk: three remarkable eateries run by immigrants, new and not-so-new to the city, serving mind-expanding-ly delicious food to their communities with true hospitality towards newcomers.

Patties from Jamaican Jerk

Patties from Jamaican Jerk

For the Greatness project, I asked the owners of these businesses—Wen Hua, Ejaz Abidi, and Kahni Harris, respectively—what they thought was great about America, and their answers will be publically visible in the storefront windows of PRINTtEXT. I encourage all to go sample a plate of Gelashen-style chicken, Biryani, or Jerk ribs at their respective businesses, and taste the Greatness of the cultural mosaic that is America.

I had originally planned to host a dinner at Asian Snack after the opening, but as it turned out, a Trump Resistance Rally was being staged at the state capitol building that evening. It seemed appropriate to offer the opening as a space to gather and make protest signs before the demonstration, to which many of us headed afterwards.



8 year old Elle WInship gets in on the action "Peace is my Protest"

8 year old Elle Winship gets in on the action “Peace is my Protest”

This sign is by Elle's sister Imzy.

My favorite sign by Elle’s sister Imzy.

Sorry to turn your friendly neighborhood food blog away from culinary conversation + I’m sure you’re all over-saturated in political think pieces, but a quick note on protesting/ refusal of Trump:

I was fairly committed to activism in my early 20s during the post- 9/11 Bush/Cheney hellscape. However on the night of March 20th, 2003, I was too depressed to march. The enormity of the invasion of Iraq weighed me down into a state of catatonia. A numbness for politics was my survival mechanism for the next six years. And then came the great “Hope”, followed by a veer towards political cynicism (though my life has certainly felt happy and on track for the past eight years.)

Are protests effective? The lesson I learned in the Bush years was not so much in their direct political influence. Optimistically, maybe by relentlessly banging down the doors of every elected official all the way up the gilded tower, the voice of the (disenfranchised) people will be heard. But at the very least, demonstrating gives people a moment of power, community, and catharsis. And it’s a right and tradition in this country protected by the first amendment.

And should I remind the right that their boy incited a reaction from the “2nd amendment people” if Clinton won and made a spectacle around his commitment to concede the election? I just can’t imagine the other side acting any more civil had the table been set the other way. And we all know how accepting much of the right was of the previous administration…

It felt good to be back in the streets. I’m charged up. Until the day Trump denounces, calls down, and enforces against the culture of hate that he has stirred up (I’m sorry, that 60 Minutes throne room spot wasn’t enough), which seems unlikely considering the swamp-dwelling bigots he’s surrounding himself with, I will not be silenced in my dissent.

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A Tribute to Sonny’s (revisited)

This is an article I wrote for Proximity Magazine in 2013 for their Food & Art issue. Its never been published online and I feel like its an important moment to look back at Sonny’s. I learned this morning that Sonny just retired from working at SAIC.


Photos c/o Mary Jane Jacob

Sonny’s was a cafeteria owned and run by Rangsan “Sonny” Rattanavichit, which he opened on the second floor of the Columbus Drive building at the School of the Art Institute in 1989. Sonny’s prepared from-scratch, affordable, and diverse food– including on-the-go American grub like burgers, breakfast sandwiches, and cheap coffee as well as fresh and healthier options like vegetarian sandwiches. What set Sonny’s apart from your average college cafeteria, however, was his menu of made-to-order Thai food, which could be quite excellent on a good day. For the most part, Sonny’s maintained an endearing relationship with the community of SAIC. Sonny had a sort of paternal role around the Columbus Drive building, apt at remembering faces, names, and orders, though sometimes he had a reputation for being curt or stingy (but from personal experience, I can attest to the oftentimes impatient and finicky nature of art student clientele). In 2012, the School of the Art Institute expanded its dining facilities to include a higher volume cafeteria in the newly constructed Leroy Neiman student center and also revamped facilities in the Sonny’s space and the 12th floor of the MacLean Center. The School streamlined the operation of these facilities by contracting Food for Thought, a Chicago-based, high volume catering service. While the details remain elusive (Sonny and I spoke briefly, but out of respect, I did not press to get the whole story) Sonny inevitably closed his namesake café and donned the Food For Thought uniform.

My own relationship with Sonny’s could be described as formative. As a teenager from the suburbs in the mid-90’s I had yet to experience Thai cuisine. At Sonny’s I first ravenously scarfed down plates of pad thai and beef basil on bleary-eyed Saturdays as an Early College Program student. It was like the suburban Chinese food I grew up eating, but in Technicolor– greasy and starchy, yet more assertively spiced, salty and fishy and garnished with fresh and crunchy elements. An important breakthrough was that Sonny’s introduced me to Sriracha, that now ubiquitous ketchup-esque sweet, garlicky hot sauce that quickly became one of my favorite condiments. Back then, outside of Argyle Street, Sonny’s was the only place you could find “cock sauce”. I am ashamed to confess this, but when I lived in the dorms at SAIC, I once stole a bottle from Sonny’s and I started using it on everything. I still count the adulteration of a box of mac and cheese with the hot red stuff as a formative experiment in preparing my own food. On my shoestring budget, Thai food at Sonny’s became an occasional treat after an all nighter spent painting and/or partying. Sonny did provide thrifty staples as well: the two-dollars-and-some-change egg bagel before the tortuous 9 am class or an egg roll in the afternoon for a break in a heavy studio day.

After those early mac and cheese experiments, I delved deeper into my interest in cooking and by my senior year I was a budding foodie. I paid keener attention to Sonny’s Thai specials. The pad thai and fried rice seemed pedestrian to me at this point, having received a Thai cookbook for Christmas that year, I was more interested in the curries and more complex dishes. One particular dish on Sonny’s specials board was completely revelatory for me– a taste memory that I can always recall was his tom kha gai, hot and sour chicken soup with coconut milk. It enlivened every taste receptor at once– with its salty broth, sweet coconut milk, lime-y sourness, richly savory notes from chicken and mushrooms, and finally a pronounced funk from fish sauce. It had fiery scud chili peppers bobbing to the surface and a whole riotous tangle of not-quite-edible ingredients that I soon learned were in there for their aromatic perfumes that made this milky soup in a Styrofoam cup so extraordinary. This first experience of lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime– the trinity of Thai curries and soups– opened the door much wider to the complexity of Thai cooking for me and blazed a path to a rigorous pursuit of one of my very favorite cuisines.


Aside from the occasional nostalgic tuck into a plate of red curry, my stops at Sonny’s dwindled after I completed my undergraduate studies. My most noteworthy experience at Sonny’s, however, would happen years later in 2008, when I was fortunate enough to work with one of my favorite artists, Rirkrit Tiravanija, who was in town for a visiting artist gig. SAIC Director of Exhibitions and Exhibition Studies, Mary Jane Jacob invited me to participate in the event, which was in part a workshop to optimize the social function of the Sonny’s space (hopefully this was not an omen of the eventual transformation that came four years later) and also a feel good, social practice-y free lunch. Serendipitously, SAIC had an in house Thai chef, Sonny, to assist in preparing Rirkrit’s menu of pad thai, red curry, green curry chicken, and basil shrimp.

When I was contacted to spend the day assisting Rirkrit, I imagined that I would be chopping veggies or even better, prepping a curry paste. This was not the case– Sonny and his crew had the cooking dutifully under control behind the scenes in the kitchen. Apparently, Sonny and Rirkrit had worked together closely prior to the event, strategizing and planning the menu. I can only hope that Sonny understood that his cooking would become part of an artwork itself, the focal point of a social experiment framed within a famous artist’s practice. Projects such as these seem to succeed best when collaborators outside of artistic discipline, such as Sonny, are engaged in their expertise and transparently participant in the work. This is what I took away from the project– the actual point of contact with everyday life and art was the dialogue between Rirkrit and Sonny (rather than the corralling of expectant MFA students into a blurry conversation about how to better socialize.) This very fond memory would be my last at Sonny’s.

Sonny’s is dearly missed by the SAIC community. When I posted a lament about the closing of Sonny’s on Facebook last year, I received an outpouring of over fifty comments from SAIC-related friends wistfully reminiscing about their $2 plate of white rice with an eggroll drowned in Sriracha, those egg bagels in the morning, avocado sandwiches, crisp cut fries, and the Thai specials… I teach a course to freshman at SAIC entitled “You Art What You Eat” and naturally we discuss issues about how the students eat around their downtown campus, which is devoid of basic grocery services and populated mostly by fast food joints with inconvenient daytime hours. A perennial conversation that arises is that of their attitudes towards the School’s food service. Since introducing the Neiman Center and Food for Thought, the School made mandatory a meal plan for students living on campus, so these kids are mandated to eat this corporate caterer’s food. Reports are mixed but mostly lean towards dissatisfied. From what I’ve witnessed the food is pre-prepared and pre-packaged with true fast food efficiency– fresh-made items wilting away in their sealed plastic clamshells and greyed out burgers looking more lifeless than those from Mickey D’s on the corner. I imagine that Sonny’s was just not scalable to serve the ever-growing campus of SAIC, but that is probably why it was so wonderful. It was human scaled– tasty food made from scratch by a face with a name, who, in turn, always remembered your name.

Thanks to Mary Jane Jacob, Bill Padnos, Tom Buechele, and Felice Dublon for their input on the facts in this article.

ALSO, check out a tribute Piranha Club we threw down in 2013 HERE

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“Cure, a proposal for healing”


“Silkie”, black chicken

This summer, Roots & Culture hosted our first curatorial residency program, a three month stay for a jury- selected curator. We really lucked out with independent curator, Risa Puleo, who not only brought a thoughtful exhibition to Chicago, but also seemlessly embedded herself in our community, and happened to be quite an epicure.

Risa’s show was entitled “Cure (a rehearsal) for a Performance” and to quote her statement: “Carerehearsal for a performance suggests a choreography of disability as a remedy for maneuvering through institutions that are disabling.” A show mediating the experiences of artists with disabilities within institutions.

The idea to collaborate on a dinner came about intuitively, Risa hoped to host a dinner party for new and old friends in Chicago as a send off at the end of her stay. Finding her to be a kindred spirit in the kitchen, I had been secretly hoping I might rope her into a cooking project. Very much in the spirit of the Piranha Club, we arrived at a theme and menu for the meal through conversation, in this case our mutual interests in healing, holistic, or homeopathic foods, dovetailing nicely with the curatorial premise of her show.

Health food is obviously a big thing these days, a booming industry. Which is precisely why I don’t trust the fad diets like gluten free, etc. (no offense to folks with Celiac’s)– there just seems to be a lot of marketing at play. But much of that health food store culture seems to stem from holistic/homeopathy/new age practices, which I do find fascinating and in some cases orbit myself. I’m certainly a peripheral follower of the Sandor Katz ferment cult. Its all interesting stuff to unpack, many of the touted healing diets likely have undeniable health benefits– cleanses, wild foods, ancient grains, bone broth, paleo, macro, vegan…



We mostly looked to time tested healing foods (or at least contemporary look-backs on older ways of eating): wild, foraged ingredients, fermented food, Pre-Columbian diet, and for one of my offerings, Chinese medicinal food.

Admittedly, my knowledge of Traditional Chinese Medicine is perfunctory. Mostly, I wander through the TCM shops in Chinatown wide-eyed, taking in the sights and smells of all the exotic dried flora and fauna. Some things I recognize from the Midwestern woods: reishi mushrooms, ginseng. And other stuff from culinary applications, like dried scallops. I delight in the jars of cordyceps fungus-infested caterpillars, but then get a bit queasy when I spy the deer tails. I am completely ignorant to the uses of any of these ingredients, but curious about their properties and sympathetic to their nature.

As someone who readily snarfs a veritable ark-ful of animal flesh, it may sound contrary of me to raise objection to some of the practices of obtaining ingredients for TCM, but draining the bile from living sun bears and slaughtering other endangered species to poach single body parts such as tiger penises, shark fins, and rhino horns is where I draw the line, millennia-old traditions or not. Are there calculable health benefits to the chemistry of these animal parts or is there a more animistic belief at play– consuming powerful animals will give power to the consumer. Certainly, men eat tiger penis so their member will be as virile as the tiger’s from which it was cut.

The black chicken, or silkie, certainly looks Satanic, all black-on-black, though it is a relatively common domestic breed of chicken, native to China. It’s meat is prized for its warming qualities in colder months and moreso for its beneficial properties for women’s reproductive health. I liked the poetry of flipping the oft-male-libido-fortifying focus (of meat) in TCM toward the feminine. Black chicken is typically made into a curative broth, often enhanced with other medicinal ingredients like ginseng or various funguses. A food consumed for healing rather than pleasure. I gathered up a variety of imported Chinese dried ingredients prized in TCM for my soup: white fungus (for liver protection and anti-inflammatory properties), goji berries (immune boosting, also good for liver function), and dried scallops (to tonify blood and add a fishy umami wallop to the broth). The soup was quite mild, slightly fishy, pleasant. I scooped a few forkfuls of my home made kimchi to perk mine up a bit.


Dry and woody-ass burdock roots from my backyard

Risa suggested a salad of dandelion and burdock, a dish for promoting liver health. Bitterness has fallen out of favor in the sweet-obsessed Western diet. Looking back to Asia, bitter flavors play an essential role in any meal, with a focus on balance of the five flavors (I’d love to lecture you about umami, the fifth flavor identified in Asian cuisines, but that will have to wait until another post). Even in European dining customs, you might begin or end a meal with a bitter alcoholic tonic (which I love). Bitter foods help your liver produce bile, which is essential for good digestive health, emulsifying fats (hmm, coincidence that my favorite foods are fatty cuts of meat and leafy greens). Dandelion greens are the grand daddy of bitterness and are nutrient-dense like trendy kale. I was stoked that I could forage dandelion and burdock in my backyard. In mid-August, the greens were bright green, fresh, and mostly tender. Unfortunately the burdock was dry, tough, and woody, so we ditched them for a simple salad.


Risa has been investigating the idea of a decolonized diet, meaning eating only pre-Columbian foods native to the Americas. This rules out such dominant ingredients as cow-based products, pork, wheat, and sugar. You can’t argue that most of the least healthy foods all contain some configuration of those ingredients. So a decolonized diet relies on new world vegetables: corn, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, beans with a light use of poultry (and I might argue insects). Dr. Luz Calvo and Dr. Catrióna Esquibel published a treatise/cookbook introducing this idea in 2015. To quote Dr. Calvo from an interview with Lucky Peach:

“We started researching Mexican ancestral foods, the foods that people in rural Mexico are eating, and finding that it’s really a plant-based diet. Meat is used only as a condiment. It’s not the cheese-laden food that you find at the typical Mexican restaurant here in the U.S.

We looked at particular foods that our grandparents talked about, nopales (prickly pear cacti), tlacoyos (corn cakes), and wild greens like verdolagas (purslane), and found that they all have anti-cancer properties. We came across studies that put indigenous groups on a standard American diet to see what happens to them, and then put people on an indigenous diet and see all their health measures improving.”

I cannot argue with these ideas. It reminds me a bit of Michael Pollan’s mantra “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. I do wonder for a second if this is about the healthful-ness of the pre-Columbian diet or sticking with a diet native to one’s ancestral homeland. What would that say about my Anglo-Saxon ass– hmm, a beer and pork diet, that doesn’t sound too far off!


So we rolled out chicken & bean tamales with a dash of molé. Risa found a recipe for pre-Columbian (no lard) tamales in my tattered old copy of Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen. Remarkably, they cooked quickly in about 25 minutes (as opposed to 90+ minutes for fat and baking powder fortified masa). The results were surprising as well– supple, slightly dense masa, overall very satisfying. A classic three sisters rounded out the decolonized portion of our meal.


Risa’s impressive platter of three sisters– corn, zucchini, and fava beans with some tomatoes for color.

The questions I keep coming back to about these various approaches to healing foods is how locality factors in to the (actual or perceived) nutritiousness of a foodstuff. The TCM approach seems to favor rarified ingredients deemed powerful by their special-ness with around-the-globe origins. The silkie soup was nice, but it was really just a good gelatin-rich broth, which to me, is where its beneficial properties lie. I appreciated the ironic tension of serving a dish made from far-flung ingredients alongside such hyper-local things like greens from my backyard and counter-top fermented kimchi. The latter dishes, raw, vitamin-rich, and in the case of the fermented stuff, probiotic, to me, were undeniably the winners for healthiest foods on the table. And the idea of a native diet, a locality to one’s ancestry further complicates a question about the link of where food comes from and individual well being.

So how did the meal make us feel? Speaking for myself, I wasn’t particularly ailing that day, but the meal left me feeling energized and not overly stuffed. It digested well too. There were clearly many healthful ingredients on the table and I believe that food truly can be a kind of preventive medicine. For me, the best way to navigate my dietary needs is to listen to my body. When I am feeling unwell or run down, I like to eat food that makes me feel invigorated: unprocessed whole foods like raw vegetables, fruits high in vitamin C, broths, chiles, ginger, garlic… But health is a personal thing, so do what’s best for you. My ideas are not meant to be a prescription.


I did my best, but I have not entirely connected with eating chicken feet!

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Roots Legend

I was way overdue to throw down a reggae mix tape. The music of Jamaica has been on deck a lot this year with the 10 year celebration of my (not reggae-themed) gallery + the downbeat trot of the bass is perfect for bouncing my baby boy to rest + reggae’s themes of struggle and sufferation are very timely these days (despite the patriarchal bias). Mostly though, I’d been promising a new mix for 10 years to my old friend, Tony Amato, proprietor of my favorite waterfront hippie-shack/ rum drink destination/ home-away-from-home-away-from-home, The Red Dock, where I had a long standing Wednesday night DJ gig.

So just in time for summer BBQs and booming in ya jeep– my fourth roots rock reggae mix, Roots Legend. Forgive the rough-hewn blends (I hadn’t owned 2 working turntables and a mixer in many, many years until last week). I promise you though, the selection is FIRE.



Bob Marley- Could You Be Loved?
Barrington Levy/ Gyptian- Day Vampire
Al Campbell- Turn Me Loose
Michael Prophet- Gunman
Johnny Clarke- Rebel Soldiering
Michigan & Smiley- Eye of Danger
The Hurricanes- You Can Run
Ras Michael & The Sons of Negus- Booma Yeah
Carlton Jackson- History
Tristan Palmer- Spliff Tail
Super Chick- Roach Killer
Clint Eastwood & General Saint- I Can’t Take Another World War
Peter Tosh- Must Get A Beating
Conquering Lion- Carnal Man
The Melodians- Rivers of Babylon
Astley Bennett- Leggo the Wrong
The Royals- Pick Up the Pieces
Horace Andy- Tribute to Bob Marley

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Yeah, its been quiet around here. I’ve been busy cultivating this little creature:


If you’re craving some food writing (and recipes) I wrote a story about regional Mexican food in Chicago for the May issue of Bon Appétit HERE.

I can’t promise there will be much content for the next few months. Maybe a baby food Piranha Club?! Stay tuned.

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