A Beef with Chicago

Got back from Chicago early this morning, where we saw Crowded House play the House of Blues.

The trip was noteworthy for a few things. One: Finally seeing Neil Finn live. Few songwriters have made as much of an impression on me as Finn has over the last 15 years, and it was a joy seeing the band in the relatively close confines as the House of Blues, even if the venue insists that lead acts don’t take the stage until 10:45 or 11 pm.

Secondly, driving home to Madison in occasionally torrential downpours, white-knuckling it for much of the way. Wheeee!

Thirdly, though, I was reacquainted with another old favorite: Chicago-style beef bombers. After more than 20 years away from red meat, it was fantastic to realize that these were just as wonderful as I remembered them, able to hold their beefy, juicy heads up high with other classics of street food (Philly cheese steaks, New York pizza, German sausages, etc.).

So very many cow- or pig-based foods I’ve returned to have been disappointing. A good burger, for example, is shockingly difficult to find. Though I’ve tracked down a few, the majority are greasy and uninspired. When I was a kid, I never met a patty I didn’t like. Now, in the full throes of foodie-dom, with a palate refined over two decades of really getting serious about the subject, I tend to be leery when confronted with anything that used to moo when placed in a bun.

Bacon, on the other hand, rarely disappoints. Especially the stuff that’s not mass-produced. While I kept my distance from it for decades, I can humbly report that “piggy strips” (as I’m sometimes wont to call them, “vegetarian-bane” being my other go-to moniker) have pretty much blown my mind.

This summer, especially, has been a good one for bacon, if only because the plump, sweet, lush tomatoes that seem to be springing up everywhere are just crying out to be added to what has got to be one of the most amazing foodstuffs ever perfected: the BLT.

Bacon. Lettuce. Tomatoes. Good mayonnaise. Great bread. How could five so disparate ingredients combine for something so heavenly? Anything less, and the center doesn’t hold. Anything more, and the perfection is shattered.

Twenty-five years ago, I had my first BLT, at the Cleveland airport, waiting for my dad’s flight to come in. At the time, I didn’t think much of the sandwich. It seemed oddly…over-rated.

Looking back, of course, an airport restaurant is hardly the place for a epiphanal experience.

Still, I enjoyed it, if only because it meant the chance to have lunch with my mom (we’d driven over from Johnstown, PA). A BLT seemed an adult thing to order, and whenever my mom took me out to lunch, I felt like far more of an adult than I actually was, at the time. (Or perhaps still am, some might argue, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with them.)

I remember the entire meal clearly. A bowl of cream of broccoli soup, and the sandwich. Much like the time when, in Shrewsbury, my mom took me out to lunch, to celebrate my “O” level exams. I felt grown-up. I felt happy. I felt proud that my mom was proud of me. For that hour, on a lazy Shropshire summer day, with my entire future lying ahead of me, I wasn’t an awkward 16 year-old. I was a dining companion.

I can’t remember what I had then, at that long-gone cookie-cutter Chinese restaurant, save for broccoli soup once more. I’m assuming that it was followed by my then-customary order of sweet and sour pork. But the experience, the emotions, the sheer pride was palpable, and all have stayed with me to this day.

Reminiscing on this, though, it reminds me of just how much meals contributes to memory, and feelings. Even when the food’s mediocre.

I wonder how that first BLT would have struck me, had it been up to par with the exceptional ones served only seasonally at Madison’s Cafe Soliel. Would it have been a transformative experience, with artisanal bread, or locally sourced, superbly cured bacon? Would I have even cared about the difference between a lush, rich tomato that came straight from someone’s garden, as opposed to the limp, tasteless, mushy fruits that clog so much of the nation’s food supply?

Possibly not. So in a way, I’m glad to have waited until my 40s for my first real BLT.

On the other hand, I’m enormously happy that a Chicago beef is every bit the sloppy, messy, joyous, delicious experience I remember from before I had anything resembling a discerning palate.

But mediocre BLTs at an airport restaurant?

Just add loved ones, and you’ll have memories for a lifetime.



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