Remembering the walking food tour I took on my visit to Denver, I looked for similar tours in Chicago. A company called “Bobby’s Bike Tours” offered a couple. They looked good, so I booked a tour that combined a little bit of history with some of the city’s “iconic” foods.
Well, I did want to try deep dish pizza in the place that invented it, so….
We started at Lou Malnati’s in the Wrigley Building. I wasn’t paying too much attention to the tale of the invention of deep dish (aka “Chicago Style”) pizza. Apparently someone in the Malnati family wanted a different kind of pizza, one that could hold a lot more toppings. So invert the layering of the ingredients (meat or whatever, cheese, then sauce on top), put it in something more like a pie crust, and there you go. There was a bit more about the family and how members went off and took the recipe with them, but I was too busy eating to pay attention. The pizza was pretty good; the highlight (and house specialty) was the buttery crust.
Our next stop was the Billy Goat Tavern on Lake St. The place is famous for two things. First, the original owner, William Sianis, way back when (the 30s, I think) adopted a kid that he’d spotted that he’d found near the tavern. The goat became the mascot (and namesake) of the tavern. When he was told he couldn’t have the goat in the bleachers of Wrigley Field in the 1945 World Series, he allegedly cursed the Cubs.
Secondly, it would be the inspiration for the “Olympia Cafe” sketch on Saturday Night Live. Quite a few of the cast were familiar with the place, and combined it with John Belushi’s memories of his uncle, who owned a hot dog stand in the city. The place revels in the association with SNL, and is decorated with lots of photos of celebrities visiting it.
As far as our food selection, it was a Chicago-style hot dog. Nothing to speak of; it’s an all-beef hot dog covered with “giardiniera”. That’s a local mix of lightly pickled vegetables that they put on pretty much everything.
Including what they call “Italian Beef”, which we sampled at our next stop, The Exchequer. That’s a pub that was a brothel back in the day, and is alleged to have been a gangster hangout in the 1920s. The Italian Beef is uninteresting. It’s nothing more than a roast beef au jus sandwich. Quite honestly, it doesn’t deserve a special name, and wasn’t very good – even if you put giardiniera on it.
Fortunately, we ended on a high note at the Palmer House. In 1870, Potter Palmer decided he needed to impress his much younger wife Bertha in order to keep her from finding another, younger man. So he built her a hotel. After it burned down in the Great Fire, he resolved to never let that happen again. He rebuilt the hotel, making it so fireproof that he was able to brag that he didn’t bother getting fire insurance.
At this point in the tale, our host, Justin, asked us to guess what happened next.
The hotel was a smashing success, and made the Palmers fabulously wealthy.
As far as our food item goes, seems that for the Columbia Exposition of 1893, Bertha noted the popularity of chocolate cake. She asked the hotel chef to come up with an easily portable version of a cake slice. He created a small rectangle of rich chocolate goodness, covered with a light apricot glaze and chopped walnuts. This, the Palmer House maintains, was the first brownie.
As it happens, I can’t find anything that suggests she ever gave it a name. But given the popularity of the Exposition, and the fact that everything that claims to be the first “brownie” appears in history within the next few years, I’m going to state that the Palmer Cake was indeed the archetype “brownie”, and all the other recipes were the result of people remembering or trying to recreate it. Fight me.
Anyway, the tour was a lot of fun, even if some of the food was a bit of a letdown.
I am NOT going to get into the argument of which style of pizza is the best. There are far too many of them.
Next time, some non-food tours.