Monday, March 3, 2014

Paczki Day(s) in Chicago

Sorry, blog. I abandoned you last year while I was off to other projects. But I'm back now, and what do you think has prompted the return? Donuts.

Or paczki (POANCH-kee), to be precise. They're the sugar-coated, jelly-filled Polish pastries that have become a much-gobbled, pre-Lent tradition.

Paczki are denser and eggier than typical donuts, and their deep-fried goodness has spawned an eponymous holiday. Paczki Day is celebrated the Thursday before Lent in Poland. The custom blended with local Mardi Gras traditions when it came to the US, and immigrants began marking it on Fat Tuesday.

In Chicago, which has one of the world's largest Polish populations, we honor both days. This means we munch paczki - in all of their cherry, strawberry, apricot, prune, custard, chocolate and raspberry-plumped incarnations - from Thursday through Tuesday. And then Lent begins, when many folks give up such sweet indulgences.

Top 3 bakeries to get sugarcoat your face?

* Delightful Pastries: When you dream of paczki, it is Delightful's pillowy dough-balls that pop up. Delightful will bake 20,000 paczki for the six-day "season," and they'll bake many of those with booze. The joy of chasing a whiskey-and-chocolate-custard donut with a vanilla bean-vodka donut cannot be overstated.

* Bennison's Bakery: Evanston's popular pastry shop makes a mean enough paczki that contestants want to shove trays of them down their gob for the Annual Paczki Eating Contest. Last year's champions look a little woozy in this video, but hey, they won $300.

* Bridgeport Bakery: The South Side stalwart is not kidding around, with heaps of cheesy, creamy, fruity paczki options for a butt-cheap 95¢ each.

Click here for a map of more places to buy paczki around Chicago.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Cow Pies and Cheese Castles in Wisconsin

Wisconsin embraces its cheesiness with udder dignity. Take the state's most prevalent candy bar: the Cow Pie. The pecan-chunked chocolate mound is modeled after a bovine poo. How many other states have that sort of chutzpah?

Then there's Mars Cheese Castle. It is a real castle (well, a hulking turreted building with faux drawbridge) stocked with 300 types of cheese. Cheddar curds sell best, along with beer-mug-shaped hunks. Cow Pies get lots of shelf space. As do foam-rubber cheese wedge hats. And a giant pie-eyed mouse wearing a cheese wedge hat watches over it all.

You might as well embrace the theme when visiting. These random facts can help:

* The state considered making "Eat Cheese or Die" its official motto.
* Of the 2.6 billion pounds of cheese Wisconsin produces annually, 34% is mozzarella and 21% is cheddar.
* The state law requiring restaurants to put a slice of cheese on apple pie? It's a myth (though Wisconsin did flirt with the idea).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

3.14 Pie Thoughts on Pi Day

Every year Pi Day gets more popular, with math geeks hopped up to celebrate the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter (aka 3.14) on March 14. For the rest of us, it's just a cheap excuse to discuss crust, fillings and flaky matters such as:

1. Why do more states have an official dinosaur than an official pie? Seriously Oklahoma: you name flesh-ravaging Acrocanthosaurus Atokensis as a Sooner symbol, but you can't bother with pecan pie? (It's listed only in conjunction with the "state meal".) Eight states dub official dinos. Only Indiana, Florida and Vermont bake a certified pie.

2. Why is Boston Cream Pie called a pie, when it is actually a spongy, custard-filled cake? Historians think it's due to the cookware used in the mid-19th century during the treat's genesis: bakers had pie tins available, but not cake pans.

3. Who makes the best pie? It's impossible to crown one particular shop, but we're going to say the Midwest wins for dreamy, creamy regional excellence. Little roadside shops slice thick slabs of banana cream, sugar cream, sour cream raisin, coconut cream, chocolate cream, peanut butter cream - you don't have to be hit on the head with a fork to get the gist.

.14. Consider the photo's message (above). It's an original artwork from the now defunct Pie of the Month Club.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Midwest Round-up: 7ft Sausage & Chloroformed Dummy

Painful speculum
Passed out from chloroform
The Midwest is always weird and wonderful, but some weeks are weirder and wonderful-er than others. Like this week:

* Guido, the Milwaukee Brewers' 7ft-tall racing sausage mascot, was stolen during a gig at the city's Curling Club. Local mustard and sauerkraut companies offered condiment rewards for his safe return. The costume eventually turned up in a bar. "Like I didn't just see two guys plop a sausage on a barstool," the bartender said about the anonymous drop-off. More on this immortal Wisco story here.

* The annual Sock Monkey Festival rolls in Rockford March 2 and 3, with monkey-making workshops, the Sock Monkey Hall of Fame inductions, and healings at Sockford General Hospital. This earlier blog post has the lowdown.

* Chicago's International Museum of Surgical Science remains as creepy as ever. The ancient Roman vaginal speculum stays "fearsome looking" (according to its placard), the chloroformed female dummy is still passed out, and the murals of blood-spattered surgeries continue to be available as postcards in the gift shop. All pics per my recent visit. Yeah baby!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Pour George Another Whiskey

George Washington's birthday is tomorrow, and if he was around you can bet he'd celebrate by tossing back a whiskey or three.

Rumors of his temperance have been greatly exaggerated. Not only did he cook up his own whiskey at Mt Vernon but, according to a sign at the historic distillery there, "he imbibed a variety of alcoholic beverages: …Port and Madeira and rum made into punch, along with beer and whiskey.”

That distillery - which pumped out a whopping 11,000 gallons during its peak in 1799 - still operates today. It produces an authentic version of Washington's rye-based recipe that's sold around Christmas time.

If you don't have a bottle, but you need to commune with George now, look at your local liquor store for Michter's. It's the whiskey Washington used to fortify his troops at Valley Forge, and it's being percolated once again by a Louisville microdistillery.

So now you know to raise a dram to George: Father of our Country, and Father of the American whiskey industry, as many drinkers dub him.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Chicago's St. Valentine's Day Massacre

Al Capone did not send Bugs Moran candy on Valentine's Day 1929. Instead, he sent hit-men to kill him. They missed Bugs, but massacred seven of his buddies.

It happened at the garage that used to stand at 2122 N Clark St. Bugs' guys arrived thinking they'd buy bootleg booze, but it was a set up. Capone's gang entered dressed as cops, lined the men up against a wall, and sprayed them with more than 100 bullets. Lucky for Bugs, he'd already left.

Developers tore down the garage in 1967. Before the wrecking ball swung, Canadian George Patey bought all the bricks. He displayed them in a nightclub and eventually sold a few as souvenirs. In December 08, after Patey's death, his family put the rest of the blocks for sale on eBay.

Today a fenced lawn and trees mark the massacre site, at which passing dogs bark and howl and strain their leashes in the opposite direction.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Chicago's Coolest Quarter for Record Shops

If the High Fidelity crew were scouting for a Championship Vinyl today, they'd totally head to Logan Square. Get in the Grammy mood (awards are Feb. 10) by trawling the bins at:

* saki - Forgive the lower-case. Focus instead on the intimate, in-store concerts by indie groups like Brokeback. They're free, as is accompanying food and drink by Goose Island Brewing, Bang Bang Pie Shop and other locals. The shop sells arty posters, zines and books alongside the CDs and vinyl. Plus, by god, saki accepts gift certificates from other retailers. So you can trade your lame Staples gift card for that new Panda Riot album.

* Logan Hardware - It's hard to resist a shop where flicking through a bin of "Non-Religious Gospel" is followed by a knockdown game of Donkey Kong. Rock, oddball and Chicago band LPs fill the crates, but the bonus here is the attached vintage arcade museum. Relive your '80s on the free Pac Man, Tron and pinball.

* Bucket O’ Blood Books and Records - Punk and metal vinyl comprise the "records" half of this wee niche shop, while sci-fi and horror paperbacks make up the "books." Owner Marc Ruvolo, who also runs the punk label Johann's Face, curates the wares and distills his bizarro favorites into the aptly named Awesome section.

Hell, you might even find some Sonic Death Monkey in the 'hood.