Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Puppet Bike Party

You can't help but smile when Clover the Bunny (an aspiring starlet) and Chock the Kitty (a blues musician and dice-rolling gambler) dance together under the glittering disco ball. Which is why many people refer to the Puppet Bike as a "happiness maker."

The Puppet Bike, in case you haven't had the pleasure to meet it downtown or in Andersonville, is a mobile theater atop a jolly red tricycle. A lone puppeteer parks it at varying street corners and puts on a show with Clover, Chock and five other hand-operated critters. Solar panels power the boom box that blasts jazzy music. Out front kids wave, jump and dance around in circles - just like the puppets.

Each year the Peter Jones Gallery hosts the two-day Puppet Bike Extravaganza with bands, costumes and revelry. The bash rages this Friday and Saturday, Feb. 27 and 28; admission is by donation.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Donut Diaries, Entry #2

"Donuts return the magic of your childhood and take away the disappointment of your adulthood," said baker Kirsten Anderson in a recent Sun Times article.

True, we thought, and after a failed attempt to get Cubs tickets on the first day of sales, we decided to put Ms. Anderson's words to the test. Could her $3 mint chocolate donut cure our Cubbie blues?

Anderson crafts her wares with soy vegetable oil, forgoes eggs and butter, and sweetens with cane juice. Quirky flavors include pistachio with cardamom and lavender, orange spice with nutmeg and clove, and the aforementioned mint chocolate (with real sprigs of mint baked on top). Anderson hand rolls each cakey treat, so output is limited - only seven dozen donuts per week, popped out of the fryer on Fridays. Grab 'em at Bite Cafe's counter.

Is it worth it, you ask? After all, three bucks equals three Dunkin Donut chocolate kremes or two packs of Dolly Madison Gems. Yes, and no. Yes for the flavorgasm and lack stomach ache/sugar crash afterward. No, because aren't cheap aches and pains part of the defining donut experience?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

George Washington's Whiskey

Monday was George Washington's birthday celebration. While it was crushing to discover he didn't really have wooden teeth, it was redeeming to learn GW fired up his very own whiskey still. Right at Mt Vernon, the Father of Our Country operated one of the country's most successful distilleries, percolating 11,000 gallons of nostril-singeing booze at its peak in 1799.

Historians recreated Washington's distillery a few years ago, and they occasionally cook up a batch of hooch following his recipe - which they're doing now, during the two weeks around his birthday. They'll bottle and sell half the whiskey at Mt Vernon starting in June. The un-aged product is akin to what Washington and troops swilled. The makers will age the other half in oak barrels for future sale - this is more like what we drink today. A daily blog documents the process.

Here in Chicago, top places to quench a whiskey thirst include Delilah's, Duke of Perth and Twisted Spoke. The latter has Whiskey Wednesdays so if you hurry out now, you can sip among the 150 varieties for half price.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincoln's Disappearing Body

Honest Abe has been in the news a lot lately, and not just because of his 200th birthday (which happens to be today). Back in December, when Illinois governor Blagojevich got busted for corruption, the federal prosecutor said time and again that Blago's conduct "would make Lincoln roll over in his grave."

Funny thing is, Lincoln has been rolled out of his grave. Several times.

In 1876 thieves boozing in a Chicago tavern hatched a plot to steal Abe's body from its Springfield site and ransom it. Cops stopped the crooks at the cemetery. Soon thereafter custodians moved Abe's body to a concrete-fortified vault.

In 1901 they moved it again, to an even more secure location. Today when you visit Abe's Springfield tomb and circle through the burial chamber, past the crypts of his three sons and wife Mary, and arrive at the marker bearing his name, know this: Abe's body is actually 13 feet below floor level, with a six-foot concrete slab on top of the coffin.

He may roll over in there, but he won't be rolled out again anytime soon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Donut Diaries, Entry #1

Is it our imagination, or do donuts taste better when served to customers on a lazy susan from behind bulletproof glass?

Clearly, people kill for the sinkers at Dat Donut (8249 S Cottage Grove Ave). Which is understandable. Take Dat's custard donut, with its dense, eggy filling and thick, powdered-sugar exterior. It's so sublimely doughy it's like a pillow one could nap upon for epochs. Conversely, the caramel frosted donut is light as air, smothered in finger-lickin' icing that melts over the sides.

Chocolate long johns, apple fritters, Boston cream - the list goes on for the hand-cut yeast bombs at this shop on Chicago's far South Side. But the hubcap-sized Big Dat remains the sweet to beat. Even behind thick glass, under fluorescent light, its glaze glimmers and dazzles.

Is it worth the possible gunshot wound and/or the onset of diabetes to obtain its glazed goodness?

"Yeh," the counter girl says, and she spins out a half dozen on the lazy susan that prove it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Obama's Missed Pie Op

President Obama looked stressed in Elkhart, Ind. yesterday, as he tried to sell his economic stimulus plan. No wonder. Elkhart - the RV Capital of the World, with more than 100 RV manufacturers in a 100-mile radius - has seen its industry collapse and unemployment rocket to 15.3%.

At least these Hoosiers have first-class comfort food at hand, and Obama could have indulged had he driven 15 miles east. The town of Middlebury has a real live Main St. On it stands the Village Inn Restaurant (107 S Main), maker of big fat wide flaky creamy slices of pie.

Bonneted Mennonite women in pastel dresses and chunky white tennis shoes come in to bake the pies daily at 4:30 am. And yes, lard is the secret ingredient. You have to arrive before lunch to get the best selection, which includes strawberry, peanut butter, Snickers, and the life-changing banana cream.

"How's the pie?" the waitress asked the customer hunkered down at the counter, forking with a frenzy.

"Mmm. Mmm, mmm, mmm," came the reply.

That says it all.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Holy Smoke

Holy Name Cathedral - the seat of Chicago's Catholic Church - has had an unholy time of it. The Great Fire torched it in 1871. Parishioners rebuilt it a few years later.

In the gangster age, a flower shop used to stand by the church. One day in 1924, the nice man who managed it was gunned down while trimming chrysanthemums for funeral wreaths. Turns out he was Dion O’Banion, a bootlegger who crossed Al Capone. Hymie Weiss took over the biz, but his flower arrangements fared no better. Capone's gang killed him two years later.

Powerful archbishops preached from the pulpit in the decades that followed. When they died, the church hung their red hats from the ceiling forevermore - except when the ceiling let loose a 10-pound piece of decorative wood that smashed 70 feet to the floor in 2008. This prompted a costly structural rehab. A few months after the church completed the job, Holy Name caught fire again. The blazed happened today, Feb. 4.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Banana Cream Calling

You can deny it all you want, but 1 in 5 of you has devoured an entire pie solo; 35% of you have forked into pie for breakfast. It's a sinful tin-ful, to be sure. Oliver Cromwell banned pie in 1644, saying it was pagan. Restoration leaders lifted the sanction in 1660, saying they were hungry. The American Pie Council

educates the public on these vital facts and more.

But the best way to immerse in flaky goodness? Become a Pie of the Month Club member. No, you do not get an apple, pumpkin or banana cream treat each month, but rather an arty postcard with a quirky recipe to do-it-yourself. Crustless Coconut (President Obama's pastry passion) and Cape Breton Pork Pie (relax, it's made of dates and brown sugar) are among the sweet archives.

The club website has a pie data base, where members review pie places around the country, and a Pie Expert, who answers members' pie-baking questions. So if you want to know what state whips up the most billowy meringue, or how to thicken fruit filling, the club has the juicy answers.