Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Eli's Cheesecake Factory

Champagne cheesecake, cookie-crazy cheesecake, the Neapolitan Cheesecake Tower - these genius ideas happen at Eli's Cheesecake Factory in Chicago, thanks to lab-coated women with mixers and big bowls of butter. Take the factory tour (1pm Monday through Friday; $3 per person), and you'll get backstage access to their methods, plus see Willy Wonka-esque vats of chocolate and caramel squirt onto the swift-moving production line.

Eli's uses 10,000 lbs of cream cheese, 3000 lbs of sour cream and 2000 eggs each day to make the goods. The tour includes a free slice, and one lucky winner (chosen by random drawing) gets to take home a whole cake. Even if you don't triumph, the attached shop sells "imperfect" wares for big discounts - think $8 for 9-inch cheesecakes.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Rockin' at Chess Records

Like Muddy Waters' house, the unobtrusive building at 2120 S Michigan Ave is another hot spot for blues fans. Keith Richards called it "Mecca" and dragged the Rolling Stones here in 1964. The band had to haul its own equipment up the stairs. And during two heady days in June, they recorded parts of 12 x 5, their first American album.

The building was once Chess Records, the seminal electric blues label that paved the way for rock 'n' roll. It is now the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation, named for the bassist who wrote most of Chess's hits. Staff give tours Monday through Saturday that take in the reception area (Minnie Ripperton worked the desk) and main studio (designed by a 21-year-old newbie who inadvertently created the room's remarkable sound). Bands play free concerts in the side courtyard on Thursday evenings.

Listen in, and you can't help thinking Dixon summed it all up when he said, "The blues is the roots, and everything else is the fruits."

Monday, June 6, 2011

Jammin' at Muddy Waters' Place

Chicago rocks its annual Blues Fest June 10-12 - a fine time to make the pilgrimage to Muddy Waters' house (4339 S Lake Park Ave) on the South Side. This is where guitars screamed and bass lines rolled at new decibel levels, because Waters and friends had plugged in their amps. So began the electric blues.

Impromptu jam sessions with pals like Howlin' Wolf and Chuck Berry erupted in the front yard of the red-brick abode. Waters lived here for 20 years, until 1974, but today the building stands vacant in a lonely, tumbledown lot. It's private property, so you can't go inside. A sign commemorates the spot.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Mythic Homerun in Minnesota

Exactly 44 years ago, on June 3, 1967, Minnesota Twins player Harmon Killebrew smacked a home run that rocketed 520 feet into the left field stands and shattered two seats. The Twins never sold tickets for those mythic chairs again.

The Mall of America now stands where the old ballpark used to be, and a chair beyond the mall's log flume (yes, the Mall of America has an indoor log flume, as well as roller coasters, minigolf course, shark aquarium and wedding chapel) marks the spot.

Killebrew died on May 17. I happened to be there May 18, and many people dropped by to pay their respects and offer flowers. A chubby 10-year-old boy stood beside me.

'Did you come to see Harmon?" he asked. 'We're gonna miss him.'

RIP, Killer.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Dylan's Duluth

Folks in Duluth are low-key about native son Bob Dylan. The Electric Fetus record shop, which was advertising a deal on Highway 61 Revisited in honor of Bob's birthday last week, sits a few blocks down the road from his birthplace. When asked if many visitors stop by to get directions, the clerk looked blankly and said, 'Dylan's from Hibbing.'

Perhaps it should be noted the Electric Fetus also sells bongs.