Another feature of the MSU campus is their botanical garden. This was begun in 1872 when Professor Beal established a nursery on campus. It is situated just along the river, slightly hidden, beneath some rather epic trees. The plants are arranged in themed beds and the idea, the one guide told me, is to create an encyclopedia of plants – an idea which I just love. I got excited at all the different wheat varieties they were growing, as well as the unusual looking herbs. And I took some time out from the heat to sit awhile by the pond…
One of the things I decided I had to do whilst in Chicago was to go on a food walking tour. You may recall I did two last year, one in Paris and one in New York. I like food tours for many reasons but the main one is that food tours generally show you places you might over look. They often go to big name places too, but it’s the quirky, off-the-beaten-track ones that are worth the tour. I also like food tours because they tend to be relaxed and friendly, and people on them are always interesting. (Yet another research project: who goes on food tours? Why? What’s included in the tour? How is the tour arranged? Etc etc etc).
This tour was run by Chicago Food Planet who run two other tours in the city. Our guide, Colleen, was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and walked us around the neighbourhoods with local insight and energy. This is a classic sort of Chicago tour, it starts with deep pan pizza and ends with pierogies, taking in some fabulous and historical buildings (if you can call the original Playboy mansion historical) whilst talking about the history of Chicago (it seems everywhere you go in the city, someone will mention the fire…)
The tour started at Lou Manalti’s, home of deep pan pizza. Apparently the first deep pan pizza was made in Chicago in 1943 at Pizzeria Uno but the Malnati one is the best.
They use butter in their pizza dough which makes it crispy and rich. We ate their signature salad to start (romaine lettuce, tomatoes, olives, Gorgonzola with a sweet onion vinaigrette) followed by their Chicago Classic pizza with sausage. The pizza is layered with mozzarella at the base, then sausages, then tomatoes (chosen and canned in California), followed by Parmesan. It was spicy and sweet and filling. It’s a little bit like pie – much more than pizza as I know it but I’m easily converted. If I had to eat this forever, I’d be okay.
From pizza we moseyed over to Teagschwendner, a German tea company. We had the opportunity to smell a variety of their teas and then they made us the Cranberry and Mango one, iced. It was incredibly fragrant, floral with fruity notes. We learnt about caffeine content and how to brew iced tea. It turns out, I like my iced tea unsweetened. Who knew?
We then walked through Gold Coast, past the old Playboy mansion, and over to Old Town.
Old Town feels quite suburban, the buildings are lower and there are many people out and about, walking dogs, sitting at cafes, generally being. The whole place has a chilled out vibe. We stopped off first to sample sushi – a place that’s been around since 1967 and is still family run, Kamehachi. I sampled the spicy tuna delux maki, which was excellent. Then we crossed the street to The Fudge Pot and ate home-made butter toffee. If I could’ve I would have bought baskets of the stuff, but sadly, in the heat, it was destined to melt back into a pool of syrupy chocolate/toffee mess so I restrained myself. I had a number of samples whilst in the shop though.
Then we went a little back down the street to Old Town Oil, a place of true awesomeness. They stock a variety of olive oils and balsamics (from Modena), of varying flavour and age. We sampled a variety, but my favourite by far was the white peach balsamic and the California ‘mission’ olive oil, with a peppery finish. I had to go back later and buy bottles of both and I’ve been using the balsamic with all the peaches I’ve been baking lately. It’s just amazing.
We then went right next door to The Spice House, where we got to sample a variety of spices (not quite as strange as it sounds, I promise). The Spice House has clever names for their combinations, like Lakeshore Drive, Back of the Yards Garlic Pepper, and Hyde Park seasoning, often named after specific neighbourhoods.
I also really like their window display, with all it’s fresh herbs.
From there we walked to our final stop, via some classic Chicago houses (some I wouldn’t mind living in either).
Our last stop was Delightful Pastries where we ate pierogies filled with potato and cheese, followed by some macaroons. Delightful Pastries makes European baked goods to serve one of the largest Polish populations outside of Warsaw, so pierogies happen to be one of their specialities. They were warm, slightly oily, smooth and salty. I was instantly hooked.
The tour was a great way to spend three or so hours wandering the neighbourhoods of Chicago. Colleen was fun and informative, the places we visited were all family owned (and they all smelt amazing when we walked in), and most of all, it took me to a part of the city I might have overlooked on my short visit.
Hello dear readers,
I am writing to you live from the metropolis of East Lansing, which is the home of Michigan State University. I’m here at a conference – an awesome one, where people talk about food all day. It’s amazing.
I wasn’t sure if I’d have time to write anything whilst I was here, but I’ve found a minute. Food wise, things have been interesting so far. It seems I am really bad at eating whilst travelling – I’m better once I’ve gotten to my destination so my eating experience in the US started at Atlanta airport (which was spectacularly efficient). I got all excited about the different M&M flavours they have – almond, pretzel, peanut butter (small dance). I bought the pretzel ones. I’m not convinced. I also bought crisps. I did actually have enough time to seek out proper food but I just didn’t feel like eating.
My first night in Chicago wasn’t much better – we were delayed in Atlanta on the runway for 2 hours whilst we waited for a storm to pass so by the time I got to my hotel I was anxious to get showered and go walking. It got to half 9 and I suddenly realised I hadn’t eaten and was totally in need of sleep so I found this tea place that served chickpea salad and had that with this weird chocolate mint drink that they made with white tea. It was odd but addictive all at once.
The next morning I got an early Amtrak train over to Michigan. I didn’t have time to eat or get coffee before getting on the train so I ate on board. Everything was pre-packaged and the coffee was almost undrinkable but I persevered with a bagel and cream cheese. It’s one of the few photos I’ve taken of food on this trip.
The conference food has been pretty good – it is a food conference after all and MSU are very into using local. There’s lots of fruit and bagels and yogurts for breakfast and we had really good chargrilled chicken at lunch. But my highlight so far was dinner this evening. I’m staying in a residence hall and they have a central dining hall which, in term time, serves 2400 students a day. I went up this evening for dinner and for $10 you can have as much as you want. There’s a variety of drinks – juice, coffees, colas. You can get cereals if you really want. There’s a whole selection of food stations – you can get sushi or burgers or pizza or vegetarian, roast chicken or pasta. You can have it all! It’s mind blowing. There was a salad bar with like 15 different things on it, plus seeds and dried fruit. You could get fresh fruit too. And ice cream! (I had the cake batter flavour and another one which was green swirl which was a bit like cream soda in ice cream form. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t convinced by either.)
I made several trips to various stations. I started with the roast chicken, which they were roasting whole and then portioning to order, with mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. It came from the ‘homemade’ station and it was exactly like the food you read about in Southern stories. (I think it’s possible that I read too much about food.) Then I got miso soup with tofu from the veggie station and some fruit (melon and strawberries). Then I thought I’d try the salad bar – the pasta salad with broccoli was the best, the baby mielies were questionable – before being completely ridiculous and having the ice cream. It was awesome. And so relaxed – there were students, parents, people with small children. There were a variety of eating areas, spaced all around the food service area. And the chefs, as it started to wind down, were eating too. Totally awesome dining experience. It makes our service pale in comparison in terms of choice. I may have to go again before I leave and take photos.
That’s all for now! The pictures are all of Chicago and the places I passed on the train trip. I’ll take more of where I actually am soon!