Currently viewing the category: "Food-ways"

1941

Jim and Pete’s  restaurant,  7806 West North Ave. in Elmwood Park opened in 1941 serving hand rolled, thin crust pizza on the gritty west side of Chicago. The restaurant has since expanded to feature risotto of the day,  steak vesuvio and baked clams drizzled with the house wine sauce.

Jim and Pete’s never closed, even to bust a union, like Berghoff’s did in Chicago.

Italian Village, 71 W. Monroe in Chicago (opened 1927) has a legitimate streak under its third generation.

Current Jim and Pete’s owners are Michael Bucchianeri and Jim Sorce, Jr. which gets a first time visitor to wondering why the swingin’ exterior signage still says “Jim & Pete’s.”

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Present day Jim & Pete’s

“Pete (Pizzo) was my uncle,” Sorce explained during a recent Monday evening  conversation at the Italian bistro. “Two brother- in- laws started it. Then they broke up. The reason the sign still says Jim and Pete’s is that my father (Jim) couldn’t afford a new sign.”

To commemorate 75 years of Jim and Pete’s, throughout April customers will receive a gift card for an amount between $10 and $1,000 to be revealed upon a subsequent visit. The cards will expire at the end of  the year.

“We were going to roll back the prices,” Bucchianeri said.   “But it’s been so long we couldn’t find the prices.”

Jim and Pete’s seats about 160 people in a warm contemporary setting of exposed brick and dim lighting, There’s also comfortable seating at a large bar area. Bucchianeri calls the vibe “polished casual.”

The original Jim and Pete’s was a brick storefront restaurant/lounge at West Chicago Avenue and Pulaski in Chicago. It was the second pizza parlor in Chicago, according to Sorce. (Pizzeria Uno opened in 1943.)

The family grew up near the restaurant. Sorce said his father and uncle were taught their craft by a New York pizza maker.  “New York pizza is too thin,” he said with groan. “They don’t do the ingredients right. Ours is hand rolled. A machine flattens out the bubbles. And the bubbles make it a little more fluffy. My favorite is sausage, onion, mushroom and bacon. You’ve never had one like that. It’s a little thicker, although we do make a thin one, pan and stuffed. People call for everything.”

After leaving Chicago, Jim and Pete’s moved to 7315 W. North Avenue (at Harlem) in River Forest and  stayed in that location for 36 years.

Jim (left) and Michael Bucchianeri (D. Hoekstra photo)

Jim Sorce, Jr. (left) and Michael Bucchianeri (D. Hoekstra photo)

“That’s when I took over because my father got sick,” Sorce said. “We moved here in 1986 because we wanted liquor. River Forest was dry. But we never closed. We moved eight blocks away and we still put out orders. I don’t know how we did it.”

The Jim and Pete’s menu has subscribed to a blend of Northern and Southern Italian cooking. Scorce’s mother Edith was from Naples. 

“She was from the north and my father was from Sicily, south,” he said. “They mixed it up. They used to argue about the sauce (Northern Italian is known for more of a buttery cream sauce.) Our pasta is made fresh for us. We’re proud of that. My mother taught my cook when he was 15 years old. She worked with him for eight and a half years and he became pretty good.”

Edith’s bracciole recipe shows up on the Jim and Pete’s menu: thinly sliced flank steak rolled up in breadcrumbs, onions, garlic, parsley and panetta. Jim and Pete’s also makes more than 1,000 hand rolled meatballs every week.

The homemade salad dressing and marinade is a neighborhood staple. Created with red wine, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, oregano and lemon juice, 12-ounce bottles of the salad dressing are sold at the front of the restaurant.

Jim and Pete’s is a quintessential neighborhood joint.

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Former Blackhawk Jerry Korab–a neighborhood guy.

It is a slice of old school Chicago without the high taxes. “We have second generation customers,” Bucchinaeri said. “We had a baby shower here last Sunday and it turned out they also had the mother’s shower here when she was a baby.”

Long time Chicago restauranteur Vic Giannotti (Giannotti’s, Nick’s Village, the North Star Inn) often pops in on Monday nights defending the virtues of classic Southern Italian cooking with dried pasta and olive oil. Popular Dean Martin-influenced singer Tony Ocean is a regular customer and tuxedoed vocalist Jimmy Nightclub has played Jim and Pete’s.

Sorce is a hockey fan and old school Blackhawks Bobby Hull, Moose Vasko and Stan Mikita used to visit Jim and Pete’s.

Many  1960s-70s era Blackhawks lived in the Elmwood Park-River Forest neighborhood, and in fact,  78th Avenue directly east of the restaurant recently was renamed Jerry Korab Way,

Korab played 16 years in the National Hockey League and Blackhawks fans knew him as “King Kong.” Korab has lived in Elmwood Park for more than 25 years.

Sorce asked, “Remember Paul Shmyr?”

Shmyr was a Blackhawks defenseman between 1968-71 before going on to star in the short lived World Hockey Association (WHA). He died of throat cancer in 2004 at the age of 58. “Paul was in the playoffs in New York so I brought his wife to the hospital to have their baby,” Sorce recalled. “I was in the hospital and they were calling me Mr. Shmyr.”

Jim and Petes’s features framed photographs of baseball great  Joe Di Maggio, and  Frank Sinatra. A large class picture of mob movie actors hangs near the bar. The restaurant even played into the 2007  Family Secrets trial that stung the Chicago mob.

Bucchianeri asked, “Would you call it a ‘salesman,’ Jimmy? He asked to buy like 17 (pizza delivery) boxes.” Sorce picked up the story, “I had my menu stapled on a box I gave him, Well, they killed the guy.”

He did not say what guy, nor did I ask.

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Sorce continued, “They show it on the news, open the trunk and there’s Jim and Pete’s. You talk about hockey players, well we had the other guys. Then the FBI comes to interview me. They got my name. I’m sitting there having soup. My mother had mad me soup. She’s yelling, ‘My son is a good boy!’ They were all embarrassed.”

According to Jeff Coen’s “Family Secrets”  (The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob) [Chicago Review Press], outfit brothers Nick and Frank Calabrese, Sr. had moved to Elmwood Park after leaving Chicago. Nick testified against the mob, resulting in the conviction of his brother, Joey “The Clown” Lombardo and others.

Sorce bought the current Jim and Pete’s, which was a shuttered refrigerator store. The space was opened up and a wall was added, which creates down home intimacy

Bucchianeri said, “When Jimmy was in the River Forest location my uncle Vito and Jimmy were partners. That’s when they moved here.” Sorce said, “Vito was 10 years older than me. He wanted to get out, Michael worked for us a lot. He was managing the place so Vito sold his part to Michael.”

Bucchianeri reflected,  “The nice part is we could be slow in the dining room on a night and we’d have three caterings in the day and the day is made. You could be slow in the dining room and catering and be hot on deliveries. You have all these avenues to generate income which really helps the longevity of the restaurant.”

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NASHVILLE, Tn—The meat and three experience is as unique to Nashville, Tn. as the wigs on Dolly Parton. Despite upscale growth, the metropoliatan area embraces at least a half dozen traditional meat and threes, ranging from Arnold’s Country Kitchen to Wendell Smith’s (no relation to the late African American baseball journalist.)

Meat and threes are exactly that: meat (baked ham, baked or fried chicken, fried pork chop) with a choice of three vegetables such as cole slaw, fresh turnip greens, fried corn, squash, candied yams, snap peas, pinto beans, okra and more.

The meat and three is the country cousin of the blue plate special, where compartments on a china plate divided meat from  vegetables.
The meat and three is crossing over and out of Nashville. This fall New York chef Harold Moore (of the late Commerce) is slated to open Harold’s Meat and Three in SoHo, the first meat and three in the Big Apple.
“Meat and three, soul food and country cooking is bascially the same thing,” said Benji Cook, owner of Wendell Smith’s, 5300 Charlotte Ave. on the west side of town. “I’m a country boy, I have a soul food cook and we’re serving meat and threes.” A meat and three at Wendell Smith’s runs $8.07. Folks can order a meat and two, but it is only 50 cents less than a meat and three.

Benji Cook (all photos by Dave Hoekstra)

Benji Cook (all photos by Dave Hoekstra)

The stamped brick restaurant opened in 1952 on the site of a former open air farmer’s market . Wendell Smith’s was popular in the blue collar neighborhood where many residents worked at the nearby Ford Glass Plant.

“They also built a state prison (Riverbend Maximum Security Institution) down here,” said Cook, whose father and retired owner Benji Cook is Smith’s son-in-law. “That’s how West Nashville started. Now its transitioning into these hipsters. They’re tearing
down these little $60,000 houses.”
It’s okay to slip across the street for dessert at Bobbie’s Dairy
Dip, a vintage mid-century ice cream stand and sandwich shop. Don’t miss the ice cream cone with chocolate dip and rainbow sprinkles.

“Bobbie’s was originally Harper’s Dairy Dip,” Cook said. “My grandmother was good friends with the Harpers. They ran boats on the Cumberland River together. Claire (Mullally) was an attorney who did all this research and got the best ice cream, the best angus beef and it became the ultimate dairy dip. Then she sold it and it is still doing well.”
Meat and three is a big deal all over Nashville. Arnold’s Country Kitchen, 605 Eighth Ave. South is within walking distance from Jack White’s studio, Swett’s, 2725 Clifton Ave. is on the north side of
town and is popular with nearby Fisk University students and the Kleer-Vu Lunchnoette is the go-to spot in Murfreesboro 30 miles outside of Nashville.

“It’s the way we eat here,” Cook said. “There’s the Bible Belt so maybe we have the meat and three belt.” Due in great part to its industrial heritage Birmingham, Ala. has a modest meat and three scene and Cook pointed out, “Cracker Barrell is a meat and three but I’m not a food critic.”

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Wendell Smith’s batting order

Wendell Smith’s holds about 110 people including 13 at counter stools. A hand scrawled sign at the front door declares “No Saggy  Pants, Thanks Management.” An adjacent liquor store sells Tootsie’s
apple pie moonshine. Steve Smith, co-owner of the historic Tootsie’s honky tonk is good friends with Cook. “He says he’s going to open a meat and four and put me out of business,” Cook said with a laugh.
Wendell Smith’s is a favorite stop of former Chicago songwriters John Prine and his brother Billy. In the late 1960s Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner would adjourn in the rear of the restaurant after
doing their WSM television show. Benji Cook was a golfing partner of Wagoner’s. Parton still orders out for the turnip greens.
The menu changes daily at Wendell Smith’s. Roast beef, baked ham and pit bar-b-que are served daily. “Roast beef is our number one seller,” said Cook, 50. “We serve it hot open face over white bread, wheat bread whatever. We make our own cole slaw. We sell a lot of turnip greens. We peel 10 to 12 five gallon buckets of potatoes by hand every day.”

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What is not be part of a meat and three?
“Jello,” he answered. “We make it ourselves. We put fresh canned fruit in it. We sell a lot of it.”
Wendell Smith’s also makes its own cheese sauce for some killer macaroni and cheese. “We take 20 pounds of smooth melt (American) cheese, put four gallons of milk in it, put it in a double bowl and melt it down,” Cook explained. “We pour a little roux in, put it inthe cooler and pour it over the cold pasta. Then we bake it oven as needed.

With the name ‘Cook’ on the table, was taking over the family business inevitable for Cook?

“I was working on big boats and probably wasn’t going to do that the rest of my life,” he answered. “I was a deckhand on a private yacht. I was in Europe and the Caribbean. It’s a good time when you’re young.” He returned to the restaurant in 1994.

His cook Dolleene London started at Wendell Smith’s when she was 24 years old. She has been at the meat and three for 27 years. She learned how to cook from her grandmother.

Dolleene London

Dolleene London

“A meat and three is based on the cooking you would get at home,” said London, who was born and raised in Nashville. “Southern baked chicken with home grown turnip greens. You can get the cabbage, a good old home southern soul food meal. I cook with care and pride. I would want everybody to eat the way I eat. I care about my job.

” Everybody loves my baked chicken. Now, I’m not going to give you my recipe, but I don’t skin it. I season it well and bake it off. I have a dressing I put on top of it when its ready. It is my personal
touch, gravy and all.”
And the personal touch is the fourth ingredient of the beloved meat and three.
Wendell Smith’s is open from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, (615) 383-7114; breakfast served all day.

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All photos by Paul Natkin unless otherwise noted.

All photos by Paul Natkin unless otherwise noted.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—The walls of the main dining room at Niki’s West feature assorted anchors and life preservers. A white silhouette carving depicts a fisherman casting a wide net.

The nautical decor does an enchanting job of transporting customers to a far away place.

But where is this place?

Niki’s West was opened in 1957 by Greek immigrant Gus P. Hontzas. It is in an industrial park across the street from the Birmingham Farmer’s Market, which accounts for Niki’s spot-on-fresh vegetables. 

The long cafeteria -buffet style line is a landmark destination for Birmingham’s working class. The line moves fast in a place that has been slow on change.  Every weekday afternoon about half of the customers in the 420-seat restaurant are African-Americans, who because of segregation laws, would not have been allowed to eat at Niki’s West in 1957.

In the fall of 1957 the Civil Rights Act was passed, giving every American the right to vote. About 20 per cent of African-Americans could vote in 1957 and the Civil Rights Act was the first major civil rights legislation passed by congress since 1875.

Niki’s West also invites the debate between the southern “Meat and Three” and “Soul Food.” The restaurant serves 10 entrees and 40 vegetables every day. The “Meat and Three” generally consists of a meat accompanied by three vegetable and/or potato items. But most local African-American customers say Niki’s West has the best soul food in Birmingham. Niki’s is known for its lemon icebox pie, colllared greens and fried orka.

Niki’s is owned and operated by Pete and Teddy Hontzas, the sons of Gus. They are straight shooters. Once that is understood, everything is cool at Niki’s. Just a few years ago Niki’s West had house rules like “No Tank Tops, No Bare Feet, No Rollers on Head.” During a May, 2014 visit a sign in the kitchen read “When you’re on the clock you’re off the phone.”

Pete was dialed in during a lively conversation in Niki’s kitchen. 

“More blacks call this soul food,” he said. “More white people call it meet and three.  In the country they all call it soul food. There’s no racial thing. Soul food is like good music. It sticks to you.

“It conquers your soul.”

Pete Hontzas (center)

Pete Hontzas (center)

Amy C. Evans is the lead oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance, an affiliated institute of he Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. “Meat and Three is absoultely soul food,” she said. “Meat and Three might be more generally associated with a white establishment, but it is just the way people ate. When you need to feed the body to do the work you had to eat a good amount of nutrient rich and energy providing food.”

Birmingham is known as “The Magic City” because of it’s rapid growth between 1880 and 1920. There is no more magical place in Birmingham to witness the fluid exchange between the city’s past and present than at Niki’s West.

Niki’s West is named after Gus’s daughter Nicoletta. In 1951 Pete and Teddy’s great aunt (his Grandpa’s sister) and great uncle started Niki’s downtown on 2nd Avenue. It was challenging to get the Hontzas brothers to sit down during a visit to Niki’s West. Teddy was slicing steaks in the kitchen and Pete was dealing food for the cafeteria line.

Restaurant manager Diane Simmons was running interference and directing traffic. She started working at Niki’s 1994, seven years before Gus’s death. “Gus was agile,” she declared before seating a couple out of the buffet line. “He was good hearted. He expected you to do what you were hired to do. Both the sons do what it takes to do what keeps the wheels going. It’s busy. On a good day, between breakfast, lunch and dinner I will seat between 900 and 1,200 people.”

Diane Simmons at lunch time.

Diane Simmons at lunch time.

Around two in the afternoon Pete sat down in a small corner to the side of the crowded kitchen.

This seemed to be his place in the world.

“My Dad and his three first cousins came over from Greece in 1951,” Hontzas said. They lived in a small primitive dirt road village where they grew up under the lights of lanterns at night. “My Dad first went to Jackson (Ms.) to stay with my Grandmother’s brother,” Hontzas said. “He learned how to cook, just like the other cousins did. He actually started here in ‘59. My great aunt and great uncle gave him an opportunity from a country that was in a civil war.”

Common threads run through this port of call in the deep American south.

“They basically got pushed out of Greece,” he continued. “The restaurant gave them a chance to excel . So they paid rent to the great aunt and great uncle for running the two places. That’s how it got started. That’s the true story, not some internet thing.”

During their embryonic years Niki’s West and the Niki’s downtown also had lounges with go-go dancers. The present day Niki’s West kitchen is where the lounge used to be. “That’s what they were known for, really,” Hontzas said as he began chain-smoking Winston Lights into my face. 

“In those days go-go dancing was very popular. You had good music back then.  How are you going to have go-go-dancers with this sorry ass music today? Do you classify music as art or just noise? I classify it as noise and thensome downward. In 1984 we got rid of the lounge. The lounge was bigger than the (original)  kitchen, that tells you something.”

Typical mid-1960s go-go dancers-- not at Nikki's West. (Photo not by Paul Natkin)

    ’60s go-go dancers– not at Nikki’s. (Photo not by Paul Natkin)

The large back dining room was added in 1991 at Niki’s West. Gus was pointing towards the future. “Dad always depended on my brother and I,” Hontzas said. “He would have not built that last addition if we were not going into the business. I think he was ready to sell it or deal with what he had. It still is not for me. I look about 60, don’t I? ”

Pete Hontzas was born in 1966. He started working at the restaurant on summer shifts in 1974. He made $5 a day washing dishes and bussing tables. “I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “But I hated school. I’ve learned everything at this place.”

Only recently did Pete and Teddy remove their cigarette machine that was by the front door. A sign said “Smoking is not encouraged but accepted.” Pete rapidly explained, “It’s true. You have to visualize that line you went through today is not like it was. We had a jukebox. A cigarette machine. It was a hole-in-the-wall. I told Dad the cigarette machine looked tacky in here. But he said, ‘That damn machine makes $400 a month.’ So that’s why that sign was there. It became an icon. It’s a colorful place. Are you Polish, German or what?

“They call Chicago, New Orleans the melting pot. We are the melting pot of Birmingham. We have blue collar workers, white collar workers, lawyers, politicians, couples and families who can save a lot more money by eating here. The dynamics of the city have changed. The city is spread out. There’s growth south of the city. People are going to Hoover (pop. 82,000, the largest suburb of Birmingham)

“A lot of municipalities have their own places to eat. We’re kind of a destination point. They probably come here for the entertainment, but I want them to come for the food first. That’s soul food. I  can eat more black than a white man can. I can eat more white than a white man can. I can eat more Greek than a Greek man can. I love good food.”

Auburn University baseball-football legend Bo Jackson has visited Niki’s West several times. Actor-comedian Chris Rock stopped at Niki’s West in when he was in town. The Rolling Stones launched their 1989 tour in Birmingham and two of the Stones ate at Niki’s West. 

Hontzas cannot remember which ones they were. “Why don’t they come get my autograph?,” he asked. “If a hot shot lawyer comes in here do you think I’m going to bow down to him? I think not. Humility is the bottom line.”

Niki’s West is north of downtown Birmingham.

Over time Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor emerged as one of the most menacing faces of the civil rights era. In May, 1963 he green-lighted the Birmingham police and fire department use of firehoses and police dogs on demonstrators, many of whom were children and high school students. The violence was televised and forced  viewers to look at civil rights with a more sympathetic eye. 

The speed of change began to accelerate. The Civil Rights Act prohibiting racial discrimination was passed in 1964 and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was given the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.  President Kennedy said, “The civil rights movement owes Bull Connor as much as it owes Abraham Lincoln.” Today, a cold steel life-size statue of a generic Birmingham policeman and a barking dog confronting a member of the non-violent “Children’s Crusade” stands with other civil rights era statues in downtown Kelly Ingram Park. Connor confronted the demonstrators in this park, named after the first sailor in the U.S. Navy to be killed in World War I.

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Hontzas was not born During Connor’s reign of terror in 1963.

“I’m full blooded Greek,” he said. “If you act right and judge content by your character, I don’t have any problem. If you act like a fool, white, black, whatever, you’re getting your ass out the door. 

I don’t look at people through color. I was brought up that if you do right, right will follow. We are gracious people. We want people to be happy.”

Willis Huggins, Sr. started eating at Niki’s West in the early 1970s. 

He was an African-American salesman across the street at Alabama Paper & Metal Works. On a busy afternoon in May, 2014 he was enjoying beef liver, cabbage and rice with his wife Hattie, son Willis, Jr. and brother-in-law Henry Jackson of Salisbury, N.C.

Huggins looked around the room and said, “About 40 years ago where we could only stick our heads in the door and get our orders to go. We were not allowed to be seated here.” Huggins was semi-retired and presiding elder at the A.M.E. African Episcopal Church. He oversees 21 churches in west Birmingham and four in Greensboro, Ala.

“I hear about people buying meat and threes here, but I’ve never had it,’ said Huggins, who was born in 1943.  “I call this soul food–down home country cooking. You have to have some neck bones.”

Stephanie Powell is a stay at home Mom who gets out of the house twice a week and drives 17 miles one way from her home in Hoover to Niki’s. “This is soul food and any vegetable you can name,” said Powell, who was born in 1968. “And their vegetables are fresh. Some places you go to you can tell the vegetables are out of the can. I’m a cook, I’m a caterer. They probably got these turnip greens across the street at the farmer’s market. This place has stood the test of time. It made it through our bad economy. We had so many restaurants close down in Birmingham.”

Her friend Kenyatta Strait has been coming to Niki’s since 1999. 

Strait said, “Today I had turnip greens, fried corn, I loved the sweet tea and Greek chicken.” Strait had doggie bags for her Red Velvet Cake and Greek Chicken. “Greek chicken is popular (four days a week),” Hontzas said. “Blackened tialpia, veal cutlet very popular and served every day. Yesterday we had rib-eye steaks. You can’t beat that. Six ounce rib-eye medium rare? That’s beautiful. We had barbecue chicken yesterday, we didn’t have Greek chicken. Pork chops tomorrow, turkey and dressing tomorrow. We have a fresh salmon we do Creole style.”

Willis Huggins, Sr, wife Hattie (far right) and family

Pete Hontzas is not shy about dishing out soul food philosophy.

“People used to love fried chicken with a bone in it,” he said. “Now adults want chicken fingers. What does that tell you where we are going? We used to serve whole flounders. The younger generation doesn’t know what a whole fish tastes like. It is two times better with the bone in it than it is filleted. I won’t eat filleted fish hardly. I have an old soul and my customers love that. I was brought up to like good. food. period.

“You have to something out there you can make money on, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. In this politically correct society they don’t classify macaroni and cheese as a vegetable. We do. Starch and protein? We don’t do all that fancy bullshit. Every day we just write the 10 entrees and 40 vegetables. We include the salad bar as a vegetable.”

The Alabama Farmer’s Market opened in 1956 on 49 acres of land. The membership is now more than 200 growers, and all members must be from the State of Alabama. Niki’s West makes regular visits to the market. 

“That’s why they put this place here,” Hontzas said. “There’s no delivery fee for us. It was so huge back then. Even up to the mid-1990s there was a lot going on there. It’s not as big as it once was.”

Hontzas said he staffs 84 people at Niki’s West. Pete’s cousin John contributes Niki’s secret slaw dressing. And in 2012 another cousin Tim Hontzas opened his own Johnny’s Restaurant, serving black-eyed peas and fried catfish in downtown Homewood, about five miles outside of Birmingham. Tim was born in 1972 and grew up in Jackson, Ms. He named his restaurant after his grandfather Johnny Constantine Hontzopolous who ran his own Johnny’s Restaurant in Jackson from the 1950s through the 1980s.

16th Street Baptist Church, downtown Birmingham, the 1963 target of a racially motivated bombing that killed four girls.

 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, the 1963 target of a racially motivated bombing that killed four girls.

 “This topic you’re writing about gives me chill bumps,” Tim Hontzas said in a separate interview. My grandfather’s logo was ‘We prepare food for the body but good food to feed the soul.’ When I started my thing it was Southern ingredients with Greek influences. We are meat and three with a face lift. It all relates to soul food, it is how it is perceived. Niki’s West is soul food. It doesn’t have to be hog jaws and chitlin’s stereotypes to be soul food.

“I remember coming to Niki’s and seeing my Uncle Gus. I was the only boy and I had three sisters. He doted me as one of his own, which isn’t necessarily a good thing the way he raised those boys stern, stern, stern (laughs). I remember the hustling and the bustling, the yelling and the clattering of the pans.”

Tim Hontzas graduated with a psychology degree from the University of Misssippi in 1995 and for 15 years worked on and off for James Beard-winning chef John Currence at City Grocery in Oxford, Ms.  Hontzas moved to the Birmingham area because his wife Elizabeth Dreiling was a staff photographer for Southern Living magazine.

When he opened his own 85-seat Johnny’s Restaurant in 2012 he used his grandfather’s logo and his 1950s and 1960s menus hang on the walls. “What you have to remember about Niki’s is that it was the shit in the 1970s and 80s,” he said. “They were the first place serving snapper throats. They were the first place driving down to the Gulf of Mexico and bringing back fresh grouper and flounder and hand cutting steaks. And that was the night menu. It’s still the old school way of an 18, 24 ounce rib eye on a wooden platter with a knife stuck up under it and onion rings on top. That’s their damn garnish. There’s no edible flowers or hype. I come from a fine dining background so I know about it.”

Niki’s West also has a modest breakfast menu with grits and hash browns. A bold sign by the front door reminds guests of this fact: “Wake Up! To a Southern Breakfast. Niki’s West.”

“We create our own potatoes,” Pete Hontzas said proudly. “We make everything from scratch. We’re here though, so we do it. My brother and I will always be (behind) the (cafeteria) line. We’re opposites. He’s the younger brother and it becomes very interesting.”

Pete and Teddy trade off shifts. One shift launches at 4:30 a.m. and winds down around 2 p.m. The “night man” comes in around 9:30 a.m. and stays until 10 or 11 p.m. “Next week he’lll do it and I’ll be on the other shift,” said Hontzas, who is married with three daughters and a son “Do you know how that effects your sleeping? We’re stupid though. We make no sense.

“But if you did everything by sense you wouldn’t have America.”

Archie's, March 9, 2014--Photo by Nick Kam

Archie’s, March 9, 2014–Photo by Nick Kam

The corner bar is the center of any urban neighborhood.

You hear small talk, big talk and jive talk. You know you’re walking into a good corner bar when everyone sitting along the bar turns around to see who is coming through the door. There is no place like their place.

Unfortunately in Chicago the  corner bar has gone the way of corner news stands, Cubs victories and vinyl jukeboxes. There are more good corner bars in Milwaukee.

But Archie’s Iowa Rockwell Tavern persists.

The bar celebrates its cornerness to such a degree that it names itself after its Humboldt Park corner.

Archie’s, 2600 W. Iowa (at Rockwell)  has Chicago liquor license No. 177. It is named in honor of founder Archie Boroca, who died in November. Archie’s has been serving good times  since 1943.

In early March we had a signing for The Supper Club Book at Archie’s because of its North Woods ambiance. (Thanks to legendary Chicago DJ Joe Bryl for manning the turntables with sweet soul music.)

I also live a block away so it was  convenient for me.

I started going to Archie’s about 12 years ago when it was an old man bar–as you will hear in this fine video produced by Nick Kam.

Back then retired railroad workers and manufacturers were at the bar, which shut down around 7 p.m. Now, I am the old man. I don’t hang around long on any given Saturday night although I do love the bottled Big Wave Hawaiian beer from the Kona Brewery.

In  recent years I’ve grown to appreciate the classic neighborhood vibe of Archie’s. It goes beyond the hipster Hamm’s $2 beer in a can. According to the tavern’s distributor, Archie’s sold 50,088 cans of Hamm’s in 2013. The metal drawer on a 1922 button cash register says, “Thanks a Lot! Enjoy Drewry’s beer.” Archie was an honorary Meisterbrau brewmaster.

All this  was before the craft beer movement.

Archie's portrait by Nick Kam

Archie’s portrait by Nick Kam

 

Over the weekend Archie’s hosted a neighborhood clean up. The staff takes good care of “Elvis,” the tavern’s mute handyman who is a huge Blackhawks fan. Bar manager Katrina Arthur is the daughter of owner Deborah Pup. Katrina is married to Jon Arthur, a fireman in the Northwest suburbs. They love supper clubs as much as I love Archie’s.

Deborah Pup hit a home run at our event by serving her Kanapki  open faced Polish sandwiches.

Everyone loved them. She was willing to share the recipe with us.

She pointed out she did not invent the sandwich, but they are a traditional favorite in Polish and slavic communities.

“As a child it was a way for my mom Elsie to get some food in me, because I was always way to busy to think of eating,” Pup said in an e-mail. “The recipe can change based on what ingredients you have at home and your ethnic background. I  ate these in my childhood for breakfast as well as my dad Archie. These are a budget friendly alternative to  appetizers at parties and are so tasty it makes people smile and say this sandwich is good. Plus they are great with a ice cold beer.”

photo 2-2

 

Here you go:

Rye bread slices (seed or seedless)

Maslo (Polish mayo) and horseradish cream sauce

Polish ham, krakowska, swiss cheese

Sliced tomato ,sliced garlic /tart pickles, sliced onion,

hard boiled egg slices

parsley, chives or dill (dill is my fave)

 

Assemble the sandwich as written one ingredient on top of another.

Crush the dill before adding it to the sandwich so you can smell its essence.

Smacznego (enjoy).

You got that right!

 

 

 

Union Stockyards, 1947

Union Stock Yards, 1947

Meat purveyor James Calvetti had just one request in 1974 when he built his new office in the heart of the Union Stock Yards. A large window on the north side of the building was to frame the Chicago skyline.

Calvetti was onto a mash-up of Chicago history; through his window he saw the majestic growth from Carl Sandburg’s iconic poem “Chicago” (Hog Butcher for the World)” which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. And his open natural light office was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright disciple Claude Wayne Thomason whose firm also designed North Shore banks.

Calvetti’s son Jamie Calvetti now runs the company from the same lean space built in the former Stock Yards feed lots.

It is the last family purveyor in the Union Stock Yards. (City Foods produces bone-steer navels and Bea’s Best corn beef at 4230 S. Racine.)

East entrance to Union Stockyards, 2014 (D. Hoekstra photo)

East entrance to Union Stock Yards, 2014 (D. Hoekstra photo)

 

James Calvetti Meats, Inc. supplies 35,000 filets a week for a dozen major airlines.

“If you want a good filet in business class, it’s likely coming from us,” Calvetti said in a recent interview, adding that he is under contract to not disclose the airlines. “About half the catering business in the country. Nobody knows that. That’s how we’ve been able to stay here when everybody else has gone away. We niched. There’s four meat companies (Tyson, Cargill, National Beef, American Foods Group) controlling 85 to 90 per cent of the beef that’s sold in this country. We can’t compete with that. We take a tenderloin, which is 5 per cent of the animal and focus on that. We cut and cut and cut.”

And steakhouses are back, back and back in vogue.

The ‘60s inspired Next steakhouse was the latest chapter from Grant Achatz, Dave Berran and Nick Kokonas. Keefer’s Restaurant, a favorite of Calvetti’s, is still going strong. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gave props to the gritty Ronny’s Steak House.

Even the NBA got into the act. The Washington Wizards, who are giving the Bulls fits, began life in 1961 as the Chicago Packers. The league’s first expansion team played down the road from the stockyards at the International Ampitheatre. Despite stars like Walt Bellamy and Sihugo Green they finished in last place with an 18-62 record.

When James Calvetti worked for the now-closed Pfaelzer Brothers in the Union Stock Yards, he sold meat to Chicago classics like the Ambassador East and West, the Palmer House, and Fritzel’s, 201 N. State St., one of Kup’s favorite restaurants. He called Fritzels’ Chicago’s answer to New York’s Toots Shor’s.

“Restaurants today are boutiquing the business,” Calvetti said. “It is marketing. You’re taking something you would normally sell at ‘X’ and sell it for 140 per cent of ‘X’, which is a wonderful thing. How do you justify it? You have to give it a great name. It is good food, don’t get me wrong, but what they’ve added to what’s always been done at Fritzel’s and Binyon’s is that they’ve put a story to it. Now my Dad would say they haven’t invented a new animal in years. They have mixed the breeds up a bit.”

A James Calvetti sale to Howard Johnson's. In interest of fairness the Calvetti name has been photo shopped; at the time he was a Pfaelzer Brothers salesman.

A James Calvetti sale to Howard Johnson’s. In interest of fairness the Calvetti name has been photo shopped; at the time he was a Pfaelzer Brothers salesman.

I did wonder about growth hormones in the production of beef cattle in America. “The amount of residual nature and or synthetic hormones in beef steak and burgers is virtually undetectable,” Calvetti answered. “A larger issue is the prophylactic of antibiotics  in beef cattle. That should be stopped. I don’t think the meat from beef cattle that are fed a small amount of antibiotics is unsafe, it’s just a poor use of a good medicine.

“My Dad sold the expensive muscles (of the animal). He was extremely good at selling filet mignons. New York strip steaks. Porter House. T-Bones. That’s the middle of the animal. And that’s what Fritzel’s bought. In the 1940s and 50s the high end restaurant business was here and New York. Vegas was still a desert and L.A. was developing. He got a national contract with Howard Johnson’s because he could sell the higher priced parts in volume. From Chicago, especially when Eisenhower came in with the interstates you could distribute all over the country. And previous to that the railroads came through Chicago.

“That’s what made Chicago great.”

And Calvetti looked out his window at the Willis Tower.

*                                                                                             *                                               *                                                         *

James Calvetti began his career in 1936 as a 19-year old messenger boy for Swift & Co. in the stockyards.

My father began his 41-year career at Swift in 1939 as a 19-year-old messenger boy for Swift & Co. in the stockyards. He told me there was a crew of nearly 100 messenger boys in mail and telegraph rooms.

The stockyard slaughterhouses were directly west of the Calvetti office. The slaughterhouses left in the 1950s and 60s. Calvetti worked for the high-end Pfaelzer Brothers from 1945 until 1972. He left to start his own company. He was 56 years old.

James Calvetti staff 1968 (Courtesy of Jamie Calvetti)

This is Chicago!–James Calvetti staff 1968 (Courtesy of Jamie Calvetti)

“My Dad was a natural salesman,” Calvetti said in firm tones. “He went to Midway Airport,  which at the time was the busiest airport in the world. He went to the United Airlines flight kitchen. At that time there were eight to 10 kitchens owned by the airlines staffed by German, French and Swiss chefs from after the war. Each flight kitchen was putting out different food at different costs all over the country.

“He went into the Army in 1943. He was in the Pacific and went on to Australia where he met my Mom (Veronica) at the USO in Brisbane.” She was an Australian Red Cross nurse.  He married her in two weeks and went  AWOL.  Calvetti explained, “They had bride ships out of Australia, 600 women on a boat. Guys had snatched up all the women. They came to Chicago but nobody remembers the meat was rationed during the 1940s. He went back to Pfaelzer Brothers. They had saved a spot for him.”

Jamie Calvetti in the cooler (Photo by Lance Mulvey)

Jamie Calvetti in the cooler (Photo by Lance Mulvey)

James Calvetti created the idea of central purchasing. He sold the same steak from the same company at the same price. “I met some of these older chefs as a kid,” Calvetti said. “They wanted to control it. My Dad had to shepherd and herd it through.”

James Calvetti died in 2006 after a fall in his Glenview home. He was 89. His son said he was active in the business until age 85.

Historic photos courtesy of Jamie Calvetti

Historic photos courtesy of Jamie Calvetti

 

“My Dad was the oldest living customer at Schaller’s (Pump),” Calvetti said. “He went there over 50 years. He was going there when Jack’s father was there. They had a plate of limberger cheese on the table when you came in.”

I called Jack Schaller to confirm this.

Jack turned 90 in January. Like my 93-year-old father and Calvetti, he is the last of a breed. “Jimmy was my oldest customer,” Schaller said earlier this week. “He sat right by the basement door. He was very serious, but a nice guy. He’d have one Scotch. Only one.”

The rough boundaries of the stockyards were 47th to Pershing and South Ashland to South Halsted.

Schaller’s Pump was ground beef zero.

Chicago Bar Project photo

Schaller’s Pump—-Chicago Bar Project photo

 

 

Calvetti said, “When I started in 1974 it was thriving down Halsted Street to where Schaller’s is. They were meat companies and they were the ones that survived from when the stockyards moved out. They were family businesses but nobody was raising their kids to work in the meat business.

 

“There’s a culture here. With the commoditization of the food business many of the meat companies couldn’t survive. Or the generations passed. (Guarino’s Wholesale Meats ’s is still next to Schaller’s out of the stockyards.) Nobody has children wanting to come up.”

 

Most of the meat at today’s Chicago steakhouses is raised where it always was, according to Calvetti.

He explained, “The good product is between Omaha and Minneapolis, Indianapolis and a bit east of Denver, where we have water. The rest of the world doesn’t have this clean water we have. The Mississippi River lays down 12, 14 feet of beautiful thick topsoil. That is the finest grazing land in the world.” Calvetti’s animals come from Nebraska.

About 25 people work at James Calvetti Meats, hand cutting and packaging filets. Last year Calvetti invested in two new multi-vacuum packaging machines.

“Bridgeport Dave” shows up at 3:30 a.m. and starts processing at 5 a.m in the 34-degree 10,000 square-foot cutting room. Packaging foreman Margie Borowski is from Poland. The Back of the Yards resident has worked at Calvetti’s for 25 years.

DSCN6198

Margie Borowski (D. Hoekstra photo)

 

Stern looking head butcher John Kopinksi  has been with Calvetti’s  35 years. He told me he does a few thousand cuts a day, into five and six ounce slabs. He drives to Bridgeport from his home in south suburban Palos Hills.

Life is good in these parts.

“Airlines are moving more to pre-prepared foods,” Calvetti said. “Now they haven’t gotten to pre-prepared filets but it could come down the line. We’ve developed some new products. Salmon florentine. Chicken Gordon Bleu wrapped in bacon. They help me diversify. The dough is cooked in the packets. Many of them are packaged and cooked in a thermal pill which is a new product. We’re working with an airline company. We’re also working with distributors that sell into retail.  We’re the only ones in the country today doing this. In two years there will be others.”

James Calvetti was at a crossroads when Pfaelzer Brothers closed. His son recalled, “All I hear is my father saying at 56 years old is ‘I went out and started my own business ‘when everyone else laid down and died’.” His son can be a fast and sharp talker but he slowed down to make a point:

“The person I had to convince about change the very most was me.”

 

Signed, sealed and delivered (D. Hoekstra photo)

Signed, sealed and delivered (D. Hoekstra photo)

 

 

 

 

30th-anniv-4-1-12 117

Jim Stoecker and his antique cash register
(Courtesy of Alex’s Washington Gardens)

 

During this endless winter, Jim Stoecker had to get away from the quaint Italian restaurant he runs in north suburban Highwood. In late January  Stoecker drove to New Orleans, hopped on a cruise ship and went to Mexico for five days. He ate pizza on the ship. Every day. It wasn’t good pizza but it maintained his streak that never seems to end.

Stoecker claims to have eaten pizza for 2,450 days in a row.

He is the Lou Gehrig of garlic.

“I don’t get tired of eating pizza,” Stoecker said  during a conversation over four 12-inch pizza pies at his Alex’s Washington Gardens in Highwood.

“I get tired of there not being good pizza.”

About two years ago Stoecker sent an e-mail to his customers explaining his unique slice of life. “I realized I had owned this place 775 days and I had pizza 1,774 times,” he said. “ I try pizza wherever I go. Even if I’m driving around Chicagoland and I see a place that says ‘Slices’ and I’ve never been there, I’ll pull in. I know how to make almost every kind of pizza. Even before I bought this place I was collecting pizza cook books. I’m like a pizza anthropologist.”

Every March Stoecker attends the pizza convention in Las Vegas, sponsored by Pizza Today magazine. “The pizza industry is like $40 billion,” he says.

Stoecker, 56, is 6’1” and weighs about 235 pounds.

He looks like actor and fellow man of action Chuck Norris.

On his New Orleans trip Stoecker stopped in his home town of Peoria to have a thin crust pizza at Agatucci’s.

“It was the pizza I grew up with,” he said. “Their pizza morphs between Chicago thin crust and St. Louis thin crust. St. Louis uses a (white) provel cheese blend. Chicago uses mozzarella with parmesan. I took Agatucci’s pizza with me for the drive. On the way back I came through Champaign and went to Papa Del’s, my favorite thick crust place.”

When pressed like cheese to a pan, Stoecker admitted he has missed one day in the streak. That’s okay.

It was on the January trip home from New Orleans.

“I drove from New Orleans to Champaign with a muffuletta sandwich from Central Grocery on the seat next to me,” he said. “So on that day I probably didn’t have pizza.”

Alex's pizza and the Stoecker's dog Mandy in their home kitchen.

Alex’s pizza and the Stoecker’s dog Mandy in their home kitchen.

Stoceker has chosen from 62,044,840,173,323,943,936,000,000 combinations. “I’ve checked this this with two math majors who said we calcuated it right,” he explained. “Here we have 25 toppings and two crusts. And we’ll put anything else on it if you ask. So 25 toppings factorial is that number, it is like 62 quintillion.”

Stoecker stared at his 12-inch Italian beef, hot giardiniera , green olives, garlic, onions and mushroom pizza. It is sort of like a muffuletta.

He smiled.

“This isn’t my pizza,” he said. “This is a Scornavaccao family pizza. I haven’t changed it. I added ingredients like Italian beef. This recipe was invented in 1944. Pizzeria Uno (in Chicago) started in 1943. Pizza was a fad.”

Tony and Ellen Scornavacco, the parents of Alex.

Tony and Ellen Scornavacco, the parents of Alex.

Alex’s Washington Gardens’ began in 1932 when Angelina Scornavaccao sold sandwiches and beverages out of her yard to people who got off the train. “There was an inter urban line that ran along the North Shore,” Stoecker says. “The stop was at Washington and Railroad (now Green Bay Road). Her yard eventually became known as a beer garden, thus ‘Washington Gardens.’ Her sons Tony and Armando built that into a restaurant called Scornavaccao’s Washington Gardens.”

Grandson Alex split away in 1982. He opened his 85-seat restaurant in the current location, which is a 1920s bank building. Stoecker’s basement office is in the former vault.

Stoecker is former CEO of Lufthansa Technik North America Holding Company, Inc., an independent provider of maintenance and repair services for civil aircraft.

He saved the family restaurant.

“My wife and I were customers,” he said. “We’d come her for date nights. We’d split a pizza because I’m a pizza guy. I retired from corporate life about 10 years ago and was looking for a small hands on business. Alex wanted to retire. There was no next generation of the Scornavaccao family stepping up. He was going to let the lease run out and shut it down. I was like, ‘Cannot let that happen to my favorite thin crust pizza’.”

Date night at Alex's with Jim and Michele often features pizza.

Date night at Alex’s with Jim and Michele often features pizza.

 

Stoecker took over the restaurant on May 1, 2007. He didn’t have a deep background in the restaurant business.

“In college (Illinois State), I made pizzas and was a bartender,” he said. “The great thing about this place is that we open at 5 o’ clock seven days a week and we close at 9 Sunday through Thursday and 10 Friday and Saturday.”

The restaurant has about 75 items on the menu and everything is made from scratch. Stoecker’s wife Michele created a breezy gluten free pizza crust with cauliflower. She is a fitness instructor. The rich cheese is purveyed from a small dairy co-op in far northwest Wisconsin.

Stoecker stopped and suddenly pointed at the crust of his pizza. He was a a happy man.

“See the little brown specks?,” he asked. “Most places put corn meal on the pizza paddle. The Scornavaccos used Italian bread crumbs. What we don’t use in our bread baskets we dry out and grind. We put the bread on the bottom where it sits on the stone and roasts up into the crust. It gives it a nutty character. The other is thing is it is drier than corn meal so it makes the crust crispier. Being a pizza anthropologist I had never seen that before.”

Of course this was before Stoecker had the world by his fingertips.

 

 

 

 

 

 

July 20, 2012

I can hardly wait.
Soon I will have my favorite lady over to my house for a candlelight dinner.
I will make my spicy jambalaya, well, because, it is the only thing I know how to make well. I will put on some romantic Curtis Mayfield smooth grooves in the background. On vinyl that crackles like a warm fireplace.
And pour a glass of Super Fly Cabernet.

Yes , it is true. The man of the hour has an air of great power. The dudes have envied him for so long……
A line of three wines named after Mayfield hit songs will be out this fall.

Besides “Super Fly,” named after his 1972 number one hit, look for “Gypsy Woman Chardonnay” (pegged after the 1961 crossover hit by the Impressions) and “Move On Up Merlot,” titled after the 1970 hit from Mayfield’s debut solo album. The wines are being produced by Grapeswine.com out of Norwalk, Ct.

Best of all, a portion of proceeds will benefit the Curtis Mayfield Foundation, which was inspired by the July 20 “Here But I’m Gone” Curtis Mayfield Tribute Concert featuring Sinead O’Connor, the Impressions, Mavis Staples, Dr. Lonnie Smith, musical director Binky Griptite of the Dap-Kings and others as part of the Lincoln Center Festival in New York.

“I tried to start this foundation right after Curtis died (in December, 1999), but it got difficult and I put it on hiatus,” said Altheida Mayfield, who was with Curtis for 28 years. “When I got the call from the Lincoln Center it gave me the opportunity to open it back up . We have a performing arts school here in Atlanta called Tri-Cities (High School).   One of my kids went there. (As did Outkast)”

Tri-Cities graduate  Cheaa P. Mayfield did the label artwork.

His mother said, “Each year I’m going to try to send one of their children that is in the music field off to a college of their choice through a scholarship from the foundation.”

Jake Lambertson is Senior Wine Advisor at Grapeswine.com. “I struck up a relationship with the family,” Lambertson said over the phone from Norwalk. “I used to be a musician myself. We started talking about the Lincoln Center event. We came up with the private label idea. We’re a company that is more palate driven, we have collectively between 10 and 25 years wine experience. We’ve seen other celebrity labels (former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson just announced his own wine line) , a lot of times what is in the bottle falls short. We’re not a gimmick.

“We want to find a wine that is rich. I’m not a hundred per cent sure on the price point, maybe between $35 to $40 a bottle. We’re doing single (California) vineyards for these wines.”

The Impressions, a vintage taste of soul.

And there could be more.
Mayfield scored the soundtrack of the 1976 film “Sparkle” that was updated with Whitney Houston in her final role.
Do you catch my drift?

“Its something Curtis wanted to do,” Mayfield said. “ This just continues on his work. We would do a show at Justin Park in Atlanta and take the proceeds and pay for other artists to come in over the summer. This was to keep the kids off the streets, especially when we had all those kids killed in Atlanta (when 29 children were killed between 1979-81 in the Wayne Williams child murder spree).” The Mayfields moved to Atlanta from Chicago in 1980.

“He was always reaching out to help somebody from the inner city,” she said.

Sept. 19, 2011—

The guy down at the middle of the bar told his friend how he didn’t do anything this summer. I overheard it because the bar is as small as a penny in a fountain.

I asked Jackie for a bar napkin. It was interesting that in a season as compacted as summer in Chicago you can’t do anything.

Bar napkins are good for three things: wiping up junk, drying tears and aborbing thoughts. With a borrowed blue pen I jotted down some of the things I hadn’t done this summer:

Missed seeing the Cubs win much.
Did not go to the historic Centennial Beach in Naperville, nor did I see Russell Crowe swim at ‘The Beach’ when he was living in the neighborhood while filming a movie.
Did not have a picnic along Lake Michigan.
I didn’t do any part of a planned 20th Anniversary of my first Route 66 trip—-which would have included seeing the great Skeletons in Springfield, Mo. Lou Whitney, the band’s ageless bassist knows a lot about Beach Music.

I did learn that the Mill Race Inn closed.
I used to go to the Mill Race Inn a lot when I was younger and summers seemed longer.

The restaurant was in Geneva, about a 60-mile drive away from my home in Chicago. The Mill Race Inn opened in 1933 in a refitted low-level blacksmith shop along the Fox River. I was told it closed for good in January. It was Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s favorite restaurant between 1997 and 1999 when he lived in a 23-room home up the river in St. Charles, Of course. It was by water.

I had lots of memories at this place. I went there before my first homecoming dance and was very nervous about pinning a corsage on my date’s dress with a plunging neckline. I learned to rebel against  bizarre dress codes at the Mill Race Inn, which during the mid-1970s strongly encouraged jackets and ties for men and even teenagers. A rack near the entrance was lined with horrible evergreen suit coats whose sleeves only extended above my wrist.
Humiliating, by every lofty suburban American standard.

Steve, my best friend from high school had his wedding rehearsal dinner at the Mill Race Inn. I covered the first press conference for the minor league Kane County Cougars at the Mill Race Inn. That later parlayed itself into hundreds of books that now sit in my publisher’s storage locker not far from the dead restaurant.

The summer trifecta of the Kane County Flea Market, a Midwest League Cougars game and a post-game stop at the Mill Race’s outdoor Gazebo along the river became one of my summer traditions. Many years ago after a ballgame I sat on the Gazebo bench looking at the ducks in the river and told my friend Chris that if I wasn’t a journalist I would have wanted to be a veterinarian. I can still hear her laughing.
That bench is gone now.

It turned out my last visit to the Mill Race Inn was a surprise birthday dinner a couple of years ago. My birthday  falls in the bright promise of summer’s beginning. I was blindfolded. She drove.  I thought we were going south but we traveled west into a June sunset. It was an early June weeknight and I was surprised the  restaurant was pretty empty. I felt change in the air.

The last owners have blamed the economy and flooding from the river. I can tell they just didn’t care as much as previous owners. Things sustain with attention and care.

The Mill Race Inn will remain a place in time. I keep knocking around this quote NW Indiana regional photographer Gary Ciadella (he’s in my archives) uses from Robert Gard.
No place is a place until things are remembered.

I can’t get it out of my head.  I mentioned it to Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez last week when they were on a bus promoting their upcoming road movie “The Way” in Chicago. Their movie is all about change. They paused, liked it, and asked where the quote came from. All I knew was that Gard was a mid-20th Century Wisconsin folklorist. But his line helps me reflect.

I didn’t do much of anything either this summer.
But I visited beautiful places.

August 17, 2011—

DES MOINES, Ia.—-If it had been up to me I would have carved Southern Belle-isious chef Paula Deen out of a block of butter at the Iowa State Fair.

But like an ambitious diet, or big workout program it wasn’t meant to be.

I was invited to be a ringer in Monday’s  “Battle of the Butter,” held daily on the fairgrounds in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the fair’s fabled butter cow.

I absolutely love the Iowa State Fair, which runs through Aug. 21. I love pork chops on a stick, red velvet funnel cake and the smell of livestock.  I attended the “Nostalgic Comfort Food” competition sponsored by the Brass Armadillo Antique Malls. The Iowa State Fair is the only Iowa destination in the New York Times best selling travel book “1000 Places to See Before You Die.”

And too much butter can do that trick.

I was placed on a three-person team of graphic design teachers from the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) who came  up with a “Butterly on Butter Toast” concept. I could see we were in trouble with the bag full of props such as paper butterfly wings and beady eyes.

Butter is best unprocessed.

We had a half hour to carve our sculpture. I patted down some of the buttery base, steadied the butterfly block and installed some wire antenna.
Most of alI I tried to stay out of the way.

I was amazed the pavilion at the Riley Stage was full to watch us compete with two other teams. Based on the audience response of about 350 butter fans, we finished third.
That would be last.

At least kids were amazed. (Photo by D. Hoekstra)

We did take home nice yellow third place butter cow ribbons and it seemed we were the people’s choice for those under eight who had no reference point to the winning Grant Wood “American Gothic” influenced sculpture. There was more bling to our butter.

.
The daily winning entry gets to be displayed alongside the butter cow in the Agriculture Building’s showcase cooler.

That’s where earlier in the day I went backstage with Sarah Pratt, the state fair’s fourth butter sculptor in 100 years. The butter cow is the biggest attraction at this year’s state fair. Lines to view Pratt’s work are longer than usual for three reasons:
·    The anniversary celebration.
·    The new turning mechanism to display the sculpture from all sides.
·    And the late-June passing of Norma “Duffy” Lyon. The “Queen of the Butter Sculptors” died of complications from a stroke. She was 81. Duffy was the first woman sculptor in the history of the state fair.

Norma  Lyon with her first butter cow, 1960 (Courtesy of Iowa State Fair)

Pratt, 26, apprenticed with Duffy for 15 years until 2006 when she officially assumed the queen’s throne.
Duffy retired in 2006 after 46 years of sculpting. Her nickname is derived from her maiden name of Duffield. Duffy’s uncle Phil Stong wrote the 1932 novel “State Fair” of which the smash Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was based. The setting is the Iowa State Fair. Stong once described his muse for writing: “Fell while trying to clamber out of a low bathtub at the age of two. Became a writer. No other possible career.”

Short sentences stand tall in Iowa.

Sarah Pratt, butter cow sculptor (Photo by D. Hoekstra)

In the past Pratt has depicted Superman of “Superman Returns” fame (in honor of actor Brandon Routh of Norwalk, Ia.) and Bill “Mr. State Fair” Riley in tribute to attending his 60th state fair.
Now I’ve been to two Iowa State Fairs. And three Illinois State Fairs, where they have a 400-pound butter cow.

This year Pratt sculpted a cow , boy and calf, which replicates the 1911 sculpture by J.E. Wallace of Florida. Pratt added a young girl as a tribute to Duffy.

Pratt works off of sketches and photographs. “I had one post card of the 1911 cow,” she said on Monday while touching up her work with a wood spreader. “I had only one perspective which was a challenge to get a three dimensional work.

Pratt carved the 1911 farm scene from 850 pounds of butter. It sits across the showcase from the traditional butter cow made with 500 pounds of butter.
To put all that in perspective, a 600 pound butter cow would butter 19,200 slices of toast. The Midwest Dairy Association has provided all the butter for the state fair since 1960.

Pratt and Duffy attended St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Toledo, Ia. (pop. 1,500) at the same time. “I knew her since I was four,” Pratt said. “My parents went to school with some of her kids.” Duffy raised nine children and countless Jersey cows with her husband Joe. “I was in 4-H and when I was 14 my friend Kari Lyon (Duffy’s great niece) invited me to spend a night in the cattle barn at the Iowa State Fair,” Pratt recalled.

Did I tell you I love the Iowa State Fair?

“She was showing dairy,” Pratt continued. “And while she was showing her dad and uncles sent me here to work in the butter cooler. That was the first year I worked with Norma in any butter sculpting sense. In 2005 she told me she was retiring. She already told the fair I was taking over. So I had to do it.”

Pratt  had  reservations about assuming the position. There was little margarine for error.
“When you’re sculpting in the cooler as an apprentice there weren’t many parts of the sculpture you had done without anyone else affecting it,:” she explained. “To do it by yourself was something to be tested. I wasn’t sure. How much did she come back behind me and switch things?’

Pratt said Duffy chose many of her own butter cow themes: Elvis Presley, Jesus at the Last Supper, and Tiger Woods, which turned out to be her final butter cow,.

Pratt is a quintessential Iowa woman. She lived on a farm until the age of three. Pratt paints and teaches elementary school in West Des Moines.  “Last year I did ‘Green Eggs and Ham,’ so I read the (Dr. Seuss) book the first day of school and showed the kids the sculpture,” Pratt said.

She has twin 7-year-old daughters with her husband Andy who works for an insurance company.
“I wasn’t sure I could continue with two little ones at home,” she said. “But I got talked into it. That was 2004. I sculpted Norma, She didn’t want to sculpt herself, That was the first thing I did without anyone else affecting the work. Then in 2006 I did my first cow without her.

” I was lucky to have her around the first couple of years to give me pointers to make my work better. I’d go to the farm and she’d show me the cows. Her family still did that for me this summer. Her grandson Todd Lyon in a junior at Iowa State and he’s been helping me since his grandmother retired.”

“I love that connection.”

In something that is completely wrong, on the day before my visit animal rights activists snuck in the cooler and posted a “Go Vegan” sign around the butter cow’s neck.

According to the Des Moines Register the activist’s accompanying statement said in part, “The butter cow represents humankind’s tyranny over defenseless animals.”
Come on.
“I didn’t lock the (cooler) door,” Pratt said. “Before this I could just come and go. To give it a positive spin they came here (instead of hassling real animals!) to get the most publicity. The sign was here before the buiilding was open and they caught it early in the day. I was at church and got the phone call and it was already taken care of.”

In the early years of cow sculpting, artists used lard. It keeps better at room temperature. Butter was introduced to the art form as early as the 1850s. Tibetan monks used yak butter to create figurines of animals and deities for worship.

Pratt said carving butter cows outside, as I did, is a completely different animal than working in a cooler.
“It’s pretty hard,” she said. “I work in a 42 degree cooler and I have a room outside that is 60 degrees and tempers all my butter. The sun works against you. The people on the stage have a 55 pound block of new butter which is frozen solid. I do additive sculpture so I have armatures (wood and steel underneath). In the competition, you’re carving from a solid block as if you were carving stone. The key is to have a tool that cuts a lot of butter.”

Pratt shares the home cooking duties with her husband. “We use a lot of butter,” she said. “We did have a bit of a disagreement because my daughters thought margarine was butter. We had to set them straight on that. I use more butter when I bake. When I cook I usually use olive oil.”

Pratt looked about the cooler that has provided so many warm memories. She said, “The butter cow  is a symbol of agriculture that is so recognizable.

“You can always count on it.”