Sweet Home Chicago Day 2: Battle of Porkinator

We shall call today the day of way too much food.

As many of you know, I love food but food, often, doesn’t love me back. It’s all the glorious consequence of having a significant chunk of gastric system removed in order to get rid of cancer and while I am able to eat pretty much whatever I want, I am not able to eat a lot of it at any given time. Occasionally, however, circumstances make me try to push my limits and today was filled with such circumstances.

I started my day with a drive out to Westmont, Illinois, about 20 miles west of Downtown Chicago for the Red, White, and BBQ festival, billed as the biggest barbecue championships in Illinois. The day was absolutely perfect for it –blue, sunny skies with only a few wispy clouds high up and temperatures in the mid-70s.They take over a park and have dozens of competitors, food vendors, carnival rides, live bands, and more.

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This is so completely Midwest in all of the best ways right down to the VW Bus converted into a giant beer keg and the fried Oreo, Milk Way, and Twinkie stands.

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Like most BBQ competitions, the bulk of the actual BBQ is reserved for the judges, leaving the wandering crowds to lick their lips as they walk by the rows and rows of cookers. But they still had several BBQ vendors and I decided to sample as many as I could before I passed out from the meat sweats.

The first was from Fire Water BBQ and I got their pulled pork sandwich. The meat was perfect – tender, smoky, and absolutely delicious even without sauce, which was pretty good, too – maybe a little on the vinegary side for my tastes. The only disappointment was the bun, which was so pedestrian white bread that I just shoved it aside and dove into the pork.

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Next I went to Uncle Bub’s Hickory Smoked Barbeque and tried their pulled chicken BBQ, sans bun, and a side of macaroni and cheese. They went a little heavy on their sauce, as you can see by the picture, but it was good not great. I would’ve cooked it a little more and cut down on the sauce but now I’m just being picky. Despite the not-found-in-nature orange color of the mac and cheese, it was delicious, with a creamy tang.

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Even though I had only had a few bites of each, I was already approaching full but then I saw the sign… this sign…

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That would be pork topped with pork topped with PORK topped with CHEESE! COME ON!!

I requested a smaller version of it and this is what I got:

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Note that their version of smaller was to put a little less pulled pork on the bread at the bottom.  It was impossible to eat without making a giant mess of myself, so I kind of attacked it with a knife and fork and got the general idea.  There was smoky, vaguely spicy pork on the bottom, thin slices of juicy smoked ham above that, and then huge chunks of chewy bacon topped with tangy pepper jack. It was an almost religious experience.  I may have cried a little at one point.

Unsurprisingly, this is where I started to feel as though what is left of my stomach trying to launch itself out of my body. It didn’t, but boy it wanted to.

Although there was more, I decided to be somewhat reasonable and head back into the city to visit the Chicago History Museum. Located on the north side of town, this sparkly, modern facility tells the full history of the city, from its early settlers through the good (largest trade port in the Midwest, architecture, entertainment, agriculture) and bad (the fire, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the 1968 riots) with pit stops along the way at everything from the railroads to fashion to Abraham Lincoln.

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It was all well done and the presentation was top notch but interestingly the best exhibit had very little to do with Chicago at all. It was called The Secret Lives of Objects and it had various things in a stark, black-walled room, and placards in front of each that were written as if the object itself was talking. For instance, there was a phone booth, and it started out something like “I used to be everywhere; on every street corner.” Then it went on to discuss what happened to the phone booths in general and how this particular one got to the Chicago History Museum. There was a booth from a famous nightclub, a bell that had been on a prison camp, and the table on which the documents were signed that ended the Civil War. Fascinating.

Right around the corner was the Second City theater and I headed there for the “Best Of” show, a rapid fire succession of short sketches and improve that was as reliably entertaining as Second City has always been. I loved the show that played in Vegas at the Flamingo for many years and this reminded me how smart and talented this troop of entertainers is. I could never do improv – I can’t even think of things to shout when they ask for suggestion from the audience.

“Name a place” they say, and I start going, “Well, I could say Los Angeles because I’m from there but that’s a little boring and obvious so maybe I’ll say Savannah, because I love the city so much, but what if they don’t know Savannah like I do and they wind up just doing ‘Gone with the Wind’ accents? Okay, so how about I say something offbeat like Tuscaloosa or Poughkeepsie…”

By now they are already done with the improv that they were asking for suggestions to fuel.

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I headed back to the hotel and took a much deserved nap and then woke up hungry, believe it or not. On my jaunt yesterday I had noticed a place called Chuck’s – A Kerry Simon Kitchen. I love Simon’s restaurants in Vegas. His KGB, which closed recently, served up the best burgers in all of Vegas as far as I was concerned, and his Carson Kitchen in Downtown, is a delightful gem of farm-to-table foodie goodness. In addition to being an amazing culinary wizard, the guy is also pretty remarkable in that he is fighting an advanced form of MSA, which is sort of like MS but worse. He has been confined to a wheelchair for awhile now and reportedly has to get fed through a tube but he continues to oversee his restaurants as he can and you have to give him props for that.

The space in the Hard Rock Hotel is modern and kind of bland but the food was fantastic. I had more pork… come on, I’m in the Midwest!… in the form of an apple cider maple glazed pork chop and a twice-baked potato. The chop was thick, insanely juicy (which is not always easy to do with a pork chop), and both sweet and tangy with the maple and apple cider creating a delicious blend of flavors. The potato was an ooey, gooey, cheesy, bacony mess and I loved it. I have no idea how I found room but I ate more than I thought I was capable of eating.

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The night ended with fireworks shot off of Navy Pier over Lake Michigan. What a good day of way too much food)!

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Sweet Home Chicago Day 1

I really need to learn how to be the type of person who can go to a place and just enjoy it, rather than looking at everything and wondering how I’m going to describe it later. It’s the travel writer in me, perhaps yearning for a chance to write about something other than Las Vegas. Don’t get me wrong, I love writing about Las Vegas, but there are so many ways I can describe a buffet or a white tiger.

So here I am on my annual trip to Chicago and here I am writing about it. I hope you enjoy.

I got in late Thursday night after an uneventful flight. I had splurged on first class, just because, and while it is certainly better than economy, this particular plane was not exactly posh. Comfortable, but probably not worth the extra dough I spent. Oh well, at least the movies were free.

“Cake” with Jennifer Aniston. Darned good flick, by the way.

Traffic from the airport into the city is always a nightmare – like, worse than LA traffic believe it or not. An 18 mile trip took me about an hour and forty minutes so by the time I got to the hotel all of the life had been sucked out of me.

I’m staying at the Congress Plaza, which in its day was undoubtedly a stunning place. It was built in 1893 and then expanded in 1902 and 1907 to have more than 1,000 rooms, making it one of the biggest hotels in the world at the time. The location is pretty amazing, on south Michigan Avenue right across the street from Grant Park. I have an incredible view of Buckingham Fountain, which you will know if you ever watched “Married, With Children,” and beyond that Lake Michigan.

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The problem is that this grand old dame has seen better days. The carpeting is threadbare in spots, the wallpaper is scuffed and torn here and there, and someone thought it was a good idea at some point in its history to put in acoustic popcorn ceiling tiles and harsh, white fluorescent lights in the halls and other public spaces. The elevators are best described as rattletrap (and break down frequently) and the fire doors between various sections of the hotel look like they have been bashed into repeatedly by large, heavy luggage (which is probably the case). The furniture in the room, which is circa 1993, appears to have met the same luggage a few too many times.

Still, my room is spotlessly clean, big, with 12 foot ceilings, crown molding, and that aforementioned incredible view and other than sitting here writing about it, I’m not spending that much time here doing anything other than sleeping (on the unusually hard mattress and rock hard pillows) so in the end, it’s fine. I’ve decided to say that it has character and leave it at that.  Did I mention the view?

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Friday I slept in, because, vacation, and then set out on my day’s amusements.

The first stop was Willis Tower, the artist formerly known as the Sears Tower, and the second tallest building in the United States, behind only the new Freedom Tower in New York City. No, I did not go there to go up more than 100 stories and walk out onto a plexiglass box hanging off the side of it. I went because they were supposed to be having a food truck fest on the plaza at the base of it. I believe that I have my priorities in order, thank you very much.

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When I got there, only 4 trucks were parked along the curb and they were pretty lame – a coffee truck, a Chicago pizza truck, something else that was so completely uninteresting that I can’t remember what it was, and a BBQ truck that, for some reason, didn’t seem all that appetizing. I was there on the early side so I decided to waste a little while by going up in the Willis Tower anyway. No, I had no intention of going into the stupid box, but I figured it was there and why not. Well, because the wait time was about an hour and I’m sorry but going up into a crazy tall building so I could experience terrible vertigo and cold sweats is dumb enough but waiting for an hour to do it seemed ludicrous.

So I went to the BBQ truck and ordered a pulled pork slider and some mac and cheese. I should have listened to my instincts. The pork was tough, the sauce was glorified ketchup, and the mac and cheese was… I don’t even know how to describe it. Noodles in a soupy, cheese-like substance with chunks of cheese sitting on top. Um, no.

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I had a plan for the day but this threw a wrench into it, so I decided to rearrange my schedule and head to The Purple Pig for lunch instead of dinner as I had intended. For those of you who may not remember the last time I was in Chicago, this is a delightful little place on Michigan Avenue near the river whose purpose is “Cheese, Swine, and Wine” according to the sign over the front entrance. It is insanely popular and they don’t take reservations so you have to sometimes wait for hours to get inside. Last year I lucked into a single seat at the bar twice and today it happened again. The restaurant was completely full with at least 50 people in line outside and I managed to slide into the one single spot left in the entire joint.

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Not wanting to mess with what I knew was a good thing, I went for the Greek Cornbread, which is fluffy and delightful and topped with Feta cheese and honey and wow, and the pork shoulder, which is served on a bed of mashed potatoes and a spoon – it is that tender. Everything was just as good as I remembered it from last year and I may have to go back again at some point before the trip is over.

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After that I strolled up the street to the Hershey store and bought sweets because apparently the honey drenched cornbread just wasn’t sweet enough.

Later that night, dinner was at Portillo’s, my favorite Italian Beef place in Chicago, which did not disappoint.

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In between the two meals, however, I want to tell you about one other thing I did, but first a little backstory.

I don’t often refer to myself as a cancer survivor. Part of it is because I’m only two years into my remission and you have to get to five before the oncologist will pat you on the back and say you are cured and send you on your way, hopefully with a lollipop. All cancers are tenacious little bastards and like to come back when you least expect it but esophageal cancer is especially insidious that way, enjoying a good lurk in the hidden recesses for years until it decides to rear its ugly little head and say “Hey, remember me? I’m baaaaaaack!”

So, yeah, not calling myself a “survivor” is a little bit of not wanting to jinx myself, but it’s more than that. There’s also the whole survivor’s guilt part of the equation.

A few weeks ago I co-chaired a bit charity event to raise money for the Esophageal Cancer Action Network where people rappelled down the 24 stories of the Universal City Hilton. It was a great day, made deeper and richer by the stories we told of the people our intrepid group were doing the rappels in honor of – those who had faced esophageal cancer and, in most cases, had been lost to it.

I put together all of the packets of material and scripts for all of these people and couldn’t stop being overwhelmed by those razor’s edges we walk all the time. The line between what happened to me and what happened to them is impossibly thin and the fact that I was there to tell their stories instead of having mine told in my absence was sobering to say the least.

Being a “cancer survivor” seems to imply a strength of character and a sense of obligation that I can’t live up to even on my best of days. The only reason I lived is because I was paying attention, I had really good doctors, and, most of all, I was incredibly lucky. Like, stupid lucky. Lotto lucky.

And then there was Mary. And Dave. And all of the other people I have known who weren’t so lucky.

So yeah, I feel a little guilty. Sue me.

Still, technically, I have survived thus far after having cancer so I guess that qualifies me, at the very least, to take a self-reflective stroll through the Cancer Survivors’ Garden located in Maggie Daley Park in the heart of the city.

It’s a pretty space set on a terraced hillside leading down to Lakeshore Drive by Lake Michigan. At the top of the hill is a metal structure resembling a greenhouse of sorts, inside of which are various placards talking about cancer in all of its various incarnations. Down below is a series of pillars, each with an inscription that aims to be inspiring that I mostly kind of rolled my eyes at. Don’t get me started about the whole “positive attitude” thing.

There was one inscription that I liked… “At least one person has been cured of every type of cancer known to man.” Screw your positive attitude, let’s talk about curing this bastard.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, and so I sat on a bench in the Cancer Survivors’ Garden and had a cookie from the Hershey’s store.

Now that’s what I call surviving.

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