Thursday, September 7, 2017

My Kind of Town: Fan Feast at Wrigley, Palmer House Brownie, and Other Treats

In the early 1800s, Chicago was still considered the Wild West, due to its being located west of the Mississippi River. As such, the city gave rise to such innovations as the nation's railroad center during the 19th Century, Route 66, and the World's Fair of 1893. It seems fitting then that many beloved American foods like the hot dog, the brownie, and the deep dish pizza were born in Chicago. They embody a certain individuality in the United States that is woven with the common threads of sharing heritage, sharing culture, and ultimately, sharing what tastes good.

Giordano's stuffed cheese deep-dish pie and High Plains Bison
dog at Wrigley Field.
At one time, Chicago was known as the "gateway to the West." The city lived up to its name as the main corridor through which the nation's beef supply traveled. As such, Chicagoans are massive carnivores. Many of the city's best-loved dishes involve meat, including the famous Italian beef sandwich, the famous Chicago-style hot dogs (no ketchup, ever!); and Polish sausage.

I've always wanted to visit Chicago, so when my friend Shiho said that her Urban Sketchers symposium was going to take place there this year, I decided to tag along with my bestie for more years than either of us would probably like to admit - who also happens to be an extraordinary artist.

Being an artist - especially the enchantress of watercolor that Shiho is - requires years of skill, a lot of patience and discipline, and the right tools. Being a foodie, at least in Chicago, only requires the willingness to walk for food. I stayed at her symposium lodgings for a couple of days, located near the Harold Washington Library and a "L" stop. We had about a ten-block orbit, with the exception of a trip to Frank Lloyd Wright's home at Oak Park and an excursion to Eataly, the mega-food hall/cooking school/gourmet market at The Shops at North Bridge.

Cabinet for dry-aging beef at Eataly
While it would be pretty impossible to stow a deep-dish pizza from Wrigley Field, a plate of peri-peri chicken from Nando's, or a brownie a la mode from the historic Palmer House in my luggage, the most portable foodie souvenir was this 2007 documentary on "The Foods of Chicago." In it, one can see the gradual embracing of diverse foods from many cultures, dishes and ingredients that are now as American as apple pie, bbq ribs, and Tootsie Rolls - or dim sum, tacos, and baklava. It even explains the now defunct Curse of the Billy Goat that kept the Chicago Cubs from winning a World Series for 107 years until they triumphed over the Cleveland Indians in 2016.

I have the memories, the video, and in the case of the brownie, the recipe.

The iconic treat that we know as the brownie today got its start as a portable but decadent dessert, served in a box lunch for ladies visiting the Woman's Building at the World's Fair of 1893.
Bertha Honore Palmer, who with her husband Potter Palmer owned the Palmer House hotel on State Street, was one of the chief organizers of the fair and was instrumental in establishing exhibits dedicated to women's interests; she even insisted that the architect who would build the Woman's Building be selected through a competition open only to females.

The Palmer House Brownie a la mode
Although the most popular exhibit in the Woman's Building centered on dress reform, the forward-thinking Mrs. Palmer still knew what the feminine heart desires most: chocolate. She had the hotel chefs whip up the original Palmer House brownie that is still served at the hotel today. Ironically, despite the Fair's promotion of more streamlined and healthy fashions for women, the brownie comes la mode and topped with a Florentine cookie, reminiscent of the feathered headdresses that women wore with their ballgowns in old Chicago.

Today, the brownie ranges from super-plain (no nuts for anyone under 12) to exotic flavorings like tahini. This chewy, gooey recipe from Milk Street was like a chemistry lab, as I tried to keep the tahini in an evenly blended state. Despite that, the recipe was surprisingly easy and stunningly good.

Shiho made the observation that the Urban Sketchers Symposium - an international event - was the first time many of her fellow artists had been to the United States and that Chicago was a great city in which to experience American culture for the first time.

Rainbow trout and summer squash from
Acanto's seasonal menu
I have to agree. It's like a less crowded Manhattan. Or for this auto-weary Angeleno, a walkable mash-up of all my favorite shopping and eating districts in L.A., minus the attitude and road rage. And, as in any great metropolitan city, the food embodies the many cultures that inhabit the area, but with twists and tweakings that make it uniquely Chicago. American exceptionalism can't be all bad when it can taste so good.

Friday, September 1, 2017

IFBC 2017: Looking Forward to a "Capitol" Time in Sacramento

Although I've embarked on a new blog/book project on music, I'm looking forward to my second International Food Bloggers Conference in Sacramento, Sept. 29-Oct. 1.

Last year was my first-ever visit to the "The Big Tomato." As such, I attempted to cram as much as possible into the long weekend visit, like trying to swallow an entire beignet. This time, I have some fave spots to return to, like Nugget Market, Aioli Bodega Espagnola, and Scout Living. I'm also looking forward to enjoying last summer's discoveries like Jimboy's Tacos, one of the exhibitors featured at the IFBC "Taste of Sacramento" Expo and learning more about products that I've enjoyed since last IFBC, including Unreal chocolates (yay, no soy lecithin!) and Tango tomatoes from Windset Farms.

Artsy produce display at Nugget Market
A lot has changed in my life, personally, professionally, and mostly, food-wise since I began to write "Girl Meets Soup." While an intended book on my gastronomic and culinary adventures may be on the back burner for now, I still have that foodie blogger's reflex when I have a particularly photogenic sweet, vegetable, or meal in front of me.

Food is still a daily joy, a vital part of any journey large or small, and an easy topic of conversation with which I have been able to bridge many a social barrier. We all eat and the many different ways we do it are fascinating to me still. I hope that IFBC helps food bloggers to recommit ourselves to the ever-evolving methods of communicating our love of creating and enjoying food.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Dave's Faves: Tasty Tunes, Deviled Eggs, and a Heartwarming Surprise

As a fledgling West Coast jazz fan, I've learned a few things.

1) West Coast jazz is more dependent on arrangements, whereas "East Coast" or "the rest of the country" is known for more improv and jams.

2) Being in the Golden State of Mind leads naturally - or unnaturally - to Hollywood.

3) Shakespeare rightfully described music as "the food of love," but that being said, boys and girls gotta eat.

All this was taken into consideration at a Celebration of Life for the late Dave Pell, who was instrumental (rim shot here) in creating the cool and sunny West Coast sound in the 1950s. (Amazing interview with Dave by Marc Myers on his blog, JazzWax, here.

Borrowed from JazzWax
What does this have to do with Girl Meets Soup? At the event, which was held at the AFM Local 47, the Musicians Union Hall on Vine Street in Hollywood there was a fabulous spread of sweets and savories, which at a typical memorial event, would salve the loss of a loved one and friend. In this case, however, the band playing Pell favorites like "Mountain Greenery" was the main course. As such, I missed out on the last deviled egg at the buffet, but made up for it at The Oinkster across the street afterward with a strawberry milkshake and an arugula salad.

There were three sheet cakes, decorated respectively with little plastic saxophones, music notes, and edible photocopies of Pell's album covers. A handwritten sign, propped up by a platter of dill pickles, olives, and crudités, proclaimed that, "These are a few of Dave's Favorite Things."

The band, which sought to commemorate the Dave Pell Octet, actually had nine musicians - ten if you counted the arrival of the imitable Jack Sheldon. Those who may not recognize his name would surely recognize his vocal work in the iconic "Schoolhouse Rock" series. Jack's was the voice of "I'm Just a Bill" and "Conjunction Junction," among others. The jazz community shakes its head in sadness today, remembering the robust, often bawdy trumpet player, who is now a shadow of himself after a massive stroke. He is now wheeled about by a caretaker, no less respected and loved.

Sheldon arrived at the Pell memorial amid a buzz of recognition, and gamely took the mike to eulogize his late friend and colleague as so many did after the band's first set - unfortunately, his speech was unintelligible. When the group - led by Carl Saunders, Pell's nephew and a monster trumpet player in his own right - resumed playing, Sheldon pulled out his trumpet, aided by his caregiver. Tentatively at first, he began to join in, playing his horn with one hand.

It should have been enough to just be standing there spellbound, as we witnessed this poignant sight. But in keeping with today's social media-crazy environment, we all groped for our phones - yes, the older people too - and began to video record and snap Instagram shots of Mr. Sheldon.

I could not help but think about the irony of it all. Friends of Pell's had created several continually looping slide shows of personal photos, album covers, ticket stubs, newspaper ads, and other memorabilia from Dave's distinguished and long career. He lives on in his ebullient arrangements of chestnuts from the Great American Songbook, played that day by the musicians from crumbling yellowed sheet music. He lives on in the family and friends who lovingly and joyously remembered him in tributes and through each other. Even an incapacitated friend and colleague was able to honor him with the highest tribute one musician can probably give another - interpreting his music.

Yet, these stories are disappearing daily. AFM 47 is actually re-locating to Burbank this month, the fate of the historic (at least, in my opinion) building, unknown. AFM 47 also faces another shrine of L.A. music history, Stein on Vine (moving story by Steve Lopez in the LA Times, here). The tiny hallway that leads to the union hall's restrooms is lined with photos of artists, many of whom enjoyed their greatest fame during my 1970s childhood and earlier, including Lalo Schifrin, Gerald Wilson, and Andre Previn.

You may be still wondering what this is all about.

Carl Saunders (on trumpet) and Scott Whitfield
(on trombone) pay tribute to Dave Pell at the
AFM Local 47 in Hollywood on June 24.
I have recently embarked on a new literary endeavor - a book about the contributions of jazz to television in during the 1960s and 70s. Through the rose-colored lenses of my own personal nostalgia, I regard as the art form's (TV, that is) Golden Age. Armed with my love of music, my husband's extensive library of books and CDs, and even an adult school class on West Coast jazz taught by a former jazz DJ and UCLA doctor, I have gone where no Gen X-er has dared to go: into the living archive of "America's classical music."

I'll still be here at GMS - I am looking forward to my second year of Foodista's International Food Blogger Conference in September, and a trip to Chicago this month, with the requisite foodie fun! But I will also be establishing a new blog as the working "sketchbook" (a really hip sketch of the band that day by my friend and artist extraordinaire Shiho Nakaza), for my TV-and-tunes tome - please stay tuned!

© MMXVII Joanie Harmon

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

To Market, To Market: Albertson's Re-Opens in San Pedro

San Pedro is like Mayberry or Peyton Place. It is similarly endowed with a unique combination of folksy charm and community rancor - both of which came into play when Albertsons reopened its doors on Western Avenue on March 1.

In 2014, Albertsons was purchased by Haggen, a grocery chain based in the Pacific Northwest. A little over a year later, Haggen filed Chapter 11, closing its Southern California outposts and laying off any former Albertsons employees who remained to work for the new company.

Albertsons' grand opening included a packed parking lot
and a brass band, courtesy of San Pedro High School.
Haggen was not successful at any of its locations in Southern California. However, its usurping of that particular Albertsons location - one of the established hubs of San Pedro on both a material and an emotional level - was met with the vehement disapproval of a community that is fiercely loyal to people and institutions that treat them well.

The lights in the store space had been inexplicably turned on for months, but I did not know about the reopening of Albertsons until a few weeks ago. While at the shopping center on Western, I finally noticed a sign on the door stating that the store would reopen at 9 a.m. on March 1 and that the first 100 shoppers would receive a free basket of groceries. I pictured something out of a "Laverne and Shirley" episode where madcap shoppers would be plowing through the market, frantically filling their shopping carts to the brim. Then I realized that "basket" probably meant those small plastic baskets that sit at the entrance. Not as much comedic potential, and I wondered if any homeless people would get in line to pick up free food.

The red carpet at Albertsons was strewn with flowers
and bargains.
Later, I learned that the store was opened at 8 a.m. due to the eagerness of early bird shoppers. I never saw the first 100 as I sauntered over from Starbucks at 8:45 with my camera in one hand and an Americano in the other - indeed, there seemed to be a number of people already walking out with their purchases and freebies.

As I neared the entrance to Albertsons, the sound of a marching band blared triumphantly across the parking lot. The San Pedro High School marching band was there to kick off the event, with parents, members of the community, and kids from Dana Middle School looking on. Speeches were made by Albertsons management and by representatives of the store's parent company, and a certificate was presented to Albertsons by the City of Los Angeles.

Rick says "cheese" - literally. The former Albertsons
employee has returned to share his expertise
in formaggio.
Unlike the other big "red carpet" event a few days prior, the reopening of Albertsons went off without a hitch. And unlike the controversies that have surrounded the former event, the celebration of the supermarket's return to a very diverse community reflected its immigrant roots. Nearly all of the department managers at Albertsons boasted Latino surnames and the high school band was a veritable spectrum of skin tones - although there were no female participatnts (except for the director!). The aisles were stocked with a global feast of exotic produce, gourmet cheeses and meats, a tempting bakery and all the other ingredients needed to honor one's Slavic/Italian/Hispanic/Nordic/Asian culinary heritage.

A number of former Albertsons/Haggen employees have returned to Albertsons on Western Avenue. I met Rick, who was preparing bite-sized samples of Parmigiano Reggiano with pear paste and serving them in the revamped deli department.

Chester Cheetah greets shoppers in the snack food aisle.
"There are a lot of new products, a lot more sanitary measures," said Rick, who was wearing a sort of snood over his full beard. "There is a lot more of high quality products that look really good - it gets you hungry."

Rick moved to Northern California for a year, then moved back to the area before Albertsons offered him a job in his former store. Some of his former co-workers were hired at Vons Pavilions or Ralphs markets in the Palos Verdes area; a number of them chose to stay at their new jobs. Still, there were many familiar faces when Rick came back to Albertsons.

"It was like coming back to school after summer break," he said. "You get to see a lot of new and old faces, everyone hugging and saying hi, catching up on what they've been doing for the last year."

Rick is the cheese specialist in the Albertsons deli, a new position for the store.

My go-to item was always the salt and vinegar chicken wings.
"We want to educate customers and introduce them to more gourmet cheeses," he said. "We're going to try that out and see if it works."

While San Pedro is known for its deep love of history, as was shown with Albertsons' closing nearly two years ago, nothing should be considered forever. Still, Rick is optimistic. 

"I like to learn things so anything I learn from this experience I can take somewhere else, or stay in this company and move forward," he said.

Another Haggen in Lomita that closed last year is now being turned into an international market, with food from Asia and the Middle East. When I was growing up, my parents had to go all the way to Gardena to buy our huge bag of rice, dried anchovies, Kikkoman soy sauce, and other Asian-y staples. So it's great that there are more ethnic markets popping up in the South Bay. But we still need that friendly neighborhood market where everyone shops and where we can celebrate the good old U.S. of A. - with chicken wings, tabouli, Italian cookies, nopales, and fig spread, all under one
fluorescen-lighted sky.

The L.A. Business Journal

The Daily Breeze