One writer's view of Chicago versus California food
In the Midwest, you need a bib to the deep dish pizza and hot dogs with 'the works.' In Marin County, it's vegan soul food and other organic edibles.
Mill Valley, Calif.
You should not expect a smile from the man behind the counter handing you the Italian beef sandwich (with extra giardiniara and meat juices) at Al's #1 Italian Beef on Taylor Street in Chicago.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
There will not be an exchange of first names. And definitely no mention on the brief wall menu that the cattle were grass fed, the roll filled with multiple grains, and the peppers grown organically. Yet it's hard not to smile as you rest your elbows on a counter while you clutch the stack of thinly sliced meat nestled inside a crunchy roll soon to be soggy with beef juice.
With each deliciously drippy bite, a pepper or two is guaranteed to squirt onto your shirt. But then most of the food for which Chicago is justifiably renowned requires a bib. From the juice-spitting jumbo hot dog topped with "the works," to the deep dish pepperoni pizza dripping with cheese and a produce rack of tomatoes, my hometown's food has always been guaranteed to leave a trail on your clothing.
But then, seven years ago I discovered mess-less eating by moving to the San Francisco Bay area. Specifically, Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge, and the epicenter of incredibly neat and extremely organic food served by very happy people. The move did wonders for my dry cleaning bills. But then it's hard to leave spots on your shirt when you're eating a salad of youthful, pesticide-free organic greens with a slice of Japanese radish.
Like so many transplanted Chicagoans, I missed the mess at times. But when I went in search of a traditional overfilled Chicago sandwich, like corned beef on rye, I had to cross the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to Berkeley to find a delicatessen, Saul's, that serves anything close to an authentic version. But unlike the venerable Manny's in Chicago, the meat in the Bay Area deli comes from Marin's Niman Ranch, where the cattle are not only "vegetarian fed" but raised "traditionally, humanely, and sustainably."
The bread is from the Acme Bread Company, home of the "artisan" loaf. And the sandwich is assembled so the meat actually stays between the slices of bread! The potential for fatty corned beef cascading into your lap is minimal. The same emphasis on neatness applies to the local version of the Italian beef sandwich, the French dip. The beef juice arrives in a smallish cup, apparently so eaters can daintily dip their "humanely" raised meat and artisan bread without fear of staining their hemp pants.
• • •
I'm not the only Chicago expatriate who misses eating food that requires a bath afterward. For California horror novelist and Chicago native Robert Masello, it isn't the Midwestern sandwiches that he yearns for so much as a slice of New York-style pizza. The type that folds over, thus giving you a 50 percent chance of dripping sauce down your chin. "Out here," Masello moans about his adopted state, "the crust is so thin and crackly it's like eating papyrus."
Retired advertising executive Larry Moss, who moved from Chicago to Marin County 29 years ago, says one of the first things he noticed about the cross-country change was that there were "no plates overflowing with food." Merle Gordon, a dedicated "foodie" who spent a number of years living in northern California before relocating back to her hometown of Chicago, agrees. "They're as concerned with how the plate looks as how the food tastes," she says of California. "It's elegance versus free form."