The roots of Southern flavor run deep in Chicago

Julia Reed reports on politics, food and life in the Southern tradition. Facts turn into side trips, and those side trips turn into stories about people and places in a kind of ambling, beguiling style. Her recent feature for Garden & Gun magazine is called Chicago’s Southern Soul

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: So, what’s your connection to Chicago?

Julia Reed: I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, which has long had a relationship with Chicago. You know, there have been a couple of books written about what is known as the Great Migration, where a huge chunk of the African-American community started going north toward Chicago as early as the '20s, and it kept going throughout the '50s, especially after the cotton picker was mechanized. In the beginning, obviously, it was to have a better life, to have more rights and also to make a living for their families.

In the Mississippi Delta, the majority of the population is African-American, so we have a rich history there. It’s sort of like a large part of that community transplanted itself to Chicago. So there’s always been this sort of connection that even the white folks in the state feel.

LRK: Is there a Southern food contingent there?

JR: Oh yeah. First of all, obviously all those folks in Mississippi still wanted to eat that good Southern food; they didn’t want to leave it behind. So you’ve got a lot of soul food restaurants that have been in Chicago for generations and generations. There’s a place called MacArthur’s that President Obama mentioned in his book “The Audacity of Hope.” He is said by the folks at MacArthur’s to favor the turkey leg.

It’s an old-fashioned place, like the kind of place I grew eating lunch at, which is to say, some people call them a “meat and three” place. I call it a plate lunch restaurant, where there’s a different plate lunch every day. It might be a smothered pork chop, it might be a turkey leg, it might be fried chicken, it might be baked chicken, or fried catfish -- always with some greens and some black-eyed peas, some corn, some mashed potatoes, some rice, you mix and match. Those places are still alive and well.

Now, of course, Southern food is kind of the toast of every town, and Chicago’s no different. There’s a place called The Southern, where the slogan is “Kick-Ass Bar and Comfort Food.” It’s got a lot of bourbons on the bar, but they also have fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, slow-cooked pork shanks and stuff like that. Cary Taylor is the chef at The Southern, and he's originally from Georgia. He's really great.

One of my favorite places in the whole town is called Urban Belly. That is a Korean chef who worked first in Atlanta, then came back and trained with Charlie Trotter. But it’s great, you know it’s got everything from Chinese dumplings to the best kimchi you’ve ever tasted, and a whole lot of pork, obviously. I think the one thing that unites it -- whether it’s Mississippi Delta soul food or a Korean noodle house -- is pork.

LRK: What is the old saying: “Chicago was the hog butcher to the world"?

JR: Yeah, and that’s why Chicago hot dogs are so famous. I don’t know what it is, because it’s this weird combination and nobody can explain to me how The Chicago Dog came into being. It’s not a Chicago Dog unless it has a sport pepper on there, which is kind of like a pickled hot pepper -- this hideously terrifying electric green relish. It also must have a dill pickle spear, chopped tomato (which I would never think about putting on a hot dog), onions and mustard. For some reason, it all works together and it’s like one of the great things ever in the history of mankind.

LRK: And it doesn’t taste the same, no matter what, unless you eat it in Chicago, right?

JR: It does not. I think it's genetically impossible for a chef to produce the taste of a real Chicago Dog outside of Chicago. You know, Chicago is this sort of uber-American town. It’s like this great melting pot. It was literally reborn after the fire burned it to the ground. It was built by robber barons and meat packers and it’s sort of the epitome of the American dream in a lot of ways.

Certainly all the immigrants that came there, whether they made a short trip from the Mississippi delta or a long trip from Poland, felt that that was where they were going to have a better life. So it just feels so sort of great and American. Bill Kim, who owns the “Urban Belly,” also has a restaurant called Belly Shack. His wife is Puerto Rican, so it’s like Korean-Puerto Rican, and of course they have a hot dog with everything on it, along with things like noodles and kimchi salsa. I mean, don’t ask me why, but it works.

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