Friday, May 08, 2015

Eating through Chicago

My trip to Chicago on the last weekend of April was met with equal parts anticipation and dread. On the one hand, I've always wanted to visit the Windy City, mostly for its culinary destinations since I'm quite the fan of Chicago-style hot dogs and pizza. I've only been there once before and that was for a high school band trip so it was ages ago - a lifetime ago.

On the other hand, the reason I was going this time was to move my dear friend Kristina, whom I've grown quite fond of since first meeting her at Shotz and at Kacey's birthday in 2012, and then getting to know her one-on-one after one of my all-time favorite Shotz performances ("Finding fun time" - Nov. 12, 2013) and highlighted by some epic conversations over dinner ("Work hard, play hard" - March 9, 2014). I haven't had to say farewell to anyone close to me the way we have become close in quite a long time.

The day before departure was quite an ordeal in itself. Puck's family weren't coordinated with our plans so Puck's dad took Yoshi to work so that their mom could drive Puck's sister and niece to Penn Station for a train back to Vermont. So in order to get Yoshi, Puck and I intercepted the mom, sister and niece at Penn Station, drove to New Jersey to meet up and switch vans with the dad, drove back to Staten Island to empty the van and then to Brooklyn to meet up with Kristina.

The next morning we packed up everything Kristina owned, strapped her mattress on the roof, and her bicycle on the back and started driving west with the three of us and Sam the cat. We drove through a little rain, but since we weren't going very fast, the plastic cover held up okay. However, by the time we started encountering snow in the high altitudes of Pennsylvania, the cover had started to tear apart. By the time we stopped for the night at a Clarion Inn in Ohio, it was in tatters, but fortunately, it was not raining and didn't rain for the rest of the trip right up until the moment we pulled into Kristina's friend Carol's parking lot.

We unpacked Yoshi into Carol's studio apartment (they now have a two-bedroom, but it wasn't ready until May 1) and then went out to dinner, at which point the rain was coming down in buckets. We made it to Lou Malnati's Pizzeria with three more friends, who all went to college with Kristina and Carol. It was the first authentic Chicago-style pizza I've ever had and it was very tasty (I had five slices!).

Despite the engorgement, we decided to visit Publican Quality Meats for brunch the next morning to sample some of their amazing house-cured charcuterie. TV host Andrew Zimmern had a delicious-looking blood mortadella egg salad sandwich on Bizarre Foods that we wanted to try, but it wasn't on the menu that day, so we just had the mortadella itself as part of the charcuterie plate, along with a rillettehead cheese and sausage of various proteins.

Since it was a cold and rainy day, we decided to visit the Field Museum and spent several hours looking at exhibits of bio-diverse wildlife, Egyptian mummies and ecological outreach around the world. On the way out we said a quick hello to Sue, the world-famous T-Rex fossil residing in the great hall.

Afterward we explored the park and waterfront surrounding the museum, which also includes a view of the skyline, an aquarium and observatory. The wind blew the water into a steady chop that occasionally splashed onto the promenade, threatening to soak us if we didn't pay attention.

In the evening, I got to cross off another culinary bucket list item with a visit to the famous Chicago landmark Superdawg drive-in. The classic Chicago Dog is an all-beef sausage topped with mustard, sweet relish, onions, tomatoes, pickled peppers, and a spear of pickle. There are tons of restaurants and stands in the city that serve the Chicago Dog and I've had versions of it at hot dog places all over the country, but never in Chicago until now.

The next day dawned clear and bright so we started our day at a nearby coffee house before heading downtown. We spent a good deal of time at the Chicago Cultural Center, which used to be the main library but now houses art exhibits and features two extraordinary Tiffany glass domes. There's also a nice view of Millennium Park from the upper floor conference rooms.

We had planned to visit the Art Institute but we didn't really have enough time to make it worth the price of admission, so we contented ourselves with exploring the public art, fountains and playgrounds in the various parks, just enjoying the beauty of the day.

For our final meal of the day, we took the train out to Wrigley Field to meet up with Puck's childhood friend Jessica at Al's Italian Beef, which achieved notoriety from Bobby Flay and Adam Richman on the Food Network.

Puck and I awoke at 5 the next morning, packed quickly and silently, and started back home. Without all the baggage, we drove a lot faster and only stopped briefly for breaks. It took more than 18 hours of drive time over two days coming out, but we made it back home to Staten Island in under 14 hours.

I took most of the following week to recover from the trip, although I did manage to make it out to Open Love NY on Tuesday and then my women's group on Wednesday. But I've been slowly resuming my usual pace of activity - Sunday I visited Kacey at the performance she's stage managing, Eleven Reflections on September, a powerful multimedia and performance piece about 9/11 from a Lebanese poet. Afterward we did a yoga class together and then came back to TSMC to watch The Wings of the Dove, continuing our long-standing marathon of literary movies.

Monday night Puck joined me for dinner at The Bao, followed by "The Shotz Guide to Survival." This month's conditions were: 1) characters must face an absurdly perilous situation, 2) someone laughs out loud, and 3) includes the line "Don't worry, I've been doing this for years." It wasn't my favorite performance, mostly because of the violence. One person was gunned down; another was stabbed with a fork. Three characters had their necks snapped by a witch. Just not my cup of tea, really, even in fun.

Tuesday night I made dinner for Liz and then we walked a block down my street to see Airline Highway, which is nominated for four Tonys this season. We both thoroughly enjoyed it, as it touched on the themes of intentional family and inclusiveness that we talk about a lot. Liz even managed to snap a photo under the nose of the hyper-vigilant usher.

Wednesday I woke up at 7 to meet Katie M in the line for rush tickets to see Finding Neverland on Broadway and this time we managed to snag some for the afternoon show. She went to brunch with her father and boyfriend while I went home for a nap and we met up again for the 2 pm show. The partial view seats were not very good - they were in the front row on the extreme left of stage and since it was above our eyelines we couldn't really see the back half of the stage. However, we did get to see some of the action very up close, nearly getting a glass of fake liquor spilled on us. At intermission a stagehand came by and asked us if we saw the fallen stemware - that's when we found out it was not supposed to have been dropped into the pit. Despite the limited view, we both enjoyed the show and the music immensely, especially since Katie is such a fan of the Peter Pan myth.

After the show we actually tried to win tickets at The Book of Mormon ticket lottery, but were unsuccessful so we went back to TSMC and watched the Finding Neverland movie, starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. It turns out the musical is almost a carbon copy of the movie, but the addition of the music makes it much more enjoyable. We had a quick dinner at the nearby Five Guys before saying goodnight.

Today I gathered up a couple bags of clothes, sheets and other items to donate to the Salvation Army. Then I stopped by the drugstore on the way back to pick up 20 liters of Diet Mountain Dew since it was on sale. In the evening I met up with Erika, one of the newer members of my women's group, to talk about her fledgling photography project involving open relationships.

Tomorrow night is the second iteration of "The Conversation," the multidisciplinary think tank meets artists collective that is curated by Storm. I've also started putting out resumes this week to various job postings, which is what I'd planned to do after returning from Chicago. Hopefully the job search will progress quickly and satisfactorily.