My son Michael is a clever guy, given to making apt observations and coining funny lines. Many times I’ve stolen his stuff for my published writings-- without attribution, of course. What’s he gonna to do, sue me?
But this time I’ll give him credit. A few years back, on a visit to my home in Scottsdale, Arizona, he observed that “ethnic” restaurants in this city of American transplants are defined differently from those in Chicago, our common city of origin.
“In Chicago, you have Italian, Chinese or Greek places,” he said. “In Scottsdale they’re Chicago, New York or Los Angeles.”
Michael may have been righter than he knew. My travels in recent years have taught me that many of the “ethnic” foods I’ve come to love really were fashioned in my own backyard, figuratively speaking. I refer specifically to such treats as pizza, Italian beef and gyros, all staples of my lunch-time diet.
Now, I’m sure some of you disdain such dishes on grounds they are greasy, unhealthful, “fast” food. Greasy they may be (that’s why they’re so tasty), and, maybe, unhealthful, although except for such obvious horrors as French fries and onion rings I regard food as food. But I beg to differ about that last epithet.
To my mind a distinction should be made between “fast” food and “mass” food. “Fast” food consists of items that can be served quickly, period. No generalizations about quality should attach to the word. Plates are put together individually so diners can tailor them to their wishes. Most of the establishments that serve them are locally owned, meaning that their fare can vary widely, even day to day. But while you take your chances with such places, rewards can be great.
“Mass” food, on the other hand, is prepared by robotic teenagers to the specifications of faraway corporate kitchens. Chain-ownership of its purveyors is the rule; uniformity is the goal. The upside is that you know what you’re getting. The downside is that it ain’t much. I avoid such places religiously. Any decent-sized city is sure to have several local joints that serve a better pizza than Pizza Hut.
But from whence does pizza come? Italy, I once thought, but a couple of visits to that land have shown me that what the Italians call pizza isn’t what I do. In Chicago, pizza contains so much cheese, tomato sauce and meat that the crust bends under their weight. It’s main-course all the way. The pizza I ate in Italy was lighter—a smear of cheese and various other ingredients on a thin, cracker-like crust. It usually was served as an appetizer.
And Italian beef? Better put quotes around “Italian” because I never saw it in Italy. The marinated, simmered, thin-sliced meat, whose savory juices soak through the sternest bun, must be a Taylor Street invention.
My culinary education continued last month on a visit to Greece. Although the ruins I saw were pretty well ruined (among the ancients, the Romans built best), it was a great trip. I loved paddling in the gorgeously blue Aegean Sea. I also loved the food, especially the cheese, olives and tomatoes. Especially the tomatoes, which tasted—ohmygosh!—like tomatoes.
In one respect I was disappointed, though: the gyros I ate in Greece wasn’t much like its U.S. counterparts. American gyros comes off a cylinder of compacted lamb and beef that’s cooked on a vertical rotisserie, cut in long strips and served wrapped in pita bread with tomatoes, onions and tzaziki sauce, a mixture of yogurt, garlic and grated cucumbers. In Greece the other ingredients were the same but the meats were pork or chicken and the slices were small—chunks really. They tasted okay but I had a tough time keeping them in the bread. It was a quite-different experience, all around.
On my return home I went to my favorite Scottsdale gyros place, Gyros Express, hidden away in a shopping-center labyrinth near Scottsdale Rd. and Shea Blvd. After a proper, tasty sandwich I sought out the proprietor, a taciturn, middle-aged man with a thick mustache who sticks mostly to the kitchen (his more-cheerful daughters wait the tables). I’d eaten there maybe 100 times but never exchanged more than nods with him.
This time I introduced myself, said I’d just returned from Greece, and opined that his gyros was quite different from what I’d eaten there.
“Better here,” he said, ending that subject.
I’d noticed on his menu that his food was billed as “Chicago style.” Seeking common ground, I asked him where in Chicago he’d lived.
“I’m from Michigan,” he said.
“Then why does your menu say ‘Chicago?’ ” I asked.
“Chicago is capital of Greek food!” he declared.
NOTE: To enjoy Michael’s writing first hand, click on his blog at http://flightkl18.blogspot.com. It’s worth it for the beer reviews alone.