the perfect complement

roasted red potatoes

For some of us, we found out in kindergarten, say when we were the goofy pink pig in a school play, holding a large cardboard animal in front of our puffy party dress, wearing a big white bow in our equally puffy hair (later immortalized in photographs we’d see again and again). But there are others, I suppose, who didn’t know until high school or adulthood maybe, when they didn’t get the promotion they wanted or didn’t become famous, or, if they did, it didn’t turn out to be what they’d hoped.

Whenever it happens, we eventually learn: Not everyone can be the star.

And maybe I’ve just known this for so long that I’m justifying, but, here’s my take: It’s not so bad to play a supporting role. In order for anyone to be a star, someone has to be a fan. For every leading lady, there’s a winsome best friend. For every best-selling author, there are publishers and editors and illustrators, not to mention readers—the people who ultimately determine a book’s success. And in that way, we behind-the-scenes types play a pretty important part, don’t you think? I mean, how interesting would a basketball team be if no one watched it? How much would you want to see a movie with only one actor? Heck, how sad would this blog be if no one read it? [You all who do are pretty wonderful, and I’d send each (!) one (!) of you a dozen homemade cookies if I could.]

These rules are so universal, in fact, that they extend even beyond human interaction but to things we do on a routine basis. Things like the way we view food.

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in search of a burger

Uncle Bub's in Westmont IL

You may call it a strong will; I call it a persevering spirit. Whatever the case, there’s little doubt I get mine from my mom, the woman who talked me into visiting Uncle Bub’s in Westmont this past Saturday, where she’d been the week before. See, some people would visit a place like that, have a barbeque beef sandwich that they didn’t particularly enjoy, and never want to go back. Not my mom. Her friend tells her—swears up and down, in fact—that the burgers at Uncle Bub’s are the best. We had to find out.

In case you’re not from the Chicago area, or if you are but don’t know Westmont well, here’s a bit of history: Westmont is one of the cities along the Metra’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe line, the one I’m most familiar with, having grown up in the southwest suburbs. It’s not as commercial as Oak Brook, which is to its north, or as charming as Downers Grove, which is to its west. In fact, outside of being near a lot of things, Westmont isn’t filled with many claims to fame. Downtown Westmont, which is where Uncle Bub’s is located, is something of a stereotype. You can see the beginnings of redevelopment everywhere, from the new condo building to the trendy espresso bar, but it’s not quite a thriving faux-urban center.

Uncle Bub’s is right on Cass Avenue, across the street from an antique store and steps from a big Catholic church. There’s a lot of parking, which is a plus, and from the moment you pull up, you can tell this is no ordinary storefront. Outside, Uncle Bub’s looks like a cross between a barn and a warehouse. Dark red shutters and awnings decorate the rustic exterior. By the front entrance, a large white sign with black print gives you instructions of what to do when you enter.

This place is casual—like hanging-out-in-your-friend’s-backyard casual, with red-and-white-checkered tablecloths and old-wood booths. It’s a little reminiscent of Cracker Barrel, but not quite as cutesy and a whole lot more barn. You order at the counter like you would at a fast-food place, and the server gives you something—in our case, a wooden rooster—to mark your order.

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with your hands

spinach pizza

Once when I was little, one of my teachers had our entire class over for a pizza party. What I remember most was standing on a stool at a counter, spooning sauce onto a circle of dough and getting to top it with white strings of cheese, feeling very grown up. That was probably the best party ever. I kind of loved that teacher but, mostly, I loved that pizza.

Here’s the truth: I could eat pizza every day. Sometimes I do. I like the fancy ones that cost $15 at a nice restaurant, the frozen ones in cardboard boxes at the grocery story, even mozzarella and tomato sauce heaped high on a bagel. In my book, pizza = good. Always.

So as far as pizza goes, it’s hard to make me hate one (though not impossible, thank you, Domino’s, when we ordered you the second time at work), it’s easy to make me like one and it’s, seriously, not that hard to make me really like one.

Now love? Well, let’s just say this: If you can’t get to Chicago’s best Neapolitan-style pizza restaurant or to the place with the most hearty, meaty pizza pot pies in the Midwest, and if you can’t find that tiny place on Boston’s North End where they don’t even say they sell pizza, but you might get lucky and see someone eating one and then order it and, one bite in, think you’ve died and gone to heaven, well, then you have to make one.

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a kind of celebration

brownies-close

I’ve never met a brownie I didn’t like. They’re like rainy days, new shoes and old-time television in that way: No matter how many times you have one, it’s still just as enjoyable. So when I saw this random recipe Friday, torn out of a magazine, tucked under some other papers on the table, I wasn’t a hard sell. I’d be making them that night.

Nigella Lawson said somewhere that food should be a celebration. (That’s when I knew I liked her, incidentally.) And that’s really what these brownies are. When I mixed the batter together, its rich, dark color riddled with chips of chocolate and thick in consistency, I kept asking myself, What should we celebrate?

And I suppose I never did find an answer, although, in another way, I found several. Saturday night, driving home from the basketball game, we ate these brownies and some banana bread in the car, celebrating the Spurs and a good night. Sunday, after seeing my friend for lunch after church, I ate a brownie with my fingers, grabbing bits and taking them with me to the computer. I another at my desk yesterday morning, I wish I could say with my lunch, but really it was more of a breakfast, on a day when the sun didn’t set until around 5 PM (!) and the golden sky signaled hope that winter and its dark days would end.

When we say food is celebrating—well, I guess I can’t speak for Nigella—but I think, we’re saying we choose to see things to celebrate with it, be they Friday nights at home or Saturdays spent cleaning or Sundays eating grilled-chicken pitas over interesting conversation. When we celebrate, we are stopping to think about the good things and remember why they’re good.

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that’s really something

Banana-bread-on-blue

My last semester of college, after I’d finished student teaching and before I walked off with a bachelor’s in education, I decided I didn’t want to teach at all. I wanted to write. Someone I knew knew Kelley, who worked as a reporter for a Wisconsin newspaper, and that very kind person gave Kelley my phone number, which led to our meeting on a Saturday afternoon. I didn’t know what networking was back then, but I guess that’s what we did—I, very badly, I should say. Kelley took me around the newsroom, let me sit in on a phone interview, gave me advice on breaking into the field and (here’s the worst part) took ME out for lunch.

(Let me offer this advice when you’re looking to network: Do not follow my bad example. If a very kind person in the industry you’re looking to enter does you a favor, don’t let her buy you lunch. You may, of course, be breaking bread with a wonderfully kind and gracious person like Kelley, and she may tell you it’s fine, but, really, someday you’ll realize how utterly classless that was, and you’ll regret it.)

That was the one and only time I ever saw Kelley in person, although, honestly, now that I’ve typed that, I realize how strange it sounds. We’ve been in touch all along. The first time I ever saw my name in print—I think it was an article about a book club, published in a tiny weekly paper that probably 15 people would read, I sent Kelley a copy, and she understood why it mattered.

Banana Bread from Kelley

When I had questions about dealing with editors, Kelley gave me feedback. When I felt the sting of rejection, she told me not to give up. And, you know, almost five years since our weekend lunch, she’s still giving to me, expecting nothing in return.

Around Thanksgiving, when she read here that I would be making the big meal by myself, she wanted to print out all her favorite holiday recipes and send them out to me. I mean, really. Doesn’t that make you want to name a parade after her or something? She sent me links and documents with recipes to try, one of which was her favorite banana bread. I printed it off immediately, stacking it with a group of other print-outs I wanted to create. But one week flowed into another, and here it is late January, and I’ve just now tried it.

The loaf’s all gone now, so let me just say this: if you don’t already love Kelley, this recipe might do the trick.

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something new to love

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Saturday night, I saw the San Antonio Spurs beat the Chicago Bulls, at the first professional basketball game I’ve ever attended in my life. We were in the front row, and when the Spurs players came out to warm up, they stopped to greet fans right in front of us, turning to crowds of pen-holding kids waving their arms and papers, competing for a chance to get an autograph.

Early into the night, I told my friend the red-headed guy looks like Charlie Crews from Life, and then in the game, I saw him score a lot of points. But I think it was when some fellow Chicagoan started booing him that I knew I liked Bonner (for the record, I think you sound like you’re two years old when you boo someone for playing well). Sean Elliot, such a classy guy, took a picture with my friend, who is the biggest fan of the Spurs I know, maybe the biggest fan there is. Ime Udoka chatted with some kids who made a sign for him. And Tony Parker, after speaking French to some girls who said Ça va? to him, smiled right at me, inches away.

I’m not usually one to like things immediately, but, after a night like that, you wouldn’t blame me for becoming something of a Spurs fan myself, would you?

I think the one thing I’ve discovered about basketball fans is the same thing I know about any other kind of fans, even cooking ones. Finding something you really like—that you connect with—happens rarely enough that we like to latch onto it when it does. For people who love a sports team, maybe they love the city it comes from, maybe they love the individuals who play on it, maybe they want the camaraderie of spending a Saturday night with a bunch of people, cheering for the same cause. (I’m still pretty new to this crowd, so I’m just guessing here.)

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