Day in the Country!

day in the country

This past Saturday, I spent a beautiful fall day in the Indiana countryside.

There were a lot of pigs; a lot of cows; well-designed exhibits as impressive as a museum, I kid you not; several info-packed lectures; delicious, locally grown food; horses (I rode my first!); and, mostly, very kind, very passionate people who have made farming their livelihood, their enjoyment, their pastime and who could not have been more gracious.

belstra farm

When we arrived in Indiana, to an area just a short 75-minute drive from Chicago, our first stop was the Belstra Family Pig Farm, which is fitting, given that this whole thing was made possible for me by the National Pork Board. They sent me, with my friend Alicia, to join the ChicaGourmets group that was going Saturday.

pigs

So at the pig farm: we hopped on tractor-pulled hayrides that looped around the barns, stopping at spots for us to see pigs milling around, a nursery with babies eating, sow stalls where the artificial insemination is done (yes, we watched it happen). Malcolm DeKryger, vice president of Belstra Milling/Belstra Group pig production, was the leader on my ride, explaining how workers have to shower before even entering the barns and how animal waste is filtered out into pools in back, repurposed into fertilizer, and how much he absolutely loves this whole life of farming. All this, despite the fact that media treatment of “swine flu” hurt the pork industry terribly (25%/$1 million loss, at this farm alone).

charlotte's web

And pigs were only the beginning. Next was a quick ride down the street to Fair Oaks Farms, one of the largest dairies in the country, which is owned by five families, including Dr. Mike and Sue McCloskey. Mike talked about the dairy industry while we ate grilled cheese sandwiches made with cheese from their own dairy, and then continued as he guided us through exhibits like a 4-D movie and a simulated forest with interactive features, showing what Indiana land originally looked like. (I am telling you, this place would be such a cool field trip for kids.)

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Pizza at Burt’s Place

burt's place

Sunday night, I had pizza at Burt’s Place in Morton Grove, after calling in our order four days ahead of time, right down to the sizes and toppings and what time we’d arrive, because, if you don’t know this already, Burt’s is not just any place—it is a landmark, made famous largely by Saveur Magazine and Anthony Bourdain. It’s kind of understandable that such a place would have some rules—and Burt’s does. The biggest, most important rule is very simple, but it’s vital: you must call ahead.

I was there with my friend Jacqui (who was the first person to have told me about Burt’s, way back in a January comment); her fiance, Murdo; our blogging friend Whitney; and her boyfriend, Dave. We’d known about the rule (it’s recommended that you call days or sometimes weeks in advance), not just because Jacqui had been before but also through online reviews, which, by the time we met Sunday, it seemed most of us had read and, honestly, been a little intimidated by.

burt's place inside

The rules are designed for a purpose—the deep-dish Chicago-style pizzas take a while to cook, and it makes everything more efficient if they can have your food ready when you arrive. Burt’s Place is small—a little brown building with the look of a two-flat, set at the end of a quiet, residential street, unassumingly, enough so that you almost wouldn’t notice it. Inside, the decor is eclectic—dolls, vintage telephones, a few framed articles that have mentioned the restaurant.

When I walked in (I was the first to arrive from our group), there was only one couple eating, and Burt—the Burt, who’d talked to me on the phone just a few days before—was out there in the dining area, standing by their table and joking around about fried chicken or something. He headed back to the kitchen soon after, when the all-reserved tables started filling up, only popping out once or twice to bring some fresh pizzas or answer the phone while his wife, Sharon, was serving other customers (like us!).

burt's place pizza

Beyond all the rules and the hype and the experience, though, let’s get to the most important thing: the pizza.

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Five Days in Colorado

fall bridge in colorado

Well, I’m back, as promised, with a lot to tell you about a beautiful, beautiful state I wish I could live in year-round, one that captured my heart with its larger-than-life mountains and golden aspens and friendly people and better traffic and meal after meal! after meal! of incredible food.

The truth is, after five days of bakeries, restaurants, sightseeing, walking—and, of course, the mountains! oh my gosh, the mountains!—I got pretty comfortable out west. I kept telling my friends Wendi and Michele, whom I traveled with, that with every new place we visited, Chicago became more blah. I mean, what have we got? The skyline? Let me tell you, while we were descending over the Windy City Monday afternoon, the John Hancock building had nothing on the Rockies. NOTHING.

rockies

What with the series of trips this year (Washington D.C., Wisconsin, Maine), I should be used to detaching from a place when it’s time to come home. But instead, all that’s been running through my mind lately are thoughts like, why wouldn’t you live somewhere that offers 300 days of sunshine? Near garden of the gods? Surrounded by snow-capped mountains? Where there is no end of good food or natural beauty, with less congestion and plenty of places to park downtown (as long as you have quarters)?

Oh, take me back, Colorado. Take me back.

mountains

So. While I work on remembering all the good things about This Place Where I Live, let me tell you all the amazing things about That Other One That I Love, you know, just in case you ever get to go there, and I hope you do, but more than that, I hope you BRING ME WITH YOU!

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the thing about Downers Grove

pastry from Busy Bee

It’s true the suburbs are no Chicago. There are no skyscrapers (no John Hancock Building, no Sears—I mean, Willis—Tower). Most things are spread out, so you can’t just hop on the train, and you have to get in the car to go to work, the store, even the park where you ride your bike. There’s also less of certain things, like boutiques or restaurant options, cheap apartments or people to run into at the corner coffee shop. We have some farms. We have bigger houses. We brag about lower crime rates.

But you who have lived in suburbs, tell me this: have you ever tried to find a bakery? At least in the Chicago area, it’s not easy. The few there are aren’t much of anything special, or overpriced, or hard to get to. One exception would be Vesecky’s in Berwyn, a long-time favorite of my family’s, which makes addictive hoska, that eastern European sweet bread with raisins and soft yeasty insides—if you haven’t been, go. And another exception would be this adorable little shop in Downers Grove, a long-standing establishment that is like one point for suburbs everywhere, and I say that proudly: Ingram’s Busy Bee.

pastry on jeans

The truth is, I’ve grown up loving the suburban things about Downers Grove, including its cute downtown—they have a little barber shop! and regular festivals! and gorgeous historic houses!—and its Tivoli theatre (where I recently saw and cried through the beautiful movie UP—have you seen it?), but I didn’t get to try Busy Bee until this year, mainly because it’s only available mornings (and never Mondays), and I’m usually not.

Last month, though, on a rainy Saturday in my flip-flops, walking over from the library where I’d met my brother who took the Metra into town, one bite was all it took for me to know one thing for certain: Ingram’s Busy Bee Bakery makes amazing, you-will-love-them, and-all-of-this-just-for-one-dollar? pastries.

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Tapas at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba

cafe babareeba

Have you ever tried Spanish tapas? You should.

I say this as someone who, after trying tapas last month when we were in D.C., liked them so much that I was perfectly satisfied to have them again the next two nights. (And we did.) Also, since I’m making commands, here’s another for those of you in Chicago: when you’re in Lincoln Park, you really ought to visit Café Ba-Ba-Reeba.

bacon-wrapped dates

See, tapas are perfect for people like me, who like to try many new things but might not have the stomach capacity to try a lot of each of those new things. Essentially, tapas are small plates, like appetizers: reduced portions that allow you to order a little of this, a little of that, sharing them all at the table, dipping your bread and taking spoonfuls of side dishes to your dish. You get the opportunity to taste not just one entrée but lots of little ones: it is grazing at its best.

As for Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, I first heard of it when I was going to school in Lincoln Park, then later when my brother visited with a friend and told me about it, and again when @CafeBaBaReeba started following me on Twitter. But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I actually stepped inside. At around 9:30 PM on a Saturday. Because the wait that night was over an hour, we ended up at nearby Nookies instead, which, by the way, is a great place for diner food on the weekends, since it’s open 24/7 on Fridays and Saturdays. But this last Saturday night, we had the chance to try Ba-Ba-Reeba again, this time with reservations made through OpenTable.com, which was a very good thing since the place was jam-packed just like before.

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Cafe Bonaparte in Georgetown

cafe bonaparte

Sometimes, in the middle of something, it hits me that I’ll never get it again. It happened when I came home from my run tonight and was stretching outside, when my dog saw me through the window and, after I came in to get him, jumped on the chair, my legs, the door, running to his leash when I told him to; also on Monday night, while I drove home in constant rain, after baking cookies at my brother’s apartment while the Internet guy drilled a hole in his wall; and when I overheard kids behind me on the airplane Sunday afternoon, asking their dad if D.C. was bigger or smaller than Illinois? And could all of Bethesda and all of D.C. fit inside Illinois with room to spare?

It’s like, no matter how hard or frustrating or just very good something is, you’ve got to take it, arms wide open, because it’s yours, now.

inside cafe bonaparte

Like this last weekend. Even if I tried very hard, I probably couldn’t book a top-floor hotel room at Hotel Palomar in DuPont Circle again and, even less likely, for no charge because of the right amount of credit card rewards. I couldn’t re-create the weather, or the people we met, or the way I stumbled upon a farmers’ market on my Sunday morning jog. It’s very possible, in fact, that if you went to D.C., you’d have a totally different experience, and you’d come back saying what a crazy place that was, like I did when I went to San Francisco last year, just because of the temperatures changing so much and my getting sick on the last day.

Still, though. I feel pretty sure about one thing, and that is this: You’d like Café Bonaparte. I’d put money on it.

You’d like it, at least, if you like France, or very good food, or excellent service from smiling servers in black-and-white striped shirts, set amongst a long black bar and brightly colored walls with photos of Paris.

burger at bonaparte

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