Review of:
Chicago: A Food Biography
Daniel R. Block and Howard Rosing. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. xvi + 326, illustrations, bibliography, index.




One does not need to know Chicago first-hand to know that it has a special relationship with food. Many literary works of the early 20th century depict the social and material life of Chicago in terms of its restaurants and saloons, its meatpacking industry, and the struggles of ordinary people in the buying, selling, and consumption of food: think of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900), Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), and Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems (1916). In more recent times, the 'Chicago Deep Dish Pizza' can be found in the frozen food sections of supermarkets all over the world, while celebrity chef Rick Bayless (to pick just one example) operates from Chicago to entertain, to instruct, and to sell his vision of Mexican food. My own awareness of the city, having spent many family vacations in Chicago as a child, is firmly tied to the specialties of my grandmothers' cooking and vegetable gardening, the ethnic diversity of the restaurant scene, and the visibility of large-scale food production. No doubt there are many of us who would need no persuading that a 'food biography' of Chicago offers rich opportunities.

Block and Rosing start with a geographical perspective that introduces the reader to the problems of drainage and transportation which faced the development of urban Chicago in the early 19th century, linking it with food production in and around the city. The geographical perspective broadens in Chapter Two, which considers regional 'indigenous foodways', relying on archaeological evidence and accounts which stem from contacts between native populations and later traders, colonists, and settlers. Chapter Three turns to migration. After a brief consideration of immigration from Great Britain, the discussion focuses on ten ethnic groups, treated in roughly chronological order. Irish, German (including Jewish), Polish, Eastern European Jewish, Greek, African American, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, and Puerto Rican migration are considered. The next three chapters examine the more commercial side of food in Chicago. Chapter Four covers major wholesale food markets as well as the later development of chain supermarkets and the current revitalization of farmers' markets. Chapter Five gives some details about older industries (such as meatpacking, grain production and wholesaling, and the manufacturing of crackers and chocolates) as well as contemporary developments that include, in a twist of fate, seitan-based substitutes for meat products. Chapter Six offers a historical perspective on restaurants in Chicago, subdivided to include 'upscale' and 'fine dining' restaurants, ethnicities (more or less reflecting the ethnic groups discussed in Chapter Three), and current movements involving molecular gastronomy and experimental approaches to the eating experience.

It is only in the final chapter that Block and Rosing start to provide details on 'street food, recipes, and cookbooks' (205). A brief discussion of Chicago's role in creating the McDonald's empire is followed by a look at 'street food'. This term in Chicago refers more to a type of food than to the physical location of sales, since, due to a combination of regulation and custom, most 'street food' is sold from fixed locations rather from peddling carts. Topics include the 'tamale craze' of the 1890s, Chicago's distinctive approach to the hot dog (or 'red hot', to use the more idiomatic Chicago term), Italian beef sandwiches, gyros, pizza, and Chicken Vesuvio. Three recipes are provided. The second half of the chapter gives a historical overview of cookbooks based in or focused on Chicago.

There are no firm rules for judging what constitutes a biography of the food of a city. Readers who want to know about foods, drinks, and practices or beliefs associated with food will not find abundant information. For those who understand the 'biography' not in terms of food on the plate but in terms of food production and distribution, there is material here which touches on the rise and fall of the stockyards, the importance of Chicago at the centre of the railroad network (and, very briefly, the role that the invention of the refrigerated railroad car played in this development), and the current commercial role of major Chicago-based corporations. This story is not told in detail, though, so other sources must also be consulted. Given the vital role of neighborhood demography and commercial development in the Chicago story, it is unfortunate that there are no maps included. Since this book is about food, some basics of proofreading should have been observed: 'dessert' is spelled 'desert' on several occasions (leading to references such as that to 'marzipan-topped deserts' on p. 226), and references to 'streudel' (pp. 182, 226) appear to be to 'strudel', not 'streusel'. There is a German sausage which can commonly be spelled as 'Thüringer', 'Thueringer', or even 'Thuringer', but not 'Theuringer' as on p. 183.

Everyone is likely to learn something about Chicago food from this book, which has clear documentation and an impressive bibliography. The authors point out a number of foods that originated in Chicago, or at least are alleged to have done so: though they state bluntly (p. 239) that the chocolate brownie originated in Palmer House in Chicago in 1893 and thus ignore the origins controversy documented most recently by Zanger (2013), I am not aware of any challenges to the view that Cracker Jack also originated in Chicago (p. 156). Given the wide scale of the historical and geographical approach in this volume, a reader who is looking for an overview of aspects of food in Chicago may find it useful to start here.

References Cited

  • Dreiser, Theodore. 1900. Sister Carrie. New York: Doubleday & Page.
  • Sandburg, Carl. 1916. Chicago Poems. New York: Henry Holt & Company.
  • Sinclair, Upton. 1906. The Jungle. New York: Doubleday, Page, & Company.
  • Zanger, Mark H. 2013. Brownies. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, 2nd edition., ed. Andrew F. Smith, 220–222. Oxford: Oxford University Press.