The famous line about the Velvet Underground’s first album is that it only sold about 50 copies, but everyone who bought it started a band. For Chicago foodies, the equivalent of that is the 24-hour Chowathon 10 years ago, which went from noon on Friday April 12, 2002 to lunch the next day. There have no doubt been similar feats of crazy, city-crawling eating and drinking by many groups of friends over the years, but two things set this one apart. One, the people involved had mostly only met each other within the preceding few months online, which was a very new thing in 2002— meeting up with people from the internet in real life. And two, they were written up in the Tribune by Monica Eng, which brought many more strangers to the loose-knit group congregated then at Chowhound.com (and soon at LTHForum.com) in the months to come. Now, you can argue how much impact these citizen-media sites ultimately have had on the dining scene, but there’s no doubt that they impacted how many of us experienced the dining scene during the past decade of foodie explosion and chef-mania and blog/tweet madness. And it ultimately led many of those involved into food or food media more professionally as well. So looking back at this pivotal moment right at the start of online foodieism is a good way to see how just how we got here.
We tracked down several of the original participants (the number ebbed and flowed over the night, but this is a pretty good sample of the core group) and asked them to remember what it was like to gather with strangers for strange food back at the dawn of the foodie era, and why that seemed like a sensible thing to do. (We’d run pictures of it, too, except there aren’t any, because who the hell would have taken pictures of their food in 2002?) Many of them being writers, their answers are thoughtful and… long, so we’ll run our oral history in two parts. And if it all sounds fun to you, participant David Hammond is helping plan a 10th anniversary repeat at LTHForum here.
Why did the idea of eating for 24 hours straight with strangers appeal to you?
Joan Hersh [“justjoan” on Chowhound]: I didn’t see it that way. I think I knew everyone except Patrick before the Chowathon. It was the adventure that appealed. I didn’t care much where we actually ate, and tried to taste everything, but not pig out. I hate competitive eating and cooking.
Tom McMahon [“Atomicman”]: I don’t think it was the idea of eating for 24 hours straight, it was more about the convergence of the internet and real life. A chance to meet a group of people who I only knew through some weird internet forum and have an adventure with them.
Rob Gardner [“Vital Information”]: Strangers? We were already becoming fast friends. There was (it seemed) non-stop Internet interaction back then, on the Chowhound site or via email; there had already been events like Lao Szechuan and Parthenon. People were meeting for drinks at Berghoff, More importantly, it seemed like we were not strangers because of so much common interest.
What motivated the adventure was this idea of experiencing places when they should best be experienced, especially the late night places. I thought as much fun as I’d have going somewhere at 3 AM, wouldn’t it be more fun to do it with others?
Seth Zurer: By April, I had had dinner with Cheeku [“Zim Bida” on Chowhound], Rob, Peter [Engler aka “Rene G”], Erik M. etc. several times. You could fairly ask why I’d wanted to eat dinner with them [the first time] at Lao Sze Chuan [the previous August], but by the 24-hours-of-chow, we had already bridged the gap between online-correspondent and IRL friends.
However, even if we hadn’t, I wouldn’t say we were strangers. The experience of learning from and talking about food online as part of that Chowhound community built bonds and alliances and mutual affections between us even before we met in person. It made the experience of meeting that much easier— we’ve already gotten the argument over Chicago vs. NY Pizza out of the way, you already know that you agree on the best commercial BBQ, you already know who shares your sense of humor and sensibilities.
David Hammond: The spirit of Chowhound, the national food site to which most of us contributed, was all about pushing beyond the usual and well-recognized “safe” restaurants. This outward-looking adventurousness was also part of the motivation behind eating for 24 hours. We were not the establishment food writers; we were the guerilla food writers, highly opinionated populists, unrestrained by conventional thinking about what constituted “good food,” and eager to try new things in new ways.
And it wasn’t exactly “eating with strangers” because a lot of the people who showed up for this event were already known to each other based on their Chowhound posts. This early twenty-first century social network, which was before Yelp!, Facebook or other similar internet chat sites, was exciting in and of itself because it enabled each of us to broadcast our thoughts to a group of like-minded individuals and build a community of thought that many of us had never dreamed of just a few months before. Not to get too philosophical, but Rob Gardner and I and a few others started contributing to Chowhound shortly after 9/11— I sometimes think that the turmoil of those times drove some of us to seek the comfort of food and friends. I mean, if we didn’t stuff ourselves with good food and have a good time with good people, it would be like the terrorists had won, right?
Patrick Barclay [“Patoriq”]: In high school, already addicted to food, I was the only one in my gym class, over forty students, who couldn’t meet dead President Kennedy’s mandate. I couldn’t jump high enough to grab the chin-up bar and when they gave me a chair, all I could do was hang. I fell asleep when everyone else was doing sit-ups and push-ups. I got hit by a car. I bounced. The doctor told me I was fine, nothing broken, but too fat, take these pills. I got a job washing dishes at the Holiday Inn, the perfect position for a clinically energized sixteen year old. I’ve been in and around the food business ever since.
When I first heard about the 24-Hour Chowathon ten years ago I sprang a leak. It’s a one hundred and fifty miles round trip for me to get in and out of Chicago… talk about maximizing a culinary expedition, with the added bonus of sleep deprived social interaction, something I longed for those long lonely nights of my youth, strung out on prescription dexedrine, wondering why I couldn’t sleep, wishing I had someone to talk to.
What was the best food of the event?
Tom McMahon: It’s probably a cliché, but for me it was the combo at Johnnie’s.
David Hammond: The best food was probably Johnnie’s Beef, which long before and after that event has provided me and my family with consistently excellent Italian beef. But “best” is kind of a difficult term, and if by “best” you mean memorable, then I’d have to say chili at Ramova Grill (R.I.P - or soon to be), breakfast brains at Shan and the muffins at Edna’s would also qualify.
Seth Zurer: The one that was new to me and that has stuck with me the most is the oyster / pork belly dish at San Soo Gap San … I see in my post I also name checked Edna’s biscuits, but I have been to San Soo Gap San a lot more often in the last 10 years.
Rob Gardner: It’s hard to say, 10 years hence, but I can still recall really enjoying the Ramova chili, Freddy’s [in Cicero] and the Korean food.
Joan Hersh: The food barely registers after 10 years. Probably I’d say the brains at Shan’s. Because it was my first time eating brains and they were delicious.
What was the strangest stop of the event?
Rob Gardner: It’s hard to say. I mean a lot of it was “strange” to normal people, but to our sensibilities what’s strange. I guess the Palmer House would be the strangest.
Tom McMahon: I though the Rube Goldberg style bottling plant at Filberts was very strange, in a good way.
Early in the morning, we went to the West side for breakfast at Edna’s and I will always remember Edna coming out from the kitchen wanting to see who had ordered brains and eggs.
We needed a digestion break in the wee small hours of the morning and stopped in the bowling alley on Western Ave to roll a few lines, of course someone ordered Cheese fries from the snack bar there just to make it official.
Joan Hersh: I didn’t do the whole 24 hours. None of them seemed strange— all were appropriate. If you ask which was the most depressing i’d have to say it was the bowling alley. My pick. The idea to take a break from food for a while was good but Waveland Bowl stunk, literally.
Seth Zurer: Waveland Bowl, for sure.
David Hammond: The bowling alley and the Kimchee Museum (just a drive-by) were probably the oddest places on the tour. And they were most strange because nothing was eaten at either place (though Peter Engler did buy a seltzer water out of a machine at the bowling alley and pronounced it “too salty,” to which Rob Gardner remarked, “See, that’s how we’re different. We’re always talking about taste.”
Patrick Barclay: Pride and gluttony, my bedfellows in the adventure, prompt the bookend memories of our first stop, Manny’s… stacked beef sandwich, juices disintegrating the bread, the noise of the cafeteria, the first meeting of like minded adventurers… and then the forks in the road that led us 24 hours later to our last stop, the until recently male only bar at the Berghoff, quietly sipping rye, eating a roast beef sandwich so far different from Manny’s that it seems odd that they go by the same name, chuffed to be one of the few to make the comparison.
To pick a “best” or a “strangest” would be unfair to the 24-Hour Chowathon, it shimmered with strangeness from the beginning to the end and the best kept itself in the moment.
Tomorrow: the long-term effects of the 24-hour Chowathon