Foods of Chicago: The Inside Story

On Tuesday, we wrote about an upcoming WTTW documentary on the foods of Chicago (you know, Italian Beef, hot dogs, and all the usual suspects). Foods of Chicago’s official website is all sorts of informative, but we thought we’d dig just the slightest bit deeper, so we emailed writer and producer Dan Protess for a few more details. Here’s what we got:

Us: How many hours is it? Does it all run in one night, or is it an on-going series?

Dan Protess: The show is 100 minutes long, and it will all be running on Tuesday, November 27th at 7:30 pm (with a rebroadcast at 10:00 pm).

U: What made you interested in the project?

DP: A few years ago I did a story for the WTTW series Chicago Stories on the history of Vienna Beef, and I quickly discovered that the story of the Chicago hot dog is an amazing window into the history and culture of Chicago. Basically, after World War One the city’s pushcart peddlers started selling hot dogs in the city’s ethnic neighborhoods. In order to make the German sausage more palatable to the locals, they started adding the toppings that each group knew and love—thus the “Garden on a Bun”. This was the story of Chicago: ethnic groups coming together to give this city (and its food) a unique flavor. It was the perfect metaphor, and I assumed that the stories behind other Chicago foods would be equally rich with the history and culture. I pitched the show, and everyone else here agreed it was a good idea.

U: Any great, unexpected moments during filming?

DP: Ordinarily when shooting a long documentary like this you give the crew an hour lunch break in the middle of the day—which is pretty necessary for the guys lugging the cameras and lights. We did this out of habit on this show—but quickly realized that it was a bad idea to eat all morning, then take a lunch break, and then eat all afternoon. We eventually got in the habit of sticking with coffee on our lunch hour. I definitely learned things I didn’t know about my co-workers. Our cameraman, Tim Boyd is pretty much a meat-and-potatoes guy. Our host, Geoffrey Baer will eat just about anything. And I get uncontrollable hiccups when I eat something spicy.

U: Do you have a YouTube-style preview video?

DP: There will be video available on our website in the next day or so I’ll also put something on YouTube soon.

True story! Here’s the YouTube video:

The clip starts out at Al’s Italian Beef, and by way of explaining how such an unorthodoxly Italian food came to be, transitions to an exegesis on the evolving culinary habits of Chicago’s Italian immigrant community. Their diet was initially heavy on vegetables and light on sauces (like in old country), as opposed to Chicago’s northern European majority, who were big meat-eaters. Finding themselves bereft of dining options, the Italians opened their own restaurants and delis. At first, their customers were mostly Italian, but then during the Prohibition, Italian restaurateurs served their legally homemade wine to an increasingly broad clientele. To please the palates of the newcomers, the restaurants started dumbing down their cuisine, adding thick sauces and big cuts of meat to the menus. This, incidentally, was how Chicken Vesuvio was invented! Another Italian favorite that got dumbed down for the Chicagoan palate is pizza, leading to the invention of the incomparable deep dish in 1943. Did you know that Ike Sewell almost opened a Mexican restaurant instead of Uno’s?! Thank heavens for small favors.

Now, if Mr. Protess could teach us all that in only 9 minutes, imagine what you can learn in a hundred!

The Foods of Chicago: A Delicious History [YouTube]

Foods of Chicago [Official Site]

p.s. Mr. Protess would never call it dumbing down; that was just us editorializing.


Foods of Chicago: The Inside Story