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All Photos by Patty Michels

I first found out about cake artist Michele McAtee through a friend, appropriate, because that’s also how McAtee began her business: word of mouth from friend to enthusiastic friend. As the owner of Maddiebird Bakery, McAtee works out of Metropolis Coffee Company, designing cakes and cupcakes for all manner of occasion. Not only did she speak with Our Town about her company’s origin and possible future, but she also gave me four cupcakes. I will never be the same.

Our Town Actor to baker--logical trajectory?
Michele McAtee Well, no. But what both careers did and do for me was to provide me with an artistic outlet. I wanted to be a visual artist when I was a little girl, but right around high school, around that time when I really started to grapple with tough emotional growing-up stuff--identity stuff--I was drawn into the theatre world. I loved pretending to be someone else. It was a great escape. It was never a question that I would major in Theatre and after graduating from Northwestern, go into theatre as a profession. For fifteen years after graduation, I was fortunate [to] work professionally here in Chicago and regionally. However, my priorities and perspective changed steadily and significantly, and by the time I became pregnant with my daughter, I pretty much knew I was done. I finally decided after all the years of trying to pursue roles and portray characters and tell stories written, directed, and cast by other people for other people, I wanted to tell my own story and just be myself, whoever that was. It was during that first year of new motherhood that I went through this total identity crisis and eventually reconnected to the visual artist inside.

OT What makes baking a creative outlet?
MM I find baking very scientific, and mathematical. It's basically chemistry--tasty chemistry. The designing and decorating is where my creativity thrives. I remember when I first started seriously doing this I told my husband, “I just don’t really feel like a baker, though, you know?” And he said, “You’re not a baker. You’re a “cake artist.” You bake your canvases. And they just happen to taste real good.”


OT The first cake you baked was for your daughter. Can you talk about that experience?
MM As Maddie's first birthday approached in May of 2010, I decided I was going to make Maddie’s cake myself. I’d never decorated a cake in my life. I didn't even own a mixer; I borrowed my friend’s KitchenAid by dragging it in a big red wagon down the block to my house. I started looking online for recipes, and then decorating ideas, and that’s how I discovered what fondant was, where to get it, and how to work with it. It became a real project, and I loved it. The best part was that it really ended up being as lovely, adorable and spirited as Maddie herself. And it tasted pretty good, too. Our friends who were at the party were impressed, if not totally perplexed, that I’d made the cake myself, and started asking me to do their cakes. Word got around and soon enough, total strangers were contacting me, asking if I could do a cake for them. I was just as surprised as anyone else that I had any kind of talent or skill at baking or decorating cakes.  

OT So you learned on the fly. What was that like for you?
MM When I started making cakes for friends, they’d tell me what they wanted, and I just said “yes.” Then, I’d totally freak out because I had no idea how I was going to pull it off! Eventually, after some experimentation, I’d figure it out and make it happen for them. There’s a small sense of pride I feel in that learning process, but I wish I’d had a mentor or been someone’s apprentice because it would have saved me a lot of anxiety, grief and self-doubt. The only baker in my family was my grandmother Virginia, for whom Madeline is named. I never got to know Virginia, she died when I was six months old. I like to think that whatever talent I have for baking is a gift from her.


Chicago-based cookbook author Anupy Singla has cultivated a devoted following by showing readers how to master Indian spices and make great-tasting Indian food at home. In her second offering, Vegan Indian Cooking, she tackles the perhaps more difficult endeavor of demystifying vegan cuisine.
Our Town spoke with Singla about the benefits of eating vegan.

Our Town
What originally inspired you to write your first cookbook?
Anupy Singla I have always wanted to write an Indian cookbook for the slow cooker. I know. It sounds a little crazy, but my mother was one of the first in America to cook Indian food in a slow cooker. I always told her that I would write a cookbook filled with her and my recipes. She never thought people would buy it, but it's now been the No. 1 Indian cookbook on for essentially two years.

OT How did you go about compiling recipes this time?
AS The recipes in Vegan Indian result from years of being predominantly Vegan. I started eating like this in graduate school in 1994. Many recipes are also basic Indian recipes that I love to make and are inherently vegan to begin with. I also took many Indian recipes and made them with whole grain options like brown rice and quinoa - an ode to the way I love to eat and feed my family - also something I learned from my mother.

OT Why go Vegan?
AS I [compare] vegan eating to clean eating. It's just less taxing on your digestive system. But I advocate taking it day-by-day and meal-by-meal. Don't feel like you can never eat an egg again. Look for delicious recipes to fill the gaps for you and you may find that you don't even miss the meat. I grew up eating this way, and so home-style Indian just seems so intuitive to me. I was shocked to learn that it's not something many others know about. I'm so excited to share my way of eating now with the world.

OT What’s the most common misapprehension about Veganism?
AS That it's a 'kookie' way to eat - that somehow all of US want to convert YOU. That the folks telling you to do it are the ones that are looking to deprive you of the foods you know and love. That's why I approach it from a place of going vegan is not about what you can't eat. It's about what you can now eat. Add the flavor from spices and the beans and lentils and you'll just naturally need less and less meat to fulfill you. So many of my readers write that they are not vegan - but love my recipes because they are hearty vegan options that can serve as go-to recipes when they want to limit the meat in their meal or in their day.

OT What is a good replacement for ghee in vegan Indian cooking?
AS I never grew up cooking with or eating ghee so it's a myth that all Indian households must use ghee in their cooking. In South Indian households they rarely use ghee. I love any vegetable-based oil. My favorite these days is grape seed oil, because it's a clean tasting oil that pairs well when used with Indian ingredients, and it has a high smoke point. Other oils like canola and vegetable works fine as well.

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Jeff Kauck Photography

Photographer Jeff Kauck is a man of few words. Good thing his pictures are worth a thousand--or more. Perhaps most famous for his food photography, Kauck has garnered a multitude of accolades including a James Beard nomination for his work on The Spiaggia Cookbook, as well as a Clio Award, one of the advertising industry’s highest honors. Though Kauck began as a watercolor painter, he made a smooth transition to commercial photography, relocating to Chicago and opening a studio with his wife. Kauck spoke with Our Town. But only a little.

Our Town How has your training as a watercolor painter influenced your photography?
Jeff Kauck Painters have a tendency to know more about getting light to lift then photographers. They have to understand the color of the highlights versus the color of the shadows. In addition a watercolor painter typically does not use white paint. They need to leave the unpainted white paper to represent white. So they must be aware and protective of that area before they start painting.

OT What’s interesting to you about food photography? 
JK I love to eat great food. And the quality time that eating together represents. It's also the closest thing to painting for me.

OT You must have some favorite Chicago restaurants. 
JK My wife's kitchen. She is an amazing cook.

OT Any dishes that you love but don’t translate well to visual representation? 
JK It's more a personal thing. Some people don't like to look at a whole fish or dead game. But they love how they taste.

OT What have been some travel highlights from your work in food photography?
JK I've been very lucky to work with the light from many parts of the world. No two are alike. Southern France, Asia, Mexico, New England-- all have a unique color and feel

Photo by Leigh Loftus

Sous Chef Valeria Benner doesn’t cook at home, still it sounds like she eats better than I do. All I know how to do is steam. Hard to mess up, except when you forget it’s even happening and all the water evaporates and the broccoli turns black and sticks to the pot so you douse it with paprika and black pepper and pretend you were going for Cajun which is kind of pathetic because no one else is home so you’re only lying to yourself.

Not that I’ve ever done that. Nor has Chef Benner, I’m certain.

Throughout her time in Chicago, Benner has moved from the acclaimed Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel to Lockwood Restaurant at the Palmer House Hilton. There she works closely with Executive Chef Stephen Henry who she calls an “incredible mentor.”

I spoke with Benner about Wisconsin food and Chicago dining and generally tried to make her feel sorry for me so she’d swing by and make me something edible. No luck so far, but the day is young.

Our Town Where do you find inspiration?
Chef Val Benner I find inspiration in the food itself: watching it grow from a seed all the way to putting it to bed for the winter. Gardening and farming are a passion of mine and the whole process of growing food and raising livestock really drives my passion for the food itself. I think every chef should get their hands in the process and experience it to truly understand  and appreciate their art. Hell, I think every person should. Maybe they'd have a better appreciation of how their food gets to the table.

OT How did you develop your current menu?
VB Its basically a partnership between the local farmers and Lockwood. I keep up with what's looking good at the local farms and in my rooftop garden and then create the menu based off of that.  I like to make sure we have a little bit of everything for everyone and that each dish is approachable. Each item on the menu has an element that may be new or interesting to the guest, which keeps it interesting.

OT Who are some chefs that have influenced you?
VB People often ask me this and I have to admit that I really don't pay a lot of attention to what other chefs are doing. I don't watch the TV shows, read their books, or go to "hot" or high end restaurants. I don't even know that many chefs, really. I think the only chef I honestly I aspire to be like is Ferran Adria (but what self-respecting chef doesn't?) My reasons aren't on the culinary end though; he has inspired people around the world to be creative and think outside the box and that will have a lasting and positive impact on the world. That's the kind of stuff I want to do - I want to change the way people look at food. I could write a book about my feelings on that.

OT What’s your favorite Chicago spot for casual dining?
VB It depends on my mood. I either catch tacos & whiskey at Bullhead Cantina, gorge myself on the Korean wonders at San Soo Gab San, or grab Dim Sum in Chinatown. I'm a bit of a family diner fanatic as well. I appreciate little mom and pop spots: I'm supporting local families and farmers and often the food is better than the popular spots... definitely better for the price!

OT It looks like you grew up in Wisconsin. As a fellow Wisconsinite, I have to ask what did you find to eat there? I feel like it’s improved since I was a kid, but growing up we pretty much had...German food.
VB I lived in Wisconsin for over 10 years and I did most of my serious growing up there (I was in Michigan until I turned 16.) I have to admit that I have been incredibly lucky in my food experiences there. I worked in the famous Mifflin Street Co-op and learned all about sustainability, organics, farm-to-plate, etc before any of it hit the mainstream (this was 1997 through 2003)  I learned to wild-forage from all the amazing wild areas so I know how to find morels, fiddlehead ferns, asparagus, wild carrots, fraises... and the list goes on. I worked a block from the state capital in Madison and used to wheel my cart down to the Farmers Market (the best in the country!) twice a week and picked up whatever looked good and based specials and menus off of that. I also have friends and family who are hunters so I'd often have fresh venison, rabbit, duck and pheasant. On our farm we had beef, lamb, goat, chicken and pigeon. I didn't realize it while I was growing up, but now that I'm in the thick of my career, I now realize how incredibly blessed I am to have the life I do.

Fido To Go June & July 2012 062.JPG

My Significant Other is quitting smoking today, but that isn’t what this post is about. I bring it up because when you write a blog the criteria for which no one has ever fully articulated, you can pretty much say what you want.

Everyone thinks I should be excited that SO is quitting. Granted, there is an element of excitement to living with someone who might at any moment make a passive-aggressive comment about where you put the mail. Still, if I craved that brand of excitement, I’d date me. Instead I chose someone who self-soothes with toxic chemicals and now she’s gone and changed.

I won’t dwell, though. It’s like my sainted grandmother always said, why complain about your SO quitting smoking when you could interview the owner of an ice cream truck made for dogs?

Grandma knows best. And so does Donna Santucci, at least when it comes to gluten-free dog treats. The founding owner of Fido to Go, Santucci provides Chicago’s canines with cookies and doggie ice cream. Santucci, a seasoned dog and cat groomer donates ten percent of sales from one of the dog-friendly treats to a designated charity. This July, funds go to the U.S. Soldiers to bring their pups home from overseas and in August sales will benefit the Chicago k-9 unit. Our Town spoke with Santucci about her business’ birth and future.

Our Town How did you develop your recipes?
Donna Santucci I wanted to feed my own dog, Maddie treats that were wholesome, gluten-free, and without any additives and sugars [so] I began developing a slew of recipes that fit the bill. Soon, I was supplying treats and baking doggie cakes for the pets of family and friends.

OT What inspired you to open Fido To Go?
 DS With demand growing for my great-tasting At first I thought of opening a store which could combine my grooming business and collection of gluten and allergen-free dog treats and cakes, but one day, as I watched an ice cream truck stop at the beach and the kids lining up to get a treat, the idea for a mobile doggie treat food truck was born. I wanted to bring something fun and unique to the dog community. Why not give back to the one’s we love and bring us so much joy?

OT What would you say to someone unwilling to pay a higher price for a more nutritional dog treat?
 DS The old saying is true, “you get what you pay for.” These furballs are part of our family and nobody wants to see someone we love suffer from allergies, fatigue, tummy upset and ear infections. In the long run, it may be better for everyone’s pocket book to feed our pups high quality, healthy and nutritious pet food and treats. The more expensive route? Back and forth to the veterinarian’s office.

OT What’s your best selling treat?
 DS Dogs are similar to humans, they all like different flavors so, it depends what your dog likes.

OT Any advice for someone looking to open a small business?
 DS Follow your passion and be educated in the business you plan to open. If you are solely in it for the money, you’re at high-risk to fail.

OT What are some future goals?
 DS Growing Fido To Go, whether it’s franchising or purchasing more trucks and opening a store. It’s too early to tell what our future holds. Maybe next season we will all find out.

My dog is a fan. Photo by Patty Michels.

Follow Fido to Go on Facebook.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez
and Facebook.


All photos by Patty Michels

I know less about wine than I do about music so I asked Bin 36’s wine director Brian Duncan to give me a crash course. Turns out you can love wine without hating humanity, but I’m pretty sure you still have to smack your lips a lot. Not that Brian did that. Rather, he kindly educated me about everything from cork vs screw top to how to choose quality wine on a budget.

Our Town So, do you have to be pretentious to be a wine guy?
Brian Duncan The answer is no!  You do not have to be pretentious to be a wine guy. No one that loves wine desires to make others feel insecure or uncomfortable about wine.

OT Starting out as Bin 36’s wine director, what were some initial goals?
BD [Owner] Dan Sachs was interested in doing another restaurant concept that behaved differently than typical wine bars and restaurants.  We both discussed the less than friendly atmosphere around wine consumption, marketing and education that seemed to be inherently attached to wine and saw an opportunity to solve many of the misconceptions and even the fear factor and uneasiness attached to the wine experience. We created sort of a punch list itemizing all of the things we disliked about the way wine was being presented such as:
Inferior quality
Lack of information
No information other than what you would be charged
Limited choices
No options for sampling
Wine flights that featured wines that had no relationship one to the other.

OT Sounds like a major goal is to make wine accessible. How you do go about that?
BD I offer quality and affordable choices.  Providing lots of choices offers guests an opportunity for discovery.  Discovery of personal preferences, unfamiliar grape types, blends and a world of various wine styles. and experience. Wine buyers and sommeliers that seem stuck on pricey wines, and are obsessed with wine scores are lazy and uninterested in showcasing the wealth and bounty that exists in the world of wine. I conduct classes, seminars and tastings where attendees can bring all of their questions, myths, misconceptions and most importantly their curiosity.  These sessions are lively and heaven forbid, fun!

OT Give me a crash course in wine--just the basics--what do I need to know to get by in sophisticated company?
BD  There’s no need to “get by” when it comes to wine company.  If you mean they are wine snobs, then chat up someone else that is interested in your questions and curiosity about wine.  
[But] here’s what you need to know:
Wine grapes (vitis vinifera) once picked when ripe convert sugar to alcohol during fermentation.
There are possibly 10,000 wine grape varieties.
Some major white grapes are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc
Some major Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Malbec.

OT What’s your favorite wine region?
BD This one’s difficult.  My tastes are constantly evolving.  It depends on where I am, what time of year it is, and whom I am with at the time.  However, if stranded on a desert island, unequivocally Blanc de Blancs Champagne for a few reasons.  First of all, every morning I wake up and realize that I am stranded, having Champagne would immediately lift my spirits.  More importantly, Champagne goes with a broad array of food, and let’s face it, I would be surrounded by seafood and shellfish.


A full-time, stressed out real estate agent, Vanessa Moses hated to cook. Yet somehow one day, she was inspired to try. Since then, she says, cooking has become her “outlet,” a source of “relaxation,” and finally, a creative new career path. In 2010, Moses established The Cooking Chicks meet-up group for professional women. Whether you love to cook or just love to eat, Moses says The Cooking Chicks offers something for you.

OT What inspired you to found The Cooking Chicks?
VM I run a very busy residential real estate business and property management company. I got into cooking about 4 years ago, needing to break away from my everyday professional world. I wanted a dinner club but could not get friends to commit. I thought, why not start with a group of people who just love food and want to share recipes? Cooking Chicks was born and it's changed my life.

OT What exactly is a food club?
VM A food club to The Cooking Chicks is all about creating amazing dishes and sharing our passion for food. You really just need to love to eat but we also have professional chefs in our group and artisan business owners. [We] love the diversity we've created. An important part of our take on a food club is information sharing - talking tips, tricks, and most importantly sharing family recipes that may not live on without someone making them and passing them on. While the Internet offers a lot of information, to us, human interaction is the most fulfilling.

OT Your group grew to over 700 members in its first two years, to what do you attribute the quick growth?
VM My background has always been about connecting people to the right people and right resources. I have been a networker all of my professional life so I looked to this as a more personal way to connect with others around something we all love, food. Our organic growth is grew out of the fact that we provide a strong focus on creating a variety of events and opportunities where busy, professional women can connect with others just like them. Cooking Chick events are educational, affordable, fun and also create new business opportunities.

Our Town You’re self taught. Does there come a point when a formal education is necessary?
Vanessa Moses You know that depends on how far you want to take, but I must say the best cooks I have ever been inspired by are everyday home cooks! I think if you want to learn a specific type of cooking or want to perfect a skill, the right classes can teach you a lot. The Cooking Chicks works hard to put on classes for those who want to learn practical skills, from truffle making to basic Middle Eastern. More serious cooks like myself my take that a step further. For example, I really wanted to learn french cooking and baking so I took it up a notch and booked a ticket to Paris last August and joined a cooking school for 3 weeks. These culinary immersions are well worth it.

OT You were a sponsor for Baconfest, what was that like?
VM Baconfest was amazing! I got to meet some amazing chefs, and [the event] allowed us to get some great Chicago-based exposure.

OT In addition to running the group, you also teach cooking classes and cater. What goes into organizing a successful cooking class?
VM Our classes are structured in a few different ways. Sometimes I will teach a class, for example, June 16th, I am doing a "Farmer and The Chef" class. It's a Cooking Chicks farm to table event where we dive into the Green City Market, get our ingredients and head back to a kitchen nearby to cook up an amazing meal. We also bring on other chefs, artisan food producers and farmers to collaborate with other cooking schools for classes and food educations. We like variety, practical-skill based classes for the everyday busy professional.

OT What food says “Chicago” to you?
VM Beer and Burgers, hands down - A classic, after work, late night, Sunday Funday, anytime, Chi-town treat!

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez
and Facebook.

All photos by Patty Michels

The first thing you need to know about Baconfest is it took place at the UIC Forum right next door to the reptile convention. THE REPTILE CONVENTION. Okay, maybe that’s not the first thing YOU need to know, but I sure as hell wish I’d known. I would have worn my hazmat suit or carried a machete or at very least parked across the street.

Anyway, once I’d made it past a building I knew was seething with POISONOUS SNAKES, I spotted the line for Baconfest. Though the dinner shift didn’t start for another hour, outside the UIC Forum, the line snaked from the building coiling like a....nevermind. I’m not going to think about it.


Inside, I was given drink tickets, a Baconfest tote bag and was directed into the event space. “You’ll be able to smell it,” the vegetarian working the press table told me.


She was right; the room's aroma was a bit like the alley behind a Chinese restaurant, but visually the space was pristine. Friendly and outgoing, the staff cleared tables, emptied garages, and refilled soda bins. The chefs and food-workers manning each booth seemed cheerful and informed, happy to share their offerings and curious about what their neighbors had concocted. Overall, the event was one of the most well-organized I’ve attended.


I mentioned in a prior blog that I’m not so much a bacon person, but I’m definitely a chocolate person, and luckily there was plenty: chocolate chip cookies made with bacon grease, chocolate chip and bacon bit dotted cannoli, chocolate bacon biscotti and more.


I also sampled an awesome bacon Bloody Mary, as well as small bites from Girl and the Goat and Epic.


Adjacent serpents aside, Baconfest seemed a smashing success, even for a non-bacon-lover like me.


A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez
and Facebook.

bacon pup.jpg
The closest my dog will get to Baconfest. Photo by Patty Michels

You guys, I don’t actually like bacon. I know. That’s like saying I don’t like sunshine or babies. Which I also kind of don’t. But just like zombies, bacon is having its cultural moment and Chicago food writer, software analyst and bacon enthusiast Seth Zurer is thrilled. Along with Andre Pluess and Michael Griggs, Zurer was driven to found Baconfest in order to share his passion for pork with the masses. A succulent success in 2011, Baconfest is back this year, bigger and better. Zurer spoke with Our Town about what those lucky enough to attend the sold out fest can expect.

Our Town Bacon: Always tasty but only recently culturally celebrated. Why so trendy all of a sudden?
Seth Zurer I think that we're in a Golden Age of Bacon.  Chefs have always loved bacon, but they didn't always have the kind of exposure that they do now; they're hosting talk shows, travel shows, cooking shows. They're the new media darlings and celebrity stars [and] they've brought to the general public an enthusiasm for local craft bacon that dovetails nicely with the farm-to-table, locavore, artisan food movement on the rise in the culture.  Or it could just be that bacon is damn good?

OT What inspired you to create Baconfest?
SZ My two partners, Andre Pluess and Michael Griggs, attended a rock'n'roll puppet musical called "Beer" that the NeoFuturists put on in 2009.  They were impressed that the creators of the show had been so passionate about beer that they'd want to create a whole production devoted to it.  After the show, they sat down to talk about what thing they felt as passionately about and bacon immediately came up.  Pretty shortly, they'd dropped the idea of a musical, and settled on a festival instead - a "Burning Man" of bacon.  I had some experience in the restaurant media world and was known for my love of pork, so they called me up to see if I thought it was a good idea.  I did, it was, and here we are!

OT What kind of restaurants and vendors can attendees expect?
SZ We've got chefs from the best restaurants in the city - celebrities like top chefs Heather Terhune from Sable and Stephanie Izard from Girl & the Goat; craft people like Art and Chelsea Jackson from Pleasant House Bakery and Charlie McKenna of Lillies Q, fine dining powerhouses like Cafe Spiaggia and Vie, gastropubs like Three Aces and the Bristol.  Our vendors include artisan local bacon makers like Nueske's, Dreymiller and Kray, Spenser's Jolly Posh British and Irish Foods, JDY Gourmet, and Big Fork Bacon Sausage, plus bacon entrepreneurs like Meng Yang of Know Your Flag who makes unbelievably stylish bacon prints and tee shirts.  Drinks from Goose Island, Greenbush Brewery, Pabst and More.

OT Nueske's Amateur Cookoff saw 33 candidates submitting recipes for bacon-y dishes incorporating Nueske's bacon. You helped choose finalists who will then attend Baconfest. What was that process like?
SZ It was tough - contestants submitted recipes and in many cases photos of their original recipes.  We asked our fans to help choose by opening up voting on our website - over 4500 votes were cast. Then we consulted our friends at Nueske's and chose five that spoke to us and to our fans.  Those five finalists will all get to attend the fest and present their dish to a panel of judges.  One lucky winner will receive a Golden Rasher Award, the Oscar of Bacon. 

All photos by Kristine Sherred

In 2008 with the economy tanking, Robert and Sonat Birnecker took a chance and followed their bliss. Motivated to create a family business, the couple gave up academic careers to bring the distilling traditions of Robert's Austrian grandfather to America. The result? Koval, an organic distillery where spirits are made and bottled by hand. Our Town spoke with Koval’s National Distilary Ambassador Meg Bell about Koval’s unique products and techniques.

Our Town What makes Koval unique?
Meg Bell Our products are all made from scratch in the Chicago distillery. Each spirit is organic and kosher and does not contain artificial flavors or colors. Our whiskeys are especially unique since they are single grain.

OT Robert has distilled in both Austria and the US, how do the two compare both in technique and resulting product?
MB I think the best example of this is how Robert makes his whiskey. From his training in Austria and Germany, he distills smoother and takes a tight heart cut of the whiskey. Since this cut of whiskey is considered the best part of the distillate, it does not need to be aged very long. This differs from the way classic bourbons and scotch are typically made. These styles of whiskey distill lower and take a broad cut (more rustic so the distillate has more congeners and fusel oils), hence need to age their spirits longer to mellow this out. Both styles produce a great spirit, but are done in different ways resulting in dramatic flavor differences.

OT What made Koval decide to offer tours and workshops?
MB As a craft distillery and small business in Chicago, this was really important to us. Giving Chicagoans (and those visiting our great city) the opportunity to see how a distillery works up close only strengthens the business and the community.

OT How is your white whiskey different from say, Jack Daniels?
MB White whiskey is an un-aged whiskey. Since whiskey gets all its color and a lot of its flavor from being aged in oak barrels, a white whiskey tastes very different. White whiskey has flavor from the grain it is distilled from, but not the added flavor of aging in an oak cask. Jack Daniels is also white before they put it into a barrel to age.

OT In your opinion is there a particular grain that makes the best tasting whiskey?
MB That's a tough one. They all have such unique flavor profiles, but my personal favorite at the moment is oat in the heavy char barrel. I love that oat is a grain not commonly used for whiskey, and the way Robert distills it is so delicate. It has a creamy feel on the palette.

OT Lions Pride is a big favorite in Chicago. Can you talk a little about how it’s made?
MB Lion's Pride is our line of aged whiskey. We have a variety of mash bills that make up the line - each mash bill is 100% single grain. When the grain is fermented and distilled, the result is a white whiskey. We take our white whiskeys and age them in new American Oak barrels. Some of these barrels are heavily charred on the inside, and some are just lightly toasted. The amount that the inside of the barrel is burned greatly affects how the whiskey inside ages. The toasted barrels provide more tropical or citrus notes, while the heavy charred barrels provide more caramel, vanilla, and dark fruit notes. Koval distill five different grains: rye, oat, wheat, spelt and millet. Each grain is distilled separately and is available in 3 styles: un-aged or White, aged in a Dark Char barrel, or aged in a Toasted barrel.


Enough about you, let’s talk about me. I’m sick. I know this because I watched an entire season of The Office on Netflix yesterday and peanut butter seems disgusting. Normally, I will crawl naked across a thicket of thorns to procure peanut butter. (Well, what does your grocery store look like?) Also, when I stand up, the world seems shot by Twilight’s cinematographer; everything is blown out and too close. Also, people are drinking blood through straws. No wait, that’s just the couch.


It’s in this spirit of slight ennui and total deliriousness that I bring you my Utterly Subjective End of Year Round Up in which I speak in absolutes and you can’t object because this site doesn’t support comments.

Let’s ease into this with something indisputable.


1. Best new Chicago Restaurant: Lady Gregory. Only days after opening its doors some time last summer (I’m too sick to google.), this upscale Irish bar and restaurant already felt like a neighborhood mainstay. Since then, LG has made itself indispensable, providing not only delicious food and homey ambiance, but also holiday movie screenings, special whiskey tastings and a winter coat drive. If you’re in the market for a low-key New Year’s Eve destination, LG promises a live DJ, party favors, champagne and best of all, no cover. What are you waiting for? Go. Order the beet salad and tell them I sent you. They will have no idea what you mean, but they will still bring you the salad.

Photo by Patty Michels

The other day my Significant Other spotted something at Brown Elephant.

“Look,” she said, “a time clock.”

“As opposed to a space clock?” I rejoined, showcasing my aptitude for humorous observations. I know, how much fun would I be to date? With me no redundancy goes unnoticed. For every misused word, I supply a superior alternative. If, for example, you are splayed across the bathroom floor, damp with fever and confide you feel “nauseous,” like Florence Nightingale, I’ll nurse your word use back to health: “You mean, nauseated,” I’ll coo.

“No,” SO said, “it’s literally a time clock.”

Hearing the word ‘literally,’ I readied my sledgehammer, but not only had she used the word correctly, the device she referred to was actually an old fashioned time clock used for punching in at work.

I can’t tell you how much I wanted to buy it. How great would that be? Wake up, drink my coffee, change into my work pajamas and punch in? I’d totally make the dog and the werewolf punch in too. Maybe the scooter and the Christmas tree as well. They’re seasonal help, but they still count. But I didn’t, because buying some potentially broken gadget when you have yet to repay your student loans is probably irresponsible. Buying a sequin dress, however? Totally different story, a cautionary one in fact. About the dangers of Seasonal Affective Disorder. And Working From Home. And Whiskey.


Things you need to know:

1. I don’t drink. Ever notice how when you do drink, no one asks you to justify it? I on the other hand have been challenged so habitually I start shrugging and apologizing even before I’m asked. My reasons include:
-Expense, (see above re student loans)
-Obnoxiously Delicate Body Chemistry (My body responds to substances from sugar to caffeine to alcohol as if the substance were a side-eye and my body were a Real Housewife.)
-A general need to control everything at all times (See above re so much fun to date.)

2. I’m in the midst of some major downtime right now. Lots of deadlines met, and weeks to wait before I begin teaching my mind-blowing Story Studio novel writing courses which promise to make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams and also clear your nasal passages. (Results may vary). In other words, the only things standing between me and a postapocalyptic nightmare of the sort described by Cormac McCarthy are "30 Rock" episodes on Netflix instant.

3. I believe feminism is about choices, and I choose to be a disgrace to feminism. Except that it’s not exactly a choice. See, I pretty much exemplify every sexist myth about PMS. Picture the most offensive commercial aired during the Super Bowl concerning the difference between men and women. Hello, my life. The other night for example, in the space of little more than thirty seconds I said this to SO:
“I want chocolate cake I’m so fat I want chocolate cake are you bored of me whatever I’m going to be so famous I won’t even remember your name what happens when we die?”

In other words, I’m not sanity’s poster girl. I’ll leave that to Courtney Love.


So, although I’m broke, I decided a night out with a friend was warranted. (Read: my SO told me I was upsetting the dog and I needed to leave for a while.) My friend and I went to Mary's Rec Room!, which was awesome mainly because their tables have bottle caps on them. Not like a server didn’t properly clear between customers, but like, the caps are lodged under a layer of laminate. I couldn’t get over it, which might have been because I hadn’t left the house in weeks. Swept up in bottle cap excitement, I ordered a whiskey, the only kind of alcohol I really like. I have a friend who says it makes her feel like a senator, but to me, it tastes like cream soda, so I guess it makes me feel like a small town boy in the 1950’s, the kind of guy who might grow up to become a senator. Whoa. Full circle.


After dinner, my friend said she wanted to go shopping. (Not the senator friend, the friend I was with. For the sake of simplicity I considered eliding them but we all saw what happened to Vivian Gornick and James Frey.)

“Akira is probably open,” I said. “But you have to be anorexic to shop there. Or Lady Gaga. Or, I guess, both would work too.” Despite the lashing wind I felt pleasantly warm. Clearly, I’d developed the ability to heat my body using the power of my mind.

Down the street at Akira, I instantly found the dress of my slutty, drag queen dreams. Bypassing the navy and champagne version (Navy sequins are pointless, the sartorial equivalent of taking a spinning class while eating onion rings.), I went straight for the red and black.


We all have Facebook friends we don’t remember adding, the 21st century equivalent to penciled-in contact info in an outdated address book. The difference? Back when updating an address book meant whiteout and thick black ink, we didn’t call everyone else in our phone book to let them know they survived the cut. Another key distinction, smudged names rarely post pictures of themselves riding a mechanical bull. You don’t flick to their page to find they’re suddenly grateful for Whisker Tomkins, the best cat EVER!! They don’t subject you to dispatches from the Jason Mraz tour. But this also means they can’t pleasantly surprise you and wind up the subject of your blog.

So, I’m scanning FB the other day, and Amber Tillet’s status update catches my eye:

“If I could,” she writes, “I would have a torrid sexual tryst with this weather, but that might look weird.”

And I think to myself (as opposed to thinking to Rahm Emmanual who’s still on my porch btw) “I’ve got to find out more about this remarkable yet totally unfamiliar Amber person.

Turns out Ms. Tillet’s job is as inspired and self-generated as her Facebook updates. Along with Monika Lotter, Tillet co-founded Flight Chicago, an innovative restaurant tour offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Chicago's world-famous food scene. Each three-hour flight visits three different restaurants, allowing guests to tour kitchens, meet chefs and sample food pairings.

Though Tillet had no earthly clue how we came to be Facebook friends, she was nonetheless delighted to discuss her burgeoning business. And me? Today I’m grateful for Amber Tillet, the best random Facebook contact EVER!!

Our Town How did you generate the idea for Flight Chicago?
Amber Tillet Years ago, my partner and I were discussing a walking neighborhood food tour she took in New York. There are plenty of tours that focus on neighborhoods and easy bites of food. We wondered why no one focused more on the food, and more specifically, on the chefs and behind-the-scenes. We riffed on the idea, removing the touristy aspect and zeroed in on finding intimacy with the food and chefs behind it.

OT Why focus on chefs and staffs?
AT Let’s compare a restaurant’s food to a movie. If you love the movie, wouldn’t you love to hear the director and actors talk about its creation? For people who love food, there’s often a built-in fascination. How do chefs come up with their dishes? What goes into the daily life? What inspires them? We think it’s cool to get to ask those questions – in person.

OT What else separates Flight Chicago from other food tours?
AT Everything. Unlike progressive dinners, we operate our flights when the restaurants are otherwise closed to the public, so we’ve got the place to ourselves. No one else offers that kind of intimacy. Unlike neighborhood walking tours, we don’t incorporate neighborhood or city tourist info. Finally, unlike many other food tours and events, we are casual and relaxed in nature.

OT Who’s your ideal participant?
AT Most people who come on flights are pretty friendly and outgoing. No need to be a foodie. In fact, our chefs and we approach most guests as if they aren’t. It’s all very warm and on the level.


I’m a taste-maker; at least that’s what my mailman tells me. When I opened the door to collect my mail this morning, he looked me up and down and said, “You got your own style, girl. Don’t let anyone tell you not to show it off.” So before Chicago’s elite rush to follow my lead, I want to be clear that although I’m intrigued by GenoVive, a new DNA based eating plan, I am not specifically endorsing it. However, I did speak with Beverly E Swango, a former NASA employee and current GenoVive Director of Product Development to see what this new diet might offer.

Our Town Do animals in the wild naturally follow a DNA-based diet?
Beverly Swango All living organisms essentially follow a DNA-based diet. Animals adapt to their environment or they don’t live to reproduce. Those animals whose genetic makeup best allows them to make use of available food have a health and survival advantage over animals who are [unable] to process the food that’s readily available.

OT What makes humans different?
BS Our diets are not driven by simple availability. They’re affected by flavor, customs, our social interactions, and lately the amount of time we have available to plan, purchase, prepare, and yes, even consume our foods. Each human has a unique body chemistry determined by our genes. In the last decade, scientists decoded the human genome and gave us the ability to study our individual DNA. Identifying an individual’s specific set of gene variants known to be associated with various aspects of weight management helps us choose the best source of fuel. As we explored the association between weight management and DNA we discovered the emerging science of nutrigenomics, the study of how genes and nutrients interact and how this affects our body’s ability to function. Research in this area is expanding daily and is providing us with the ability to make better food choices based on our specific genetic profiles.

OT Mediterranean and Japanese diets are known to be healthy. How does GenoVive compare to natural ethnic diets? Does one’s race/ethnicity tie into one’s DNA and perhaps naturally influence the way we eat?
BS A key point to remember is the Mediterranean diet is health-promoting for Mediterranean populations, the Japanese diet for the Japanese population. We know that aspects of the [both] are very healthy and that the use of monosaturated fats such as olive oil or Omega 3 Fatty Acids found in fish have a basis in their ability to interact with our DNA to reduce the effects of inflammation. In creating the GenoVive diet we studied recommendations by the major medical associations, the RDA’s (Recommended Daily Allowances), as well as ethnic diets. Race and ethnicity play a role into one’s uniqueness, but [are only] part of the story. In working with the program, I invited my sisters to be tested to determine their dietary profiles. I was surprised to learn that of four immediate family members only two were similar in their resulting profile recommendations and that we also differed in our exercise recommendations. Finding that even family members, who share the same genes from the same parents, have different diet and exercise profiles really drives home the importance of one’s unique set of gene variants.

OT Can I expect to have a completely different meal plan than another person since I have completely different DNA?
BS Our current meal plans fall into four categories. Optimal Balance (OBL) - The basic guidelines of the US “Balanced” diet with an emphasis on calories from Carbohydrates, moderate Protein and moderate Fat. Fat Optimized (OFC) – Emphasis on the “Reduction of Fat,” moderate protein, and Carbohydrates as the balance of calories. Carbohydrate Optimized (OCC) – Emphasis on the “Reduction of Carbohydrates,” moderate protein, and the balance in fat. Fat & Carbohydrate Optimized (OFCC) – Emphasis on the “Reduction of Fat and Carbohydrates.” The protein is increased as a result of the reduction of the other 2 major macro-nutrient groups. [All] the meals are pre-assembled into daily menus to assist the customer in maintaining their recommended meal plan.

This is my housewife dress.

I’m not a fan of summer. I know, blasphemy, especially in Chicago, where restaurant patios are like exhaust-scented seasonal churches, clusters of Zinfandel drinking caprese salad eaters the congregation. When the temperature can’t be bothered to come down out of the rafters, the last thing in the world I want to do is sit halfway into Randolph Street traffic and eat. Even with my tongue pressed to my apartment’s twenty-year-old air conditioner, the last thing I want to do is eat. I can’t be the only one. Well, I might be the only one in flagrante delicto with an appliance, but I’m sure other Chicagoans wonder what to eat to beat the heat.
Personally, I like a good gazpacho. Regrettably, the fanciest food preparation tool I own is a slotted spoon and even that confuses me. It’s stored inches from the stove so I’m always grabbing it to stir soup and then feeling shocked when I can’t use it to taste the soup. I don’t own a vegetable mill (which sounds like something James Taylor would write a song about). I do have a blender with no top, but I’ve been banned from using it as a result of a terrible margarita/ceiling fan mishap. But yesterday, I found myself craving gazpacho, so I improvised.

Spontaneous Gazpacho Recipe:
One cucumber, chopped as small as your dull knife will allow.
Two medium size tomatoes also chopped.
One can Campbell’s Tomato Juice
One tub Pico De Gallo from Edgewater Produce (No other will suffice so if you’re reading this from Toronto, you’ll have to make a road trip.)
Dump into Tupperware because you don’t own a bowl

As is often the case with my concoctions, I ate the improvised Gazpacho with gusto, while my significant other looked queasy. Which is totally ridiculous because when SO and I were in New York and the heat index was 115 degrees I had to watch her consume a Philly cheese steak and fries and also one of those pizza slices the size of an occasional table. All outside.

Inspired by my recipe’s success, I asked Our Town readers to contribute their favorite summer dishes.

Micki LeSueur (who sounds like a made up French mouse but is actually a local writer you’ll be hearing more about in my next blog) was super helpful, even supplying a role for my dog in the food making process. She wrote: “Get peaches from the farmer's market. Have the dog remove the pits and place the peaches flesh side down on the grill. Grill until the peaches soften and impressive-looking grill lines appear. Turn skin side down. Add a little butter, some brown sugar and cinnamon to the cavities from the pits. Serve with vanilla ice cream. Invite me for dinner.”

Reader Freddie Levin contributed the following: “Buy canned kidney and/or white beans. Drain the liquid from the can. Cut up celery and avocado into small pieces. Dress with olive oil and lime juice. Add salt and pepper to taste. Look smug because it's Vegan and that makes you better than everyone else.”

Bio Pic Sun-Times.JPG
Photo by Charles Leslie

I’m the best girlfriend ever. Sure, from one moment to the next no one (including me) can predict whether I’ll shoot sunbeams from my fingertips or throw a fit because the dog looked at me wrong. Yeah, I skim Cosmo but judge my Significant Other for reading Five People You Meet in Heaven rather than something “worthwhile.” I am constantly lost, never want to carry anything, need to pee approximately every five minutes, object violently to abbreviations like veggies and Rom Com, check my e-mail incessantly, and make my SO apologize if I have a dream she’s done something wrong.

But none of that matters, because this month, I’m devoting the crush blog to my girlfriend’s crush. I know, how unflappable and Dan Savage-approved am I? It’s not quite what you think though; my SO is in love with…. pasta, specifically the local, organic kind handmade by Pasta Puttana owner, Jessica Volpe. But here’s the thing, Volpe has red hair, and if there’s anything my SO loves as much as pasta, it’s…. a redhead.

So, here I am, relentlessly brunette and confused by kitchen appliances watching my SO practically build a nest inside a heaping plate of Golden Egg Papparadelle, and what do I do? I decide to make fantastic chef and intrepid entrepreneur Jessica Volpe July’s Crush of the Month. And you know what? Now I’ve heard her thoughts on grammar and her way with a pop culture reference, I’m genuinely smitten myself.

Name: Jessica Volpe
Hometown: Cleveland, OH
Profession: Pasta Maker; Owner of Pasta Puttana
Hobbies: Pre-Puttana I had lots of hobbies. Now I just take pleasure in little things like tap dancing while I work; reading biographies of Golden Age film stars; experimenting with crazy old pasta-making techniques and eating olives.

Our Town Why homemade pasta?
Jessica Volpe It's a beautiful food, sorely under-represented in this country. Restaurants serve it but most cover it with heavy cream sauces, butter, globs of cheese--it defeats the point. My whole thing is letting the pasta itself shine with seasonal produce or just little morsels people find in their fridge. Come to Green City Market and you'll find me in a constant dialogue with customers about what's in season and which ingredients go best with which pasta. So much more fun than, "Go buy that jar of sauce."

OT How did you come up with your company name?
JV Puttana was something my dad used to say a lot, but in a funny, non-sexist way. Once I said Pasta Puttana out loud I knew it was right. Not just because it's irreverent and alliterative (both good for a company name) but because I truly am a pasta whore.

OT What did you do to convince places like Whole Foods to stock your product?
JV Oh, I stalked; wore them down with my emails and annoying presence until they finally just gave in (kind of like how Sandra Bullock won her Oscar).

OT Originally you weren't interested in retail space, why make the leap?
JV It wasn't in the original business plan, no, but I'm so inspired and excited by the possibilities of a shop devoted entirely to my pasta. The space is tiny so I'm going for a minimal-but-warm aesthetic. In the spirit of letting the pasta shine, I'll also offer seasonal staples like braised beans, sun-kissed tomatoes, and finishing oils. The Pasta Puttana shop opens July 8th at 1407 W. Grand Avenue in Noble Square.

OT Any advice for people wanting to start a small business?
JV Think carefully because it's a life-changer.


I can’t be the only one. I can’t, because it happens to all of us. No, not getting Katy Perry’s "Teenage Dream" stuck in our heads. Death. I don’t remember how I found out about death, but from the age of four on, I feared it. Not a quiet terror, but a sobbing, sleepless, wake up the neighbors who call the police because they suspect I’m being hacked to death by my parents kind of panic. Now I knew that each person, each animal and tree and--God help me-- the planet itself held within it an expiration date, I couldn’t comprehend how my friends went on playing foursquare and eating glue.

Though my death fixation lasted a decade, ultimately, through some peculiar combination of imagination and denial I managed to force my dread to the periphery of my consciousness, where it reached up to bop me over the head only every few months. Recently however, the apprehension has sidled center stage again, upstaging my usual obsessions. While it’s a relief to no longer worry that the eunuch vampire from "Let the Right One" In lives between my washer and dryer, this mortality anxiety sure is taking up a lot of my time.

While very few people join me when I run nightly down Foster street screaming, “We’re all gonna die,” I know others like me exist and it’s for you I’ve compiled this list.

Things to do in Chicago When You’re Terrified to Die


1. Attend A.J. Durand’s Queer Yoga Workshop at Yogaview.
Running every Saturday July 2-July 30 from 2:00-3:15p.m., this class is specifically geared to provide queer folks curious about yoga with a safe, supportive, and fun environment. If you’re lucky, the practice will lend you peace and clarity. If you’re like me, you’ll have to flee the room because shavasana means corpse pose.
(Note: Heterosexuals can achieve a similar state of serenity by drinking twenty beers at a Cubs game and then preventing the Clark bus from moving more than two feet at a time.)


2. Visit XOJane, the new website launched this week by 90’s alternative women’s magazine darling, Jane Pratt. If you had a subscription to "Sassy" as a teenager, the familiar names of her contributors and editors will induce a form of nostalgia, which, if you are lucky, will fill you with awe as to how far you’ve come. If you’re like me, you’ll drop to the floor moaning as if trampled by time’s grime march.


3. Come to A Taste of StoryStudio, an evening of wine, cheese, and StoryStudio classes designed to help students interested in honing their writing skills at this Chicago mainstay. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. sharp May 20. If you’re lucky, you’ll come away pleasantly buzzed and brimming with inspiration. If you’re like me, you’ll spend the night certain the end of the world is mere hours away.


4. Sample free frozen yogurt at the opening of Red Mango’s new Loyola location. The giveaway runs 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., also May 20. If you’re lucky, you’ll enjoy a delicious, low fat desert in the vicinity of an institution of higher learning. If you’re like me you’ll convince yourself it’s possible to choke to on yogurt. Or maybe freeze to death from the inside.


5. Adhere to out-of-touch-rich-celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow’s list of places to visit while in Chicago. (This item is kind of like if a genie granted you three wishes and you used one to wish for a bunch of extra wishes, because it allows me to refer readers to a slew of other Chicago options while technically not exceeding five selections. I’m very clever.) If you’re lucky, you’ll have a number of lovely dining experiences and learn how it feels to sleep on 100,000 thread count sheets. If you’re me, you won’t be able to afford any of Paltrow’s suggestions, but the smoldering envy you’ll experience just might distract you from your mortality.

A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by followingOur Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez


The first time I entered one of those mammoth grocery stores we’ve all grown accustomed to, I reacted as if I’d spent my life in an Eastern European bread line or possibly running with wolves. The options, the scale, both overwhelmed me.
Later, my years in LA felt like a sentence served inside Baz Luhrmann’s mind; the garish corner of Sunset and La Cienega enough to make me sob. I guess lurid excess just isn’t my thing.

Still, as I mentioned last week, I was eager to attend the For the Love of Chocolate gala, (or as I like to refer to it: Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate, Ack!) FTLOC benefits The French Pastry School’s Scholarship Foundation, and draws hundreds of local candy shop pros and restaurant chefs, from Chris Kadow-Dougherty of Whimsical Candy to Kai Lermen, Executive Chef at the Peninsula Hotel.

Inside the Merchandise Mart it was like Willy Wonka meets Midsummer Night’s Dream meets Top Chef: a DJ blasted artful mixes, an elfin man on a sort of elevated bicycle turned a crank to produce wine by the glass and a woman essentially wearing a table served chocolate from her “skirt.” (She refused to come home with me; for the best, she wouldn’t have fit in the car.)

In corridors branching from the main area guests, like well-coiffed ants, surrounded long tables heaped with chocolate concoctions (sorbets, puddings, cookies, tiramisu, cupcakes, mousse). In one area, a candy maker used a blowtorch to construct a two-foot high candy flower. Elsewhere, celebrity chef Rick Bayless attracted a throng of devotees as he threw together some sort of cubed beef, cilantro, tortilla situation (Hey, I’m not a food writer!).

Though I likely bypassed dozens of amazing displays, I was most taken with Bleeding Heart Bakery’s “Tribute to Sid Vicious in Whiskey and Chocolate,” an edgy conglomeration of whiskey infused offerings including a chocolate handgun I slipped into my purse.

Eventually I found my way to the “real food” section, where guests queued up for ceviche, chick pea soup, and soft hunks of meat girded by pureed root vegetables, which I also slipped into my purse. I’m guessing chocolate was involved in each, but at that point I was too overwhelmed to inquire.

If you were sitting next to me at my writing desk this morning (and perhaps you were; I wouldn’t know because I wear blinders when I’m working. If it’s good enough for the plough horse, it’s good enough for the easily distractible work-at-home writer.) this is what you would have seen:

Me, totally normal person wearing horse blinders and roller skates (I hate the sound of the kettle shrieking, and the skates cut my travel time in half.). I lean closer to read an incoming e-mail. My jaw slackens. I remove all of my clothing. (Except the blinders and the roller skates, which are technically accessories, I believe.)

You ask: Why engage in such strange behavior? Why hang out in my house without my knowledge, watching me write? I counter. But let’s not quibble. Instead I’ll share an excerpt from the e-mail I received.

Dear Sarah:
On February 5th, The French Pastry School will hold its annual gala, For the Love of Chocolate, at the Merchandise Mart to raise funds for future pastry students. We would like to invite you to attend.

It was then I shed my clothing, something I do whenever I come in contact with the word chocolate. It’s not sexual, rather, if chocolate is in the vicinity, even the word chocolate, I simple want to be ready to get as close to chocolate as possible.

Reading on, I discovered the affair would include “celebrity and award-winning savory and pastry chefs such as Rick Bayless (of Frontera Grill) and Sherry Yard (of Spago, Beverly Hills); nationally recognized food writers such as Barbara Fairchild (longtime editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit) and Chicago TV news personalities wearing chocolate fashions.”

See, I was right to undress in preparation!

The $200 a head gala takes place Saturday February 5th from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. at Merchandise Mart. The invitation specifies black-tie, but lucky for me there’s no mention of pants.

Photo by Kristin Michels

Into the foreseeable future, The Crush of the Month Blog will open on a nostalgic note, offering quick snapshots of crush’s gone by. Why? Because change is good. Also, I’m running out of stalker jokes.

When I was in third grade I told my parents my favorite song was “Crush on You” by The Jetts.
“Joan Jett?” My father asked, excitedly. He’d supported my Jem and the Holograms habit, sat through Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, but held out hope my musical tastes might soon mature.
“Who?” I asked.
“Well, what do you like about their music?”
“They sing about liking someone but not telling them, and the girls have pretty hair.”
Luckily for my dad, just months after the Joan Jett incident, my sister came into the world wearing Sennheiser HD 800 headphones (She was from the future.); painful for my mother, balm for my dad’s soul.
As for me? I still love a good obsessive love song (See Lucinda Williams: Essence) but not as much as I love February’s Crush:

Name: Patty V. Michels
Hometown: Park Ridge, IL
Profession: Business Manager for Wave Restaurant at The W Hotel/ Go-to photographer for Our Town
Hobbies: Photography, traveling, camping, hanging out with my dog

Our Town What drew you to photography?
Patty Michels The idea of stopping time and preserving a moment. When I was eight, I got a Polaroid camera as a present and I mostly took pictures of bugs and flowers until one humid mid-western summer dusk when a huge storm was headed our way. I was lying on the sidewalk watching the clouds roll in though my viewfinder when my four year-old sister walked into the frame. I shot a gorgeous photo of her, long curly hair blowing in the wind with a red, purple and green sky swirling behind her. I was hooked.

OT Favorite subject?
PM Right now I'm really into night photography: long exposures, vibrant colors and surreal effects.

OT Ever use photography to get a girl?
PM Put it this way, wanna come over and see my macro coupler when we're done here?

OT What do you like most about your day job?
PM Besides all the food I get to eat, I would say the people. I get to work with actors, artists, culinary wizards, world travelers, musicians, writers, people who generally say "No thanks, I will not wear a tie to work. I've got better things to do with my life," but I still get to wear a tie, plus bring home a steady paycheck.

OT The W Hotel is infamous. Any interesting celebrity encounters?
PM Rihanna wanted fresh mangos in her room. They came to me for the money and I approved it. Oh, the power!

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