Friday, December 23, 2016
A taste of heaven
I visited a slice of heaven and a glimpse into hell Thursday, all within the span of a couple hours.
Heaven might be overstating the case. But it was very white, and lovely. Which came as I surprise, because I was driving east along Lawrence Avenue, one of the more unlovely streets in Chicago. It was getting on 9 a.m., I had not had my coffee, and I was looking for a place, anyplace, to get a cup before I arrived at my destination. I pulled over at a Greek bakery, Hella's Pastry Shop, 2627 W. Lawrence -- only now, as I type it, does the name seem ironic.
"Do you have coffee?" I asked, and as Gus, who has worked there 30 years, poured it, I looked around. Usually a bakery has a wide variety of offerings, but this place had one, predominantly. Tray after tray of kourabies—to use the bakery's spelling—a Greek Christmas cookie, filling the glass case, and the wall behind the counter. The effect was surreal, cinematic, charming.
I asked about the cookies, of course, and Gus suggested a dozen at $9.50. I already had breakfast, so compromised with a half dozen. Gus gave me a complimentary honey cookie, wrapped in a napkin, and I ate that on the spot. It was very good, and I mentioned another Greek restaurateur of my acquaintance. His honey cookies ... Gus knew him, and he and I exchanged a knowing, sorrowful glance. Yes, well, baking is an art, is it not? And art, by definition, is not open to all, despite effort and intention.
The bakery, he said, has been there for 50 years. These things take time to perfect. There was a sign in the window I admired on my way out. "All nicely wrapped." That was very sweet, in a way as sweet as the cookies.
The kourabies were very powdery -- not the best cookie to eat sitting in your car, but I managed. They were worth the care needed to eat them and the clean-up required, some diligent brushing and flicking. These crescents can be made with almond, or walnut, but these seemed a straight shortbread. I limited myself to two, saving the rest for the family, though that took an application of will as the day progressed.
Leading us to hell. As for hell, well, that's more complicated, as hell tends to be. You'll have to read my column on Monday. There too, I might be overstating the case, but again, only slightly.