Saturday, May 6, 2023

Works in progress: Monica Eng

      Writing with a co-author is an entirely new gear for a writer. At least it was for me — whereas I usually write based on my own gut, now there was a second, exterior voice, one I was obligated to listen to, understand, respect. 
     Which wasn't a problem when I was writing "Out of the Wreck I Rise" with Sara Bader, who inevitably was right, or at least had a point, particularly when dialing back my more flowery prose. I remember her saying, "You're competing with the poetry."
     It was fun, educational, productive.
      So when I approached my former Sun-Times colleague, Monica Eng about her writing something here about her new book, "Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown Bites," I asked her to address how she came to collaborate with her co-author.
    The only thing better than eating great local food is reading about it, and this book seems a natural summer read for those of us bouncing around the suddenly-warm city, eating stuff. Monica and her co-author will be at the Highland Park Public Library Monday, talking about their book. Take it away, Monica:

     After years of reporting on Chicago-invented dishes, I was having lunch with a food historian friend who suggested I collect a bunch of their origin stories in a book. The University of Illinois Press was launching a 3 Fields imprint on Midwest culture and he thought it would be natural fit.
     I was barely keeping up as a mom, radio journalist and podcaster — much less a person who regularly washes her hair. So it seemed nuts to add a book deadline to the chaos. But at a book party in late 2018, I was talking to my pal and fellow food writer, David Hammond, about the difficulty of the project and he agreed to take on half the writing. We cooked up a book proposal and finally signed a contract right before the pandemic hit. I don’t think we saw each other’s faces in person for four years after that party.
     When it came to figuring out the 30 foods to feature we used these rules: All the dishes (or twists on them) had to be invented in Chicago, served in more than one place and tell an interesting story. To meet our 18 month deadline, I worked during vacations, on weekends and at night, mostly wishing I’d never agreed to do it. But like most of my big babies, this one has left me with nothing but pride as the memories of labor pain fade away. The book designers did a nice job of making this perfect for the your bike basket and glove compartment, so you can whip it out anywhere in the city to learn that a tasty bite and story are right around the corner.
      But more than just making an eating guide, I wanted to highlight these inventors, almost all of who were recent arrivals from other countries or the South. Our hot dog toppings tell the story of early 20th Century migration to Maxwell Street. The Pizza Puff comes from Assyrian immigrants from Iran crafted hot dog carts from baby buggies and manufactured corn roll tamales. Rib tips hit menus because Chicago barbecue masters from Mississippi didn’t want to waste a gnarly bit of the rib that many threw away. And the Akutagawa omelet represents Japanese-Americans in Wrigleyville who held onto small part of their culture even after the U.S. government told them to leave it behind.
    Beyond the happy stories, though, I found a bigger depressing story of persistent cultural segregation. Few South Siders have ever eaten the Akutagawa or gam pong gi, and fewer North Siders have tried Sweet Steaks, Jim Shoes or Pizza Puffs covered in mild sauce. My na├»ve hope, though, is that this book might change that a little — that these stories might intrigue readers to the point where they bust out of their own neighborhoods to try something new across town that gives them a little better understanding of the people who share their city.


  1. I consider myself a relatively well-informed North Sider and I don't think I've ever *heard* of the Akutagawa or gam pong gi, let alone tried them. I've heard about Sweet Steaks and Pizza Puffs, but, no, haven't eaten them. Sounds like a swell book that goes well beyond the usual Chicago fare.

    The Rainbow Cone would have been easy to identify even without the sign behind it. But in a throwback to the Saturday guessing-game from the early days of EGD, is that splendid pizza atop the blog from Burt's Place, NS?

    1. Yup, it sure is. The best pizza in Chicago, by my estimation.

  2. The Rainbow Cone seems like overkill, but I can't judge what I haven't tasted. A Burt's pizza is a true Chicago treasure, if not the best outright it is surely tied for first place. R.I.P.

  3. Akutagawa was served along with egg foo young with rice and gravy or hash browns and a soup called yet ka mein (sp?) at Hamburger King or “Chester’s” around Clark and Sheffield. I believe it was next to the Nisei Lounge. I spent many a late morning there in the early 80’s, sometimes with a new friend I had met the night before at the Metro or the Gingerman Tavern. Yeah, old school dating.


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