TOP CHEF CONTESTANT EDWARD LEE AT BELLYQ

Okay, I admit–I’ve been on a Top Chef binge lately. Fortunately, my type of self-indulgence doesn’t lead to cirrhosis or chlamydia, so I leapt at an invitation to meet Top Chef and Iron Chef contestant Edward Lee at his private book signing at bellyQ. Guests at the event received complimentary Jefferson’s Reserve cocktails, a bottle of Red Boat Fish Sauce, and a signed copy of Lee’s cookbook, Smoke & Pickles. (“One part Southern soul, one part Asian spice, and one part New York attitude, Smoke & Pickles shares 130 recipes that mix the flavors and techniques of his Korean roots, his classical French training, and his Louisville, Kentucky home.”).

After a hideously long drive down a congested I-94, I arrive an hour late (a.k.a. just on time) but am warmly greeted by Lee’s publicist. She introduces me to Lee, who shakes my measly little journalist hand before resuming his conversation with other attendees. As I wait for my turn to chat with Lee, I wander off to taste some delectable bites.

The menu of southern, Asian-inspired hour de voires included:

  • Tamarind Glazed Strawberry Ham
  • Cornmeal Fried Oysters with Lettuce Wrap
  • Pork Crackling
  • White Pear Kimchi

Being particularly Southern and Asian, my taste buds expected a little more from the bites, which were decently tasty. As usual, I find myself in bellyQ’s back kitchen, where young, tattooed chefs carve away at the ham and assemble lettuces for the fried oysters. Behind-the-scenes is never glamorous (especially when you see vats of sauce and garnish in giant metal containers), but there’s something glorious about the backstage process. It’s a mad orchestra of plating and prepping, with chefs frying away and servers dumping leftovers into take-out boxes.

Because the kitchen openly faces the dining area, I’m able to observe a fascinating dichotomy: a well-dressed, mostly professional crowd sipping on classy cocktails versus a diverse band of artistic misfits cranking out delicious food. I discover that bellyQ servers and cooks, whose experience range from restaurant management to high-end dining, actually enjoy their job.

Which I find surprising since line chefs work notoriously hard and long hours. But as founder Bill Kim later tells me, you gotta love what you do, even if the perks are rare and lackluster. Kim tells me that he went directly to Kendall College after high school while his Korean friends followed the usual path to lawyerhood, doctorhood, and engineeringhood (“Asian parents,” we both acknowledge). Years of kitchen experience later (including Charlie Trotter’s and Le Lan), he’s opened a slew of Belly restaurants. Given his rising culinary stardom (and the accompanying asstight schedules), Kim acts more as a “businessman” than a chef nowadays, participating in media events and giving back to the community (aka fundraisers, hosting book signings, collaborating with other small businesses, etc). I ask him whether he’s ever modified his food for the American palette, and he replies that he gets “lots of shit” from people who say his menu isn’t traditional Korean. In fact, his menu is diversely Asian, with Korean kimchi, Chinese steamed buns (or bao), and Japanese edamame.

In addition to bonding over our heritage and love for food, Kim also imparts a bit of sage career advice. He tells me to pursue my passion, regardless of what friends, parents, or critics might say. But it’s also easy to give romantic career advice if you’re Bill Kim or Edward Lee–you’ve paid your dues and have sixteen medals on your shiny golden belt.

Despite their successes, I wonder–at what point does a chef become the Richard Blais who runs the gammit of celebrity shows, cookbook deals, and media tours?

The restaurant industry is fiercely Darwinian, and chefs who aren’t hustling will inevitably fall behind. Although I chatted only briefly with Ed, I can tell he’s burned out. Puffing on a cigarette after downing a shot of Bourbon, Lee looks like he could drink 20 more beers. In fact, with 18 more signings on his book tour, Lee tells me that he’s “always” stressed (though static photographs with zealous fans would never reveal that). But really, with his cornucopia of successes and the cultural expectations of Asian men, I don’t blame him.

In the meantime, I’m taking it easy, slowly sipping on my cocktail as the evening winds down.

SEAFOOD GRILLING AT THE CHOPPING BLOCK

I can be a total snob with it comes to home cooking. I’ve sauteed enough vegetables to know their wilting rates and sprouted enough grains/legumes to produce a lifetime of farts. Whenever my friends gloat over their puny stir fries and sweet potato hashes, I scoff with pretentious disdain while thinking in a British accent: Yes, but did you make truffled risotto and roasted bone marrow for dinner last night? Because III did.

Despite my occasional bouts of superiority, I’m not really a snob. I grew up eating and cooking with my parents and playing free online pokies, food and gambling has always played an integral part of my family and culture. My wonderful childhood was a culinary kaleidoscope of pickling radishes, kneading dumpling wrappers, and butchering animal bits for stock and roasts. And I believe that when it comes to cooking, the best tool is one’s palette and sense of smell. No, I can’t afford a Robot Coupe, and my knife skills are dangerously amateur, but I can tell you when that omelet is motherfucking ready.

So why did I sign up for a seafood grilling class at The Chopping Block when clearly, my intentions were to deride my fellow peers on their lack of culinary skill and expertise?

Because a) that’s not why I signed up;  b) if there’s one protein that I can reliably screw up, it’s seafood. I don’t know how many scallops and tilapia filets I’ve turned into solid rubber, and I once cooked a red snapper into literal smithereens; c) I hadn’t grilled for years and forgotten the scent of accidentally-singed eyebrows

Located in Lincoln Square and Merchandise Mart, the Chopping Block is “Chicago’s largest recreational cooking school and gourmet retail store,” offering “demonstration and hands-on cooking classes, as well as wine classes, private cooking parties and corporate team building events.” They’re like a Chicago-based Williams-Sonoma, except 10 times cooler. When I arrive at the Lincoln Square location, I follow the scent of burning charcoal to the outdoor patio, where class participants are munching on pre-dinner popcorn and booze (because contrary to popular belief, booze helps one chop and slice more accurately).

It’s an intimate crowd, and with the setting sun casting glorious rays over the patio deck, I feel invigorated and inspired. As I don my apron, I fiercely judge my competitors–I mean, classmates. Some cute guy and his mom, a daughter-mother pair from Oklahoma, a few couples, some pairs of friends. Our main instructor was Trevor Moore, who was aided by Melissa Novak. Although there were some hitches getting started (is there enough shrimp?!) and the occasional confusion as to who-chops-what (wait, did you mince that garlic?), the 3-hour class zoomed by, and by the end of our prepping and cooking, I was ravenous. And luckily, our menu did not disappoint:

  • Cedar-planked lemon salmon with bacon and watercress salad
  • Thai marinated and grilled shrimp and pineapple skewers with spicy peanut sauce
  • New Mexican grilled fish with grilled zucchini, red onion, and avocado salad

shrimp pineapple skewersDuring the class, I learned that:

Marinating is the key to life and love. Marinate everything.

  1. I love overly-charred vegetables. Something about the smoky taste rouses my cavewoman instincts.
  2. Although cedar planked salmon was delicious, the shrimp was the rockstar of the meal.
  3. Gas grills are nice and fancy, but they can’t replicate charcoal/wood-burning grills

Fresh produceNeedless to say, our meal was delicious, which surprised me given how many people didn’t know the fundamentals of cooking. Now, I’m not just saying that to be obnoxious, but some participants hadn’t stepped in the kitchen for years. Some couldn’t measure out a tablespoon of olive oil worth their life, and others were handling knives in ways that significantly elevated my blood pressure. Luckily, Chef Trevor and Melissa were incredibly helpful and knowledgeable about the ingredients and cooking products, and any mishaps were quickly resolved by their clever improvisations.

Which is more than I can say for me. It was admittedly frustrating for me to work in groups, as I impatiently watched people cut zucchini and onions into unwieldy, uneven chunks. But instead of walking away from the class like some egotistical bastard, I was filled with appreciation and humility. Not everyone knows how to cook, and even fewer know how to cook well. But that’s the whole point of these classes–to learn or refine basic techniques, to cook and converse with complete strangers, to drink five glasses of wine before dinner. For me in particular, I enjoyed talking to Trevor and Melissa about their burnout from the restaurant industry and their transition into a more instructor-like role. In other words, you get as much as you put in, regardless of your skill talent or interests.

YUM.

I grew up eating home-cooked meals at The Dinner Table (aka Place Where Everything Happens), but others may have eaten crappy microwaveables in front of the TV. But like everything else in life, just because you may have something better doesn’t mean you should prance around with (genuine) superiority. Although clocks seem to operate 3x faster nowadays, there’s a wholesome quality about homemade cooking that’s people back into the kitchen. And classes at The Chopping Block are helping to build that momentum, which ultimately is a great thing.

HAVE YOU GOT (RAW) MILK?

During my usual breakfast fix of Lucky Charms a few weeks ago, an unusual question popped into my mind as I absentmindedly gazed at my carton of Stonyfield organic milk. I was wondering what the hell ultra-pasteurization was when I thought: do people still consume raw milk? Like most Americans, I purchase and drink grocery-store milk, a substance probably not produced by those happy Guernsey cows freely grazing on the packaging. U.S. milk usually undergoes heavy processing during pasteurization and homogenization, processes designed to create a safe and palatable breakfast beverage. However, real-food proponents often opt for more “natural” versions, including grass-fed or “gently-pasteurized” brands. But what about raw milk, freshly squeezed from the precious udders of a hay-chewing cow? Can I purchase it legally in the U.S., and more importantly, would I die from salmonella if I drank it?

Raw milk proponents argue that in addition to killing off “good” bacteria, pasteurization destroys milk’s full nutritional value, claims which have been fervently refuted by the FDA. And since the US tends to illegalize anything remotely detrimental to the human body, only 28 states can sell raw milk, including Illinois. Even then, farmers must abide by stringent regulations, including no advertisement or marketing of their products. Another controversial aspect of raw milk (and whole milk in general) is its high fat content. For nearly 50 years now, the health profession has recommended skim or low-fat versions, although no substantial evidence exists suggesting that whole milk (or fat in general) causeshealth issues like diabetes.

Eager to learn more about raw milk, I decided to visit one of the few farms in Chicago that sells it: Barrington Natural Farms (BNF). Owned by Cliff McConville and Konda Dees, BNF is a small local farm that prides itself on organically-raised grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken and pork, raw milk, and free-range eggs. They don’t spray pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers, nor do they use hormones, fungicides, or synthetic medicines (unless the animal’s life in danger).

I arrive at this green, organic oasis just in time to help Cliff with his evening chores. Part-time businessman and part-time farmer, Cliff is an unpretentious sort of guy with a warm laugh and affable disposition. An early sunset keeps introductions brief, and we head off to collect the chicken eggs before it gets too dark. We drive five minutes to a nearby plot of leased land, labeled by a crooked “Barrington Farms” sign. Cliff and I hop the fence and make way towards the chicken enclosure, a large coop enclosed by an electric barrier meant to deter coyotes and other predators. Smashed patties of cow manure, topped with freshly molted feathers, dot the land like fecal landmines, but the pasture smells remarkably fresh (a pleasant surprise as I’d prepared for an invisible wall of vomit-inducing stench).

Cliff practices rotational grazing by relocating his chickens to partitioned pasture areas, which reduces overgrazing and allows for easier nutrient control. However, the process is labor and time-intensive: he uses his truck to drag the coop across the pasture and must rearrange the electric barrier every time. The chickens, busy picking grubs and parasites from the manure, greet us with loud squawks, while the geese (meant to guard the chickens from aerial predators) glare at us from a distance.

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We climb onto the coop, where Cliff proceeds to fill his basket with little brown ovals of organic goodness. When he accidentally cracks one fragile egg and tosses it onto the ground, the chickens flock violently to consume the remains. I’m surprised by such carnivorous behavior, but Cliff informs me that egg-eating is actually fairly common.

After collecting the eggs, feeding the chickens, and pouring a bit of apple vinegar into their water (to help with digestion), we pay a quick visit to the cows. These majestic beasts wander slowly through the field, pausing only briefly to ensure I wasn’t a predator. One curious cow tentatively approaches me to sniff my hand before ambling off in search of fresh turf. Although some cattle are bred for meat, Cliff keeps his dairy cows (the Guernsey girls) for at least ten to twelve years.

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Our final stop is the pigs, who snort with excitement upon the prospect of receiving leftover milk. These spotted, stout Berkshire porkies are remarkably clean, unlike the feces-covered swine squealing in anguish on PETA propaganda. No, these pigs are well-fed and well-treated, and I can only imagine how succulent Wilbur tastes on an open spit. Curious about the “farm to table” movement, I ask Cliff whether restaurants actually buy pigs and cows from the farm. He replies that the seasonality and scale of his farm means he can’t readily supply restaurants with a constant supply of animal products. Although some chefs do purchase milk or pigs (including Zimmerman of Sepia), most of his customers are individual consumers, most of whom are very health-conscious. In fact, a sizable majority of his customers are Eastern Europeans who enjoy eating grass-fed meat and homemade kefir.

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Not that demand’s a problem. In addition to the growing interest in local organic food, the farm’s proximity to Chicago and high quality of farming means Cliff can command a high price for his products. Eggs are 50 cents apiece, and raw milk is ten bucks a gallon. Although Cliff eventually plans to expand BNF and work as a full-time farmer, he’s content with his operation for now. He tells me that many farms masquerade as “small, family farms” while raising thousands of chickens for retailers and restaurant empires (e.g. Rick Bayless). For Cliff, quantity comes second to quality, and he’s staunch on producing superior, nutrient-dense foods.

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Freshly collected eggs

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Ready for milking!

After returning to the farm with our eggs, we proceed to milk the five dairy cows, gathered expectantly by the gate’s door. Cliff tries to get the cows pregnant at least once a year to ensure a steady milk supply. Although the Guernsey gals naturally forage on grass and hay, Cliff supplements their diets with organic grain and alfalfa to boost their caloric intake, especially during the winter.

Milking is actually quite an elaborate process, involving pumps, machinery, and sanitation protocols. First, Cliff cleans the udders with a moist towel before dousing them with iodine to kill off remaining pathogens. He then attaches the milking apparatus, a system of tubes, teat cups, and pumps reminiscent of some futuristic prop off the set of Alien. The five cows know their milking order, but weary of a stranger’s presence, pause before entering the stall, eying me with a mix of suspicion and fear. But the allure of molasses-flavored grain quickly overrides any lingering trepidation, and they quickly trot into the barn for their daily treat. After Cliff finishes pumping the cows, he pours the product into a cooling tank, which filters and rapidly cools the milk to a safe temperature of 4°C-6°C.

The frothy, raw milk smells intensely sweet and appears quite yellow, as Guernsey milk contains an unusually high content of beta carotene (and more protein and cream in general). The taste resembles light cream, laced with a kind of sweet earthiness reminiscent of perfectly-ripe fruit. Combined with the buttery froth and silken smooth finish, the milk was nothing short of sublime.

Like many food movements, raw milk proponents may seem like petty extremists, the kind of health-nut hipsters you want to throw Chicken McNuggets at. But after visiting BNF and seeing the level of care that goes into raw milk (and organic farming in general), I think more people should try (and support) raw milk. Because it’s not the idyllic, happy farm fantasy that changed my mind—it’s those few, hard-working Midwesterners whose passion and honest ideals remind me that good food is natural food.

THE SPIRITUAL SIDE OF YOGA

A Healthy Autumn Dinner for the Soul

From pumpkin bread to stuffed turkey to gingerbread cookies, the period from Halloween to New Year’s always seems like a continuous marathon of gastro-gluttony. It’s when root vegetables begin popping up on restaurant menus, when vegetarians attempt (and fail) to imitate the glory of roasted bird, and when pies become the seventh food group. I always associate autumn with social meals, when people gather around a scenic open fire to share great food and wine. So naturally, I was quite thrilled when my friend Nancy Grabowsky invited me for a “healing” autumn dinner with her friends and family at Company.

As a yoga instructor and graduate of The Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Nancy integrates seasonal foods with superfoods, nutritious and purifying ingredients meant to energize the mind and body. Her culinary philosophy—“Let your Food be Your Medicine”— permeates both her cooking style and life attitude. Our vegetarian dinner menu consisted of:

  • Cauliflower mint petit brioche with rose and green grape reduction sauce
  • Fig & Kabucha Squash Soup with fine herbs and crispy chipotle kale
  • Golden beet, purple potato, and Jerusalem artichokes vertical torte with aged manchego cheese, caramelized red cabbage and chestnut puree
  • Arugula Salad, Purple Basil, Dandelion & fennel, salty blackberries, lemon balm and pomegranate dressing
  • Amaranth Pilaf with Hemp and Almond Sauce, fried plantain
  • Flourless date cake with a sage-kiwi glaze, dark chocolate mousse
  • Turkish Wedding drink (almond Milk with crushed pistachios and Rose water)

Now, I’ve indulged in enough food to forget about most of them, but I will always remember Nancy for her unique flavors and textures. Despite lacking formal training, her understanding of ingredients surpasses anything professional education could ever teach.The chipotle-infused, slightly-bitter crispy kale married perfectly with the velvety sweetness of the rose-laced soup. The crunchy, celery-like fennel, dressed in an acidic and sweet vinaigrette, left my tongue-buds tingling with virginal delight.

Fig and squash soup, crispy kale

The vertical torte, layers of salty manchego sandwiched between sweet potatoes and beets, hit my palette with so many textures and flavors that I barely breathed between bites, fork wobbling with euphoric joy. Even the red cabbage, bathed in the savoriness of Amish butter and rose extract, tasted sublime. Now I know I’m biased, but friendship can only enhance food so much, and I try to dote compliments in moderation. Nancy truly astounds with her creativity and an uncanny ability to cook mouthwatering dishes. How she can “mentally” create a recipe with such developed and harmonious flavors simply amazes me.

The fundamental hallmark of a great meal is pure, soul-drenched satisfaction. Are you full? Do you feel about yourself? Are you content with life? I usually don’t feel that way about most meals, but I left dinner that night with a profound sense of happiness. Watching Nancy carefully stir the pilaf, re-season the brioche, and top the date cake with mascarpone mousse made me realize that food doesn’t just taste good because of fresh ingredients; it tastes good because of the love that chefs pour into their creations. It tastes good because great conversation is the best garnish. It tastes good because it reminds you of home.

APNA GHAR: TASTE FOR LIFE FOOD GALA

I was fortunate enough to be invited to Apna Ghar’s 2013 Taste for Life Gala, hosted at the Chicago Cultural Center. Apna Ghar is a “safe haven for women and children in Chicago who face domestic violence, but don’t have the support networks or access to services needed to break free.  While our services are open to all women in Chicagoland, Apna Ghar specializes in serving immigrant women who must overcome significant cultural, social, economic, and legal barriers to life in the United States.”

Restaurants who contributed their delicious morsels included:

  • American Junkie (poke fish with cashew cream sauce, lentil and cauliflowers with spiced almond & caper dressing)
  • Atwood Cafe (Ramp soup, lamb dish)
  • Bombay Wraps (berry lassi, chicken and purple potato partha wraps)
  • Cabot Creamery Cooperative (cheese samples)
  • Cantina Laredo (octopus and shrimp ceviche on spicy blue corn chip)
  • Chocolat-Uzma Sharif (tea-infused chocolate, truffle with white chocolate chip)
  • Cobra Corn (spiced popcorn)
  • Emilio’s Tapas (balsamic grilled vegetables, quinoa, black bean, and mango salad, and potato and cabbage salad)
  • Gaylord India (Bhel Poori, chicken malai kabab)
  • Isla Pilipina (grilled vegetables, vegetable pancit, lumpia)
  • Metropolitan Club (sticky rice cake with cauliflower, white chocolate mousse in mini waffle cone)
  • The Peacock-Fine Indian Cuisine (mini rotis, Lamb kebabs, spiced chicken, spiced paneer and eggplant)
  • Sataza (Chicken Tikka, Tandoori Tofu with lots of toppings, including chickpeas and red onions)
  • Sullivan’s Steakhouse (ahi tuna tartare on wonton chip, filet mignon pretzel sliders with horseradish sauce)
  • Untitled (chicken liver on homemade crostini, cream-cheese filled grit cake with tomato jam)

All participating restaurants also had to incorporate a purple food item into at least one of their dishes, and many of the dishes were uniquely created for the event (i.e., not available on their main menu). Let’s just say I consumed enough food to last me AT LEAST six Chicago winters, and that I probably should’ve spent more time taking pictures than stuffing my mouth. Although all the restaurants presented superb dishes, I literally could not resist three or four trips to American Junkie’s station. The smooth texture of the seared poke meshed perfectly with their slightly acidic, creamy cashew cream sauce (i even got the recipe!). The freshness of the pea shoots, peas, and mushrooms also added a delightful earthy undertone. Their lentil dish topped with purple cauliflower and an almond and caper sauce made me weep with vegetarian glory.

Cantina Laredo’s spicy tortilla chip topped with fresh ceviche (shrimp, freshly grilled octopus, avocado, onion, Jesus’s tears) also brings back fond memories. Gaylord’s malai kabob–chicken marinated in spiced cream cheese and then baked–melted so gently in my mouth that I barely had to chew (not that I chewed much anyway while shoving things down my throat). And Untitled introduced me to chicken liver for the first time..and dear god, was it a delicious explosion of umami.

The fantastic food reflected the fantastic chefs/owners/managers who created the dishes. I met several interesting and funny characters, including the guys  from Isla Pilipina. They’re like the big brothers I’ve always wanted–silly, goofy, and goddamn lovable in every kind of way. And the tattooed chefs from Untitled reminded me that the best food comes from general badasses. Even MasterChef Suzy Singh was there!

Apart from the food, the Taste for Life gala proved highly enjoyable. There was plenty of booze, great music, and lots of FlAsHinG photography. But what I found most amazing was the sheer diversity and amount of people that came to the event. The idea of domestic violence often evokes anger and shame, and these uncomfortable feelings often deter individuals from understanding more about the subject. Yet there were children, men, and women of all ages and ethnicities present at the gala, all bound by a common desire to support Apna Ghar’s cause (and a common love for food, of course). As Serena Low (Executive Director at Apna Ghar) says, “Food is life.  And it cannot be ignored or taken for granted particularly when we are trying to heal and or help others heal from trauma and abuse.”

Apna Ghar’s core services include (from website):

  • 24-Hour Hotline: Our hotline addresses the immediate safety needs of callers, who can connect to our services, get referrals to other programs, and get information about domestic violence and the protective options available to them.
  • Emergency Shelter: Our 15-bed, 24-hour emergency shelter provides women and their children who are escaping abuse a home-like atmosphere where they can regain control of their lives.  Care is taken to maintain a culturally-sensitive, secure, and healing environment.
  • Transitional Housing: Our seven transitional housing apartments offer Apna Ghar shelter clients who have moved beyond an emergency phase the space to establish long-term self-sufficiency.  Transitional housing is available for 18-24 months.  All transitional housing residents receive ongoing, intensive case management during their stay.
  • Counseling: Our counselors use individual and family therapy, support groups, art therapy, conflict management, and communication training to help women and their children process and heal from the trauma of abuse.  Counseling is provided to both residential and non-residential clients.
  • Legal Advocacy: Our legal advocates guide residential and non-residential clients through the US legal system.  Advocates help clients access available legal remedies, including obtaining civil orders of protection, pressing criminal charges, obtaining crime victims’ compensation, filing for divorce, custody, and support, as well as acquiring legal immigration status through protective statutes such as the Violence Against Women Act.  Advocates also help clients obtain legal representation through an in-house legal clinic and partnerships with area legal aid agencies and volunteer attorneys.
  • Supervised Visitation and Safe Exchange Center: Our supervised visitation and safe exchange center, one of only three in the city of Chicago, provides a free, safe place where children can interact with their non-custodial parent in the presence of a trained facilitator.  The center also offers a safe location for parents to pick-up and drop-off their children when the courts determine that the non-custodial parent may have unsupervised visits.

TACKLING HUNGER AT THE COMMUNITY KITCHEN

For me, hunger has always been a voluntary choice. I’ll forget my lunchbag on the El or fast for an upcoming barbecue, but I have never faced serious issues procuring and eating food (as my blog clearly suggests). So it shocked me that in Cook County alone, 1 out of 6 people suffer from food insecurity. In fact, a 2010 study by the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) found that:

  • 47% of households that the GCFD serves “have had to make the choice between buying food and paying for utilities
  • 44% “had to choose between paying for food and paying for housing”
  • 28% “had to make the choice between buying food and paying for healthcare

To lack the basic necessity of food is a problem you’d expect in Sierra Leone or Haiti, but in the goddamn United States of Excess? “I don’t know why people still struggle with hunger when we’re one of the richest countries in the world. I think it’s racism, I think it’s classism, I think it’s the structures that are in place to keep people disempowered,” says Mary Frohna, Volunteer Coordinator at A Just Harvest (AJH). Located in Rogers Park, AJH is “an anti-hunger organization committed to feeding the hungry andaddressing the root causes of hunger and poverty.”

I decide to explore the hunger crisis in Chicago by volunteering at The Community Kitchen (CK), one of AJH’s numerous programs. With an operating cost of $1,000 per day, CK receives immense support from local volunteers and corporate partnerships (including Jewel, Whole Foods, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository). Having served 54,000+ dinners and contributed 296,000+pounds of food in 2012, the kitchen is open 365 days and welcomes anyone in need.

Our goal is to have it be about respect and dignity,” says Mary. Volunteer waiters serve patrons in a restaurant manner, and house rules (no seconds, no fighting, no taking food home, etc.) are faithfully obeyed. Mary says the goal is to promote interaction between the patrons and volunteers by creating a mutual understanding that “we’re all just people not that far from being in either circumstance.”And tonight’s particularly special because I’m cooking with the Temple Judea Mizpah, the only organization that regularly cooks along side AJH’s chefs. Donning on my plastic gloves and sexy hair net, I help by mixing a monstrous bowl of chicken salad and slicing up gigantic whole watermelons. The menu also consists of spaghetti, chopped salad, mixed vegetables, bread, and various pastries.

As we prep the food, I ask one of the volunteers why hunger remains such a critical issue in America. “There will always be people who are needy,” she replies, adding that a poor economy, dwindling public services, and personal circumstance all play contributing roles. Intrigued, I decide to ask the patrons for their opinion. By now, most of them have settled into the dining room as our one-hour service begins. I strike a conversation with George*, a local resident who serves on the board of directors and organizes Northside P.O.W.E.R., another AJH program that offers “community organizing training and leadership development.” He’s recently returned from a trip in Washington D.C., where he spoke to Senator Durbin about affordable housing. “There are little jobs, no education, it’s a sad situation. Each day you get up, it’s getting worser and worser,” he says. George has been a social activist since the 60s, when he used to be a member of the Black Panther Party. “My thing was to kill the white man. I was carrying guns and weapons, protecting my woman and children,” George says, adding that age and experience has since mellowed out his philosophy.

I ask George about the racial dichotomy often seen in soup kitchens. In fact, 75-90% of CK’s patrons are people of color, 60-65% of which are African American. He replies that blacks suffer from an overwhelming and crushing sense of poverty, adding that “they really have knocked the self-esteem out of our people. We don’t feel like we can go any higher than where we’re at.” Furthermore, he says “every other ethnic group in this nation have been able to prosper. They own their own businesses, they control their own dollars. We haven’t been able to do that.” George says that drugs are “deliberately placed in our communities to stagnate growth of our people.” His friend, Tina*, nods along but holds a positive outlook. She says the biggest misconceptions about black people are that “they’re lazy, they don’t wanna work, they have a lot of babies, they don’t want an education. A lot of us want more out of life; it’s just that some of us are in more situations than others. There are a lot of stressors in the world.” A community organizer and mother of 3 young children, Tina is currently studying for both her GED and college degree.

“I really do believe everybody’s one person, one body, one blood. If people stopped looking at the outside and really look at what a person really is on the inside, they will just see we’re just all the same. What is color anyway? That should be a good blog right there.”

Tina adds that people tend to overly fixate on social issues within the narrow perspective of black versus white. “Why do they always look at black people? We got other nationalities. They have hardships and issues as well.”

George says that nowadays, economic status overshadows skin color as the main problem, adding that “the black man suffers from being poor, not from his color.” However, he acknowledges that the two are inextricably intertwined. He also points out the current fast-food strike, describing the industry as “modern-day slavery” where workers are “underpaid for hard jobs.” George further laments Obama’s increasing centrism, poor education opportunities, and despite my general optimistic disposition, I’m beginning to feel rather morose. But Tina smiles and pats George on the shoulder. “Everyone has the same potential to make it; it depends on you. Even though you’re going through a lot of things in life, you just don’t give up hope. What’s the point of living when you can’t put yourself to make some of your dreams come true?”

Dinner service begins with a rush but quickly dies down in the last 20 minutes. With the crowd dwindling, I sit down with a patron named Keith, who is eating alone and looks needing of company. It’s his first time at CK, and we click immediately. A former coke addict, he now attends Malcolm X College for his GED and describes himself as a workout fanatic. He says programs on the Northside have far more resources than on the Southside or Westside, and he’s taking full advantage of the community programs.

“If you’re hungry, you’re hungry. There’s nothing to be ashamed about,” he says.

Keith tells me about his struggle with hardcore substance abuse: “Coke and heroine are the biggest things that can pull you down into the slums.” He says that drugs play a significant role in many of the patrons’ lives, warning me that drugs “will take you down some dark alleys, some places you never thought you’d go.”

I ask him how he managed to get clean when a sizable percentage of his community still struggles with drugs. “Some people don’t make it—their hearts bust. They die,” he says, “But by the grace of God, I know He has a plan for me.  You can lead a horse to a bucket of water, but you can’t make him drink it. You can lead someone to something, but you can’t make them do it. They have to want to do it on their own.” He adds, “I’m striving for excellence—it’s not where a person has been, it’s about where a person is going in life.”

From my chats with both patrons and volunteers, I realized that food inaccessibility and hunger inevitably became a conversation about race. Nowadays, one would find the rampant racism and sexism of the 50s and 60s as ludicrous, but contemporary Americans fare no better by ignoring our generation’s issues. Not enough people question why homeless people tend be minorities or why certain industries are dominated by blacks or Hispanics. We tend to ignore or delicately meander around uncomfortable information, suppressing them neatly into the back of our social conscience. In trying to foster a “partnership” between patrons and volunteers, Mary encourages volunteers to take the first 20 minutes to interact with patrons. However, she admits that there is often hesitation from the “perceived separation and discomfort that comes with not knowing.” In fact, I rarely observed any of the volunteers interacting with the patrons outside of their perfunctory duties. But really, there’s a fine line between shaming and raising attention to glaring social issues, and I struggle with treading appropriately. Identifying ignorance is often interpreted as an attack on character, and I try immensely hard at avoiding the latter.

If this post has mentally fatigued you with social commentary, rest your weary soul. Ultimately, the Community Kitchen (and all of AJH’s programs) is a fantastic organization that fights hunger by providing the basic necessity of food. Sure, hunger remains a serious societal concern, but they’ve made significant achievements with the resources they have, and that’s a wonderful thing.