The only problem with their visit was that neither of them had much time to eat much of Chicago’s famously idiosyncratic signature dishes. On the last night of Rico’s trip, he met up with Mike Sula, a James Beard award-winning food writer for The Chicago Reader.
Before giving Rico a lesson on the quintessential Chicago nightcap, he did a quick rundown of all the local fare Rico missed, starting with Mike’s favorite choice.
“My favorite? Well, that’s probably the Italian beef. Invented by Sicilian immigrants to stretch the banquet at the wedding,” Mike explained. “It’s a big hunk of braised beef, sliced thin, piled high on a roll, dipped in the juice if you want it wet, not, if you’re dry. Hot jardinière if you want it hot, sweet peppers if you want it sweet.”
What about the quintessential Chicago-style hot dog? “The Chicago-style hot dog is a hot dog born out of the Depression. Basically, dragged through the garden, as they say, with pickle spear, tomato, celery salt, neon green relish, onion, mustard, on a poppy seed bun.”
Prime Chicago-style hot dog rule: no ketchup! “Not unless you’re, you know, six years or under,” according to Mike.
As for something tourists might not be too aware of, the writer also explained the city’s food mash-up, “The Mother-in-Law”
“You have a few more obscure original regional variations like the Mother-in-Law, which is a locally made, factory made, tamale on a hot dog bun, covered in chili,” he said. “It’s origins are kind of unclear. Sort of a collision of African Americans and Mexican immigrants.”
“But there’s no mister mother in law that we know of,” he continued. “There’s no father of the mother in law, it might have actually been someone’s mother in law.”
A Guide to Jeppson’s Malört
1. The alcohol has Swedish origins
Mike Sula: Jeppson’s Malört comes out of a family of a Swedish liquors known as Bask or Malört. Malört is sort of a common word for it. Jeppson’s is Chicago’s own Malört. It’s a wormwood-based spirit. Essentially, it’s a grain-neutral alcohol infused with the herb wormwood, which you might remember was mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Also, “Chernobyl” — the famous Russian nuclear reactor — is basically Russian for wormwood. It’s [a] very bitter herb.
2. It has strong ties to Chicago
Mike Sula: Well, it’s not really sold in very many places outside of Northern Illinois. Maybe a few places in Wisconsin. Although it’s renowned is growing. Used to be you only find it in biker bars, basically. The guy who bought the brand back in the ’30s marketed it on its unpalatability. You know, if you were able to take two shots of it, that’s what made you a man, not drinking one shot of it.
Rico Gagliano: So the point of it was to not necessarily be that great.
Mike Sula: Right, it’s deliberately unpalatable.
3. Recently, it seems to have become a little more palatable
Mike Sula: I mean, this hasn’t been proven, but Pat Gabelick — who is the owner of the company who inherited from her boss, George Brode — says that she sources her wormwood from various parts of the world, and sometimes it comes in a greater potency than other times. Five or six years ago, the Malört was a lot stronger than it is today.
I actually suggested that to Pat Gabelick, that she should put a vintage on each year. She sort of stared right through me when I said so.
4. Even the color and smell can be a little off-putting
Rico Gagliano: So, we have a couple shots in front of us. It is kind of a light greenish color, would you say?
Mike Sula: It’s close to urine colored, I’d say.
Rico Gagliano: Thank you for making this all the more easy. I’d say it’s kind of got a fruity nose with a very strong whiff of alcohol in there.
Mike Sula: Yeah, it’s got a little grapefruit to it with a little sort of like, burnt rubber.
Rico Gagliano: Just the thing to cap off a delectable repast. Cheers!
5. It’ll probably put hair on your chest
Rico Gagliano: [Takes a sip of Jeppson’s] …OK, bitter, definitely. Wow! Really bitter. It has almost no other characteristic than bitter.
Mike Sula: It’s got a sustaining bitterness that I think you’ll notice. It keeps on giving. You should put that bottoms up.
Rico Gagliano: Oh, should I shoot it?
Mike Sula: For sure, it’s not a sipper.
Rico Gagliano: So the point is really not to taste it.
Mike Sula: No, you don’t want to savor, just throw it down.
Rico Gagliano: Here we go, here’s the remainder of this shot. [Drinks shot. Grunts.] Oh it burns. I’m not a very hairy man, but I have a feeling that’s about to change.
Mike Sula: You’re sprouting hair as I’m watching.
Rico Gagliano: Chicago has made a man of me.
[Ed. Note: You can see a collection of people making “Malört face” here. This interview has been edited and condensed.]