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Chow

Food ink
Fine reading while you dine. By Ray Pride


Meal-to-meal hunger: less an urge than a nudge. You get it in the ribs: Dummy, we're not firing on all cylinders down here, pull over for some affordable octane. Wednesdays are like Saturdays for me -- the paper closes late Tuesday, and by midday, dull pangs murmur for protein, starch, motley carbos. Ur-diner chow that won't want a Tagamet chaser. No patience for whipping up anything at home even a country mile from spectacular. I shoot often toward the Busy Bee. A Polish family restaurant in all senses of the phrase, it's been anchor to all kinds of urban frontiers for years near the Milwaukee, Damen and North intersection. There are pierogi and the like, but I'm drawn instead to greasy spoon constants, where the tongue and brain vie to decipher the sometimes surprisingly effective spicing.

After a few recent repetitions, I realized that I customarily carry the same reading material in my fist, that morning's New York Times. And Wednesday is their food section. So I am having a thoughtless meal -- let's say coffee, the chicken rice soup, small salad, Hot Roast Beef Sandwich with Mashed Potatoes, Vegetable of the Day, and extra gravy. I order and I wait while I'm reading Ruth Reichl wreaking strong prose from her half-dozen paid visits to some fanciful new Manhattan concern or some member of the old guard deserving a talking-to. "The Dover sole has a Jura wine sauce," she might write, "that is so subtle and forceful the fish takes on an entirely new character."

My soup comes, saline broth, a flurry of rice, flecks of parsley flake, gelid bubbles. I cannot say what this soup means to me. The cream of potato at this place: world-class soup. But this is simpler pleasure. When I get the smallest bits of boiled chicken, it's a disappointment. Then the savor is less homey than homely. It takes away from the distilled stock and the swollen grains of plain white rice. Crack a hard roll over the soup, let the crumbs sully the surface. Butter a hank. Smoosh three packs of Kako saltines into the bowl.

I slurp soup aloud. "Embellished with tiny mushrooms and a mascarpone-enriched polenta, it is an unforgettable dish." I look away from the page, to the bottom of my bowl -- all gone. I fork through the salad, the traditional Polish white salad -- the parts of a head of iceberg even a starving rabbit probably wouldn't esteem, specks of purple cabbage and carrot, drenched in the hearty, creamy garlic dressing.

I consider how adept Reichl is at weaving a narrative from what's put down in front of her, but then I have to observe that a big-time restaurant reviewer might take a party of three or six half-a-dozen times before writing a review. (It's the kind of advantage a theater critic would get from seeing a play five times before having to write.) Still, the composite picture sings with detail.

I read a brief about a bar that serves beet chips and Belgian wheat beer, and I consider that I avoid hamburgers. I usually eat steak if there's a hankering for beef. Why have I ordered this meal again? But my plate arrives. Ah, extra gravy. White bread, concealed by sliced roast beef, cooked, then cooked some more. Green beans, from-the-can style. Today's result is good: thin slices, dark, flavors peppery. I slice and fork and chew. It was college before I knew what rare roast beef was. Mom, I'd ask, how can you tell when the roast beef's done? "When it's gray and falling apart, you put the lid back on the pressure cooker and cook it just a little more." This is better than mom's, honest. I've never looked into the Busy Bee kitchen, so I don't know if you they have a gleaming pressure cooker back there, bleating and whistling as the tissues turn to their tender leather.

Meat's sacramental, not to be taken lightly. You should recall the fly-whipping tail-laze of the cow in the field of munchable clover, all the steps onward to the bloodstreams of the abattoir, even the shrink-wrap poly-platter machine out back at the Shop 'n' Shop spews a airtight, guilt-free pound your way. There are also thick, marbled, aged steakhouse steaks, or the perfect mound of tartare at some place like Brasserie Jo, the right watercress-vinaigrette combo alongside a paper cone of well-constructed frites. That's the romance of beef, but beef is also still dead cows and the shoes on your feet and the supple, buttery leather on that woman yakking into her cel phone across the room. And beef is part of this pile of protein and starch before me as the low growl of my belly recedes and I feel instead the grumble of the el, to and fro-ing daylong to the Loop or O'Hare.

I parse the gravy to the end, so there's some for every bite -- beef, bread, potatoes. Without the paper in front of me, I'm awash in the banter lobbed around the u-shaped counter. Old-man bluster, jokes shiny-voiced from decades of repetition; pairs of cops, ears alert while seeming to neglect walkie-talkie squawk; bed-headed young couples, freshly awake, newly together, leaning close in booths over meals, exchanging quiet niceties amid the warm embrace of spoken language. The room is warm, familiar, yep, familial. A fresh-faced punk with an impressive complement of piercings talks to a waitress in sly Polish. He grins flirtatiously and she talks to him as if he were an errant son, or more likely, nephew. A well-upholstered trainee real-estate agent chirps a few gentrifical prices into her phone while she looks impatiently toward the street, waving a brown-paper takeout bag and a few bills toward a cashier who just smirks at the girl's childish deportment.

The sun's come out: I am ready for a walk. Long one. The week begins.




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