Interview: WTTW's Geoffrey Baer

By Karl Klockars in Miscellaneous on Nov 19, 2007 8:30PM

11_20_07geoffreybaer.jpgWhile we realize it's fairly rare that one would set their DVRs for anything on PBS, the general exception to this rule is anything put out by Geoffrey Baer and his roving band of researchers, river-riders, historians and now culinarians. The lengths of his river tours have been epic - hours of information, interspersed with polite requests for some of your money, with tote bags all around.

Baer promises that there's a little more temporal restraint being shown in the new outing, called Foods of Chicago: A Delicious History. "This one is actually a little bit shorter, which is good. Some of the other ones, I think, were actually a little too long. And that allowed us to get a lot of content into them, but from a broadcasting standpoint, it made them a little problematic."

The show premieres next Tuesday night (clocking in under 2 hours this time) and promises a culinary excursion around all across Chicagoland. Trips to Maxwell Street, coverage of Chicago barbecue joints, experiencing tortilla creation, chowing down on pho, jibaritos, carnitas, tacos, polish, paczkis and the world of Chicago candy all get investigated in Foods of Chicago.

More from Geoffrey, including how he likes his beef and "cheezborger cheezborger cheezborger" after the jump.

Chicagoist: You're most well known for your river tours - the Chicago River twice, the Fox River...why did you make the switch to food for this new project?

Geoffrey Baer: Well, in addition to being the producer and host of many of these pledge shows, I sort of run this unit that does these shows. Actually, this was brought to me by one of the producers in the unit, Dan Protess. This was really his baby, his passion, to do this show. He brought it to me a couple of years ago, and it took a few years for the time to arrive where the company would commit to doing the show. And maybe a year or so ago I was advocating for it in a meeting, and everyone just seemed to feel that the time was right.

It’s a different approach to the subject than we’ve taken before, so I think that excited all of us. These started out 13 years ago really very firmly rooted in architecture. Then they kinda morphed a little bit to architecture and history, and they kinda became a little more history than architecture. So this was just a different lens through which to look at this history of our city, and our area. And it just seemed like a time to take a new approach. We’ve done these big tours of all the suburban regions, that was the most recent project, where we were going out to the northwest suburbs, the southwest, the south, the west, we’d kinda done all those regions. And we were thinking about, “what’s next?” And this just seemed like a perfect way to get a different view than what we already have.

C: When you were going into this, what was your perspective and focus?

GB: It’s not a restaurant show, and it’s not a cooking show. It’s really a show about the history of the many diverse communities of Chicago as told through their food, or using their foods as a lens to learn about and understand all these different ethnic communities in Chicago. And also the business history of Chicago. We talk lot about the stockyards, and all the iconic foods that come out of Chicago. From Cracker Jack and Tootsie Rolls to Vienna beef and Jays potato chips. How all that figures into the growth of Chicago.

C: Did you keep a running tally of the number of restaurants you went to?

GB: Well, it was restaurants, and a number of people’s homes and kitchens. Maybe close to a hundred. It certainly was in the realm of dozens.

C: What was the criteria for where you decided to go?

GB: There was no effort at all, or even need to say well, we couldn’t do this show without this restaurant. It was what they had to tell us about a particular culture. So, the Chicago Brauhaus is a place to talk about German food in Chicago. Stefano’s or Italian Village is a place to talk not only about Italian culture and Italian foods, but the history of Italians in Chicago.

And there’s all this fun stuff, too, about things that we think are from the native culture that were actually invented here. Italian beef is hilarious – nobody ate beef in Italy. They were eating vegetables in Italy, primarily. So the fact that Italian immigrants are famous for a beef sandwich, that’s not even what they were primarily eating!

And Chicken Vesuvio apparently was invented in Chicago. Flaming Saganaki was invented in Chicago. All these sort of indigenous things, or that we think of as indigenous are actually invented here. Some of these restaurants like the Greek Islands, they make the claim that they invented flaming saganaki. So we use that for a window on Greek foods, but then we also went into the back room of a Greek Orthodox church that has a kitchen, where church members were preparing feast meals for the church, and we talked about Greek foods there as well. So the restaurant criteria really had to do with telling the story of that particular community.

C: How many of these places did you eat at?

GB: Every single one.

C: Was there anything you came across you didn’t like?

I pretty much eat everything. Harry Kempf, the guy who owns Chicago Brauhaus, he tried to get me. One of the things they do there is steak tartare, And he was pretty sure that I wouldn’t eat steak tartare. But I did – it’s not something I would order. [laughs] You know, the Polish have czarnina, which is duck’s blood soup. I was not on that shoot, but Dan tried the duck blood soup. At Carnitas Don Pedro in Pilsen, carnitas is basically a pig boiled in its own fat. I think, had I just eaten it without having been back in the kitchen watching them make it, I probably would have been totally fine. I was still pretty much fine with it, but having seen what was going on back in the kitchen…

C: What is your ethnic background?

GB: Jewish. Eastern European Jewish.

C: Did you take the opportunity to look into some of your own culture's food?

GB: The guy who took us on the tour of Devon Avenue is a professor named Johannan Petrovski, and he is a Jewish Russian immigrant. The thing that’s interesting that he talks about is how so many of these Jewish foods are pretty much adapted from the local foods in whatever region the Jews happen to be living in, because [historically] the Jews are constantly migrating, kicked out of one place, moving to another place.

And they would sort of adapt the local food, like a bagel is called a bublik in Russia, and it looks just like a bagel! Kasha, rugula, gefilte fish is probably German that was adapted by the Jews. And then of course, the Jews, as they say, are constantly migrating, so they spread these foods around the world and they become known as Jewish food, but they’re usually adapted from local culture.

C: I hope you went to Manny's, and got some deli.

GB: We went to Manny's just to show a few shots of it, so we could talk about kneidlach and kreplach and that kind of thing. That's kind of another place that we were able to talk about surprising and unexpected things. As a Jewish person myself, I would say many American Jews don't keep kosher, and are not strictly orthodox. So very often, nonjewish people would say to me "Oh, you don't eat pork. Or "oh, I guess I can't offer you this ham." As if no Jews ever eat pork or ham.

When we went to Manny's, we also used that place to make the point that most Jewish restaurants aren't even kosher. Y'know, to the extent that Manny's is a Jewish restaurant, it's not a kosher restaurant. If you're kosher, you can't eat at Manny's.

C: You did a lot of research about the Chicago hot dog - did you ever find any standard?

GB: First of all, no. There are myriad variations on the Chicago hot dog, as long as there's no ketchup. I think universally, everyone in Chicago would agree, it ain't a chicago hot dog if it has ketchup on it. But basically, this german sausage gets an entree into various other ethnic communities by having some familiar ingredients on it.

There's a wonderful scholar who literally on the subject of the Chicago hot dog, his name is Bruce Kraig, he could totally deconstruct the Chicago hot dog. The pickle is from this culture, the relish is from that culture, this vegetable is from this culture, so really the hot dog is a metaphor for this wonderful intermingling of cultures that's so specific to Chicago. That's what's great about it.

It just depends on what neighborhood you're in, to some degree historically at least, what ingredients you're going to find on a hot dog there.

If you're in a Greek neighborhood you might find a more Greek style or Italian style accoutrements piled on. Cucumbers, celery salt... Tomatoes, I particularly remember Bruce Kraig theorizing that that's Mediterranean, and probably from the influence of the Greeks and Italians. And you know the other thing about the hot dog was that you can get a whole meal! With your meats and your vegetables and your bread all together, for not much money. It was kind of a way of making a whole meal out of your hot dog.

C: And getting a salad on top.

GB: Exactly. Drag it through the garden, as they say.

C: What made you want to go to the Billy Goat?

GB: Well, that's in our Greek section. You know, maybe that is an example of a place where, "how can you do foods in Chicago and not talk about the Billy Goat?" Maybe that is a restaurant that had to be in the show. What's interesting about the Greeks is that they, unlike other ethnic groups, they didn't originally serve their native food in their restaurants to the masses. Chinese were serving up Chinese foods, Italians were serving up Italian foods and it sort of caught on with the masses. The Greeks were peddlers, vegetable peddlers. And they sort of evolved into restaurant owners, but their menus were huge, and had every kind of food, from spaghetti to chop suey on them. And they were particularly big in diners, diner type food. So the Billy Goat is a quintessential sort of the bar and diner, and because it's sort of iconic and famous it seemed like a good one to use as our example, because it let us talk about Saturday Night Live, cheezborger cheezborger and all that stuff. And the curse.

And something I didn't know which is that there is a name on the wall which is about 500 letters long, and if you can say that name, if you can pronounce it correctly, you get a free beer. Sam pronounces that name for us...

C: So if you watch the program enough and practice...

GB: Maybe, although I'm pretty good with languages but I don't think that's one that I would ever, ever get to say.

The other thing that's interesting is that that routine, the cheezborger cheezborger thing? That routine is probably almost 30 years ago? So there's a generation of people who have never even heard that. Our intern had never even heard of "cheezborger cheezborger cheezborger," when we went out there to do that. To us it's such a famous thing, but to them if you're a history buff you might know it. Which really surprised me.

C: What do you think surprised you the most during the process of putting the show together?

GB: Those are always difficult questions for me to answer. I certainly was surprised by how many of these foods that we thought were indigenous were really invented in Chicago. I mean, I had heard of a lot of them, but the sheer number of them I found to be sort of surprising. I don't know if I'm veering away from your question, but I got to eat a Chicago onion. You know, the chicagua onion, which is what Chicago is named for. I didn't know that those really existed still, or that anyone knew exactly what onion the city was named for.

But they're around, and they're wild, and you know, who knows if this really is the chicagua onion, but it's something that's generally agreed on. And we pulled one out of the ground and used it in some native american cooking, so I thought that was pretty cool.

C: Where did you find it?

GB: North Park Village Nature Center. Just growing wild. You find them all over. It's kinda like a leek - I mean, if you looked at it growing out of the ground you actually probably wouldn't even recognize it as an onion. Because it's more like a leaf. But when you pull it up there's a bulb on the bottom of it. We didn't pull it up - you don't go around North Park nature center pulling plants out of the ground. But someone sort of surreptitiously handed one to us as we were getting ready to cook a meal there, so I take it that some naturalist got permission to pull one out for us. But don't try this at home! I don't want to encourage people to go out to North Park and pilfer the chicagua onions.

C: Did it stink?

GB: Oh no, no.

C: Maybe if you had millions of them...

GB: You know, that's true. I have a little onion patch in our back yard that's kind of gone crazy, because onions are very prolific, and man, every time you come out of my garage it just smells like onions right over there. So I can imagine what that must have smelled like.

C: This might be the most important question of them all - and this is a two parter - how do you like your Italian beef and your hot dog?

GB: Italian beef, dipped.

C: Sweet or hot?

GB: Oh, sweet. I like hot peppers but not on my italian beef. And I like my hot dog, like drag it through the garden.

C: Everything.

GB: Oh, everything on there. Particularly the flourescent green relish.

C: Pickle spear?

GB: You know...on the side.

C: Cucumber?

GB: Definitely. Oh, yeah.

C: Tomato wedge?

GB: Oh yeah.

C: Celery salt?

GB: Yes!

C: It's gotta have the celery salt.

GB: That's right! That made me think of something else, when you were saying that. One of the points we make in the show that I think is interesting is that really, c'mon, it's the same hot dog anywhere you go. Especially if it's Vienna Beef. It's the same hot dog. And yet people will argue to the grave that this is the best hot dog stand, or that one is the best hot dog stand. It really tells you it's not about the flavor, you know? It's about the cultural connection to a place that makes people feel so strongly, I think. Because the flavor is going to be more or less the same no matter where you go.

C: What do you picture when you imagine the Chicago hot dog stand?

Gotta have outdoor seats, for sure. Should be small, should be a little dirty. You know, what everyone else pictures, the menu boards on the wall...

C: Is it Gene & Judes? Byrons? Superdawg?

GB: Well, I don't think it so much is Superdawg. I love Flaurie and Maurie over there, but Superdawg is more of a 50s drive-in concept. It's more like the one at Clark and Wrightwood...Wiener's Circle. It's the one that's always sort of talked about as the quintessntial hot dog stand.

C: If I gave you $10 and told you to go anywhere in the area, where do you go first?

GB: I loved Steve's Shish Kabob in Palos Hills, it was fantastic. I absolutely loved it.

C: Falafel? Shawarma?

GB: Yeah, sure, falafel and shwarma, but just kinda the way it was all presented, and the quality of the food there, just outstanding. You just wanted one?

C: It's your ten bucks.

GB: Well, I'd take about a third of that, and go down to the new Maxwell Street Market. And get a real Mexican taco at one of the taco stands there, where they make the tortilla right there. If you want to talk about a surprise, that was something I was totally unaware of. I really didn't know what a real mexican taco was.

One of the things you learn about in this show so much is how assimilated and americanized all this food becomes. The pizza becomes something they would never see in Italy, the Chinese food is nothing like you'd find in China. That's not just inherently in Chicago, but everywhere in this country.

So what you think of as a taco, with a hard shell and all this lettuce and tomato and sour cream and ground beef - doesn't even begin to resemble a real mexican taco! A real Mexican taco is not one but two small corn tortillas stacked on top of each other. And on top of that is just chunks of meat, cilantro, and maybe one or two other ingredients on there. And that's it. And you put some sauce of your choice on there, and there's pickled vegetables on there, and it is so superior to what we have come to call a taco.

C: It's no Taco Bell. And it's cheap.

And it's cheap. Very cheap. That's another thing I'd do with my money. And I'd have money left over, then, to get a jibarito at Borinquen. It's a sandwich but instead of bread they use plantains. Wonderful.

C: That is a well-spent ten bucks.