Living History:
The Delicious History of Chicago’s Iconic Foods

Before the presentation, Budlong Woods Librarian Tom Stark chats with the speakers: Colleen Taylor Sen, Bruce Kraig and Carol Mighton Haddix.

By Carol Veome

At a Living History program on Wednesday April 11, 2018 at the Budlong Woods branch of the Chicago Public Library, the three editors of The Chicago Food Encyclopedia talked about the importance of Chicago in the history of food, and the importance of food to the history of Chicago. About fifty people attended. Many bought the encyclopedias at the end of the talk, and each of the editors signed the books. The group was welcomed back by Branch Manager Thomas Stark who always seems delighted to partner with our Historical Society; he also bought a copy of the featured book.

Kay McSpadden, Events Chair, introduced Colleen Taylor Sen, Bruce Kraig and Carol Mighton Haddix, the author/editors of The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. These three know each other well, having worked together previously, and their spirit of cooperation and delight in their project was readily apparent. They have been featured locally on WBEZ, Windy City Live, and at the Newberry Library and other sites.  Bruce noted that he got the idea for the book after getting a request to contribute to an encyclopedia of New York food. The idea took off when he presented it to Colleen and Carol.  After creating a headword list of topics to be covered, they invited leading journalists and academics to contribute.  Over seventy contributors as well as the editors wrote the approximately 300 entries.

The editors’ presentation centered on the importance of Chicago in the history of food.  For one thing, Chicago is the only city in the United States actually named for a food, but the wild leek which once grew everywhere but is now found only in Busse Woods. Also, it is significant that by the 1880s the city had become a hub for the processing, transportation and distribution of food throughout the United States, given the central location and the ease of shipment by rail and through the Great Lakes. In addition to large quantities of grain and meat, the city became a center for food processing machines and organizations of food professionals.

The book focuses on ethnicities in the city as opposed to neighborhoods, the character of which may change over time.  Immigrants made Chicago what it is today. We have a wealth of variety in food and restaurants and some foods, such as the “mother-in-law,” the “gym shoe,” and jibaritos, Puerto Rican sandwiches which substitute fried plantains for the bread, are particular to various parts of the city. The cafeteria was developed at the turn of the century in Chicago as a way to feed the masses working and shopping. The idea grew out of the smorgasbord of Scandinavian immigrants.  Jewish immigrants contributed Chicago’s iconic Vienna hotdog.  Greek immigrants were responsible for Chicago becoming a center for candy manufacturing. Italian beef and pizza are iconic Chicago foods.

The Q & A with the audience following the editors’ presentation and the sharing of stories were both delightful and enlightening, and the conversation continued as the authors signed books after their talk.