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Friday, December 1

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« Happy Fourth of July! Friday Foodporn: Martini »

Ingredient Wed Jul 04 2012

Aw, Shucks: The Lowest-Key Fourth of July in Chicago

It's the middle of the afternoon on Independence Day. Most years, this is the time I'd be sprawling on some lawn furniture on the deck next to my uncle's pond in northwest Missouri, sucking down mojitos with my extended family, coming up with creative excuses to avoid taking the little kids' bluegills off their fishhooks, and waiting for the ribs to be ready. But with the holiday in the middle of the week this year, I'm here in Chicago for what I believe is only my second July 4th observance in the 11 years I've lived here. In my 85 degree Chicago apartment. It's a chilly 79 degrees in the bedroom, where the a/c unit we found in the basement last year is tenuously clinging to the windowsill. In the middle of the hottest stretch of Chicago summer weather I've experienced, I'm afraid if I go outside I might combust, melt, or just drink myself into a stupor and miss my favorite holiday in a haze of alcohol and sunstroke. And it's okay, because I've found a new skill, which I'm hoping to hone a bit in the sweaty confines of my third-floor kitchen before showing it off in public. I just learned how to shuck an oyster.

For me, the 4th of July isn't so much about celebrating the rich history and sometimes simplistic jingoism of 'MERICA! It's more about celebrating my family -- the new babies and new jobs and new struggles, the changes of age and hilarity of youth, and the sheer excitement of setting off some massive, government-controlled fireworks over the berm on the south side of the pond (even more tightly controlled this year because of the drought sucking the Midwest dry). It's about traditions, from barbeque and beers to the video my cousin's husband shoots of the festivities every year and mails to the family (or, now, posts on the family blog). So in the absence of my family this year, it's not about elbowing my way down to Navy Pier to watch the air explode with light, and smell the acrid gunpowder, and hear the little ones crying with fear or delight. It's not about watching a parade, or waving a flag. It's about starting some new traditions. Particularly ones that will cause me not to die of heat exhaustion. Which brings me to our bivalve friend, best served as cold as possible, meaty and refreshing all in one ocean-dripping slurp. The oyster.

Now I've had oysters on the half-shell in many Chicago restaurants, despite our lack of local supplies. (I'm okay with that -- would you want to eat a Chicago River oyster? It just sounds like an Urban Dictionary term for something highly unpleasant.) And it's not like I'm the first genius to go all DIY on the little sea geodes, even out here on the prairie. But there is something mysterious about oysters. Something unfamiliar, even once you've pried them open. Do you season them, with lemon, or mignonette, or nothing at all? Do you use one of those dainty forks to pop out the cold, rich snack, or just hold it up to your mouth and drink it down? Is there oyster etiquette? Am I violating all of it right now?

So this is what I'm doing -- and all I'm doing -- to celebrate Independence Day, my favorite holiday, this year. Later today, when the shadows start to fall over parts of our backyard, we're getting the grill out for the obligatory brats and cheddarwurst (another new tradition, it seems), and throwing together some grilled vegatable salads while we're at it: grilled kale with plums and ricotta, grilled fennel with oranges and olives. (Notice, none of them mayonnaise-based. Another break with my 4th of July traditions.) And we're throwing a few oysters on the grill too -- a nod to my partner's Southern roots, and because we saw Tony Bourdain do it on TV, and because if you've got a fire but no family around, no little second-cousins to worry about, no great-aunts with delicate disgestive systems, well, why not?

Slightly after noon today, we picked up a dozen live Delaware oysters for about $15 from Dirk's Fish on Clybourn (the closest smell to the coast you're likely to find here in the central part of the country -- even when the lake gets extra-gamy it doesn't quite have the same funk as the ocean). They plonked a hammer against each shell for us to test for signs of life and threw a perfectly round little lemon in for free, because they are gentlemen there, with beards and long aprons. We're going back to that place for sure. And before we cart our precious cargo down to the grill, where the heat will take care of forcing these little beauties open, I decide to shuck one, cold and raw. Armed with no oyster glove and no oyster knife, but with the full confidence of someone who's read a few Internet articles, I get in there with a dish-towel and my seldom-used Swiss Army knife. There is some trepidation as I stab at the hinge, bits of shell and grit flaking off onto the kitchen table. A few squinting appraisals of this grey, bumpy puzzle, as I turn it over, and then back over again to see where I'm going at it wrong. And then, just like that, a sudden breath of air, a sudden ease with the knife -- a few more jabs and it's all over. Just like any new tradition -- a little foreign, a little uncomfortable, and then so satisfying, I can't wait to do it again. Happy 4th of July, everyone.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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