A Giardiniera Adventure




Winner, winner, giardiniera adventure dinner. Thanks to all who participated in my recent blog poll. This giardiniera adventure is for you.

Seems everybody wants to talk about giardiniera these days. It came up a couple of months ago, at a party. I mentioned that I’d yet to have Italian beef (a dish that’s popular in Chicago and consists of loose meat and a sopping wet meat-discharge-bun). I might as well have said I’d never heard of Joe DiMaggio. Or so I thought. Then I fessed up again: I’d never had giardiniera (a spicy tangy pepper melange). My friends morphed in the the House Committee on Un-American Activities. “You call yourself a food writer??” one spat. Zow. (I don’t, in fact, call myself a food writer. But I do write about food).

In the weeks and months that followed, the topic kept coming up. Italian beef crawls were planned in late night conversations but fell apart in the light of day. My own sister heard about my embarrassing lack of culture, and starting dropping giardiniera references like a rapper drops hoes. “You know what makes Potbelly so good? The giardiniera,” she’d say. Then, at the grocery store, “Kate, have you tried this stuff?” she said, as she feigned innocence and picked up a jar of the peppers. I feigned passive aggressive innocence myself. “Huh. No, but that sure is a popular topic lately,” I said.

Finally, it happened. My friend Dieter was determined to have an Italian beef-a-palooza. So Saturday night, we went down to Al’s Beef (the closest beef store to his and his wife’s Lakeview home) and ordered 11 sandwiches to fuel a party (caloric note: pizza was also ordered. As were six orders of cheese fries, which weighed approximately a ton and tasted like a product of god).

That’s when the evening, which was supposed to be a giardiniera adventure, turned out to be heavy on the adventure, light on the giardiniera. Neil and I were admiring the giant Italian Beef sandwich on the  Al’s Beef sign (which looked about as appetizing as those gooey-meat prime rib photos you see in airline magazines and airport halls). He said I should pose in front of it, as though I’m eating it. He walked up to it to demonstrate, while I took his picture.

As we’re concentrating very seriously on the task at hand, a tall, African American man with a very swollen lip and vacant eyes taps me on the shoulder. “Let’s take a picture,” he says. “Take our picture,” he orders Neil. I should note that that this red-alert stranger was very polite.

I knew immediately what was to blame for this. It’s called a “freak magnet” and it’s embedded deep in my person. It goes off frequently, but with age I’ve learned to avert eye contact and any kind of touching and usually that tones the magnet down. Well, not in a Lakeview Al’s Beef at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night.

The other thing I’ve learned: Resistance to the freaks of the freak magnet is futile. This magnet of mine is strong, and to protest will only escalate the situation and end with an already questionably sane stranger pointing and yelling at me. So I awkwardly stand by him and force a smile as he finds a way to nestle his armpit against my shoulder. “Say Italian Beef!” Snap.

Then he demands a photo with Neil. Neil is much better in these situations than I, so he hams it up, rolling his eyes, wiggling like a mad man, smiling a winner’s smile. “Say Italian Beef!” Snap.

“I know you,” the guy says to me. “Here we go,” my freak magnet silently narrates.

“I know you from the Starbucks,” he says.”I sell Streetwise.” (Streetwise is a newspaper sold by the homeless and housing-challenged).

“Oh yeah?” I say. “Yeah.” I’ve been to Starbucks two times in the past six months. They were two different Starbucks. No one knows me from Starbucks.

“I’m the guy on Southport,” he says.

It’s clearly irrelevant that I’ve never met the guy, so I don’t protest too much. He then asks us to vote for him as the best Streetwise vendor. Who knew there was actually a competition?

Neil and I have always been curious about the business model of Streetwise so we ask him about it. He tells us that the first 15 papers are free. After that, they charge about $1 a paper (there was a recent price increase) and the vendors sell them for donations. There are training sessions and pep rallies twice a week. This guy said that Streetwise has really given him a chance and helped save his life.

We could see that our sandwiches were ready so we told the guy that we had to go. He gave both of us some sloppy, swollen-lip kisses on our heads, and we were out the door.

Dieter had watched it all from a distance. “You know, I always note holidays on my calendar,” he says. “Administrative Assistants day, Memorial Day, Christmas,” he says. “But I was unaware that today was kiss-your-drunken-drug-dealer day!”

With that, we tore into the Italian beefs. The sandwich was pretty darn good. A wet, sopping mess, yes, but it had a good level of spice and even some cinnamon or something like it (how’s that for food writing?).

As for the giardiniera, I’m still not convinced I’ve had it. There were a few slices of green pepper on the sandwich, and an occasional bite of a spiced celery. But giardiniera? I think there’s still more adventure to come.

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