Chicago Summer in the City: Cobbling Together An All-American Holiday Dinner

I am in the process of opening a new avenue in my freelance journalism career that will emphasize personal passions such as food, drink and photography. This makes me wonder if they shopping run I made Monday, to Binny’s (a big Chicago beverage store chain, for those who don’t live here), Best Buy and Trader Joe’s is tax-deductible.

At least I can buy all the eats and drinks and camera equipment I want here on the Third Coast. I worked covering elections in Washington, D.C., for 30 years, and just never amassed the resources I would have needed to buy a politician.

We had a second consecutive day of record-setting heat. After getting the walk by the lake out of the way in the morning before it became too unbearable, I decided to spend some more time outdoors at the rooftop pool, addressing my long-term Vitamin D deficiency. Unfortunately, the stiff breeze at ground level was like gale force more than 400 feet off the ground. Having to deal with turbulence is bad enough when you’re flying, but it’s pretty weird altogether when you are laying on a chaise lounge. Half an hour of that turned out to be quite enough.

Monday, of course, was Memorial Day, a day to remember my father, who passed away at age 90 four years ago. Milton Benenson served in the Army Air Force as a navigator during World War II. He must have been pretty good at it, and he certainly was fortunate, as he flew 36 missions over Nazi-controlled Europe and lived to make, among other things, me. I’m not sure how much of the world is grateful for that latter part, but I am.

I decided this would be a good occasion for an all-American dinner. Cooking out isn’t an option, as our apartments have no balconies, but the wide range of cast-iron cookware that I have provides as close to cookout taste as you can get indoors.

Hot dogs (a brand of all-beef organic franks carried by Trader Joe’s), corn on the cob, onion rings, a homemade peach and rhubarb cobbler, washed down with a mint julep. Hard to get more American than that.

The cobbler is worthy of a close-up, if only because I do a lot more cooking than baking as a norm.

I actually had the more traditional strawberry-rhubarb combo in mind when I hit the farmers’ market on Saturday, but I ended up with a bag of peaches that I bought because I thought it was so unusual to see peaches this early in the year. Also, we ate too many of the strawberries that I brought home to make a cobbler out of them.

Anyway, I found a lovely, easy recipe on the Web that had this added benefit: the syrup in which the fruit is briefly cooked to soften before joining the batter in the oven is made of sugar and… bourbon. The alcohol cooks off, of course, but the bourbon adds a nice little vanilla/butterscotch flavor. You have to trust me, but it came out great. And since the instructions say the batter can be the base to any combination of fruit, I need not worry too much about going overboard at the farmers’ markets this summer.

This looks like as good a place as any to catch up on the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown. According to Weather Underground…

Saturday, May 19: Chicago Midway reported a high of 91, a low of 64, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 84, a low of 56 and no rain. The 90s, for me, are a bit too hot. Point D.C.

Sunday, May 20: Chicago Midway reported a high of 92, a low of 65, and .14 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 81, a low of 59 and .01 of an inch of rain. Point D.C.

Monday, May 21: Chicago Midway reported a high of 65 — yep, a quick transition back to spring — a low of 54 and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 75, a low of 66 and .03 of an inch of rain. Point Chicago.

Tuesday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 68, a low of 49, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 81, a low of 66 and .01 of an inch of rain. Having experienced a lot of days in the 80s in D.C. that felt like they were in the 90s, I’ll give that one to Chicago.

Wednesday: Chicago Midway reported a high of 82, a low of 49, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 81, a low of 66 and .33 of an inch rain. That’s a lot of rain. Point Chicago.

Thursday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 90, a low of 65, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 83, a low of 69 and a trace of rain. Edge D.C.

Friday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 80, a low of 67, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 86, a low of 71 and a trace of rain. We’ll give this one to Chicago.

Saturday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 82, a low of 63, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 86, a low of 71 and a trace of rain. We’ll give this one to Chicago, too.

Sunday, a record-setting sizzler as Chicago Midway reported a high of 97, a low of 73, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 87, a low of 70 and .05 of an inch of rain. We’ll give this one to D.C.

That brings the overall score to 162-135 in favor of D.C.

Home for Christmas

The small Benenson household got a head start on the holiday. The eve was traditionally the big day for Barb and her sister — it was the day when her mother’s mother held the annual family Christmas party and the house teemed with cousins.

And so it was yesterday that the Christmas feast was prepared. Ham, corn pudding, sweet potato puree casserole, double-corn muffins, homemade cranberry sauce. Prosecco, from a bottle autographed by chef/cookbook author Lidia Bastianich at an event Barb staged for her last year while still at Politics and Prose bookstore in D.C. A few nibbles of homemade almond bark.

As the nightcap, our umpteenth viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (and yes, I choked up at the end, just like I always do), and a tequila/pineapple juice/cranberry liqueur highball I dreamed up recently and have become quite fond of.

There were presents too, and we saved some for this afternoon, so Christmas won’t be over too soon. My wife, finding a new way to show her love, lugged home a double-burner cast iron skillet that was on my list, even though this thing weighs only a little less than the stove.

But the best gift we’ll have is something we ordered for ourselves a few months ago. This is our first Christmas in many years with something resembling total peace of mind.

Life came at us in waves during our last decade in Washington. Family illnesses and the inevitable consequences of parents getting old. My own health crisis that had me recovering from major surgery during Christmastime eight years ago. The passings, in rapid succession, of my mother, Barb’s father and my father. Dealing with multiple house clearings and estate issues. All while maintaining rewarding but challenging and time-eating jobs.

And then, when things finally looked to be settling down, the economy crashed, and the company that had owned the place I’d worked for almost 30 years sold us to raise cash to cover their mountain of debt. Almost two years of professional angst ensued.

It was exactly this time last year when Barb and I started seriously discussing making a clean break and starting over in Chicago. Barb grew up on a farm about 50 miles south of the center of town and graduated from University of Illinois at Chicago. She introduced me to this remarkable, dynamic city, with its stunningly beautiful lakefront, many years ago and  I fell hard for it. I regarded Chicago as my second hometown long before we made it my first.

We’d spent the vast majority of our time off traveling to Chicago in recent years, and I’d noticed that at the end of our trips, I hated more and more to leave. And that’s saying something, considering that most of these trips involved some serious family tsuris that hardly fit the dictionary definition of “vacation.”

Somehow, I just felt more grounded here than any other place I’d ever lived (okay, with the possible exception of my four years at Michigan State University).

Please don’t take that as a slap against Washington, where I lived for more than half my life so far, had many great experiences and made wonderful friends who I don’t get to see much of these days but whom I’ll cherish forever.

But Washington, always a bit of a competitive hothouse, has become much more so — at least in my mind — over the past few years. And it seems to me that the folks I knew and have come to know in Chicago, for the most part, are able to draw a brighter line between the professional and the personal.

Granted, my life has a few more rough edges here. I’ve got a full plate of freelance assignments lined up right now, but I know that it’s a bit of a high-wire act, and I’m still networking to see if there’s such a thing as a full-time dream job out there.

But I’ve used the transition time to do some things I’d always put off, either because I was preoccupied with whatever I was working on at the time or because I was juggling the next three things that were coming up.

Just since we moved, I completed the 16 weeks of level 1 guitar and will be moving on to level 2 in January. I took an intensive two-week bartending course, and now have a diploma I can brandish if I ever decide to give that skill a practical application. I have gotten deeply involved in Chicago’s Michigan State alumni club. And I have met dozens of talented and accomplished people whose acquaintance and friendship I value, whatever course my professional life ends up taking.

Sometimes you’ve just got to roll big. My head, if I’d been listening, was probably telling me that it was too big a risk to give up a decent-paying job in a place where I’d had a lot of history during a period of general economic difficulty and particular stress in the journalism profession.

But my head hasn’t always been my most trustworthy adviser. My heart told me that I belonged in Chicago, and my heart has never steered me wrong yet.

And when I looked out the western window last night and saw this….

… and looked out the eastern window this afternoon and saw this…

…. this thought crossed my mind.

It is great to be home for Christmas.

I hope your holidays have been as happy as mine.

A More Sober Kind Of Celebration: Eight Years After Cancer

I’ve had some fun over the past couple of days bragging about the fact that I am now a certified bartender. But today provides me with something more serious to celebrate. Eight years ago today, on December 10, 2003, I underwent major prostate cancer surgery.

My prognosis going into that day was cloudy. The pre-op testing determined that the tumor was a nasty one, and my future — and whether I had much of one — was bound up in whether it had spread.

Today was a bright, bright sunshiny day.

Fortunately, the skillful team of surgeons at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., found that it was still contained, albeit with little margin for error.

And with the tremendous support I received from my wife Barb, my family and my friends — and more than a little determination myself — I’m here, I’m thriving, and enjoying the hell out of the self-reinvention project I’ve undertaken since we moved to Chicago this summer.

So maybe this helps explain a little if I seem pretty zealous about checking some things off my “bucket list,” or learning to do new things that I’ve long wanted to learn but never found the time during my last years in D.C. Or if I seem a bit more stubborn, and less willing to get sold short, or live a life that is way out of balance.

Life really is too short.

I don’t recommend cancer as a learning experience, but you play the cards that your life deals you.

I found inner reserves I did not know, or had no reason to believe, existed. The people who know me best will confirm that I never shed a tear or felt sorry for myself or ever, ever said, “Why me?” I just fought. And, so far at least, I’m winning.

I gained a greater understanding of what those words “in sickness and in health” in the wedding vows mean. I have a deeper appreciation for how fortunate I am to have earned the friendship of so many wonderful and generous people. I think the experience made me more considerate and compassionate to people who have troubles, especially those dealing with serious illness.

And life has a way of reinforcing these lessons. As it happened, I spent this afternoon at a hospital in Kankakee, checking in with Barb on a dear friend who had to be rescued this week by the best that medical science has to offer after suffering cardiac arrest, the result of a sudden arrhythmia.

Judy is one of the people who least deserves to have bad things happen to her. She is not only a very nice person, but a total giver, who goes out of her way to help family, friends, and even numerous ex-in-laws.

She has a long, long way to go. But when she gets there, the prayers and other well-wishes of the many people whose love and gratitude she has earned will have played a role.

I know. I’ve been there.

The Lake Shore View: Rise Again

It would be wrong to allow this December 7 — the 70th anniversary of the attack by imperial Japan on American military bases at and near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii — to pass without acknowledgement.

This terrible act of aggression killed many thousands of Americans that day, but it galvanized the nation to action. Many millions of men and women, mostly average civilians from all walks of life, would fight for their country — and in the process preserved our freedoms by crushing some of the most murderous mutations of tyranny ever known.

One of these winter soldiers was my father, who passed away at age 90 in 2008. He joined the Army Air Corps and ended up flying dozens of bombing missions over Nazi Germany as a navigator, even though he had never been on an airplane before he enlisted shortly after Pearl Harbor.

We honor their service to the United States and mankind forever. Time is dwindling the numbers of veterans who served in World War II, so if you meet one, makes sure to say thanks.

Back on more everyday ground… I mentioned a few days ago that Barb’s Christmas cactus was flowering like never before. Here’s a progress report:

On the other hand, we had the cloud that ate the sunset tonight.

Looks a bit like a giant whale swallowed the sun, eh?

Catching up on the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown….

According to Weather Underground,

According to Weather Underground, Chicago O’Hare on Monday reported a high of 39, a low of 35 and .01 inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 60, a low of 42 and no rain. Point D.C.

Chicago O’Hare on Tuesday reported a high of 37, a low of 28 and no rain. Washington Reagan National  reported a high of 60, a low of 55 and .24 of an inch of rain. Yeah, that long warm spell that enabled D.C. to make up so much ground the past couple of weeks conveyed, but a rainy day is a rainy day. Point Chicago, making its overall lead 67-58.


The Lake Shore View: Wishing You A Full Stomach And A Happy Heart

I hope you are enjoying your Thanksgiving, and that is it a full day with those you love and care about, and without worries about work and the cares of a normal Thursday.

I’ve got so much to be thankful for. My wife Barb. Family. Our cat Gracie, a turkey junkie whose little brain is filled with plots to get at that bird that I’m sure she realizes by now is roasting in the oven. My many wonderful friends, including those I left behind in D.C. to start a new life, those in Chicago who have made me as welcome as a newcomer can be, those fellow Spartans scattered across the state of Michigan and around the country, and everyone else I hold dear.

As yes, eight years after cancer barged into my life uninvited, I’m just thankful that it’s another Thanksgiving.

Even a gray day in Chicago is worth being thankful for…

A quick catchup on the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown, then back to the kitchen.

On Tuesday, according to Weather Underground, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 44, a low of 39  and .24 of an inch of  rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 61, a low of 50  and more than a half-inch (.55) of  rain. Yeah, pretty chilly and raw in Chicago, but that’s a lot of rain in D.C. Point Chicago.

On Wednesday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 48, a low of 34  and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 64, a low of 45  and  .28 of rain. Wet on Thanksgiving getaway day. Ugh! Point Chicago, bringing its overall lead to 66-46.

Now go gobble!


The Lake Shore View: Old Friends, A Sad Nov. 22 Memory, And New Clothes

Most of you who cook know that the secret to a (relatively) stress-free Thanksgiving dinner is to make a day or two in advance anything that can be successful re-heated without being ruined. So far, I’m two ahead: the cranberry sauce is made, as is the pumpkin soup (an easy and old-fashioned comfort food recipe). The bread for the stuffing is cubed and drying, and next up is a gravy base that I will reinforce with those yummy drippings after the turkey has finished roasting Thursday.

Tomorrow I will make the corn pudding and the mashed sweet potatoes that will go into the good old marshmallow-topped casserole (I’m not the world’s biggest marshmallow guy, but it’s a special request for our guests), and chop the veggies that will go into the stuffing. If I succeed at getting that far ahead, I think I can give myself the luxury of making the mashed potatoes on a “just in time” basis Thursday.

I haven’t given too many Lake Shore nighttime views, so here’s one for you. As you can see, some of the downtown skyscrapers have already gone seasonal with their green-and-red lighting.

My day started out reading a humorous Facebook post from the son of a guy with whom I’ve been tight since my very first week as a freshman at Michigan State University. He related that his wife had rebuffed his threat to dye his dark hair blonde or dark red to mark his upcoming 30th birthday. I posted a reply to tell him that he had no reason to worry about turning 30, but the fact that my best friend from college has a 30-year-old kid makes me want to do something with MY hair.

A little later, Facebook brought a more melancholy note, as another MSU friend recalled how he had first heard the news about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, 48 years ago today, and asked others to share their memories. Here is my response:

Third grade, P.S. 149, Jackson Heights, Queens. They called the teachers out of the classrooms to inform them. Our teacher, looking stricken, came back in, told us that we were being sent home, that we shouldn’t listen to the older kids (who were lurking by the doors to tell everyone what happened), and that we should pray for President Kennedy. I don’t remember if my then-37 year old mother, who picked me up, could tell me the news, but she had the New York Post, which had a headline that I believe read “JFK SLAIN.” Even at 8 years old, I understood what that meant. That, and Oswald’s live on TV murder 3 days later, were my rude awakenings to the bad things that could happen in the world.

I already had a precocious interest in politics. I was one of those totally geeky children who had the names of all the presidents memorized by kindergarten, and I have a memory of asking my parents who they voted for in the 1960 election that Kennedy won (I also believe they dodged the question).

My folks had a comedy record album called The First Family that featured a spot-on impersonation of the president by Vaughn Meader, whose stunted career as an entertainer was collateral damage to the JFK tragedy. I had a vague perception of parental worry during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, and we witnessed the rise of the civil rights revolution, though I was too young to really understand that. The murder of the president really was the first news event that I comprehended enough to remember in detail these 48 years later.

But life goes on, obviously, and this afternoon one of the chores that I find most mundane — clothes shopping — turned out to be unusually rewarding. Before we moved from Washington, I splurged on a new wardrobe at Men’s Wearhouse, something I needed to do because I tend to go clothes shopping every, oh, three to four years. In fact, I splurged so well that I received $350 of Men’s Wearhouse gift certificates in the mail, which I (in my I-hate-to-shop fashion) allowed to linger until just a few days before the expiration date.

Barb and I drove over to one of their outlets in the near-northern suburb of Niles, where I intended to procure a much-needed new raincoat and, if I had any gift certificate left, a couple of sweater vests (which I like to wear in the frequent event that I’m too lazy to iron a lightly wrinkled shirt). But it turns out — as we informed by a very friendly salesman who, we found out in conversation, used to be a producer for a local TV station — we stumbled right into a 2-for-1 sale… and the gift certificates were valid for the discount.

So I ended up with perhaps the nicest raincoat I’ve ever owned, a new winter jacket, and two sweater vests, about $700 worth of clothes, for all of $21 over the value of those certificates.

A little something extra to be thankful for.

Not so much the cold, rainy weather we had for most of the day.

Yesterday, according to Weather Underground, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 47, a low of 41, and no rain. Washington Reagan National had a high of 64, a low of 50 and .07 of an inch of rain. Sounds a little dreary, but 17 degrees warmer this time of year deserves a point for D.C., trimming Chicago’s overall lead to 64-46.

Happy Thanksgiving to any of you who are going off the grid for the next few days.