So sorry.
Sent yesterday’s blog without an image.
Right now the break from routine is taking a toll on the blog.
Many thanks to Howard Dinin who has buttressed my feeble offerings with some good stuff.

Today is Friday, September 7
This is my 150th consecutive daily posting.
Time is 845pm the night before!
The weather for tomorrow in Chicago seems tolerable; perhaps it won’t rain.

Today’s dinner is at The Publican. Which boasts great food that must be eaten on communal tables.
Hey, I may not like it but I am awfully good at it.

Last night’s dinner at Al Ameer was very nice.
The dining room was very nice.
The food was excellent.
The usual Mid-Eastern specialities: fattoush salad with pita chips, beautifully cut radishes and cucumbers, hummus, baba ganoush, falafel, grape leaves, lamb shank, sujuk.
The food was excellent.

But the experience wanting.

Wanting alcohol.
No alcohol served.

Wanting elegance of service.
The food brought as it was ready; not with the pacing one might like.
Of course, without a glass of wine, what’s to delay our digging in.
Just the need to take a breath.

Critics forget this part.
Al Ameer gets high grades from reviewers.
And for takeout, a terrific place.
But for a dining experience?
Yesterday’s meal at the keg much better.
Of course, Al Ameer only cost $36.00 with the tip.

All this to encourage my stepping away from meltdowns

All this to encourage my stepping away from meltdowns

So I left Dearborn for Chicago.

I am always brimming with excitement as I approach a great museum.
But today, the museum had an extra benefit for me.
I got to Chicago at 10.15, too soon to check for an early room.
Just change destination to the Museum.
Parked for $27.00 for 3 hours.
Took my laptop and went in.
When I’m done at 1.30p, they’ll be happy to see me.

Pushing off from Dearborn, the rain/mist made the roads slick and the feel creepy.
I hate weather-impaired driving and get extra-cautious.
So I determined I would drive 3.5 miles UNDER the speed limit.

Driving so nonchalantly was a visitation by the Holy Ghost – my existential moment.
I suddenly became the observer I wanted to be.
No pressure.
No pushing the envelope.
Just let the hours drift passed, watching the traffic jostle for position.

What helped my frame of mind as well as the speed, was the distance I had set out for myself.
Just 300 miles; 5 hours.
Add the 20% for stops: six hours.
And now add 5% for driving at a much slower speed: 6 hours and 15minutes.

I will definitely recast the rest of the trip to follow suit and shall return to Boston a veritable modern-day Francis of Assisi.
Where can I find a brown coverall with a hood and rope-cinch?

My son Dom has repeatedly praised me for making lemonade.
The day started a bit down with the gloomy weather.
That weather turned into a revelation.

Today’s drive to Chicago will be about 5 hours.
Tuesday’s ten hours on the road will not be repeated.
Wednesday’s six hours on the road is all I want to do go forward.
Chicago’s drive is 5 hours, plus 20% for stops, or six hours on the road.
I’ll get there with some life in me.
I’ll be spending two nights in Chicago so I’ll get a reprieve from the driving.

Plans for the two nights include just the Loop and the Chicago Art Museum which Howard feels ranks with the world’s greatest.
And two splendiferous meals on which I shall report.

The Loop?

The Loop is the central business district and downtown area of Chicago, Illinois, United States.
It is one of the city's 77 designated community areas.
The Loop is home to Chicago's commercial core, City Hall, and the seat of Cook County.
In the late nineteenth century, cable car turnarounds and prominent elevated railway encircled the area, giving the Loop its name.

The community area is bounded on the north and west by the Chicago River, on the east by Lake Michigan, and on the south by Roosevelt Road, although the commercial core has expanded into adjacent community areas.
As a business center, some of the corporations the Loop hosts include the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), the world's largest options and futures contracts open interest exchange; the headquarters of United Continental Holdings, one of the world's largest airlines; AON; Blue Cross Blue Shield; Hyatt Hotels Corporation; BorgWarner, and other major corporations.

The Loop is home to 500 acre Grant Park; State Street, which hosts a historic shopping district; the Art Institute of Chicago; several theaters; and numerous subway and elevated rapid transit stations.
Other institutions in the Loop include the Willis Tower, once the tallest building in the world, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Goodman Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet, the central public Harold Washington Library, and the Chicago Cultural Center.

In what is now the Loop, on the south bank of the Chicago River, near today's Michigan Avenue Bridge, the US Army erected Fort Dearborn in 1803.
It was the first settlement in the area sponsored by the United States.
In 1908, Chicago addresses were made uniform by naming the intersection of State Street and Madison Street in the Loop as the division point for designating addresses, North, South, East or West on the Chicago street grid.

Skyline of the Loop

Skyline of the Loop

Art Institute of Chicago. The interior is brilliant. This is their newer building.  

Art Institute of Chicago.
The interior is brilliant.
This is their newer building.

I did pay my first visit to the Art Institute this morning.
Loved it.
Visited some old friends: Georgia O'Keefe, Charles Sheeler, Stuart Davis and the others.
Enjoyed some Roman sculptors and ended the visit eating a banana in the cafe there.


The  Chicago River  is the south border of the  Near North Side  (right) and the north border of the  Loop ; the Loop's  Near East Side  is to the left in this picture.

The Chicago River is the south border of the Near North Side (right) and the north border of the Loop; the Loop's Near East Side is to the left in this picture.

And now, this...

Duncan Howard is My Name


Well I’m tryin’ to get some sleep
but these motel walls are cheap
Lincoln Duncan is my name
and here’s my song
here’s my song.
My father was a fisherman,
My mama was a fisherman’s friend,
And I was born in the boredom and the chowder;
So when I reached my prime
I left my home in the Maritimes
And headed down the turnpike
for New England,
Sweet New England.
—Paul Simon

Some children are prodigies. I like to think every child has some prodigious talent. Some parents think their children are prodigies in every way. Those parents should look a little closer.

My father always looked closely at me, and he wasn’t shy about suggesting there were ways in his eyes that I came up short. But from early on, there was one way that I somehow made clear to him I had a precocity he admired. It made him laugh, which was a rare thing.

It concerned food. And even if not a demonstration of some gift, my obvious obsession with what I considered, at the age of seven, great food presaged my later life. I mean the one long after I left hearth and home.

How I developed a taste for beef, medium rare at that, I have no recollection, but some inner radar always alerted me to the opportunity to chow down. In retrospect it was probably not all that deep an intuition, so I don’t credit myself for that particular perspicacity. We mainly would go out to eat on weekends, because my father worked, of course, and excursions during the week were out of the question. In any event, weekends in and of themselves were only in the best sense triggering for little me. Saturday arrived and my taste buds tingled.

Portrait of the artist as a young food critic

Portrait of the artist as a young food critic

Probably our first, or at most our second, excursion on a brief road trip were primer enough for me to be alert to the potentiality for having meat. I know we went out often enough, and to a variety of destinations, that I quickly learned to indulge what has proven in the fullness of time to be a natural penchant for criticism. I thought I knew the difference between good and bad. Further, I was not shy to declare a particular meal to be prime or to have been a disappointing sub-par performance. As the case might be. The first time I declared my share of a bloody bit of steak to be “excellent,” I know my father burst out laughing, and not because I was being funny.

He immediately dubbed me “Duncan Howard.” It’s probably a designation that, as a review of a biography of my putative moniker states, needs explaining for most people under the age of 55. I’d make it even older, but that’s neither here nor there. With the age of the short memory of almost everyone, it’s best to explain it altogether.

Duncan Hines, Road Warrior and Cake Mixer

Duncan Hines was the name of a real person. A traveling salesman in his young manhood, and later. Hines loved driving the open road, and open it was in the 1920s and 1930s, when he did his major drumming (as the profession was called). In those days, not only were there no Interstates, there were few maps for the roadways that did exist. What he came to realize was there simply were no guides for travelers—whether itinerant and regular like him and all his sales brotherhood (I assume it was largely mostly a male profession), or occasional, for leisure weekends or the odd vacation excursion.

There simply was none of the apparatus for guidance we take for granted. Especially now in the age of the internet, when all we need do is reach in our pockets, and pull out a hand-sized device and instantaneously have access to, say, 4500 recommendations as to the best places to eat from here to Rangoon. There was no And to reach further back, to the ancient days of print, already nearly totally forgotten, there was no Fodor’s, not MobilGuides, and in this country there was certainly no Michelin guide (which has its own distinguished history, it’s true, and it dates back to 1900, but it helped French motorists, all 3000 of them back then, but only with information about the location of mechanics, gas stations, tire repair outlets, and the like; they didn’t begin listing restaurants until 1922, and ratings didn’t appear until four years after that). 

Duncan Hines eventually took it into his head to let his fellow road warriors know, after his myriad experiences in hundreds of establishments had informed him, which were the best places for lodging or dining, and with the rarest of luck for both in a single venue. He turned it into a business, with the help of his wife. He was, at that point, it should be noted, 55 years old.

In 1935 they prepared a book of listings for the benefit of friends, for a start, of hundreds of good restaurants – mainly local establishments, as there were but very few chains in those days. Hines was middle-aged, well into it, when he began his great work, and he had been on the road since at least the '20s, plying his trade selling press time for a Chicago printer. That book about where to eat sold so well, he added another volume that recommended lodging. By the late 1940s he had a national newspaper column that appeared three times a week on a syndicated basis, called “Adventures in Good Eating at Home.” He had spread out his franchise by then, associating his name with the growing institution of home cooking. The column mainly featured recipes that the home cook could replicate from the restaurants he had come to know and recommend.

Duncan Hines (unattributed photo, despite search; fair use stated on Wikipedia, the source for this file)

Duncan Hines (unattributed photo, despite search; fair use stated on Wikipedia, the source for this file)

By 1953, which was the year my own burgeoning career as a junior version of the irrepressible Hines began, he had sold the use of his name to a partner who created a company to package products under that name to be sold in supermarkets and groceries. The “Duncan Hines” brand, which made its mark in particular with cake mixes, is still a familiar one. If anyone recognizes it, it’s as a cardboard box filled with flour, baking powder, and not much else.

The point is, so powerful was the brand that its other manifestation: recommendations to dine at a particular restaurant, were a guarantee to the consumer of a pleasing experience. And so people came to look for the elegantly lettered signs in black and white, as I remember them, hanging outside the door of a restaurant (or hotel), as near the main signage as possible. They declared simply that this establishment was “recommended by Duncan Hines.” And it became enough said.

In our family, my father insisted that we could not declare a meal dining out a success unless it received the imprimatur of myself. And he dubbed me, “Duncan Howard.” He’d ask as we finished, and around the time the check arrived, if this restaurant was “approved by Duncan Howard?” My sole criterion was the experience of eating that bloody bit of steer, and I was not generous in offering a recommendation. I have no memory, I’m sorry to say, as to whether I took into account the ambiance, what has come to be called in the Millennial shorthand, the “vibe” of the place.

My predilection for beef hasn’t subsided, though it’s sporadic, and I am not all that indulgent. Somewhere along the line from the seven year-old me to the present I learned about other cuts than sirloin, which was about the only one I knew back then, and it was I always ordered – again a source of mirth for my dad, who I think got a kick out of being able to afford to indulge his junior league restaurant critic of a son. These days, I order hanger steak when I see it on the bill of fare. This is a rare occurrence, so I don’t worry about compromising my smug self-assurance that I am not unduly endangering my health by consuming too much animal flesh.

Much more recently, I had occasion one spring about seven years ago to make regular visits to Philadelphia – what turned out to be prelude to my moving here permanently. Part of the routine that quickly ensued, and again, as a kind of reverberation of my youthful triggering associations, these excursions (at most a couple of hours portal to portal, from Boston to Philly) occurred on weekends. And I looked forward to them with an anticipation far transcendent of my childish fondness for red meat. We’ll just leave it at noting that these latter-day satisfactions had a much more powerful component of emotional fondness than they did any atavistic hunger for blood.

Downtown Philadelphia, showing City Hall, at 6am, April 2011, from my room in the Loews Hotel. (photo: Howard Dinin)

Downtown Philadelphia, showing City Hall, at 6am, April 2011, from my room in the Loews Hotel. (photo: Howard Dinin)

Nevertheless, not every moment was stocked to the brim with the fulfillments of deep amatory bliss – largely because the object of my hebdominal visits was not always free to get away. Yet, a man has to eat. And not knowing the city after a forty year absence – my last extended sojourn in Philly was as a graduate student – I was ignorant of its culinary riches, if any. And, ironically enough, given the theme of my writing today, I placed little stock in the recommendations of any self-appointed Anacharsis Cloots* on the internet, “citizens of humanity,” who seek to universalize and broaden the culinary interests of all by removing false criteria of old values and any mention of “the full dining experience.” I simply trusted no critic I could find readily who could point me to a decent meal.

What I needed was a revival of the Hines ethos. But what I gave myself was a slow tour, weekend by weekend, of the usual suspects to be found in any large cosmopolitan city. That’s right, one after another I knocked off the local installations of the finest chain steak houses in America: Ruth’s Chris, Morton’s, Capital Grille, and so forth. No place really stood out, but I can’t say either that I was ever disappointed. Not a bad piece of meat among them, though no hanger steak alas. All in all, for a few brief weeks of spring, Duncan Howard rose again.

*Anarcharsis Cloots was the pseudonymous identity of a Prussian nobleman who emerged as a singularly important figure of the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste du Val-de-Grâce, baron de Cloots, argued strenulously (and donated a small fortune for fighters to do battle against tyranny) for the cause of world rule according to the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” He preferred the title, by which he was known, as the orator of the human race. (facts gleaned from Wikipedia)

—Howard Dinin