Hello. My name is Lauren Elyse, and I cook for fun. And now I write a series about Chicagoans who write books about cooking for fun. Every season, I will be focusing on a new cookbook/Chicagoan chef, and then I’ll spend some of my cash money re-creating their recipes/convincing myself that I can make food like a civilized human being. I’m living vicariously through their unique perspective of Chicago, and this season, I am focusing on Paul Fehribach of Big Jones and his book, The Big Jones Cookbook. Fall down the rabbit hole with me!
Chapter 1: Breads
I fought to make beignets.
Well, I suppose “fought” is a loose interpretation of my insisting I make beignets. Roomate Kretz wanted cheddar biscuits, but let’s be honest: I didn’t care. I was gonna make the damn beignets.
In my defense, we are, after all, mangling dishes out of The Big Jones Cookbook, only the pinnacle of Southern cuisine in a city that bleeds Midwestern meat-and-three. Know not what The Big Jones Cookbook entails? Here’s a quick guide for your viewing pleasure:
Paul Fehribach (Author) – Multiple James Beard Award nominee for his mad cooking skills at his restaurant, Big Jones. Grew up in the non-Southern state of Indiana where he imitated the idyllic childhood of Huckleberry Finn by running amok on his family’s farm. Got a degree in Trombone and Education – because why not? – at Indiana University before ditching his original five-year plan in lieu of cooking. Used to work at a Denny’s and now makes the best fried chicken north of the Mason-Dixon line according to Bon Appetit magazine. No biggie. Loves history, heritage, and – like Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof fame – tradition. Like, hard core tradition. His cookbook reads like a grandmother’s journal you found hidden beneath an old Snoopy Sno-Cone maker at a church yard sale, but in an awesome way.
Big Jones (Restaurant) – Focused on Southern heirloom cooking and a sustainable product. It’s Oh, Pioneer! meets American social history meets ‘Let’s not kill the planet because you like eating out, okay you guys?’ They make the best fried chicken north of the Mason-Dixon line. I shouldn’t have to say anything else.
“But Lauren,” you ask. “Why the hell are you writing about a Southern cookbook in a meat-and-three kind of town? You’re an awful human! Go back to Texas!”
Okay, no need to get frisky. There is some truth to your claims; I’ll give you that. I myself have harbored this not-so-secret ambition to Huckleberry Finn my way through life. Maybe not through an idyllic Indiana farm and a stint at Denny’s, no, but like Huck Finn, I related to this uninhibited desire to seek escapism. I wanted to hitch my running shoes and go somewhere that felt perhaps reminiscent of idyllic – or at least homey. In that sense, running away was in my bones.
Running away is still in my bones. After all, it’s how I ended up in Chicago.
And maybe there was something about Paul Fehribach’s own desire to hearken back to heirloom practices and tradition that spoke to me in a way very few other Chicagoan’s passions have spoken to me yet. In that regards at least, the Chicagoan roots run deep – even if it is while making a quintessentially Southern carb that is cooked via love and a pot of hot fat.
It’s hard to explain, but there was this carnal, animal instinct within me to not go the easy, biscuit-cutter route for my first go-around. No. I wanted to dump yeasty dough into hot oil, and let it burn. In my own irrational line of thinking, the concept of “fried foods” came from a point of vengeance, of anger. Years of reading Macbeth will do that to you: Witches behind a boiling vat of liquid and pissiness. It almost seemed sexy to use burning animal fat as a manner of cheap therapy.
So off I went, armed with my safflower oil and dreams. “Double, double, toil and trouble this, Chicago!”, I thought to myself, very secure with my choices to burn and destroy in a socially acceptable way – via doughnut.
Paul Fehribach himself stated that one of the reasons why he wrote The Big Jones Cookbook was specifically to give out the recipes for these beignets. It’s the only menu item he will never allow you to take outside the restaurant, and bust my buttons if I wasn’t willing to foot a brunch bill at Big Jones to get these bad boys. I was going to get ahead in this city. That’s right. No bougie brunch was gonna bring me down! Nothing was going to bring me down.
And as I fried all the foods, like my good friend Lady Macbeth, I was a little bit angry – angry that I had waited so long to do the things I wanted to do in my new Midwestern home. Angry that I couldn’t burn some of the not-so-great memories of year one and allow the past to be what it was. Angry that I hadn’t given in sooner to my newfound culinary escapism.
I was angry, sure, but then again, I was also thankful that there perhaps there was no need to keep running.
So did the beignets turn out? Would Paul Fehribach be proud of me? Was I secretly a Shakespearean witch?
Well, my basement apartment smelled like a glorified Chick-fil-a, and the doughnuts sort of tasted like a glorified Chick-fil-a sandwich – don’t ask me why. But then again, it was still fried dough covered in, like, a dogpile of sugar. That combination can only be so wrong.
This city could only be so wrong.
Update: This is merely a curated, Internet-sponsored beignet menu. The kind people of The University of Chicago Press have allowed me to publish one recipe, and to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, I’m not throwin’ away my shot. I’m saving our one recipe for a really nifty occasion, so hold tight. But until then, here are links to some similar recipes. Watch me not get sued, readers! It’s really awesome following the law!
Before you spit on me with my Food Network propaganda, Bobby Flay’s brunch show is the most underrated, early morning ‘I have nothing else to do with my life, so I’ll watch this, I guess’ production of all time. He reminds me – and all of us, I’m sure – of that one guy you dated in college who is a total bro but kinda charming – but that’s a story for later.
Joy the Baker lives in New Orleans and is charming as all get out. She deserves your attention and envy.
I totally went there.
Join us for our next edition where we delve into the exciting world of shrimp and grits and coconut cake! Will I force Kretz to frost the cake for me? Will Kretz quit his vegetarian lifestyle in order to give in to the fried ham that I will inevitably put in the grit gravy? Tune in next time to find out!
The Book: The Big Jones Cookbook by Paul Fehribach
The Recipe: Shrimp and Grits, Coconut Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting