The Chicago Food Encyclopedia: The Best Gift for the Food Obsessed

The gift-giving season is upon us. And if you are like me, you struggle to find the perfect gift for the person who seems to have everything. Happily, I have found it. The Chicago Food Encyclopedia is the answer to anyone and everyone who loves history, food, and shopping and dining in Chicago.

For those of us who live in Chicago, we know our city compares to none other when it comes to creative and delicious fine dining, ethnic restaurants and shops, and charming neighborhood bakeries. Over the years, the food and beverage scene in Chicago has flourished, shaped from a rich and vibrant history starting in the 1820’s.

From hot dogs to haute cuisine, Chicago has long been home to a culinary culture to rival that of any city in the world. Our food reflects the strength of our diversity, the innovative spirit of our residents and the world-class culture in the most American of American cities. – Mayor Rahm Emanuel

The Chicago Food Encyclopedia brings Chicago’s food scene to life in an easy-to-read and comprehensive way. Edited by three of our city’s premier foodies, Carol Mighton Haddix, former food editor of the Chicago Tribune, Bruce Kraig, published author and professor emeritus, history and the humanities, Roosevelt University, and Colleen Taylor Sen, food and travel journalist, historian and author; the encyclopedia has something for everyone.

Little did I know that during the Thanksgiving festivities in 1875, a vile ruffian, gambler and drunk named Henry Davis murdered a well-known restaurateur, Charley Wyland. Or that in the late 1930’s, supermarkets began to emerge featuring nationally-branded packaged food and lower prices, and in doing so, replaced small neighborhood markets. Nor did I realize that in 1971, the era of Chicago as “Meatpacker to the World” came to an end as meat processing shifted west, nearer to where livestock was raised.

This enlightening encyclopedia recently debuted at a Culinary Historians of Chicago event. On hand were two editors (Mighton Haddix and Taylor Sen) as well as contributing writers to the book, Judy Hevrdjs, retired Chicago Tribune food and features writer, and Scott J. Warner, freelance writer and president of the Culinary Historians of Chicago.

Cheered on by over 100 attendees from aspiring cooks to well established food connoisseurs, the editors discussed how, over nearly three years, they compiled and edited 375 entries on topics from ranging from chefs making their mark in Chicago to soul food and zebra mussels.

Warner shared his experiences as a bus boy at The Bakery, a Chicago treasure, and described the amazing five-course dinners Chef Louis Szathmary would prepare and serve for $6.50. Hevrdjs called upon her Czech heritage to highlight the Eastern European influence on Chicago’s culinary scene, and we could almost taste the traditional prasky and potato dumplings she so colorfully described.

So if you are curious about ethnic influences ranging from Greek to Italian or Lithuanian, or brand launches like Miracle Whip, or even the genesis of the lunch counter, you will find descriptive and colorful accounts in the guide’s 300 plus pages.

The attraction of The Chicago Food Encyclopedia is how it is organized. Simply divided into two sections, the first is the history of Chicago’s food scene from before the city’s founding to present day. The second is its diverse entries written by writers, bloggers, educators and industry experts. But that’s not the best part. Each of the entries is listed in alphabetical order by topic or key words. Interested in how Delicatessens began? You’ll find it nestled between Dairy Restaurants and Delivery Services. Thinking about pursuing Food Styling and Photography? You’ll find that after Food Safety and before Food Technology. The history of Coffee and Tea follows an informative look Cocktails and Cocktail Lounges.

Kudos to the editors for packaging the encyclopedia in this way. While it can be read from cover to cover if time permits, it’s even more entertaining, when simply left to fall open on any given page. For example, my book just opened to page 146, which spotlights those delicious Jay’s Potato Chips we all love. Or if you have a favorite Chicago chef, he or she will likely be featured in the book, alphabetically. I especially enjoyed reading about renowned restaurants like Ambria and Gordon. And while they no longer wow diners with superb cuisine and service having closed years ago, many new and exciting food concepts have emerged since the mid-80’s early 90’s.

As we look winter in eye, I know what I’ll be doing on those cold and gloomy Sunday afternoons. I’ll be perusing my copy of The Chicago Food Encyclopedia and dialing for take-out, of course.

The Chicago Food Encyclopedia is published by the University of Illinois Press, retails for $34.95, and is available through Amazon and many local bookstores. For more information about editor events, visit Facebook.



Cynthia Kallile
Cynthia Kallile