What do final exams and end of year celebrations have in common? Food.
I mean stress.
I mean food and stress. Which means comfort eating. Which sometimes means cake.
And sometimes means something else entirely.
Here’s a secret every parent of school-aged children knows: there are more celebratory events in May than there are in December. End of year banquets, class parties, team parties, recitals, concerts, awards, graduations, recognitions: if you participated in it, during May you celebrate it. Throw in a few finals, some AP exams, an end of year project, your team’s conference/sectional/state finals, and no matter how you slice it, there’s going to be pizza and cake.
Surely there’s more to stress and celebration than pizza and cake. Given the sophistication of our population, we can do better. What foods do Highland Parkers turn to for solace and joy? More than a few of us harbor deeply felt affections for local fare.
I’ll come clean first: last week, on what seemed like the millionth cold, wet, crummy day of spring, I gave in to fatigue and longing and drove myself to Max’s for some cabbage soup with a side of corned beef. In a nod to the impending bathing suit season, I asked for lean corned beef, but really, who was I fooling? It was still corned beef. Delicious.
Then my daughter came home from her first year of college, and my parents invited her out to celebrate. Their destination? Nite-N-Gale’s. The surprise celebratory entrée? Fried smelts. Apparently, these seasonal delicacies are so beloved that the restaurant sells over 25 pounds of them a week. What’s the difference between your parents and your children? Smelts. Sushi almost unifies the generations, but not really. No one over 75 loves raw fish, and no one under 50 ever gets a hankering for smelts.
What about liver? Don’t laugh. Whether you call it chopped or pate, it’s tasty. Still, who dares to admit to liking it? Then came Café Central and their calf’s liver dinner. Or, as general manager Adam Nieto calls it, their “most famous item.” It outsells everything else “two to one.” It also divides the world: those who will eat it, and those who won’t even sit at the table if it’s been ordered. For the record, it’s my favorite item on the menu. Can’t handle that? Get your own table.
Should I talk about ribs? How about this: The BBQ Pit sells roughly 1,200 pounds of baby back ribs a week. Real Urban Barbecue, which only opened last fall, offers baby back and St. Louis ribs, and devoted fans will line up for either. Now We’re Cooking Grill’s top seller is their Texas BBQ Brisket. But ask them about their beef ribs and you’ll discover that a full slab, which is seven ribs, weighs over 1 1/2 pounds. They can’t keep those in stock. I am a devotee.
Was I talking about stress? Did I mention cheddar fries? Stash’s. Michael’s. Hot dogs. Double Dogs. Char dogs. Jumbo Char Dogs. I grew up in this town and I promise you this: there’s a hot dog for every occasion. Heck, my sister served hot dogs as appetizers at her rehearsal dinner, and I served them for lunch the day of my wedding. They might be the perfect union of stress relief and celebration.
True, not everyone in this town indulges in artery-clogging entrees. Visit Country Kitchen any day of the week and you’ll bear witness to the single greatest display of egg white omelettes and yoga pants anywhere on the North Shore and possibly the world. Are those omelettes part of a celebration? Do they relieve tension? Put it this way: they ease the guilt of whatever else you eat the rest of the day. So they have their place.
I’m all for celebrations. Life’s milestones should be marked with galas and fetes and lots of clapping in school cafeterias and auditoriums. I’m never going to deny that pizza and cake have their rightful place in these rites of passage. But in a nod to the pressure that accompanies these end-of-year markers, why not look beyond the obvious for a little succor?
That’s right. Think outside the pizza box.