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A Sensual Feast: Summer’s bacchanal of tastes, smells, sounds, sights and textures

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By Michael Nagrant

Summer in Chicago is a food-porn dream.

At the Green City Market in Lincoln Park, a dewy sheen glistens on the tips of nubile spring onions and piles of bulbous Morels with more nooks and crannies than a Bay’s English Muffin spill from wooden barrels. Tender stalks of young white asparagus shoots splay about the farm tables. Verdant fields of leafy greens, bushels of arugula, spinach and mesclun mixes flay open in the morning sun. Rippled heirloom tomatoes burst with striped protuberances. Curlicues of frisee and fresh-cut vines flutter in the summer breeze. Bushels of jeweled apples compete for ocular affection with golden rivers of artisanal olive oils, tarragon vinegars and tubes of creamy ripe goat’s milk cheeses from Capriole farms. An ever-present mineral tang of earthy soils mingles with sweet tomato sauce and the smoky crust of the wood-burning pizzas and freshly grilled panninis. The oat-encrusted loaves of Bennison’s hearth-baked breads cast a yeasty aroma into the mix.

On Sunday, stroll a few miles south to the Maxwell Street Market, and it looks like Canal Street between Taylor and 14th is on fire. A thick cloud of charcoal-fired smoke and waves of deep fry grease knock you out. Spice-rubbed hunks of pastor or shepherd-style pork turn on spits marinating in their shiny juices. Freshly griddled tortillas puff up like corn-filled dirigibles, giving off a fresh corn perfume. Hot churros bursting with jeweled glops of strawberry are studded with crystalline sugar bits. Inky black huitlacoche or corn-must quesadillas riddled with fat golden kernels of sweet corn and molten queso fresco bubble on paper plates. Brown-crusted bits of beef are piled high on the grills, and half moon empanadas are stacked on trays. Limey juices dribble from purple-tentacled octopus chunks and plump shrimp jut out from the ceviche. Garnet mole sauces redolent with bright pasilla and roasted earthy ancho chilis coat hunks of carbonized chicken. Ripe melons and spiky pineapples hold court with gooey carmelized plantains. A lineup of Jarritos bottles is a high-fructose kaleidoscope of electric orange and neon lime.

Head a few blocks west to little Italy, and follow the beefy air wafting from the grease trap at Al’s Italian Beef. Across the street, the tricolor awning of Mario’s Italian Lemonade stand beckons. Old men in striped fedoras and porkpie hats and hip investment-banker types toting Bugaboo strollers line up for a bucket of snowy Italian lemonade tinged with lemon slices and toothsome chunks of fresh watermelon or peaches.

Hop on the red line down to 35th Street.  The crack of the bat, the carnival bark of memorabilia vendors and the sizzle of the grills fill the ears down at U.S. Cellular.  Some come for the boys of summer, but it’s the brats of summer they won’t forget.   Carmelized onions and garlicky Polishes are washed down with draft-pulled amber rivulets of malt syrup and herbal hops.
Dash up north through Bucktown or Humboldt Park, and you’re bound to hear the metallic jingle from an Elotes cart. It’ll set off a Pavlovian drool for the vendor’s sweet concoction of freshly hulled grilled corn, lime, chili spice and creamy mayo. Wielding machete-like blades, they’ll shave down a fresh mango, or slice open the soft tangerine flesh of a cantaloupe for dessert. Under the starry sky at sidewalk tables at late-night bars along North Avenue, sipping martinis from glasses frosted with condensation, you might get lucky and score a bag of freshly steamed pork tamales.

Walk down the Division strip on the Ukrainian Village border, and smell the buttery cookies, see the rows of crispy biscotti and the licks of chocolate ganache frosting on fresh-baked tortes at Letizia’s.  Linger over a quick draft of roasted bean perk from freshly pulled double espresso shots.

Head out west to the land of Capone and roll in to Freddy’s Gelateria in Cicero. Under ruddy coils of air-cured salamis and fat coiled links of Italian sausage, rows of homemade creamy pliant gelato await in the plate-glass freezer case.

When that first September bluster of fall descends, you’ll be plump with the sensual feast of Chicago summer, ready to hibernate through another razor chafe of winter, and rested up once again for next summer’s bacchanal.

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