Danahey on the Loose, Being a Gourmand

Yeah, I’m a gourmand, and most of what that implies.

It started when I was a toddler. My grandfather and I would sit in the back of his mom-and-pop grocery store on the South Side of Chicago and eat smoked fish slathered in sour cream and served on top of a sweet roll.

My gourmand ways continue to this day, when out in Oregon (Illinois) I recently tried the Midwest delicacy that is Alfano’s spaghetti pizza.

Spaghetti pizza at Alfano’s on Oregon, IL

Alfano’s pie holds pasta served with meat sauce and mozzarella. When you have traditional spaghetti you probably use bread to sop up what’s left of the sauce once you finish your noodles. With everything on a crust, this pizza saves you that step.

Talk about the best of both worlds! If you can’t choose between pasta or pizza, with this pie you don’t have to do so.

It’s like when I went to the Northwest Celtic Fest in Hoffman Estates last Saturday and tried the Irish Burger – a hamburger topped with a slice of corned beef, Swiss cheese and a dab of sauerkraut. I didn’t have to choose a burger, didn’t have to choose a Reuben, and I didn’t care that neither is even remotely Celtic, nor were the curly fries that came with it. I just paid my $5 and enjoyed the meal deal.

My being a gourmand can be for the benefit of others, too. At a fundraiser at the Village Vintner in Algonquin I had two plates of salad, three plates of pasta and a half dozen tiny desserts. All for a good cause.

Northwest Celtic Fest cuisine

I returned to the Vintner the following Tuesday, where I toppled the tower of meet, the wurstplatte that was one of their Oktoberfest specials. Mind you, that dinner came after that day’s lunch – some walnut and goat cheese salad, an order of bruschetta and half a 12-inch margherita pizza at Woodfire Brick Oven Pizza in West Dundee.

The description for the tower read: Chef grills five flavorful sausages and plates it with our German potatoes and wine braised cabbage. The tower has two identical plates so each person can enjoy without having to share. This tasty dish also comes with soft pretzels and our homemade stone ground mustard.

Somebody bet me a buck I wouldn’t be able to finish it all by myself. That dollar is earning this gourmand .08 percent interest right now.

But hey, I once won a pie eating contest, and it wasn’t even close.

One time I bested a challenge at the Tap House in Oswego where the deal was to eat three pounds of food including a triple cheeseburger and accompanying fries in under 20 minutes to win a t-shirt. The waitress actually asked what size – which they didn’t have and which took a few weeks to get. 

Now people have to eat the triple decker in eight minutes or less to get the $30 meal comped AND a t-shirt.

Wurstplatte from Village Vintner in Algonquin

But back to my recent gourmand adventures. Past the tower of meat, the very next day, to celebrate a job interview, lunch with friends at Olive Garden included salad, three bowls of soup and a plate of spaghetti with marinara sauce. Early that evening, I stopped over at Best Fest Buddy Tom’s for a pre-dinner snack of pulled pork.

Then I headed to Seasons 52 in Oak Brook to meet my sister, brother-in-law and cousin. Wow. Two Darden-owned restaurants in one day. What are the odds?

Anyway, at Seasons 52 I had a couple pieces of four-mushroom flatbread, four small mushrooms stuffed with lump crab and shrimp, some hummus, kona roasted lamb loin served with zucchini-potato mash and roasted peppers in a balsamic sauce and a small pumpkin-flavored dessert.

The next night was lighter, in the sense it only cost $5. But for that, at Gryadiko in Carpentersville you get a big, juicy chicken sandwich, a soft drink and fries. I substituted a salad for the latter. 

You might have guessed from this I usually don’t eat much for breakfast, which is true. And from what I’ve written, instead of being a gourmand my ways might mean I’m pregnant.

To that point, for lunch last Friday I had a spicy chicken sandwich with a side salad from Wendy’s. Best Fest Buddy Tom’s Diner served a dinner of three small potato skins topped with pulled pork, a croissant filled with spinach, four pieces of cheese, a jalapeno flavored roll and a mini blueberry pie. Who knew Walmart carries such stuff?

That’s true, by the way, and says something good about the times in which we live.

If you’re over 40, think about the comparatively limited food choices we had back in the day. 

Lamb loin from Seasons 52 in Oak Brook

Now, along with what Walmart has to offer, within a 50 mile drive of my house – and usually a shorter trip – I have tried, in no particular order, the following ethnic cuisines: Irish, English, Scottish, French, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Swiss, Greek, German, Italian, Jewish, Canadian, Dutch, Swedish, Polish, Spanish, Portugese, Welsh, Ethiopian, Colombian, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Jamaican, Lithuanian, Russian, Lebanese, Pakistani, Japanese and Indian.

That’s not to mention good old US of A choices like Cajun, Creole and Tex-Mex; St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville, Carolina and Kansas City style barbecue; California tri-tip or roasted green chiles from New Mexico.

The above reminds. I have eaten a whole Central Grocery-style muffaletta all by my lonesome.

Then again, in lonelier days, on a typical Friday night I’d scarf down a $5 pizza from Dominick’s. All by myself. In front of the TV. Watching Larry the Cable Guy and the other redneck comedians on WGN.

My lost weekends led to wolfing down an unknown number of large pizzas from Village Pizza, Papa John’s or Rosati’s, and whole buckets of KFC. The only thing I like from KFC now is the coleslaw. Even a gourmand has limits.

Not so lonely anymore, in recent years I’ve had as many as six Thanksgiving dinners on a Thursday. Yes, on the right Thursday in November.

I’ll try just about anything. A tub of smelt my dad caught. A kangaroo burger in Ireland. Turkey testicles at a festival in Huntley. Bugs (crickets, maybe a grasshopper and one that tasted like ass) at a food show in Chicago. A Polish sausage and sauerkraut pizza from Pudgy’s in Hegewisch. Stuff off the floor at Tom’s.

The $5 chicken sandwich special from Gyradiko in Carpentersville

Lamb, alligator, goat, octopus, eel, squid, turtle, ostrich, bison, bear and deer have found their way into my belly.

Past the usual cuts of pork, I’ve eaten lardo (fatback), pickled pigs feet, head cheese, rind and even an eyeball. Along with steaks, brisket and burgers, I’ve tried heart, liver, tripe, tongue and testicles from cows.

Lest you think I’m all about the meat, I enjoyed attending a vegetarian wedding and all the eats there, especially the strawberry soup. More fun was listening to the whiny people at my table who wanted the usual fare of chicken, beef and mostaccioli. 

Gourmands don’t complain out of the box. They dig in first before judging.

Gourmands don’t always do this.