Big Shoulders in Sin City

Sandburg, Carl. 1914. Chicago. Poetry 3:191-192. Online:

Sandburg, Carl. 1914. Chicago. Poetry 3:191-192. Online:
Sandburg, Carl. 1914. Chicago. Poetry 3:191-192. Online:


Las Vegas means “the meadows” in Spanish, apparently because this spot was once an oasis in the Mojave Desert, the greenery fed by underground water sources. There ain’t much fresh and green in this place anymore though, unless you count the greenbacks being fed into poker machines, or the violently emerald icy cocktails in souvenir plastic tubes people stagger about town with.

It’s June 2017 and I’m road-tripping to the Linguistic Society of America’s Linguistic Institute, a biennial summer school that brings linguists – babby, budding, and bigwig – together for what one colleague told me is “linguistics holiday camp”. I think it’s going to be less kumbaya, more bootcamp…and I can’t wait.


I also couldn’t wait to leave Sin City and get up into the actual “vegas”, as it were, like the fields of Joshua trees, and the emerald pools in Zion National Park. But there was one stop on the city limits I just had to hit before we quit the fear n’ loathing for good – Windy City Beefs n’ Dogs.

My kid’s dad is from Chicago and I’ve spent a lot of time there over the years. I love that City of the Big Shoulders. It has none of that “second-city” insecurity that other second cities have, like Melbourne, my home town (where the city’s identity phonotactics require that for every nucleus about how great Melbourne is, there must be a coda about how crappy Sydney is – although I admit this is tending towards apocope as time goes on).

What do I love most about the city of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, about Shikako or “skunk place“? Well, the food. Most of all, Italian beef sandwiches.

The creation myth goes that during the Depression, meat was very expensive. Italian weddings were typically big affairs, and a tradition began that instead of serving steaks or a roasted joint, the roast would be thinly sliced and piled in the pan juices (which are usually now bulked up with stock/consommé). Now there are Italian beef joints all over the city, from big chains like Portillo’s, medium-sized establishments like Al’s #1 Beef, and hundreds of mom-and-pop beef shacks dotted in between.


The beef is piled in a particular type of sturdy white bun. You can either order it dry, where the beef is given a good shake before being loaded into the roll; wet, where it’s piled in still juicy from the jus; or dipped, where the entire completed sandwich is dunked back into the jus pot. You know which one I’m going to tell you is best.

As for condiments, some folks like cheese (BLERGH), some go for “sweet peppers” (roasted green capsicum), and the smart ones for giardiniera. In Chicago you say this “jar-din-air”, and in the Windy City it’s a colourful, tangy mix of diced pickled vegetables in oil. We’re talking cauliflower, carrots, capsicum, celery, olives, spices, and “Melrose peppers”. These hot green chillies are said to have originally been grown in Melrose Park, a traditionally Italian neighbourhood.


Frugality also inspired another Chi-Town classic – the Chicago-style hot dog. The idea was that it was a “meal on a bun” – a cheap and nutritious way for folks to get vegetables and a bit of protein. Traditionally the sausage is an all-beef frankfurter, and many would say it’s not a proper hot dog without the snag coming from the Vienna Beef company.

You lay your dog in a poppy-seed bun, slather on American mustard, pickle relish (traditionally a ridiculously artificial bright green), chopped raw onion, tomato slices, a pickle spear, whole “sport peppers”, and celery salt. Celery salt is salt blended with ground celery seeds (which Chicagoans use liberally in Bloody Marys and spaghetti sauce, aka bolognese). “Sport peppers” are small yellow/green hot peppers that have been pickled.


It’s sacrilege to put ketchup (tomato sauce) anywhere near your Chicago-style hot dog. In fact, it’s quite the comment on your character if you do.

Tyler LaRiviere/Chicagoist,

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