Following the Diaspora to Chicago

by Daren Wang

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CHICAGO — Chicago blues are not Delta Blues. Chess Records is not Stax Records. Chicago is not the South.  But they are all linked, intermingled. Chicago is where much of the South went, and continues to go, as it seeks, in the words of Isabel Wilkerson and Richard Wright, “the warmth of other suns.”

I too followed the trail of the Great Migration, if only for a weekend. My wife Eva and I went to visit the brand new American Writers Museum and to visit a few Southern-expat friends who had recently moved to Chicago for good.

The museum itself is a wonder. Its highly interactive exhibits that explore the creative process and engage folks in unexpected ways. They make a good argument for why the first national museum for authors is based in the City of Big Shoulders.

There is a temporary exhibit of the original scroll of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road.” I brought greetings from the South and gave it my best Capote drone: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

John Kessler, late of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s food section, met us out to talk about Chicago restaurants and chefs and the differences between the South and the North.

“They tell a better story in the South,” he said. “There’s plenty to talk about in Midwestern food, but they don’t know how to tell the story. At the same time, the South lays claim to everything. My nephew’s wife makes pimento cheese from her Omaha grandmother’s recipe, but everyone thinks the South invented it.”

This feels like a conversation one has to go north of the Mason-Dixon to have. You can get your dining privileges revoked at the Colonnade in Atlanta if they hear you saying such things.

“I’m still mad about that Garden & Gun issue with the secret to the perfect Tom Collins on the front cover,” I said and laughed. “That’s a New York cocktail if there ever was one, but now the South is laying claim to it. And don’t get me going on fried chicken. ‘Eat’ was the only English word my Chinese grandmother spoke, but she put fried chicken on the table along with dumplings and pickled vegetables. The fact that she’d cleaver through the leg bones doesn’t make it a different recipe. I’m pretty sure she didn’t find the recipe in an Edna Lewis cookbook.”

None of this involves bourbon, of course. For that I head to Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf for dinner and a cocktail with Brett Gadsden and Natasha Trethewey. Gadsden, author of the appropriately titled “Between North and South” and Trethewey, former poet laureate of Georgia, Mississippi, and the United States, talked about their own diaspora moment, leaving Decatur, Georgia, earlier this fall for nearby Evanston and the cool breezes of Lake Michigan.

“It’s already too cold, and it’s only October,” Brett said. “I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the winter.”

Natasha is still angry about Joyce Carol Oates slamming her home state as being full of people who can’t read. We decide that the only retort that’s acceptable to the banning of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the same Nina Simone chorus she’s been resurrecting for years: “Mississippi God Damn!”

That can be read in many ways, and they all apply.

She and Eva order dirty martinis, while Brett and I ask for the waiter to pick the best Old Fashioneds off the long list.

Before “Gentleman’s Club” meant “cheap strip club,” it probably meant something like this place. Dark wood paneling, low light, cocktails in big glasses, salad wedges, creamed spinach, and large, perfectly cooked steaks.  If you needed a set for an Al Capone film, it would do the trick.

The Old Fashioneds are absolute perfection for a cold, blustery, Chicago night. The three dark purple maraschinos lend just the right sweetness.

I’ve had a bunch of Old Fashioneds on this trip, but this is easily the best. The big glasses are quickly emptied down to the block of ice.

“What’s the bourbon?” I ask the waiter when he checks back in.

“It’s the Tokyo Old Fashioned,” he says. “It’s not bourbon. It’s a Japanese whiskey. Hibiki 17.”

I ordered another, and thought that my 30 years in Atlanta hadn’t made me enough of a Southerner to tell that story.