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Everyone has at least one… a food that you didn’t know existed, but you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing and who you were with when you first tasted it. For me, that food is bacon stuffed waffles.
I was twenty-eight years old. I was on a weekend ‘girl time’ trip with a friend. She and I were in high school together, and we had boys the same age. When the opportunity came for us to indulge in a weekend escape to Chicago, we left the children with their fathers and seized the day. Two days, actually, but you get the point.
We boarded the slow train to Chicago, which I’m told is similar to a slow boat to China, and declared our adventure underway. During our journey, we made friends with strangers, sang Broadway show tunes, ate wretched ‘train café food,’ played tag while ‘jumping’ from car to car, and read books.
We didn’t have a plan. No itinerary aside from the train schedule, and a finite budget that only allowed for the most modest of sightseeing excursions. We saw that tower in the central plaza where a plaque claimed it to be the spot where Mrs. O’Leary’s cow had a temper tantrum, and we visited the aquarium where I got to pet a baby beluga whale. We shared a hotel room that overlooked a dark, very not-great alley with dumpsters and plague-infested rats… although from our fifth-floor window, we couldn’t be sure about the rats... but it was probably a sure bet they were down there. It was a perfect portrayal of a stereotypical, downtown, seedy underbelly vista that somehow made the whole trip more authentic. Our room abutted a wall that held the elevator shaft. Shrieking vibrations, odd rumbles, and creepy echoes fell on our ears as the car climbed up and down the building.
Our first night we spent decadently ordering room service and talking until morning. After dinner on our second night, we walked the streets in search of entertainment. It was different back then. Two women, alone, walking the streets of Chicago, oblivious about where we were going wasn’t such a tremendous risk as it is today. That was the year Donny Osmond was headlining in Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat… but we couldn’t afford tickets. That was also the year that I discovered that some bars and pubs in America didn’t close until four in the morning; an absurd notion to us Detroiters, where last call was at two, everything went dark, and if you lingered, the police escorted you home fifteen minutes later. But we didn’t go drinking, we didn’t have the budget for it… and we weren’t sure if either of us could find the hotel again with inebriated brains. So we wandered, making mirth and memories along the way.
We dropped a couple bucks in the case of a few street musicians who played so well, we were convinced they were professionals playing anonymously just for the fun of it… especially that sax guy. Rounding the corner on our trip back to the hotel, we saw a tour bus loaded with drag queens disembark in front of a ritzy restaurant. They were laughing and singing with voices so clear, I was sure they echoed all the way back to Times Square. Did we know for sure that they were from New York City? No, but it seemed plausible. As each stepped onto the pavement with their bright sparkly dresses, faux fur stoles, and stiletto heels, a large-busted nun queen lightly whacked each on the rump with a riding crop. Bellows of laughter erupted with each thwack, keeping time with the song they sang. I can’t remember the song now, but I remember the spectacle. Even for a pair of seasoned theatre geeks, the scene was outrageous and fun. We couldn’t stop laughing all the way back to the hotel. It was an infinitely better show than the price of admission might assume.
The next morning, we stumbled around from lack of sleep, packed, and climbed into the only cab ride we allowed ourselves. We were on a mission to find breakfast before the train returned to Detroit (by way of Ann Arbor and Dearborn… and many other little stops along the way). When the cabbie asked what we were looking for, we told him, “Something unusual.” He dropped us at the Chicago News Room.
This was the coolest place I’d ever seen. It wasn’t a big place, or a flashy place… but it was a place I would always remember. The walls were covered in framed newspaper clippings and other writings, signed by their authors… hard news, society pages, entertainment reviews, political interviews going back decades… this place was covered in words. Most of it was obscure, but there were a few famous writers like Hemingway, among the group.
When the wait person… to this day I have no recollection if it was a man or woman – it could have been ET for all I knew – remember, I was surrounded by words… came to take our order, I absentmindedly requested waffles. I was so distracted I didn’t hear the waiter ask, “What kind?” My friend handled the details for me, and I vaguely remember her giggling as my eyes could not leave the walls.
By the time my waffles arrived, I’d calmed enough to at least pretend I was an adult. My friend and I were now talking like normal people, although I frequently interjected with, “Can you believe this place? This is incredible!” as my eyes darted around the room without regard for whether there was an appropriate break in the conversation. She just giggled at me and told me to eat my breakfast so we wouldn’t miss the train.
Cutting into my waffle and taking that first bite was almost as overwhelming as the room we were sitting in. There was bacon inside my waffle! “How did they do this?” I nearly screamed. I was rewarded with some stares from the nearby tables for my exuberant outburst, but I could not be contained; damn the onlookers… “They. Put. Bacon. In. The. Waffle!” At that point, I didn’t care who heard me, or if they’d called the men in white coats – this was a bona-fied religious experience, and I wasn’t going to ignore it. I gobbled up the waffle with all the table manners of Helen Keller before she met Annie Sullivan.
When we were finished, I gave the waiter a huge tip (I wouldn’t need to eat on the train ride back home after that incredible meal) and asked that they give my compliments to the chef. During our walk to the train station, I lectured my friend about her abject cruelty in keeping such a wonderous thing a secret from me all those years. She was unapologetic, and tremendously amused.
The following weekend, I attempted to make the delicacy for my son but failed miserably. Evidently, there is a secret to mixing the pre-cooked bacon with the waffle batter, and then cooking it for just the right amount of time to achieve the desired crispy result I enjoyed in Chicago. Sadly, I’ve never mastered the technique. I’ve had them a few times since that Chicago trip in restaurants though, and have always been delighted.
Even though I can’t make them for myself… and in a way, I’m a little glad I can’t, because if I could, they wouldn’t be so special… bacon stuffed waffles Make Life Worth Living.
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