Smoke. It’s from whence those first flavor gods of gastronomy came, and where they have since remained. From the first cook fires of our human ancestors 2.3 million years ago (fire being that exothermic evolutionary-cum-culinary primogenitor and prime mover which greatly reduced the time/energy quotient for chewing and digestion, and which then allowed—through that seismic act of cooking food—our earliest bipedal and newly big-brained cousins to walk, upright, into the happy spotlight of anthropological modernity) smoke has endured as the primary flavoring agent in world cuisine. “This art of mine is an empire of smoke,” says Demetrius in The Areopagite. And while our own contemporary cuisine has recently emphasized more “molecular” methods of preparation like, say, the thermal immersion circulators of sous vide cooking, nothing, and I mean nothing, boy-o, sets an omnivore’s mouth to watering like the olfactory bouquet of smoked animal protein borne up on a sunny, summer wind.
The ancient art of smoking animal flesh to preserve it and render it magically delicious lies at that culinary confluence and crossroads where science and sorcery always seem to meet. Find fuel (ideally low-resin hardwoods, in our case, like hickory, like oak), drop a match on it, then kick back in your lawn chair—cold can of PBR in hand—and watch the magic happen to your favorite hanging meat. Because what happens is this: the antimicrobial agents in wood smoke (phenol, formaldehyde, acetic acid) launch a withering series of Bruce Lee roundhouses at the thorax of the rancidification forces found in protein (with a priori concomitance and all-around bro-hugging with salt-curing or drying, yo) while the cellulose and hemicellulose in the smoke (they being aggregate sugar molecules in the hardwood) caramelize the meat and impart the sweet and fruity signature aromas (and flavors) of wood smoke. Whew. But only the white-belted hipster disciples of Harold McGee would care about such food nerdism, yes? What we care about—you and I—is that the smoking of animal proteins invariably produces foods of such elemental savor, that some of us—deep in the reptilian swamps of our ancestral brains—will gladly stab our fellow dining companions with a fork should our shared meal experience ever devolve into a contest as to who gets that last smoked filet.
In traveling over 7,500 miles by car across the United States this last summer, I came across dozens of renegade culinarians and roadside restaurateurs who have gone apostate in forsaking most of the cooking methods of culinary modernity to instead make glorious and sublime—with nothing more than the simple caress of wood smoke and time—the most quotidian of animal proteins. A few of these purveyors come to mind: the whole-hog goodness of Parker's in Wilson, North Carolina; the unctuous low-and-slow mutton of Old Hickory in Owensboro, Kentucky; the Kansas City-style beef at The Piggy in the one-stoplight town of Walker, Minnesota, just an hour-and-change south of the Canadian border, where the burnt ends were so good I wanted to Keith Moon the joint, trash it, lest the secret of their supremacy ever make it to their maple-leafed neighbors but a stone’s throw to the north.
But among the temples of gastronomy I visited this summer—and wherein the ancient gods of flavor yet live in perfect equipoise inside a tango-white veil of pan drippings and wood smoke—just one of these houses of the holy stood above its culinary brethren in eminence and the primacy of its proteins.
Calumet Fisheries of Chicago, Illinois.
That’s right, friend-o: we’re talking fish.
To say Calumet Fisheries is in the city limits of Chicago might be technically bang on, sure, but that simple declarative misses the fact—and badly—that Calumet Fisheries is situated at the extreme south end of the city, next to a drawbridge, above the miasmic Calumet River, in an insistently infecund stretch of industrial wasteland more evocative of the god-doesn’t-live-here-anymore wilds of Gary, Indiana, than the yankee-hotel-foxtrot triumphs of Chicago’s magnificent megalopolis, at city center, twenty (or so) miles to the far more prosperous north.
But step into Calumet Fisheries and you’ll know on a bio-molecular level palpable in your own teeth and skin that you, my friend, have entered the sactum sanctorum of American smoked fish houses. The holiest of holies. A Delphi of good eating. And the place you need to experience this kind of cuisine. Because there’s a fucking James Beard award on the wall, for one thing (the 2010 recipient’s medal in the Beard’s America’s Classic category, to be precise) and the immediate redolence of wood smoke and fish oil so thick that one can taste it through the simple act of breathing.
Founded in 1948 by brothers-in-law Sid Kotlick and Len Toll (and it’s still family owned), Calumet Fisheries offers the kind of straight-no-chaser methodology in the purveyance of pure protein for which south-siders and intrepid Chicagoans at large have long and quietly clamored. Step in and step up: there’s only a counter and a person or three to take your order. No tables. No chairs. And certainly no doting waiter to treat you like that rare and decidedly special snowflake-of-a-patron you undoubtedly are. Not here. No way. Eating at Calumet Fisheries is eating at its stripped-down, proletarian best. Get in, get out, and get busy with the business of filling your belly with almost impossibly good food from both river and sea.
I first visited Calumet Fisheries on a sunny day last June. I went with friends: Chef Shin Matsuda, that fast-rising star of Chicago gastronomy, and he of Ani fame. With us, too, came our constant companions, Gabrielle and my beloved X, to play, as per their usual, a two-person Tenzing Norgay tag team to our collective Edmund Hillary routine, with us, as they often are, up this and each of our sometimes-incautious culinary climbs. We parked on the street in front of Calumet Fisheries, we four, and went inside.
To say Calumet Fisheries is a kind of Wellsian time machine borne to us from the culinary past is an understatement in the extreme: the single-room interior is a Truman-era study in Sullivan-esque form-follows-function aesthetics, whose post-war, no-snark-zone austerity is merrily offset by a veritable bounty of workaday smoked fish. Sable. Eel. Sturgeon. Trout. Everything the modern-cum-primitive pescetarian could possibly hope for, and everything every erstwhile pack-a-day habitué of no-filter Camels could ever dream, such is the amount of smoke on Calumet’s fish. Take-away lunches are in the offing as well: smelts, clam strips, and calamari are fried-to-order and served up in Styrofoam clamshells with a complimentary (if implicit) side of don’t-overthink-this-because-we’re-all-just-polishing-the-brass-on-the-Titantic polemic on consuming the fried culinary arts.
We ordered food—smoked and fried—and went outside into the sunshine to eat, cross-legged, in a campfire circle around manhole cover, atop a poured-concrete slab, in the middle of a field overgrown with jimson weed. Chef Matsuda and Gabrielle ate fried whitefish with fries, while X set upon her fried shrimp. I went with the fried frog legs and cole slaw because, well, because I’m utterly defenseless to the charms of cuisses de grenouilles anytime I see them on a menu, even one molly-bolted to the wall of a restaurant that sits next to an industrial canal.
I think we can all agree that the soundtrack to any great meal is that of the stunned silence of eaters contemplating the culinary sublimity in their mouths. And that’s how the four of us ate: happily, wordlessly, while blinking away the happy June sun. There was unanimity in our loquacity: the food was delicious—all of it—especially the smoked stuff, the salmon, the trout, elevated to greatness, as it was, by those great giving gods of gastronomy, and through the gentle anointment wood smoke and time.
That Calumet Fisheries still exists—defiant of all laws governing restaurant longevity—is reason enough to make the pilgrimage, I tell you. But that it yet remains as a high-temple of the ancient praxis of smoking fish should cause you to drop to your knees and genuflect before its glass-encased shrine of smoked fish like the culinary acolyte you know you are.
Your link: Calumet Fisheries