Over thirty years of being downtown have come up to a lot of St. Patrick’s days, for which we have to find, cook and serve corned beef. With a name like the Irish Rose, you don’t want to have middling corned beef. Besides, the essence of good corned beef and cabbage is not the corned beef itself as any aficionado will tell you; it is the cabbage, carrots and potatoes cooked in the corned beef water.
For the last half dozen years I have counted on Ex-Cel in Chicago to fill my corned beef needs. Imagine my surprise, and dismay, when I go there this year to discover that my old corned beef supplier has sold out to a competitor. I had seen the for-sale signs but I was under impression that that was just the building and that Excel itself would just move somewhere else, something that is not all that unusual right now in the Fulton market area.
The market is in transition. Many of my cherished suppliers are being forced to move by the expansion of loft living into what used to be only market. I have been critical of this believing that they have a better idea in Europe where they force the living spaces to become part of the market, realizing that the market was there first. Not in Chicago where there seems to be a concerted effort to drive the market out of its own space.
Amity, my pork supplier, has been forced to move, (I shouldn’t say forced because someone paid them an enormous sum for their old building) but it wasn’t a natural market force it was a plan conceived and aided and abetted by the City of Chicago. This goes for the old Fulton Market freezer plant too. My gripe with all of this is that they are destroying the character of the market in the process.
Travel down Fulton from Halstead on any weekday and you are enveloped in the activity that is the market. Trucks are everywhere, trucks are backing in, trucks are parked with their flashers on: People are working in the street to load fish, chicken, pork, red meat, dairy and eggs and exotic foods from all over the world. This is where most of the deliveries originate for the Chicago restaurant community.
I buy a couple of briskets from the new guy, Ted Lagios. He tells me that he used to be a competitor of Ex-Cel, but that he bought them out. He wants to convert part of the space to a sandwich shop, much the same as Jimmy Graziano did over on Halstead Street to Graziano’s, who also used to be one of my suppliers. Unfortunately after Jimmy got really successful with sandwiches he chose to leave the supply business and I now have to go elsewhere for my anchovies and Sicilian Olives. Ted is going to call his place the “Corned Beef Factory” and sell his own products as sandwiches.
But now I am scared as hell that I will not have the same corned beef, the corned beef that my customers are used to and deserve. I bring the new corned beef briskets back to Rockford and instruct Jose to cook it, cut it and make it up into orders. This is the only way to find out what an individual order will cost.
Corned beef is thought of as a cheap meat. Part of this is where it comes from on the animal, the brisket. The problem is that when you buy corned beef, you also buy the cure. The solution that cures the meat adds weight to the meat which you pay for along with the product itself. When you cook it this curing liquid comes out in to the cooking water. By the time you cook and remove all the fat you are doubling the price per pound (not even considering the labor).
Jose has become quite the corned beef expert over these many years. I am in the kitchen as he and Maria cut the briskets neatly in half and drop them one each into twenty quart pots. The following day Jose presents me with one piece of cooked meat. It is remarkably lean and that worries me. It seems to have lost most of its salt content. I begin to worry. I call down to Jose and tell him that I am worried about the corned beef being too lean. He brings me up several pieces that are nicely marbled.
To add to all of this I am sick for the first time this winter. I am hiding out in my apartment above the Rose whenever I am absolutely not needed at work. I continue to do my work but mostly through my people. I am calling downstairs at all times of the day.
I decide that I am going to have to go on a corned beef hunt with only a few days before St. Patrick’s Day. I am literally worried to death. But then I have a notion. I call down to Edwin, Jose’s son and have him ask his dad to make the whole dinner for me. I tell him that I realize it will be an hour or more because he has to cook the vegetables but I want to see how the whole meal works together.
Later that evening, Edwin arrives with the complete dinner. I bite into the corned beef as he stands there waiting. I say, this is fucking delicious, tell your dad I said this is great. Edwin says he is going to tell his dad that I said it was “fucking” delicious. I no longer have to worry about going on a corned beef expedition.
Now I have to concentrate on the Irish bacon we are curing in house. Corned beef is an American Irish dish. It resulted from the Irish living next to the Jews in the New York ghetto. The real Irish dish is bacon and cabbage, but bacon that is not unlike Canadian bacon in that it is made out of the loin of the pig. It’s called boiling bacon. We are curing thirty pounds of it for St. Patrick’s Day. This is truly living high off the hog.