China and Greece Underpin Belgian Finance Minister’s new book, A Giant Reborn

The ongoing Greece-centered eurocrisis and the spectacular fall of share values on the Chinese stock markets are the two dominating issues in worldwide economic affairs during the summer of 2015. Both developments provide evidence in support of the main thesis of my new book A Giant Reborn: Why the US Will Dominate the 21st Century (Agate Publishing).

If you think we’ve seen major changes in our broader economic environment during the last three decades, prepare yourself for more of it—much more of it. I see signs all around us that the era of what I call “turbochange” is already upon us. Simply put, turbochange is the intense, rapid, large-scale change that will inevitably characterize the 21st century and shake up our society at large. There are three main drivers behind turbochange: knowledge and human capital, entrepreneurial drive, and globalization.

More and more, knowledge and human capital show signs of what economists call “increasing returns to scale,” which means the more you have of these two items, the faster ideas develop. Worldwide, there is an increasing number of people engaged in research. Modern modes of communication allow these thinkers to connect quickly, which increases productivity and invites entrepreneurial drive.

Entrepreneurial drive is necessary to turn knowledge into products and services that add to people’s welfare and wellbeing. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, entrepreneurial activity was absent in large parts of the world, especially the Communist-dominated parts. Today, most of the world is engaged in entrepreneurial activities.

The cross-fertilization between fast-growing knowledge and human capital and feverish, worldwide entrepreneurial competition is bolstered by globalization. Most societies will have a hard time dealing with all this turbochange.  The societies that are able to adapt to this change will be in the best position to succeed economically. In this respect, the United States clearly has the upper hand over its main rivals, China and the European Union.

As many others noted already before me, the United States eats, breathes, and loves change. It’s deeply entrenched in the American DNA as a consequence of historical, institutional, and sociological characteristics. Dealing with (turbo)change is often messy, and the consequences are often unpleasant for many citizens, but Americans do not hesitate to look change straight in the eye and go for it.

This attitude contrasts sharply with the way China and Europe deals with change. The spectacular fall in the Chinese stock market is just one more sign of China’s relative inability to deal with change. Over the past several years, Chinese authorities have continuously applied increasing doses of monetary and budgetary stimulus to the economy.

By now, the economy is a huge bubble. The ruling Communist Party in China took the extravagant stimulus road because its leaders are frightened of the perception of substantially slowing economic growth, a prospect that has now become inevitable. The recent devaluation of the Chinese currency is another desperate attempt by the Chinese authorities to stimulate economic growth.

China’s leaders do not want to be confronted with the political and social consequences of slowing growth. This adds to China’s already existing problems with pollution, corruption, and inequality, among others. A worldwide turbochange-environment will deeply impact China’s already substantial internal problems. China lacks the historical, institutional, and sociological setting to deal constructively with turbochange.

Likewise, the member states of the European Union are deeply entrenched in their existing social and economic models. Change has proven to be a thorny issue; turbochange will prove to be worse. The ongoing Greek crisis greatly underpins this argument. The third rescue package for the Greek economy may be the only way out of the deep hole the country is in, but it will be very hard to implement.

The only way to deal conclusively with the Greek drama is to fundamentally strengthen the Eurozone’s institutional framework. One way or another, this means a loss of national sovereignty for the nineteen member states of Europe’s monetary union. This exercise continually proves to be a hard nut to crack, to put things mildly.

Not everything in the US runs perfectly, far from it. Issues such as political gridlock, crumbling infrastructure, overall debt, and inequality cast a long shadow over the country’s future. Nevertheless the proven ability of American society at large to deal positively and constructively with change will strengthen America’s relative position as the era of turbochange comes upon us.


Since October 2014, Johan Van Overtveldt has served as Belgium’s Minister of Finance

The Blue Zones diet expert endorses Sardinian food in New York Times

The New York Times last weekend featured a big interview with Dan Buettner, author of the new book The Blue Zones Solution. Buettner has studied longevity around the world and identified five "blue zones" where people appear to live exceptionally long, healthy lives. One of these blue zones is Sardinia--and one of the very few (and, we think, easily one of the best) Sardinian cookbooks available is Agate Surrey's The Sardinian Cookbook, by cooking instructor and sommelier Viktorija Todorovska, who knows a thing or two about the good life. Viktorija's book also delves into Sardinian culture, history, and lifestyle. If you're interested in what comprises good and healthful living in the Sardinian blue zone, this is an excellent resource.


Agate at Printers Row 2015

It may be a shroggy Friday, but the weekend promises to have plenty of sunshine and warm temperatures for this year’s Printers Row Lit Fest. Agate will be returning in full force to the Chicago Tribune’s annual book festival (the largest in the Midwest), and we will be joined by plenty of terrific authors.

Come visit Agate staff in Tent CC, located on Dearborn St. just north of the intersection at Polk, for deeply discounted prices on new books and backlisted titles. If you’re interested in meeting any of our authors, check out the schedule of demos and talks below. Most Agate authors below will be signing copies of their books at the Agate tent a half hour following the conclusion of their program.




Sat., 10-10:45am, Jones College Prep/North Auditorium

Clarence Page, whose book CULTURE WORRIER celebrates his 30 years as a Chicago Tribune columnist, will be appearing on a panel discussion with David Axelrod (Believer) and Kristen McQueary as moderated by Chicago Tribune Editorial Board member Bruce Dold. Tickets Required. More info here.



Sat., 10-10:45am, Center Stage

Join Chicago Tribune columnists Mary Schmich and Eric Zorn for coffee provided by Peet's Coffee. More info here.



Sat., 10:30-11:00am, Good Eating Stage

Summer Miller will be demonstrating recipes from her book, New Prairie Kitchen, which profiles chefs, farmers, and artisans from the Great Plains states of Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. Miller’s writing has appeared in Saveur, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Edible Omaha, Edible Feast, Nebraska Life, Omaha Magazine, and the Reader. She blogs at More info here.



Sat., 11:15am-12:00pm, Jones College Prep/Classroom #5030

Jabari Asim will be a part of a panel discussion titled “Fiction: City Lit” with Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski, author of Painted Cities and LaShonda Katrice Barnett, author of Jam on the Vine. The discussion will be moderated by Karen Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards for the Cleveland Foundation. Tickets Required. More info here.



Sat., 2:00-2:45pm, Jones College Prep/North Auditorium

Kenneth C. Davis, author of The Hidden History of America at War, will be appearing in conversation with Mark Jacob, author of 10 Things You Might Not Know About Nearly Everything. Tickets Required. More info here.



Sat., 2:30-3:15pm, Good Eating Stage

JeanMarie Brownson is the former Test Kitchen Director for the Chicago Tribune. JeanMarie is a co-owner of Frontera Foods, Inc., along with Chef Rick Bayless. She will be demonstrating recipes from the new Chicago Tribune cookbook Summer Cooking, as well as her own cookbook, Dinner at Home, which will be published in November 2015. More info here.  


Ian Belknap and Lindsey Muscato, BARE-KNUCKLED LIT

Sat., 3-3:45pm, RedEye Stage

WRITE CLUB is the world's greatest competitive reading series, featuring only the most audacious and fearsome of writers and performers. The show consists of 3 bouts of 2 writers each representing one of two opposing ideas (assigned in advance). They are given 7 minutes each to convince the audience of the superiority of their idea. Overlord and Founder Ian Belknap and co-producer Lindsay Muscato will host the show; local writers will compete. More info here.


Erin Harper and Marianne Mather Morgan, GANGSTESR & GRIFTERS

Sat., 4:15-5:00pm, Jones College Prep/Classroom #5034

Two of the Chicago Tribune photo editors who helped put together this fascinating collection of classic crime photography from the newspaper’s archives will be appearing to discuss the process of making the book and the cases it portrays. Tickets Required. More info here.




Sun., 11-11:30am, Good Eating Stage

Anupy Singla, the bestselling cookbook author and America’s foremost source on authentic Indian home cooking, will be demonstrating recipes from her newest book. Singla is the founder and CEO of Indian as Apple Pie, her company that creates and sells custom spice blends and unique homegoods. Singla was formerly an on-air TV reporter for CLTV News and Bloomberg TV. More info here.


Mike Zajakowski and Chris Walker, CHICAGO PORTRAITS

Sun., 1:30-2:15pm, Jones College Prep/Classroom #5034

Two of the Chicago Tribune photo editors who worked on the stunningly beautiful coffee-table book, Chicago Portraits, will discuss how it came together. The book portrays beautiful photographic portraits of famous Chicagoans, well-known visitors to the city, and everyday locals, as shot by award-winning photojournalists. Tickets Required. More info here.

Q. & A. with Summer Miller

Summer Miller is the author of our latest Agate Midway release, New Prairie Kitchen: Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Cooks, Farmers, and Artisans of the Great Plains. Get to know Summer and her lovely new book (photos by Dana Damewood) with this brief interview:

Why did you write New Prairie Kitchen?

I’ve said that this book is a love story, and it is. I wanted to validate living here not only to other people, but also to myself. I didn’t always, but I’ve learned to value Nebraska and its neighboring states as remarkable places. There is a softness and gentle rhythm about life here, and I find that soothing. I think the same is true of our food. It is wholesome, experimental, even artistic at times, but always deeply satisfying and without pretense. I’m also fairly utilitarian in my approach to things, even writing. The book couldn’t just be about beauty, it had to have a function beyond pleasure. In my work as a food writer, I noticed chefs had access to great local artisan foods and regional specialties, but it was incredibly time consuming for an individual to vet the sources and hunt down products. I wanted to make it easier for home cooks to find regional foods and use them in their own homes to feed their friends and families. I also hope it inspires others to seek out the gems in their own backyards, and to support the risk-takers among us. I admire the spirit of the people who start a business from a dream. 

In the book you explain that you set out to learn more about what was available within a 200-mile radius of your hometown, Omaha. What was your most unexpected discovery?

Honestly, it was the generosity of the people I encountered along the way. I met most of the farmers and chefs who are featured in the book for the first time through this project. We were strangers who became great friends. Their willingness to share their stories—sometimes very intimate stories about struggle and hardship—or to stop an interview midway through and let me pick it up with them six hours later, because my newborn woke up from her nap, was inspiring. Their patience turned out to be vital because it took me four years to finish this book. I expected to write the stories of people. I didn’t expect to fall in love with them, their homes, or their families, and in many cases that’s exactly what happened. As far as the food aspect is concerned, I was shocked at the sheer volume of amazing artisanal products all within a day trip from my home. Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota have vast stretches of farmland between towns and cities, which can make the distance between one place and another seem longer than it really is. I had a goat cheese and fig turnover in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that was worth every minute of the 2 hour and 41 minute drive it took to get there, and I still daydream about some of the cheese I’ve eaten in Iowa. 

What is the most common misconception about Great Plains regional cooking that you’ve heard and why is it wrong?

Steak houses. Steak houses. Steak houses. Meat and potatoes. Meat and potatoes. Meat and potatoes. In Omaha, specifically the cattle industry, the packing plants, and yes, even the steak houses are an integral part of our history, and to some extent our present, but we are more than beef eaters. That steak-and-potatoes perception overshadows the great work happening in these states on daily basis. I think it’s in the nature of the chefs who have these ground-breaking places, and the artisans like George Johnson and his daughter, Emily, who produce world-class artisanal vinegars from an isolated town of 160 people, to not expect recognition, so they are driven by an unyielding love of their craft. The result is a region filled with treasure troves. 

What role does food play in your life? In your family’s life?

Food has always been a way for me to express both emotion and creativity. A long day in the office means a quiet night in the kitchen. When I can’t fix things, when the world will be what it will be, I can always cook. I can create something that, at the very least, meets the basic need of nourishment for those I hold dear. There is a rhythm to cooking that’s calming to me. Once I had a family to feed, the calming rhythm turned into orchestrated chaos, but such chaos has its own merit. Putting dinner on the table with a baby in a high chair and a toddler at your feet is an epic challenge. I probably lost as many battles as I won during those early years, but I kept at it and I’m glad I did. Now, preparing a meal has become a time where my children share their lives with me. I can ask my son a thousand times what he did at school that day, and I usually get, “I don’t know.” But while I’m chopping onions he is stirring sauce, suddenly the bits and pieces of his day come spilling out without any prompting from me. 

What advice do you have for beginners who just made the commitment to eat locally and seasonally?

Eating locally and seasonally, and cooking from scratch, is an evolutionary process. Give yourself permission to fail and time to learn about cooking and your food community. Start with familiar food items and branch out from there. I’m not really “a dump out your cupboards and start new” kind of person, I’m more likely to take small steps toward change. I think it’s critical when undertaking any kind of lifestyle shift to be aware of what you can manage. If you have a house full of young children, a job, and a spouse who travels, making a sweeping commitment to learn how to cook everything from scratch, local, and in season inside of a month is probably not going to lead to success, Try starting with a focus on breakfast. Switching from high-sugar cereals to making eggs on one morning and oats on another can be mastered without much fanfare. The time commitment is still minimal and both changes are affordable. Oats can be made into granola, as it is in New Prairie Kitchen, or prepared the night before as refrigerator oats, or in the morning as a hot breakfast. Once you’ve stopped reaching for the cereal box, and cooking in the morning is second nature, move onto learning three ways to prepare a new vegetable. Oh, and to stop wasting money on boneless, skinless chicken breasts. A whole chicken is a better deal every time, and you get so much more from the bird. 

Playing With Fire featured in new film

At the Chicago Reader, Michael Miner explains how the celebrated new documentary Merchants of Doubt highlights the Chicago Tribune's Pulitzer-nominated series "Playing with Fire"--collected in an Agate Digital ebook of the same name.

Callahan, Roe, and their colleague Michael Hawthorne (who's not in the movie) published "Playing With Fire," a 2012 series of articles exposing the flame-retardant industry. These articles made them finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and the short citation on the Pulitzer website inadequately describes what they accomplished: " . . . for their exposure of manufacturers that imperil public health by continuing to use toxic fire retardants in household furniture and crib mattresses, triggering reform efforts at the state and national level."

Merchants of Doubt makes several points: the Tribune reporters worked two years on their investigation; the so-called leading scientist in the field was a lying stooge for the retardant manufacturers; the supposed citizens lobby championing retardants in home furnishings and children's clothing was a front group for the manufacturers; besides being unhealthy, the retardants didn't work; and Big Tobacco benefited by directing blame away from the cigarettes that started fires at home to the environments that supposedly allowed those fires to spread.

Wading Home: from novel to opera, a story of rebirth

From Rosalyn Story, the author of Wading Home

Nearly five years ago, Agate published my novel Wading Home: A Novel of New Orleans, set in the Crescent City just after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood that almost destroyed it. I’m not from New Orleans nor do I have any connection with it, other than having visited many times over the years and finding it to be one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever seen. While working on a theme for a novel to follow my first, More Than You Know, I had no trouble seeing a narrative woven around the events of the last days of August 2005; you had only to watch the news every day to understand the real-life, heart-breaking drama that was unfolding.

Now, nearly ten years after the storm, the story goes on. The city is rebuilding. The schools are better, the restaurants are full. Some neighborhoods are thriving. But others still struggle to reclaim their former glory, to reconstitute the rich culture of family history and tradition that is generations old.         

While the story of post-Katrina New Orleans seemed perfect fodder for a novel, a theater piece with classically trained singers, an orchestra and a children’s chorus, performed on an opera stage before an audience, was the furthest thing from my mind. But on April 2, 2015 some 35 vocalists and instrumentalists will perform a ‘staged workshop’ production of Wading Home, an opera in two acts based on my novel, in the downtown arts district of Dallas, where I live. The Dallas-based composer Mary Alice Rich, a good friend for many years, had approached me with this idea about two years ago. She convinced me that Wading Home had all the requisite drama, intrigue, and musical possibilities of an opera, with all the attendant elements: heroes, adversaries, obstacles, and a life-changing journey fraught with moments of tragedy and triumph.    

When the work was completed within the following year, I applied for a grant from the Sphinx Organization in Detroit, a group that supports and promotes diversity in the arts, to mount a production. As a violinist with the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, which accompanies many talented competitors in Sphinx’s annual competition for black and Hispanic string instrumentalists, I was eligible to compete for the $250,000 in grant awards available only to Sphinx affiliates. I was awarded a $40,000 grant, and Wading Home the opera went from notes on a printed score to a production in progress.

Like a film, an opera is a massive endeavor, requiring teams of talented artists and technicians onstage and offstage. We partnered with another nonprofit organization, The Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas, a 38-year-old presenter of theatrical, visualm and performing arts. We assembled a cast of wonderfully gifted classical singers headed by Donnie Ray Albert, the internationally known baritone, another friend of mine for many years. Other brilliantly talented friends came aboard the project: Barbara Hill Moore, the great soprano and distinguished vocal pedagogue at Southern Methodist University, became our musical director, and my friend and colleague from the Fort Worth Symphony, pianist Shields-Collins (Buddy) Bray, is our coach-accompanist. And there are many, many others.

Often, in our planning meetings, I thought of those old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movies with the formulaic plot: a couple of neighborhood kids with big dreams decide to put on “the greatest show this town has ever seen!” They borrow an uncle’s barn for rehearsals and, after a two-second film dissolve, a slick, million-dollar production unfurls onto the screen. Such are the movies, and we realized very quickly that putting on an opera in real life is not that simple. As composer, co-librettists, and producers, Mary Alice and I found ourselves in unchartered territory, mounting an opera from scratch with no experience, and many times we wondered if we had gotten in over our heads. But as time passed and rehearsals pressed on through Dallas’s winter ice storms (which shut down the whole city twice), singers’ illnesses and emergencies, unplanned expenses, and cost overruns (our $40,000 did not go as far as we thought it would) we managed to navigate our way through the whole production process, and a bona fide opera was taking shape.

As the rehearsals progressed, we saw something extraordinary take place. Our group of singers became a family of artists with a common interest and devotion to the undertaking. We were, we realized, making history. To our knowledge, never in recent history had an opera with a cast of mostly African-American artists and employing African-American cultural themes been conceived, created, and performed in Dallas, Texas. Some cast members, having been born in Louisiana themselves or having a personal connection to New Orleans or Hurricane Katrina, found a measure of pride in the story of the Fortier family’s heroic struggle. Thanks to Agate’s generosity in supplying each cast member with a copy of Wading Home, singers were able to establish deeper bonds with their characters. Little by little, what existed first just as words on a printed page was lifted up and given musical life through the glorious voices of some of the most talented singers I have heard.

We look forward to our performance on April 2 as just the beginning, and hope that Wading Home: an Opera of New Orleans will live far beyond this first performance, and finds future audiences in New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston, and every other city where Hurricane Katrina’s 250,000 evacuees now make their homes.

But mostly we hope that as the tenth anniversary of the storm approaches, our production will shed light on the truth of the aftermath of the devastation: that even though there is the undeniable progress in this city revived from near-destruction, the struggle continues for those in the areas hardest hit, the low-lying, workaday neighborhoods filled with people who have contributed so much to New Orleans’ incredibly rich culture.

That’s why we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use our production to give something of value that would last beyond the final curtain: during our free concert, we will call for donations, 100 percent of which will go to the Dallas-based Bruce Foote Foundation, which provides college scholarships for talented young singers, and to The Roots of Music in New Orleans, an after-school program providing academic tutoring and music instruction to middle school children.

It’s been a long journey from printed page to opera stage. But in the end, the goal of our opera production is not only to commemorate a time in our country’s history when a great city, faced with the possibility of extinction, was brought back from the brink. It is also our goal to celebrate, through music, New Orleans’ gift to the world, and the fortitude and endurance of this great American culture.

Agate's passion for pizza

As part of what's now a modest series of reflections by Agate staff on the topics of new Agate cookbook releases, we offer some personal thoughts from Agate staff members on pizza, to recognize and celebrate this week's release of our Passion for Pizza: A Journey Through Thick and Thin to Find the Pizza Elite. Herewith:

--"I make my own, usually, with my own pasta sauce as the base, dough made from a blend of mostly atta but also bread flour, and with buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, and either pulled pork (if we have any left over from a previous meal) or prosciutto as the toppings. The only brand of frozen pizza I buy is Paul Newman. The extra thin multigrain crust is excellent; our favorite is the margherita. If we eat pizza out, it's always Giordano's stuffed with spinach. It's not really pizza, per se, but it's the best."

--"Oh, you know I'm a pizza curmudgeon. I could spout off about this topic in my sleep. Even after 10 years of Midwest living, I flinch whenever "deep dish" and "pizza" are used together. Deep dish is not pizza. It is casserole. And don't even get me started on how they cut thin-crust pizza here into squares. [I like a] thin, floury crust that's crispy outside and soft inside—the idea is that it should provide a solid base yet be receptive to being folded in half, lengthwise. Tangy sauce, but not too much of it. Enough mozzarella to cover it but not so much that it's a gooey mess. Cut into slices. Heaven. All-time faves are Joe's in NYC and Salvatore's in Allentown, PA."

--"Deep dish all around. My fav? Lou Malnati’s—butter crust, sausage pieces (NO wheel please), and pepperoni. On the other hand, one pizza lover in this house favors Gino’s East, wheel/patty of sausage and extra sauce, while the other prefers a classic Giordano’s deep with cheese only. We have been known to bring back one of each from Chicago on many occasions. Thank god for the half-baked option."

--"My favorite pizza includes margherita toppings on sourdough thin crust, cooked in a brick oven. I prefer pizza that doesn't use any canned tomatoes and includes only the freshest basil—tons of it! After living in Europe, and in Chicago where deep-dish reigns supreme, I've come to find the simplest pizzas with the freshest ingredients are the best. My favorite pizza restaurant has to be, hands down, Biga Pizza in Missoula, MT. The pizzas are seasonal and the specials change regularly. Each pizza is made fresh to order and once they run out, they're out! The place is small and always has a line."

--"For years, probably into my early thirties, I would have told you that the best meal I ever ate was a large slice of pepperoni pizza washed down with a Dr. Pepper, which was presented to me one summer evening when I was ten years old and which I consumed outdoors. The town I grew up in on the East Coast didn’t have terrific pizza, but I certainly consumed lots of it, especially after late nights out with my friends. After moving to Chicago, I embraced deep-dish and stuffed pizza—I believe there’s good pizza and the other kind, to paraphrase Duke Ellington’s judgment regarding music. There’s great thin-crust, deep-dish, neo-Neopolitan, cracker-crust pizza all over, but unfortunately there’s also plenty of terrible renditions of same. I believe that it’s important to understand pizza as bread with stuff on top of it. Whatever kind of crust you’re using, if it’s not good, it’s hard for the pizza to overcome that. Favorites: Lou Malnati's for deep dish, John's on Bleecker for the traditional."

--"To me, a pizza can be thin crust or thick (or deep dish, which I also love), but it's not pizza without mushrooms. There is just something about the flavor and texture of high-heat-roasted mushrooms that makes pizza, well, pizza to me. My favorite deep dish is Gino's East, but that's probably simply because that was my first, real Chicago deep-dish pizza. I still love deep dish, and my favorite is mushroom, spinach, tomato and garlic from Lou Malnati's. After going vegetarian in the late '90s, and for a while, dairy-free, I've also branched out into more non-traditional pizza. One of my favorites is the super-thin crust pizza at Bluestone in Evanston, with pesto, goat cheese, mushrooms (of course), garlic, and basil. I once asked how they got their crusts so thin and crispy, and it turns out they use flour tortillas instead of pizza dough! It changed how I make pizza at home forever. If I want thin crust, I've found the best way to cook it at home is to use flour tortillas, brushed with some olive oil, tossed on the grill until they are firm and crispy. Then top with whatever you want and grill again to warm the toppings through. It's amazing (and SO easy)." 

--"I make my own pizza on a fairly regular basis using a variety of ingredients: San Marzano tomatoes, sweet Italian turkey sausage, fresh baby bella mushrooms, provolone, and mozzarella cooked in the oven is the standby for me. I go for a white pizza with a mushroom bechamel sauce, fresh mushrooms from the farmer's market, white truffle oil, and parmesan cheese cooked on my grill when I am feeling ambitious or when it is a nice day. The grill imparts an amazing smoky flavor to the bechamel sauce and a nice crispy crust. I tend to seek out authentic Neapolitan pizza or Chicago-style deep dish when I go out, but nothing beats the pizza of my childhood. Someguy's Pizza in Indianapolis, IN has my favorite pizza of all time. It is cooked in a wood-fired oven and uses the best mix of cheeses that I have ever tasted on a pizza. I always go for my standard (some would call it boring) childhood pizza consisting only of the fresh wood-oven cooked sausage and cheese. It immediately sends me back to my childhood every time I visit and take a bite. I tend to eat my pizza in a fairly non-traditional way. I typically cut the crust off of the pizza first and eat it before I start on the main portion of the pizza slice. I think this goes back to my childhood mantra of 'always saving the best for last.'" 

--"Pizza is best when it's circular, simple, and spinached. Its procurement should spring from spontaneous circumstances dictating the need for unassuming and filling sustenance—pizza should never be a planned meal. Its consumption should be effected—always—with the cutlery that distinguishes gentleperson from oaf."

--"This may be shocking, but as a child I didn't like pizza. I thought it was greasy and rubbery, and pepperoni weirded me out. That and pizza's association with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who scared me at the time, combined to create an impression of it being a non-food. Then my family got into grilling pizza outdoors during the summer on the barbecue. My dad was into buying fresh dough (pulled into random shapes—not circular) and using fresh garlic and tomato slices instead of canned sauce. It was SO GOOD--super smokey and melty. And thus, I became a pizza snob."

--"I have many fond childhood memories of celebrating my birthday at Chuck E. Cheese's, hopped up on pizza and video games. My tastes became more refined with age, and as a family we began ordering from purveyors by the names of Edwardo and Malnati. Of all my favorite pizzas, however, I think the one with which I have the most deep-seated personal connection is of the frozen variety. There are few things that remind me more of home, or of late nights spent hanging out with my brother, than popping a Home Run Inn "froze peez" into the oven. My brother and I have been accused by friends of having an unhealthy loyalty to this Chicago brand, an accusation that reliably spurs heated knee-jerk defenses from both of us. Several years ago, my mother thought she would be creating a warm family memory by taking her sons to the original Home Run Inn pizzeria on 31st Street before a White Sox game. Though the pizza was satisfactory, the consensus was that it did not compare to the kind in the grocery aisle that came in the box. Maybe with its ubiquity and variety across the country, pizza has as much to do with sense memory as it does taste. It's a food as much about where you are and who you're with as it is about shape, style, and toppings." 

--"Who am I to say what is and is not good pizza? Who died and left me in charge? No one. How I feel is this: All pizza = good pizza and any pizza > no pizza. Would you rather eat a piece of pizza out of the garbage, or nothing? The pizza one. To burn the roof of my mouth on a piping hot piece of pizza is to live. So seize the day, I say. Embrace the pizza—all pizza. I can't change the direction of the wind, but can I adjust my sails to reach my destination? You bet. And my destination? It's that piece of pizza over there. It's on the floor, sure, but it looks good, and will I eat it? I will."

National Pizza Day

In celebration of National Pizza Day, we offer this Q&A with Craig Whitson, a co-author of our forthcoming PASSION FOR PIZZA: A JOURNEY THROUGH THICK AND THIN TO FIND THE PIZZA ELITE, due out from Agate Surrey next month.

What prompted you to write this book?

My very first cookbook was about pizza. In 1998, my coauthor Tore Gjesteland and I submitted 20 recipes to the unofficial world championship for pizza that takes place at Pizza Expo each year in Las Vegas. We didn´t win, with 19 of the actual pizzas, but ended up winning the Dessert category with our Pecan Pizza Pie. Winning the competition inspired us to write a book called JazzPizza.

Fast forward to 2009. I had gone on to write three books about grilling, one on American food, and one on Italian food. I began to notice as I got older that I continually returned to the simple foods I grew up with. I found myself wanting to revisit the world of pizza. Over the next year or so my wife and I visited important pizza capitols such as New York, Chicago, Naples, and Rome.

In the summer of 2011, I met Tore at the annual pizza and wine bash a mutual friend of ours holds during the Gladmat food festival in Stavanger, Norway. It didn´t take long for our conversation to turn to pizza. Tore explained that he was entertaining the idea of doing a new book about pizza. I told him about my own pizza project and we discussed if this was something we might do together. We agreed that what we each wanted to do was to make a book about the world of pizza. There are lots of great pizza cookbooks and great books about the history of pizza. We wanted to show what goes on behind the scenes in the world of pizza. This quickly led to the idea of traveling to the two most important pizza countries, Italy and USA, to visit the pizza elite, and to tell their stories.

The book could easily have been about the coolest pizzaiaoli and the pizzas worth traveling a long distance to eat, but we also wanted to visit the producers of great tomatoes, flour, cheese and other ingredients. We also wanted to talk to journalists, corporate executives, delivery boys, and pretty much anyone with a connection to the world of pizza.

We realized we were talking about a pretty hefty undertaking. We understood that the people and the topics we would be presenting deserved a beautiful presentation. Both Tore and I had worked with Kenneth Hansen, who had worked on a number of Norway´s most beautiful cookbooks. We met with Kenneth and he told us about the photographer that a project like this would just have to have: Mats Widén. With Kenneth and Mats onboard, we started the three-year-plus journey of this book.

What should readers expect to find in Passion for Pizza?

This is a book that will enhance the best of coffee tables. The photos will inspire readers to pick up their phones and order their favorite pizzas. It will also inspire emptying the piggy banks to cover the cost of a visit to Caiazzo, Italy or Phoenix, Arizona. The stories and interviews are short, allowing readers to pick up the book from time to time and meet the passionate personalities that together give us the great pizza we all know and love. The book would not be complete without recipes. We have included dough and sauce recipes that will give many home cooks a whole new way to approach pizza baking. The pizzas themselves cover the whole range, from a great cheese pizza or Chicago deep-dish pizza to more exotic pizzas topped with squash blossoms or brussels sprouts. The recipes are very easy to use and there is a strong focus on a balance of ingredients. The recipes have "user friendly" written all over them.

As a Norwegian-by-way-of-Oklahoma, you seem like an unlikely pizza scholar. How has your unique background as a chef informed this book?

I'm an Okie at heart, but have lived more than half my life in Norway. I prefer caps to horned helmets and in ideal world I would divide my time equally between my two homes. I grew up with pizza. The foods I remember best from my childhood are Southern specialties like fried chicken, real barbecue, and the like. We ate a lot of Mexican food, some Italian (lots of red sauce and meatballs), and pizza. Pizza wasn´t our food, but pizza fit in perfectly with the other foods we loved. I was lucky to have parents and grandparents who loved good food. Basically we ate two kinds of food: homemade food that my mother or grandmother made, and homemade food made and served at any number of restaurants in Oklahoma City. I won´t lie and say there was no fast food in the picture, but this came much later. Most of the pizza I consumed as a child and teenager was made by dedicated pizza bakers. Pizza has been important throughout my career in food, more as a must-have dish than something I featured on the menu at the restaurants I ran. I am fascinated by pizza, and at its best, pizza is food at its utmost. A great crust with simple toppings in the hands of a master is a stunning piece of work. For me complicated sauces and expensive ingredients just can´t match up. Give me a Pizza Marinara and, as with a perfect brisket, I´m the happiest of campers. 

Is there a certain variety of pizza, from anywhere in the world that you feel is underrated?

In Italy I´d say that the most underrated variety of pizza is the all the ones not made in the area where you live. Italians are famously loyal to their local dishes, and why not? Romans often prefer a crispier crust and they can cite any number of reasons why Neapolitan pizza isn´t as good. But it is. There are great pizzas to be found even in the most unlikely of places in Italy. As far as the US goes, Chicago’s deep-dish pizza has been run through the wringer. For many years I was among those who disregarded this pizza, but after having eaten some truly stellar examples, I have become a convert. I can´t eat a lot of deep dish pizza, but I'd love to have a slice of sausage pizza from Lou Malnati´s or Burt´s Place pretty much any time.

What is your next venture?

To promote the book and go back to being a pizza consumer. I hope that as many people as possible will get a chance to experience the world of pizza through this book, and I´ll be happy to join them at the table eating great pizza! 

Agate offices closed 2/2/15

Agate is digging out from under 20" of snow this morning. Our offices are closed, but much of the Agate staff is working from home, if you need us.

Maxine Clair Q&A

We just published Maxine Clair's wonderful memoir/guide to creativity Imagine This--here is more from Maxine about her remarkable career journey and the story behind her new book.

Photo credit: Carol Clayton Photography

Your books always drew from the well of autobiography, to some degree, but Imagine This is the first that contains overtly autobiographical sections. Did you ever imagine you would write this?

My life and how I have experienced it is what I know. Memory and imagination are very closely aligned whether I’m writing actual fact or fiction. That familiar ground informs my writing process and the content. In my character-driven stories, the characters, events, and situations are invented. But their emotional and psychological responses to life come through the filter of what I know: as a maker, how aware I am of realistic possibilities. Stories flow from that. Universality flows from that combination. I am always pursuing expansiveness for my characters whether we call it “coming of age” or “coming to terms with life.” Inner conflict gives rise to outer conflict, and resolution follows the same inner-outer pattern. At some point, I wanted to go beyond the mental or psychological inner conflicts and explore metaphysical principles as the deeper cause and effect. The nonfiction form seemed to be the best fit, and so I chose it for Imagine This. In writing the book, I got to play just as deeply in language as I do in fiction. Though memoir can get dicey when I tease out what is and is not relevant to the work at hand, autobiography offers no such choice. For me, that’s the good news. Autobiography is necessarily a voluminous venture. I never imagined that I would not write memoir. And I never imagined that I would not find a way to include the metaphysical. 

Did you find the shift from fiction to nonfiction difficult? Has it affected your prose or identity as a writer?

There was a clear hiatus in my writing, a time when I wondered if I would ever write another conflict-resolution story. With Imagine This, the difficulty in navigating the shift to nonfiction had more to do with sustaining coherence between the narrative slices of memoir and exposition that includes how-to exercises and examples. I did not consciously adopt other stylistic elements; my voice is my voice and I trust that that will always come through in the prose. Usually there is a moral imperative, and I must find a way to tease it out. I was aware of reining in my imagination when it wanted to take over the narrative. There seems to be a little more leeway for poetic elements to creep in as I write stories. Yet, in writing Imagine This, I found a sufficient degree of “poetic” freedom—it is hoped—to ward off any persistent infection of flat prose.

As far as identity is concerned, I am a writer. The marriage of content and form is a foundational notion to which I subscribe. The form is determined by what I wish to convey. These days, as long as the work is interesting, few readers outside the academy care what genre terms we use, or how we mix the elements. Critics, too, are probably willing to stretch definitions and hyphenate labels.

Who are your influences, in writing and life, and how have they made their presence felt in Imagine This?

I never like this question, because I don’t believe I can know all of the influences. Much of what influences us is unconscious. I am born into a certain place and time, and ideas and ways of expressing them can be pervasive throughout my sphere of living. But I will say what I have said many times, music is at the root of my love for language, and putting that together with any moral imperative, any idea that begs exploration can be put down in one form or another. Allowing that flow is my love for writing. My mother’s creatively-expressive music was my greatest conscious influence. Her gospel cadences shot through with jazz are still like cell memory, and that can never be lost. Improvisation finds its own way in language—consider the cross-over of scat-bob and rap. It found its way into my own voice. So maybe it’s in the DNA. When I encountered the women writers of the Black Arts Movement, like Toni, Alice, Lucille, N’tozake, Maya, June, Sonia, Nikki—I purposely omit surnames to illustrate the iconic stature of these women—there was a clear resonance. Rather than “influence” I believe I took permission from them. Yes, I stand on their shoulders, but at the time, they conveyed to me that it was entirely correct and life-affirming to make art of whatever you want to say in your own unique way, and let the power of it stand on its own merits. They expanded the canon for me when my vision of a canon was limited. Lo and behold, my voice was what having a “literary canon” was all about.

Did you find it difficult to wrestle concepts like creativity into practical, reproducible terms?

“Challenging” is a more accurate term for this undertaking. I was compelled to return again and again to my own simple, fundamental definition of creativity: bringing a no-thing into existence as something. Obviously this makes open-ended any discussion of the concept of creativity. It provides a platform from which I could marry the idea of creative expression as a portal to personal transformation, and some of the principles involved in manifesting anything in life. And since I could never put a dent in the volume of writings about such sweeping concepts, I could share my own experience of this avenue to transformation, which I see as a sacred journey. I believe that if Imagine This resonates with readers at all, it is because they are at a similar juncture in life. When you feel that there is more living inside of you than your life can contain, your life gets bigger. My conviction is that creative expression in any of limitless fields is a sure-thing avenue to a bigger life. I have spelled out ways of personal fulfillment and collective enrichment that come with such a venture.

Any final words of advice for struggling dream-seekers?

I want you to know that every life is uniquely remarkable. We can live making conscious choices about how we spend our time and energy or we can believe that life just happens to us. The choices you make about the work you would love to be doing are always tied to your life purpose, and will bring fulfillment. Finally, you create not what you want, but what you believe, and what you can accept. Wake up to wherever you are right now. Get clear about your passion. Keep going. The way to arrival and success is shorter now than it has ever been. 

Justice While Black: more today than ever

Today, the morning after the announcement of the grand jury proceedings over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it seems apropos to hear from Nick Chiles and Robbin Shipp, Esq., the authors of Justice While Black, published here just last month.

The events in Ferguson are once again shedding a harsh light on how police treat young black men. What does your book offer readers concerned about events like the shooting of Michael Brown?

Our book is entirely preoccupied with the incredibly hostile and sometimes deadly relationship between the African-American community and law enforcement in America. It was that hostile relationship which created the environment in Ferguson that led to the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson. Justice While Black delves into the history of the American police force, showing how it grew out of slave patrols, particularly in the American South. A reading of the history reveals that the police in America were created to control African Americans, not protect and serve them. This perspective puts the events in Ferguson into the proper historical context, showing that throughout the last century there have been regular explosions of black rage in response to outrageous police conduct. But Justice While Black also offers guidance to African Americans about how they might better protect themselves from police.

Why did you decide to write this book?

We began having discussions about the need for this book because Robbin was so disturbed by what she saw in her work as an attorney in Georgia. She felt she needed to do something to stem the never-ending flow of young black males she saw coming through the criminal justice system. After the death of Trayvon Martin, our urgency increased exponentially. We felt that we could write a book that would arm young males and females before they even stepped out into the street. If more of them were aware of the motivations and methods of the police, the ways the system works against them at every step, and how knowledge of their legal rights could protect them in encounters with the police, then more of them might arrive home alive.

How do you think readers should use this book?

They should read over the entire book to gain a thorough overview of how the system works. Then they should return to the chapters on racial profiling and the traffic stop and commit much of that information to memory—because these are often the situations where young African Americans will most likely succumb to the ploys used by law enforcement to get them in handcuffs. If we can instill in all of our young people a working knowledge of their rights, we might be able to start dismantling this country’s prison industrial complex.

What are some common mistakes people make when interacting with the police? 

Often, young people in particular relinquish their constitutional rights. For example: A police officer stops a vehicle with a busted taillight for operating with faulty equipment. When the driver is an African-American male, the officer will often ask to search the vehicle—whereas many non-African-Americans simply receive a ticket for the busted taillight. Rather than asserting their right to not allow the search, too many young people consent to the search. If drugs or weapons are found in the vehicle, they then embark on an odyssey into the criminal justice system.

What kind of mistakes do people make when faced with the prosecution? 

Our human nature makes us want to attempt to talk our way out of everything, in order to make things better, to make problems go away. This is a huge mistake. Mistakenly believing that they can outsmart the system, young people think that if they tell investigators a good enough story, everything will go away. So they talk. And that talking too often gets them more entangled into whatever they are alleged to have done. They ignore the admonishment that they have the right to remain silent, and all of the other attendant rights associated with the right to remain silent.

Why was it important to include the chapters on the history of policing action against African-Americans and the prison industrial complex?

It is crucially important for readers to understand the historical context of the over-criminalization of the African-American community. Once you become aware of the historical role of the police in American society—which in many regions was to protect wealthy white Americas from the dark and angry hordes they feared were always on the verge of insurrection—it’s not difficult at all to understand how we reached the time and place where the murder of Michael Brown could happen. In this context, the police’s perceived need to quell explosions of racial outrage is clear. And once you understand how the prison industrial complex is a multibillion-dollar profit-making and employment system, you can see why the system seeks to put as many bodies behind bars as possible in order to sustain itself.

Robbin, you’ve been a defense attorney for a long time. Was there anything you learned while writing this book that took you by surprise?

To practice criminal-defense law as an African-American woman and mother for almost twenty years, I learned early on that I had to (for self-preservation) divorce myself from my emotions and merely represent individuals based upon the facts of their cases and the applicable laws. I was surprised to learn about the historical depth of the negative relationship between African-Americans and the police. Coupled with my increased understanding of the modern-day corporate imperatives that effectuate policing abuses around the country, this new knowledge destroyed my carefully constructed emotional distance, and caused me to see anew how African Americans are mistreated by our criminal justice system.

How have things changed over the 20 years you’ve been practicing law?

Things are more stressful. Courts have fewer resources to tap for alternative sentencing solutions. Numerically, more and more conduct by young people is being criminalized, not least because the prison system requires more young people in order to succeed.

Rosalyn Story on Maxine Clair and Imagine This

This week, Agate Bolden is publishing the latest book by acclaimed fiction writer Maxine Clair--the memoir Imagine This: Creating the Work You Love. I was introduced to Maxine by Rosalyn Story, whose own two novels are published by Agate Bolden, and who, I learned, has a life-long connection to Maxine and her family. What follows is a brief essay by Rosalyn about the impact Maxine's career and story has had on her own brilliant work. I can't think of a better and more meaningful way to mark the publication week of this important new book.
Maxine Clair, photo by Carol Clayton Photography
When I read Maxine Clair’s new book, Imagine This, I was struck by many things. The beauty and grace of a woman I have known since childhood. The fluid expression and craft of a brilliant writer and storyteller. And the evolution of an extraordinary life.

I met Maxine when I was about ten on visits to her house, around the corner from mine, in the all-black section of Kansas City, Kansas, immortalized by her award-winning first work of fiction, Rattlebone. Her younger sister and I were best friends. I’d come to the house for meals on “chalupa” night, when Maxine’s mom would cover the table with all manner of great food—hand-made flour tortillas, red beans, cheddar cheese, chili seasoned beef, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and sauce—to be pilled up and rolled into a gigantic, unwieldy, and wonderfully messy one-dish meal.

Maxine was already away at college by then, a star student at the University of Kansas, bound for a brilliant career as a medical technologist. On her visits home, I’d watch as she breezed in from a night with old high school friends, always with a genuine smile and kind words of acknowledgment to me, her kid sister’s buddy. My friendship with Linda put me in Maxine’s company many times during those years, and from a distance, I watched her develop into a beautiful, intelligent, confident young woman. I watched her rise in the world, and as little sisters (even honorary ones) do, wanted to emulate her.

When she married after college, Linda and I would sometimes babysit her young children. We’d put them to bed early and while the night away raiding the fridge and plowing through her phenomenal collection of jazz recordings: John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, and so many others.

Sometime after she moved to Washington, D.C. I learned of her struggles. A marriage that caused her pain, physically and mentally; four children to raise; and long hours of work in a field that was yielding less and less fulfillment, and becoming more and more bereft of joy.

Then something amazing happened: Maxine divorced, went back to school to study writing, and published a book of poetry.

Later she would not only receive a master’s from American University in writing, produce two more books—Rattlebone, winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland award, and October Suite— but also take on a full-time associate professorship in creative writing at D.C.’s George Washington University.

How she did this, with little money, no husband, four kids, and little encouragement from a world unkind to those who in mid-career opt for the risks of the creative life, seemed a mystery to me.

But I’m sure it was not as easy as it seemed. I’m sure there were moments of self-doubt, second guessing, and discomfort. I was never sure how she did it, but the fact that she did do it was enough to inspire me.

After Maxine’s first novel, October Suite, I was so inspired that I began to do something I’d always wanted to do: become a writer of novels myself. I was not unhappy in my job as a classical symphony violinist, but I knew that as a creative spirit, I had more to say. October Suite gave me the courage to set out on my own writer’s journey. And within a few years, Agate published my first novel, More Than You Know.

After reading Imagine This, I now know that Maxine’s evolution was not a function of luck or genius, or mystery. It was the result of challenging work—the work of daring to create your own reality. Imagine This is no ordinary self-help book. Using her own very touching and very personal story, Maxine shows how it is possible to live fully and consciously, fully immersed in that which gives you passion and joy, no matter how much or how little you have, no matter what you are going through, and no matter where or when you start.

Rosalyn Story

Jesmyn Ward, Heartland Prize winner

Here at Agate, we have special place in our heart for both the Heartland Prizes (Agate president Doug Seibold reviewed for the Tribune, and recommended to its prize committee, the first-ever Heartland fiction winner, Eric Larsen's An American Memory) and Jesmyn Ward, whose debut Where the Line Bleeds was published by Agate in 2008. Jesmyn Ward was just announced as the 2014 Heartland Prize winner for nonfiction for her most recent book, the memoir Men We Reaped, and this coming Saturday she'll be discussing the book with yet another Agate author, the Tribune's Pulitzer-winning columnist Mary Schmich, as part of the Chicago Humanites Festival. It should be a terrific event if you are in town to see it.


Indian for Everyone!

Today we're publishing Indian for Everyone, the third book by Anupy Singla, the bestselling Indian cookbook author of this decade. Here is a Q&A with Anupy to mark this publication date, where she talks about the new book, her earlier titles, and her new TV cooking show.

Why did you write Indian for Everyone?

I wanted to create the go-to Indian cookbook—the one you come home to once you’ve eaten that amazing meal at an Indian restaurant and you want to figure out how to replicate it. This is also a cookbook that I tried hard to design for everyone, regardless of eating preferences or dietary restrictions. My home is typically Indian-American in that we have lots of different dietary points of views. I am largely vegan-vegetarian. My husband eats meat. My kids are somewhere in the middle. Our friends are all over the place with their food choices. I wanted to write a cookbook that brings us all together, rather than one that divides us based on those kinds of food choices. This book celebrates diversity at the dinner table. Every recipe that typically showcases meat is also presented with a vegan alternative, along with tested cooking times and ingredient swaps. I wrote the book basically to fit with my own and my family’s lifestyle. I hope it’s one that many other families will also benefit from for years to come.

How do you think this book fits in with your previous two cookbooks, The Indian Slow Cooker and Vegan Indian Cooking?

I somehow wrote the niche books before writing this more general one. I like to think that this is the more evolved cookbook, the one that helps you deconstruct everyone’s favorite Indian recipes, shows you how to make them well, and then shows you ways to make them healthier. There are tips on making recipes vegan and even gluten-free. The other two books are definitely complementary. If you think about it, no day is truly exactly the same as the previous day. Maybe you uphold meatless Mondays in your home; maybe Tuesdays are extra-hectic, so you need to throw something into a slow cooker; and maybe, come the weekend, you want to sit down to a more elaborate meal. I like to think that my books will help you be any kind of cook you want to be on any given day, and help you get healthy, home-style Indian food on that dinner table for you, your family, and your friends.

What is the most common misconception about cooking Indian food that you’ve heard, and why is it wrong?

So many people think Indian food is complicated to make. This is truly not the case. The learning curve primarily has to do with getting your arms around the various spices and spice blends. Though some recipes have more steps or seem more complicated, the processes are similar. Once you figure out how to make a basic stir-fry or a curry, you often simply swap out key ingredients and a few spices for different dishes.

What advice can you offer to novice cooks of Indian food?

Leave behind your preconceived notions about Indian food. It has very little to do with curry powder or layers of cream. Indian food is flavorful, light, and incredibly healthy. I think most Americans are just beginning to discover how amazing it is. The health aspects of the spices alone are a great reason to include Indian food into your regular diet.

What role does food play in your own life? In your daughters’ lives?

I’m the kind of person who wakes up planning what I will eat for lunch and dinner. My girls are the same way. We are rarely satisfied with quick fixes from the supermarket—we like to enjoy homemade Indian food all the time. The fact that my girls like to take leftover dal (beans and lentils) to their teachers says a lot about how they feel about our cuisine and about their cultural roots. It’s something they take a lot of pride in—which was very much not the case with me when I was growing up as one of three Indian-Americans in my town outside of Philadelphia in the 1980s. For that reason alone, it’s been well worth developing my interest in traditional Indian cooking and writing these books.

What’s next for you?

I am developing my own cooking show, one that not only highlights great Indian food, but that does so from the specifically Indian-American point of view. As the Indian-American community has continued to grow, in numbers and prominence, I think there is a real opportunity there. I want to continue to develop more authentic Indian spices, spice blends, and simmering sauces and get them on grocery shelves across the country. All in all, my aim is to inspire everyone to cook and enjoy great, healthful Indian food at home.


The greatest hot dog joint ever

Yesterday Hot Doug's closed, as has been widely reported in the local and national media. There have already been some great tributes and reflections on the glory that was Hot Doug's, and many are sure to follow. We're very proud to have been the publishers of Hot Doug's: The Book, the creation of which gave us plenty of opportunity to reflect on what made Hot Doug's so special.

I'm a sausage fan myself, so appreciating Hot Doug's was never a big stretch for me. I worked at a great hot dog place when I was in high school, and when I first came to Chicago in the late 80s, I lived two blocks or so from the original Gold Coast Dogs during its great run. When Hot Doug's came along, I couldn't have been more enthusiastic about Doug's just-right, serious but lighthearted approach to the humble glory that is the Chicago red hot.

Over its storied history, I think Hot Doug's ultimately achieved its greatness in fulfilling the ideal of what a true Chicago hot dog joint might be. One of the keys to its success is that Hot Doug’s never pretended to be anything else. But the Chicago hot dog joint is a wonderful thing. And to be the greatest hot dog joint ever is a ticket to deserved immortality.

What does this mean? There are a lot of other hot dog joints that in many respects are very similar to Hot Doug’s, with similar layouts, similar decor, and even similar basic menus (we’ll get to those fabled specials in a minute). Anyone who’s ever gotten a hot dog in this town is familiar with the format. What Doug did is set a standard that maybe no other hot dog purveyor has even aspired to, let alone reached.

Anthony Bourdain famously decreed that Hot Doug’s was one of the “thirteen places to eat before you die,” but when he did so, he wasn’t trying to suggest that patrons at Hot Doug’s would have the same kind of experience diners have at places like Alinea, Per Se, or Noma. He meant that what Doug brought to his work was the same kind of passion and joy that all great chefs bring to their restaurants—and that to find this kind of passion and joy hidden away in a neighborhood hot dog joint was a true wonder.

When I was working on Doug’s book last year, I was also working with Sanford D’Amato on his book, Good Stock, about his own legendary career as a nationally celebrated chef. I heard Sandy stress more than once that when it comes to making great food, what matters is the passion and commitment the cook brings to its preparation, more than the particular dish. Every dish is elevated by what its cook brings to making it. At the same time, I was also working with Paula Haney on The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie, which reveals what happens when a great pastry chef decides to devote herself to that most familiar of desserts.

In the end, it came down to the food, as it should for any great restaurant. Hot Doug’s reputation really took off when Doug famously began exploring the rococo outer dimensions of exotic and game sausages, served with extravagant complements--toppings, condiments, and buns--to match. Like everyone who ate there over the past decade or so, I waited in some very lengthy lines to get my meal, and that meal never failed to gratify. I never had a meal at Hot Doug’s that wasn’t well conceived, well executed, and well served. Hot Doug’s deserved every accolade it received. It fully lived up to its reputation, a reputation Doug Sohn never stopped earning every day its doors were open. It was the greatest hot dog joint ever.


Clarence Page, "culture worrier"

This week Agate is publishing Clarence Page's career-spanning collection Culture Worrier: Reflections on Race, Politics and Social Change, and to mark the occasion we offer this Q&A with Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. Keep your eyes and ears peeled: Page will be making appearances a variety of television and radio shows, as well as at venues in Chicago and Washington, DC in the weeks ahead.

You’ve been writing your column for three decades now. How much has your perspective evolved over the years?

I used to be troubled by negative mail. Then I learned to stop taking it personally. When a person who castigates me like pond scum one week praises me as a national hero after I’ve written something with which they agree, I realize that it is my opinion that they are responding to, not to me. Let ‘em vent. It’s cheaper than therapy.

What do you think gives your column such a broad appeal?

I’m pleased when readers say, “I don’t agree with you much, but I appreciate knowing where you stand.” I think when people turn to the opinion pages sof their newspaper, they expect to read some opinions—strong, clearly defined, and offering enough information and insight to help them form an opinion of their own, whether they agree with mine or not. I try to include a few laughs where appropriate, too.

There’s so much information exploding all around us every day through different media, I’m delighted to hear a reader say they liked a column so much they pinned it to the door of their refrigerator. That’s great. That’s the place for the most important messages in many family’s households—like mine. I call it the Refrigerator Pulitzer. Every columnist wants to connect with their readers with that deep degree of passion.

You’ve garnered a reputation as an unbiased critic unafraid to strike at either side of the aisle. How do you maintain this balance in your writing and TV appearances?

I try to set my moral compass to what’s best for America’s families, not what’s best for a particular political party or interest group. That can be tough sometimes, not when I’m criticized by the relentless grumps but when I am criticized by someone from my own opinion tribe who says, “I thought you were on our side.” I assure them, “I am on your side, even when I offer bitter medicine. It may be hard to swallow but it’s good for you.”

My perspective hasn’t changed much, but the world has. I’ve always portrayed myself as a good Midwestern, middle-of-the-road voice for the sensible center. I am amused when people paint me as a hard-core liberal or hard-core conservative, based on the same column!

But as true right-wingers have gotten a stronger voice in Congress and the media, I am often viewed as a liberal simply because I don’t call myself a conservative. I still defend a lot of conservative ideas when I think they offer a reasonable alternative to what liberals are offering. But I have learned better than to expect many conservatives to give me credit for that.

How has your identity as an African American informed the politics of your column?

It’s interesting to me that I and every other black columnist I know get occasional complaints from conservatives that we write about race “all the time.” I don’t write about race all the time, but the very fact that so many people seem to see race in my columns tell me just how intensely feelings about race, among other tribal considerations, inform everybody’s politics—whether they want to acknowledge it publicly or not. As an African American who grew up in the last days of Jim Crow segregation and the hard-won victories of the civil rights revolution, I write about racial issues more often than most white columnists do. But when I write about climate change, mortgage defaults, student loans, the obesity epidemic, the future of public education, are those racial issues? Maybe not on the surface, but my experience informs my awareness of how differently those issues play out in white communities compared to communities of color.

Similarly, growing up in a black, low-income community but attending integrated schools helps me to understand that you don’t have to be black to be poor in America. In fact, white poor outnumber black and Hispanic poor, even though a lower percentage of whites are in poverty. Yet you’d hardly know that from the coverage that poverty usually receives in daily news reports. As a result, I can’t mention that fact on a radio program, for example, without hearing from some white person who wants to know my source for that, as if they can’t believe it. My source is the Census Bureau. But growing up black in America has made me more sensitive to the value of facts against a flood of rumors and the importance of empathizing with disadvantaged people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or other background.

Have you found it difficult to try to keep ahead of the curve after over thirty years in journalism?

It is rather unsettling to have your world shaken up as much as the world of media has been rattled in recent years. I thought, for example, that I would never squeeze my bulging imagination into the tight little girdle of Twitter. But, counseled by my millennial-generation son, I love it now. It’s not only fun but an easy way to direct people to my column to get a longer read. Of course, my growing appreciation for Twitter means that my son and his crowd are doing what they did when us boomers took over Facebook. They’re moving onto something newer that I don’t understand—like Instagram.

But what I find reassuring is that the fundamentals of journalism remain in place. Whatever the medium of conveyance might be, people still want reliable news and opinions. They’ve only got so much time to spend with their media, so we in the media still have to compete for their valuable time and loyalty. Even though the competition grows increasingly fierce, I find it’s invigorating. It keeps me young—maybe young enough to figure out Instagram.

Who are the journalists you most enjoy reading today?

I’m surprised and saddened by how many of them are dead. Mike Royko, Molly Ivins, James Baldwin, Louis Grizzard, Art Buchwald and Erma Bombeck are a few of the columnists that excited and amazed me over the years with their fresh points of view, lively wit, and most significantly, their ear for the language, issues, and attitudes of the people and communities that nurtured them. Reading Royko you could almost hear the voices of the Eastern European men in his father’s tavern hashing out the issues of the day over shots and beers. Reading Baldwin’s essays you can hear the voice of a black kid who grew up with more religion than money in the Harlem ghetto of his time, trying to hash out the ethical contradictions of the world around him. Voices as old as Damon Runyon and Frederick Douglass that shaped my own approach to writing still amaze me with how robustly they live long after their creators are gone.

Among the living, I’d say I admire David Brooks for his tireless search for new ideas regardless of the politics involved, Nicholas Kristof for calling attention to stories the rest of media ignore too often (like the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls), Kathleen Parker as a witty outside-NYC counterpoint to Maureen Dowd—whom I also love to read—and my Pulitzer-winning pal Leonard Pitts who has breathed new life into the column-writing trade at a time when his voice is very much needed. This is, of course, not a complete list.