Very Tiny Voyage: Blommer’s Chocolate Factory, a Tasty Chicago Institution

For the better part of the last decade, I have passed by the Blommer’s chocolate factory on my daily commute into Chicago on the Union Pacific West line. On good days, when the wind is blowing in the right direction, the entire Loop smells like a giant brownie. It’s downright dreamy.

“Public Welcome,” beckons the sign on the side of the building. And lucky me! The location of my new office has now put me within a walking distance of the factory. So yesterday I set out on a mission to finally, after all these years, see what the Blommer factory is about.

Outside the chocolate factory, a semi loaded with sugar piped its contents directly into the factory through a tube. I’d like to own one of these someday.

If you go to Blommer, don’t count on a Willy Wonka experience; the public aren’t welcome in the actual factory. (Is it because the Oompa Loompas are camera shy? That’s my guess.) We are allowed only in the retail store, which is all that really matters when it comes to chocolate, anyway. I arrived during lunch to find workers in hair nets (just go ahead and picture Lucille Ball, except replace the cute redhead with some rough-looking tattoed men) hanging out in the reception area and covered in light dusting of cocoa powder.

The adjacent retail shop is stocked floor to ceiling with products made by the companies that buy Blommer’s chocolate, such as Long Grove Chocolates in Buffalo Grove. Blommer itself is mainly a business-to-business venture, but I did manage to find a chocolate bar with their name on the label.

I would love to say that the chocolate was amazing, but the taste was more like that cheap, nameless chocolate you find in gold coins, only fresh. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but my taste for chocolate has been spoiled by such finery as Theo Chocolate in Seattle. But Blommer is pure, old-school Chicago, and this is the chocolate every Polish grandmother in Chicago, including my own, likely grew up eating. And so for that reason alone, it’s worth a visit.

 

Moving: The Worst Type of “Go”-ing

2014-01-29 10.52.24

I have, a couple of times in my life, met people who loved moving. They did it every year. Never did they renew a lease or settle in to a space. The idea of purchasing property never entered their minds. They always wanted to be on to the next.

Those people are insane.

Much as I love to travel, I also love having a safe, comfortable home to return to. I see a good space, whether apartment or condo, make a decision very quickly whether it is right for me or not, and then I nest. I don’t have a lot of stuff, but I like the stuff I have, in the arrangements I have it, and I especially love the comfort that comes with being able to walk to the kitchen to get a glass of water in the dark half-awake without hitting any walls or breaking a glass.

However. There is this dude I want to shack up with. He is too smart to want to live in my neighborhood (although, as loyal readers know, I have a great affection for it). So moving must be done, after a solid four and a half year run of not-moving.

It’s happening fairly quickly, because we found an amazing apartment that we had to snag fast, just a couple miles away, in the heart of the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. Which means that in the space of about a week, movers must be scheduled, sorting and cleaning must be done, boxes gathered, dishes packed, etc. My house is completely upside-down at the moment. Every bag that I’ve ever taken anywhere in the world–the huge backpack that I lived out of for two months in Europe, the tiny overnight bag that I toss in the overhead compartment for weekends in New York–is stuffed full of every possession that I’m not just throwing out because I can’t face carting it down the stairs, down the street, and up the stairs again.

I love almost all forms of going places, but not this particular one. It’s stressful in the logistical details and the physical work, but it’s also stressful in the emotional sense, if one must admit to having feelings. I’m excited for a new adventure, but it’s also hard to leave the place that, as I’ve said before, is the first place that’s truly felt like my home. But going to new places and doing new things is what we’re all about here. Because you never know which new place is going to wind up being your favorite.

How to: Go Out in the Cold

Holy bananas it’s cold out there. Literally every single Chicago-adjacent-living person I know has agreed that this is the worst winter that has ever had to be endured. A lot of the response to this has been for us to just not leave our homes ever. But sometimes, going out is unavoidable. Here’s how I manage it.

1) Under-layer: Sweater tights and knee socks on the bottom, undershirt on the top. Plus obviously all the other things I usually wear under my clothes that you don’t need to read about on the Internet.

2) Regular layer: This is commonly known as “Just your regular clothes; don’t go around naked, dummy.” Important factors to consider are that I’m wearing tights under my jeans, so my skinniest jeans don’t work, and I want my top to involve some warm sweatery thing, because while my office looks cool with its huge bank of windows, that actually just means it’s really cold all the time. (This is why we all got snuggies as Christmas presents this year.)

3) Outer layer: Snow boots. I adore mine, from Baretrap. They’re incredibly warm and comfortable (and cute, if I do say so myself), and they’re reasonably waterproof, although if you go ankle-deep into a puddle, you’re sort of out of luck no matter what. Coat, of course. I can’t bring myself to buy one of the ginormous sleeping-bag coats that many Chicago women swear by, including our own art director, but I do have a nice warm wool coat with a huge hood to keep the wind off. My gloves are cheapie convertible glove-mitten combos from Target, but it means I can use my El pass, keys, and phone without taking off my mittens, and they also have long-ish sleeves tucked under my sweater sleeves so my wrists don’t get cold. I also have a silly but warm fur-lined trapper hat, ear flaps down, of course, and brim pulled down over my forehead. And then I wrap a big Irish wool scarf under my coat and pull it up over my nose. So I have just my eyes exposed.

2014-01-27 07.22.07

Cute, no? Well, maybe not. But I am warm. And while I did have some frost on my eyelashes by the time I got to the El today, I did not lose a limb, and I did not whine *that* much. And I consider that a victory against the elements.

Restaurant Week

When it comes to eating out, I’m not that adventurous. I’ve got my favorite spots: the taco joint around the corner with the best tacos al pastor in town, the falafel place down the street with the awesome garlic sauce, and the place with the brunch that’s always a little too salty but so delicious it makes up for it. (No, I’m not telling you where any of these places are. If you start filling up my spots with your cool kid faces I’ll never be allowed to go there again.) Anyway, I tend to go to the same places all the time, order mostly the same food, and definitely don’t go out to fancy or splurgy places, well, ever. I can count on two fingers the number of times I’ve paid more than $50 for a meal.

But our erstwhile photographer Cary reminded me this morning that Chicago’s Restaurant Week is coming. From January 24 through February 6, more than two hundred restaurants in Chicago and the suburbs are offering special fancy prix-fixe lunch and dinner menus for $22, $33, and $44. This gives hoi polloi, such as myself, a chance to experience some of Chicago’s justly famous cheffery that otherwise might be beyond our reach.

As I said, this is more than I’d usually spend on a meal. But it’s an excuse for a splurge and to try something new, and trying new things is the heart of what Go Go Go stands for. So I’m going to make a point to check out at least one new restaurant while this is going on. It’s a small thing, but it still counts.

A (Christmasy) Reason to Stop in Hammond, Indiana

Fans of A Christmas Story, listen up. A few months ago, guest writer Julie Podulka shared her awesome visit to Ralphie’s home, located in Cleveland, Ohio. Now midwest fans of the holiday classic can add another tourist stop to their lists.

A new statue in Hammond, Indiana, immortalizes “poor Flick,” with his tongue stuck to the frozen flag pole in front of the welcome center.

Click here to check out photos of the statue’s unveiling.

The statue was erected in Hammond because it’s the hometown of the film’s writer and narrator, Jean Shepard, and is basis for the fictional setting of the movie, “Homan, Indiana.”

Hammond isn’t a destination, really. It’s your average suburb. But anyone from Chicago driving east will pass through the city, perhaps on his or her way to Cleveland to visit Ralphie’s house. If you pass through this winter, on your way to your family Christmas dinner, for instance, you can “triple dog dare” yourself to join Flick at the pole.

 

 

Very Tiny Voyage: Bucktown Apple Pie Contest

If one were to think of an apple pie contest, one might think of a small-town event, under the town’s picnic shelter, with conservative ladies with big hair and mom jeans, wearing embroidered aprons. Perhaps country band plays in the background.

But what if you put the word “Bucktown” in front of “apple pie contest”? Suddenly a totally different picture emerges: twee decorations, hipsters and semi-hipsters, young metro dads wearing baby carriers as accessories, and local foodie celebrities. There’s still a country band, but one that performs with ironic smiles.

Not that I’m criticizing. I’m just pointing out an interesting observation: that small-town religious and politically conservative folks and the fashionable, liberally and intellectually inclined urbanites have something in common.

The Bucktown Apple Pie Contest has grown from year to year, this time drawing close to 200 entrants. Why the rise in popularity? Perhaps it’s a yearning for simpler times, as argued here. We live in a complicated, disconnected world where being part of a community means an online one rather than a physical one.

Making apple pie is a timeless task in a modern mechanized world. It requires focus, much more time and attention than we usually devote to a single task these days. It’s simple—there are no moving parts except your hands, bringing together pie dough and carefully peeling and slicing apples to a uniform size.

One makes an apple pie to share it. Eating apple pie is a social act, enjoyed with friends and family. Making apple pie is a service act—nothing shows respect for your relationships than showing up with a handmade pie. It’s not showing up at a party with a six pack.

And so on a pretty fall day, the mood in Bucktown’s Holstein Park was unpretentious, unguarded, and simply fun, as people celebrated the simplest of American desserts as well as the simplicity it represents.

 

 

 

In Which We Get Press

We (Claire and Laura) were recently interviewed by our blog friend Diana Nguyen over at To&From magazine about Go Go Go, travel (duh), and Chicago.

Shocking secrets revealed include: Laura reads too much, and I don’t use any beauty products no matter where I am on the globe.

Laura got all the pull quotes, which I’m going to not feel jealous about. In general, she probably gives a better interview than I do. I feel like a couple of my more hilarious (read: not hilarious) comments were left out of the final edit of the interview. Those include the fact that when traveling to Morocco, one thing to remember is to not be a white girl on your own.

The issue we’re featured in focuses on Chicago, a subject on which this site has strong opinions. All due respect to Diana (who gives many excellent recommendations in the issue, including the Art Institute, Intelligentsia, and Half Acre) telling visitors to go to Navy Pier and Wrigley Field is setting them up for a bad time. (Sorry, my Sox is showing.) In order to appreciate the Chicago that those of us who live here love, you have to get well clear of the Loop and that mile that everybody says is so great. I can’t even tell you where to go. My places won’t be yours. But to try to figure it out: Get on the El. Find the person who smells the least bad. Ask them who makes the best tacos. They will have an opinion. Heed it.

The Living Room Show

In 1998, when I was a freshman in college, a friend lent me Pedro the Lion’s It’s Hard to Find a Friend. Frontman David Bazan has been one of my favorite artists ever since.

Pedro the Lion disbanded in 2005 but eventually Bazan found a new voice as a solo act, releasing Curse Your Branches in 2009 and actively touring ever since.

I’ve seen Bazan play some of Chicago’s best venues, including Metro and, my favorite, Lincoln Hall. But lately he’s been doing something new, eschewing tradition venues for the living rooms of fans. Driving solo across the US and Canada, from cities to small towns with just his acoustic and a small box of merch, Bazan is bringing a new level of intimacy to already highly personal shows.

Last night, Bazan played one of these living room shows in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, the next town over from my house in Wheaton.

Glen Ellyn isn’t exactly a rock’n’roll town. It’s a pretty frickin’ rich place to live. Restored Victorians with Mercedes parked in the driveways, gardeners and housekeepers, etc. Usually John and I go there to walk around and gawk at the nice houses. So it felt a bit confusing coming here to see Bazan, the artist I’ve loved since I was a college-aged emo kid.

Now here he was, right in the middle of my thirty-something suburban life. The owners of Blackberry Market closed their doors to the public for night so Bazan could play. On a workday, about month ago, I sat in this very same coffee shop, annoyed by the scads of rich stay-at-home moms in Lululemon ignoring their unruly toddlers.

Last night, however, I sat among 50 other superfans who sat in rapt silence for Bazan’s hour-long set. Alternating between songs and Q&A sessions, Bazan filled the small space with the sound of his awesome voice and haunting songs. You could feel the mutual love in the air.

I contemplating kidnapping him, like how Kristen Wiig kidnapped Fred and Carrie in Portlandia. Instead, I settled for a photo and a hopefully not too sappy expression of my long-time appreciation.

A Scandal in Suburbia

[Note: This article contains no scandal. I was just trying to be what is known as clever.]

It is one of my deepest fears that someday, life situations will force me to live in the suburbs. While I grew up quite nicely in a suburb with a family that seems to enjoy staying in the suburbs, I fled to the city at 17 and have never looked back.

Which makes it sort of strange that my Sunday adventure took me to the suburbs. To one of the most suburban of all suburbs, Naperville, Illinois, extremely wealthy and clean and nice and… ugh, I’m feeling a little crawly thinking about it.

It was meant to be hilarious. Naperville’s Final Fling, a town festival celebrating the end of summer and with it happiness, takes place each year on Labor Day weekend. They’ve got the standard carnival rides and games–although the rides seemed suspiciously well-constructed and the games run by oddly well-behaved barkers who didn’t so much bark as suggest, thoughtfully, that you might like to try to fish a frog with a magnet. They had the typical fair food but also frozen yogurt and crab cakes. But the highlights were supposed to be 1) eating contests of all kinds and 2) mainstream alternative rock darlings of our youth the Goo Goo Dolls.

However. We woke up too late (thanks, VFW karaoke) to make it to Naperville to witness the gluttony of the eating contests, and there wasn’t actually enough to do to keep us busy until the Goo Goo Dolls played, so none of that hilarity was had. We wound up reenacting Before Sunrise (I’m going with Before Sunrise vs. Before Sunset due to the lack of bitterness in the conversation), but in the mid-afternoon, and in Naperville, and without the angst of impending semipermanent separation. So, a little less cinematic. Basically we just walked around and talked in a way that’s not interesting to report back about.

That said, I do have a few lessons from my trip to suburbia to impart.

1) Don’t jaywalk. They seem pretty serious about their right-of-ways out there, and when you travel, it’s wise to do as the locals do. There were even cops out to help people cross a few of the busier streets. Without thinking, I almost stepped out into traffic a couple times. It’s a whole different system of walking, but you have to respect it or you’re going to get smooshed.

2) Watch your language. There are kids everywhere out there, and they’re listening, and more importantly, their conservative parents are hovering nearby listening. I feel like we had some conversations that I felt bad about having near kids in retrospect. When traveling, try to blend in and be respectful of the local culture.

3) OK, some of it is nice. It pains me to say this. But Naperville is actually a very clean city with a thriving downtown with lots of shops and restaurants, both chain and local. The people were very polite, giving us directions and just easily making conversation the way you do if you don’t immediately steer away from strangers with a wary look in your eye. And their Riverwalk is very pretty.

The All-Night Flea Market

What’s more fun than a flea market?

One that requires a flashlight and features D-list celebrities, of course.

Voted one of the top ten flea markets in the country by National Geographic, the All-Night Flea Market in Wheaton, Illinois, doesn’t begin until 4pm. But things don’t start picking up until after dark.

Shoppers wander through the DuPage County Fairgrounds, in and out of barns and exhibition halls that just weeks before held prize-winning pigs and cattle. Now they are filled with junk and/or treasures, depending on how you look at it, from these bizarre beyond-generic cleaning supplies…

Any bets on what’s actually in these bottles?

to 1950s exercise fads…

to the toys of our childhood.

Buckets of angry men.

$50 for a complete set of Jarts? Mighta been worth it.

But there’s much more than treasure hunting! Almost equal to the number of flea market vendors is the number of D-list celebrities sitting behind tables eager to feel the love of strangers. Eighties wrestler Hacksaw Jim Duggan, a munchkin from the terribly reviewed Oz the Great and Powerful and likely never saw even James Franco on set, the grandpa from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, an extra from “The Walking Dead”… you get the idea.

And, Chewbacca!

Part of the fun is distinguishing between the people dressed as characters and the people who just are characters. Was that guy trying to look like Neo from The Matrix? Nope, that’s just a guy who, each and every day, dresses like Neo. Is that Cindy Lauper!? No… that’s just an old lady with a pink sweatband and lipstick and leggings to match.

If this sounds like a fun way to spend an evening and you’re sad you missed it, no worries! They do it all over again near Halloween. Dollar off if you come in costume, which makes the people-watching worth so much more than the $7 price of admission.