Hello again, fellow roadies! It’s January, and we’re moving into playoffs season. The hockey players and basketball guys are just hitting their stride, whereas the football players are tiring (oh, the Bears; don’t get me started). The next several weekends will be full of playoff games. Before you know it, the Super Bowl will be here … which means there are playoff parties in the offing. And once you’re past football, can NCAA’s March Madness, the NBA finals, and the hockey playoffs be far behind? This prompts us to ask, Route 66 fans: what will people be eating at your playoff party or parties?? Not that we want to second-guess or jinx anyone on the home team, mind you; but those of you who are sports fans know very well you’ll be watching the playoffs no matter who’s in the lineup. The inclusion of a home team simply makes you cheer louder and mouth off at the coach more belligerently. Well and good. Be that as it may …
Last time, we told you the history of the Chicago-style hot dog. That’s a must if you begin your road trip here. When people think of road food on Route 66 in the Chicago area, the Chicago-style hot dog is a big item. However, a few other things naturally come to mind as well: breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s, brunch/lunch at Henry’s Drive-In (that’s if you’ve been making all the stops that we recommend upon leaving the Loop, since we know there’s lots to see before you get to Joliet and pass I-80), fried chicken for dinner at either Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket or White Fence Farm, and maybe some of those heavenly angel-creme donuts and great coffee for the road at Home Cut Donuts in Joliet, for those of you who are either overnighting in Joliet or intend to drive through the night (but why would you?). Or, if you’re coming from the West Coast to the Third Coast, traveling eastbound, you might consider Berghoff’s for dinner, over on the Adams Street alignment in downtown Chicago, before you find a bunk for the night.
None of that works for a playoff party, however (unless you’re eating at The Berghoff or Dell Rhea’s, which do have TVs in their bars, instead of watching at home). Rather, we must look to the cuisine of cities along Route 66 that might actually have a contending team in the playoffs. At the Illinois end of the route, that means either Chicago or St. Louis (unless you’re a transplant from somewhere else). And since St. Louis is Missouri’s property, that leaves only Chicago. So what would a Route 66 roadie in Chicago serve? Why, some Chicago favorites and local brands, of course (more about those below, after we suggest a menu).
First off, let us set the rules for a proper playoff party spread. First rule: NO PIZZA. Seriously.
Some of you are already howling in protest over that, given that Chicago is such a pride-of-pizza town. Easily explained: Pizza is for regular games, not playoffs. For one thing, getting it delivered from your favorite place is a matter of dicey timing, especially on a playoff day: you need it to arrive piping hot and exactly as halftime begins – good luck with that – so that all of you can eat and not miss much while you’re getting the food. Also, pizza gets cold quickly, and not everyone likes it cold (I don’t, for example). Second, if you’re thinking of homemade pizza, that means you’re putting the women in your house to work – BAD IDEA, as they’re probably already in charge of the spread and you’ve just made more work for them, not to mention that they might want to relax and watch the game, too. Or at least relax while you’re watching it. So: if you don’t want to spend the next month sleeping alone on the couch, you won’t ask your sweetie to cook during the game. Be nice.
Second rule: You want to serve the food with a minimum of work and hassle, which means a buffet with as little cooking involved as possible. Cover the buffet table with a cute, bright plastic tablecloth. Buy ready-to-eat foods or things that just need heating. You should be able to prepare what little you need to ahead of time. Your guests will serve themselves and eat off sturdy paper plates with plastic forks and spoons, so that only the Crock-Pot or other slow cooker pottery liners, glass lids, serving dishes, serving utensils and warming pots will need washing (dishwasher time). You’ll have paper cups for the chili, coffee and Kool-Aid. You’ll also provide plenty of paper napkins, plus a recycling bin for those beer bottles and cans and a big trash basket for the rest. At the end of the evening, make the kids pick up and toss all the used paper plates, cups, plastic utensils, and dirty napkins and recycle all the bottles and cans. One or two of the adults can help you put away any leftover food in plastic containers and Ziploc bags. Fifteen minutes, and you’re done. Everyone goes home well fed and happy.
Third rule: Whatever you make has to be okay to sit out on the buffet for several hours and should make good leftovers, if you have any. That means you skip 1) the creamy cole slaw, 2) the creamy macaroni salad, and 3) the creamy potato salad. Are you seeing a pattern here? Right: No mayo. Stick with oil-and-vinegar cole slaw and German-style potato salad with vinegar and bacon (in fact, I add extra Hormel bacon pieces to that potato salad, because everything that has bacon in it is better with more bacon; and then I warm it up just a little in the microwave before serving). But even these salads can be bought ready made. The cole slaw will be okay standing at room temp, and the German potato salad actually tastes better that way, so (unlike the slaw) don’t serve it straight from the ’fridge – let it warm up on the kitchen counter during the first half of the game before you put it into a serving dish.
It’s best to stick with local favorites and local brands, as most people will like them; but if you’re purposely throwing a Chicago-Route-66-style party and don’t live in greater Chicago, you want the Chicago stuff. Please note: this menu assumes that you’re going to have more than just a couple of guys over to watch the playoffs. If the only people coming are two or three of your pals (without their wives, kids or significant others), skip the corned beef/pastrami sandwiches, cut back on the sodas, and skip the Kool-Aid and Oreos – you won’t need them. And after the game’s over, people may get a second wind and could be hungry again, so don’t put away anything on the buffet until the end of the evening. Keeping all this in mind, here’s our suggestion for your Chicago-style Route 66 playoffs buffet menu (the ‘name’ products are all Chicago brands):
- Brewskis: Chicago-made craft beer and ale (too many good choices to mention; pick your own)
- Berghoff’s root beer
- Stewart’s sodas: key lime, cream soda, and orange cream
- Kool-Aid for the kids (you can make it with half the sugar if you mix in some fruit juice)
- Stewart’s Private Blend coffee – for the designated drivers
Starters – for snacking during the pre-game show and first half:
- Raw veg tray with jalapeño ranch dressing for the dip (make it with 2% plain Greek yogurt)
- Jays rippled potato chips with Dean’s sour cream onion-chive dip
- Lindy’s chili (warming in Crock-Pot no. 1), self-served in large paper coffee cups with plastic soup spoons
- Chili trimmings: Kraft shredded sharp cheddar, oyster crackers, your favorite bottled hot sauce
Main dishes – for halftime:
- Vienna hot dogs (simmering in Crock-Pot no. 2) with Mary Ann poppy-seed buns
- Plochman’s mustard and all the hot dog trimmings – sliced tomatoes, celery salt, chopped onions, baby Kosher dill pickles, Vienna piccalilli relish, sport (Serrano) peppers, pickled jalapeño slices
- Scala’s or Al’s Italian beef and sliced green peppers in Italian gravy (warming in Crock-Pot no. 3), Gonnella French bread and pickled giardiniera
- Vienna corned beef and/or pastrami sandwiches on Rosen’s rye, with mustard (make these the morning of the game: spread with mustard, cut in halves, place on a serving platter, and cover with cling-wrap)
- Oil-and-vinegar style cole slaw
- German-style potato salad with bacon and vinegar dressing
Snacks and dessert – during the last quarter
- Garrett’s popcorn – either the Chicago Mix or your favorite CaramelCrisp and nut mix
- Frango mints
- dark-chocolate turtles from Cupid Candies
- Dove bars (kept in the freezer until you serve them!)
- Oreo cookies
- more Stewart’s coffee, with cream and sugar on the side
Word to the wise: Note that the Garrett’s popcorn doesn’t come out until after the main part of the meal has been served. Normally, people would bring out the popcorn right at the start – but if people eat that stuff along with the raw veggies, chips and chili, they won’t be hungry by the time you bring out the good stuff. Such a waste. Be smart and leave the popcorn for later.
That’s it for the experienced playoff-party givers (there’s an addendum below with advice for the inexperienced playoff party hosts) – and with part 2 next time, you’ll have Chicago food trivia that you can discuss while you’re munching that spread during halftime, in case you run out of sports conversation to keep you entertained. ;D
Next time: part 2 – Where did those Chicago foods for your party come from?
Your Route 66 food maven,
Addendum: advice for those who have never arranged a decent playoff party before
[Experienced, successful party-givers can skip this part]
First, get three medium-sized Crock-Pots or other slow cookers; borrow them from your mom and aunts, if you have to – they’ll make your buffet possible and keep things warm. Second, make sure you can set up your buffet table against a wall that has an electrical outlet with nothing else plugged into it; you’ll plug the Crock-Pots into a grounded power strip and plug that into the wall. Third, buy all your supplies two days in advance. Make sure to request extra gravy for the Italian beef (remember, some folks like their Italian beef ‘wet’ and will dip their bread before loading it with meat and peppers). Your buffet involves mostly assembly and set-up. The only things you’ll need to fix yourself (as in: chop or assemble only, not cook) are one of the dips, the onion and sliced tomatoes for the hot dogs, and the thin green pepper slices that go into the Italian gravy for the Italian beef. The only beverages you’ll make are the Kool-Aid (if kids are coming) and the coffee. No biggie.
All of the bottled extras – pickles, peppers, relish, and giardiniera – can be served in their jars; just make sure you have spoons, forks and pickle tongs set on a paper plate nearby for serving. The onions can be chopped, the tomatoes sliced, and the ranch dip and sandwiches can be made several hours ahead of the party, covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated until you’re ready to serve them (but the jalapeño ranch dip tastes better if you make it the day before; use ranch dressing mix, chopped jalapeños and plain Greek yogurt – no mayo). Do all the chopping and slicing as you’re drinking your morning coffee on the day of the party, and you’re set. The cole slaw and potato salad only need to be emptied into bowls; same with the chips, shredded cheddar, and oyster crackers. The raw-veg tray only needs the lid removed and the ranch dip added. Easy.
When you buy sliced Italian beef cold at the deli or in a tray from a catering place, you get the gravy, too; all you need to do is warm up the gravy first in a saucepan. Just bring that gravy to a boil, drop in the sliced green peppers, cover tightly and simmer for 15 minutes before you transfer all that to a Crock-Pot and add the sliced Italian beef, then cover again and set to simmer. For the hot dogs, all you do is pour boiling water into the Crock-Pot, set it to simmer, and drop in the dogs and cover. The chili is even easier: dump it into the Crock-Pot, cover, and let it warm. Half an hour of simmering is enough for all the Crock-Pot dishes before their contents are ready to eat. That means you’ll get the chili started before the guests arrive for the pre-game show and will start warming the dogs and beef during a commercial about 30 minutes before halftime (do the warming on the kitchen counter, then move the Crock-Pots to the buffet table when ready to serve; once you’ve set them on the buffet, don’t forget to plug them in again!). All the trimmings and extras should be put out at the start before guests arrive; the cole slaw, potato salad, buns and bread come out at halftime.
Just before putting out the Italian beef, slice the French bread (make sure it’s Gonnella, or it’ll fall apart!) into 6-inch lengths and cut them open (but not all the way through), then pile the bread on a platter and bring it out. That way, it won’t dry out before serving. Any leftover bread or sandwiches can be saved in Ziploc bags and used for lunches the next day. That’s it, folks – good luck, and have fun!