Route 66 people:  Lou Mitchell’s Heleen Thanas remembered

Back after Thanksgiving while we were still partying with our friends and families over the long weekend, we were on holiday hiatus and missed something.  Mind you, it wasn’t at all well publicized; in fact, it happened in the background, under the radar.

Yesterday, I ran across the news while searching online for something else:  Heleen Thanas, doyenne of the famous Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant in Chicago, had died on Halloween last year of complications following a catastrophic stroke.  There hadn’t been a death notice under that name in the local papers, only a Chicago Tribune obituary in late November for a Heleen Thanasouras-Gillman, nearly a month after the private funeral.

Thanasouras-Gillman … That might be the reason I wasn’t the only one who missed it.

Heleen Thanas was her work name.  Even though Thanas is the surname her mother, Kathryn, and brother Nick use at the restaurant – the one on the deed and other legal documents – Thanasouras-Gillman was the name by which Heleen’s immediate family and close friends knew her.  She was proud of her heritage and her accomplishments.

Lou Mitchell's Restaurant on Jackson Boulevard (Photo copyright 2012 by Keith Yearman; all rights reserved)

Lou Mitchell’s on Jackson Blvd.  (Photo copyright 2012 by Keith Yearman; all rights reserved)

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More Route 66 food history:  the real Aunt Jemima

Last time, we introduced the game of Six Degrees of Daniel Burnham (eat your heart out, Kevin Bacon!) while discussing Chicago cuisine.  It’s time for Round 2, this time with someone who appeared at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition and was a big hit:  the original Aunt Jemima, aka Nancy Green.

Portrait of Nancy Green as Aunt Jemima by A. B. Frost

Portrait of Nancy Green by A. B. Frost  (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Although born into slavery on a plantation in 1834 in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, Green had become a young nurse by the end of the Civil War.  After 1865, she moved up to Chicago to work as a cook and maid for the prosperous Walker family (their children grew up to be Judge Charles M. Walker and Dr. Samuel Walker, the latter a wealthy physician who lived on the city’s North Side).  It seems Ms. Green was known for her warm personality as much as for her cooking.  She didn’t become the first woman to portray Aunt Jemima until 1890, at which time Chicagoans were busily preparing for the upcoming world’s fair.  But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Cut to St. Joseph, Missouri, 1888 (i.e., suburban St. Louis).  Two friends, Charles G. Underwood and Christian L. Rutt, who was then editor of the St. Joseph Gazette, bought a flour mill that they dubbed the Pearl Milling Company.  Because there was a flour glut at the time, they sold their excess flour in white paper sacks as a ready-made, self-rising pancake mix.  Rutt was the one who came up with the recipe, a surviving handwritten copy of which, dated November 1, 1889, still exists at the Patee House Museum (a former luxury hotel in St. Joseph listed on the National Register of Historic Places that is now also a National Historic Landmark).  It’s clear the recipe is his, despite other claims.

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Route 66 food history:  Chicago’s Shrimp de Jonghe

Hello again, fellow roadies!  Here it is October and autumn.  Are you missing the Route 66 road trips already?  You shouldn’t be: road trips are still in season here and autumn color is plentiful on the northern part of the route, though not quite yet (no decent overnight chill yet to prompt the color change, darn it; but it’s coming).  Never fear, we’ll keep you busy and entertained:  it’s time for another installment of foodie fun on the route!

We do love history on this blog, and we see no reason food history shouldn’t be included.  Lucky you:  I’ve just researched the oldest known recipe that originated in Chicago.  It’s more than 120 years old, and its history dates back to – wait for it – the 1893 Columbian Exposition, without which we wouldn’t have the lovely Classical style original Art Institute of Chicago building that stands right at the Gateway to Route 66 at Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue.  The great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham was, of course, director of construction and the man most responsible for organizing that world’s fair and getting it built, and he chose the architects of that building – Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, the successors of Boston architect H.H. Richardson.

Why do we mention that?  Well, you could call this Six Degrees of Daniel Burnham:  there are so many things in Chicago that tie directly or indirectly to Burnham and/or to the buildings he designed – several of which are at or very near the Gateway to Route 66 – that even though he had no hand in designing some of them, he can still be tied to them.  And, through him and his buildings, to Route 66 because of its starting point at Jackson and Michigan.  Which brings us to restaurateur Henri de Jonghe and his famous shrimp.

Chicago-style Shrimp de Jonghe in individual ramekins

Chicago-style Shrimp de Jonghe, laced with butter, garlic and sherry, in individual ramekins

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