Every year, on this day, families and friends gather to enjoy a traditional feast, and to be thankful for the people and things in their life that most other days they take for granted.

For me, personally, this has been a particularly difficult year. Since we all gathered together one year ago, Chicago experienced its worst blizzard in centuries, in the middle of which we lost power for three days.

Our Front Door after the Blizzard

Our Front Door after the Blizzard

As we huddled in the dark waiting for the heat to come back on, one of our dogs, Daisy, slipped from one of the six-foot snowdrifts in our driveway and fractured one of her rear legs. When doctors went to repair it, they discovered she had bone cancer. Although there was no guarantee Daisy would survive more than a couple of weeks or months, my wife and I decided to have the leg amputated.

Daisy's Recovery

Daisy's Recovery

Afterwards, Daisy, who my wife had rescued from a Wisconsin greyhound track, could barely stand, let alone run.

Daisy’s long recovery process was hard on everyone, but especially hard on our two other dogs, Isabel and Jay Z. Sadly, Jay, another greyhound rescue, became so distraught that he began eating tree branches and thorns in our backyard and developed bloat. In the midst of Daisy’s recuperation, Jay was rushed to the animal hospital, where doctors determined that even with surgery, it was unlikely that our beloved dog, weakened and in pain, would survive. I held him as the doctors put him to sleep.

Jay Z

Jay Z

Those were dark days indeed.

A few months later, I was unexpectedly layed off from my job at a downtown restaurant. I suddenly found myself trying to find work in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. For the first time in my life, I had to swallow my pride and file for unemployment insurance.

And yet, despite all this, I’m more thankful this Thanksgiving than I have been perhaps any other.

It’s true what they say: Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We’ve had a lot of hard times in the last year, but we’re still standing.

So this Thanksgiving, here’s some of the things I’m grateful for: Daisy’s recuperation brought our family together in a way that was unexpected and amazing. Cousins, sisters, grandmothers and nephews volunteered unasked to provide Daisy with the round-the-clock care she required. For weeks, Daisy lay on a dog bed in the middle of our living room as a houseful of people and voices and love revolved around her.

And now, nine months later, Daisy never fails to turn heads as she runs down our street on her three legs, as happy and full of life as she ever was.

While losing Jay Z was tough, we recently brought a new puppy, Bud, into our home. Less than a year old, Bud already weighs more than 70 pounds, only nobody told him he’s not still a little puppy. He richochets off the furniture and jumps up on guests in a way that would make Marmaduke blush. And although he’s often infuriating as he chews on every single thing in our house, we couldn’t love him more.

Daisy and Bud

Daisy and Bud

As far as work is concerned, losing my job forced me to follow through on my boasts that I would return to my writing career after 17 years in the restaurant business. I’ve tapped into my experience as a chef and manager to write this daily food blog for you fine people, and I’ve begun working on other writing projects as well.

When you love what you do, it is no longer work. I love writing about food as much if not more than I do cooking it, and I hope to keep doing it for the rest of my productive years.

So this Thanksgiving, I give thanks that the last year was so hard. Because we’ve come out of it stronger, happier and more appreciative of the things we formerly took for granted.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!



South Side Grocery Bargains — Week of Nov. 16-22, 2011

Is pizza a vegetable? According to Congress, the answer is yes!.

On Monday, Congress blocked an effort by the Obama administration that would have required public schools receiving federal subsidies for lunches to include at least one half cup of tomato paste in a single serving of pizza in order for it to qualify as a vegetable. That much of tomato paste would render a slice of pizza inedible, in effect disqualifying pizza from the vegetable requirement.

Backed by the big food industry, Congress also blocked the administration’s other proposed new rules which included requiring more whole grain foods in school lunches and cutting back on the amount of French fries students eat. You can check out the New York Times’ report on the controversy here.

The whole issue is reminiscent of when the Reagan administration tried to get ketchup reclassified as a vegetable back in the 1980s. What are these people thinking?

You know what I’m thinking? Let’s start saving some money!

In the produce section, Aldi’s has a 12 oz bag of fresh cranberries for $.99 and celery for $.49 bunch. At Fresh Pick Market, at 8749 S. Ridgeland Ave., in Oak Lawn, bananas are $.39/lb and cabbage is $.25/lb. Tony’s Finer Foods, at 8630 S. Harlem Ave., in Bridgeview, has navel oranges for $.99/lb.

Pete’s has collard greens for $.39/lb, and avocados for the same price each. Pete’s also has green beans for $.79/lb, zucchini for $.48/lb, and California blackberries for $.98/pint.

Cermak Produce has cauliflower, tangerines and honey crisp apples all for $.59/lb, as well as celery for $.59/bunch. At Freshline Foods, at 5355 W. 95th St., in Oak Lawn, broccoli crowns are $.49/lb. Food 4 Less has 10 lb sacks of russet potatoes for $1.78.

In the meat department, there are a lot of turkey specials available, but most of them require a minimum purchase and a coupon, so check the fine print before heading to the store. Both Cermak and Fresh Pick have whole pork butt roast for $.99/lb. Pete’s has ground turkey for $1.48/lb.

Fresh Pick has chicken drumsticks for $.69/lb. Food 4 Less has Tyson whole fryers for $.99/lb. And Tony’s has boneless skinless breasts for $1.49/lb.

In the grocery aisle, Ultra Foods has Ocean Spray cranberry sauce for $.88/can, Campbell’s Spaghetti-O’s for $.89/can, and Keebler club crackers for $1.78/box. Cermak has Del Monte canned vegetables for $.50/ea, and Tony’s has Barilla pasta for $.99/lb, both good prices for brand names.

In the dairy department, both Freshline and Pete’s have butter for $1.88/lb. Ultra Foods has Imperial margarine for $.48/lb. F4L has Kroger sour cream for $1/lb, same as last week.

In the frozen foods section, both Pete’s and Freshline have 1 lb bags of assorted frozen vegetables for $.69.

The baking supplies aisle will be crowded this week as folks start their holiday baking. At Aldi’s, a 12 oz can of evaporated milk is $.69. Ultra has a 5 lb bag of Pillsbury flour for $1.79. And Pete’s has 4 lb sacks of granulated sugar for $1.99, and a 1 lb box of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda for $.69.

In the bakery, both Tony’s and F4L have fresh baked apple, pumpkin or sweet potato pies for $2.50. Tony’s also has pecan pies for $3.99. Yum.

For this week’s Bargain of the Week, we return to Ultra, where sweet potatoes are on sale for only $.18/lb, a great price!

One last note: For all you seniors out there, every Tuesday Freshline offers a 3% senior citizen discount. For everybody else, stay out of Freshline on Tuesdays!

See you at the grocery store!

Green Bean Casserole

In my family, Thanksgiving is the Rodney Dangerfield of holidays. It gets no respect.

Take Christmas, for example. If someone in my family were to miss Christmas, you would hear about it for years, decades even. There is no conceivable excuse for missing Christmas, not even if you were hospitalized.

Like my handle-less casserole? Classy, right?

Like my handle-less casserole? Classy, right?

On Thanksgiving, however, you can get a pass. If there are in-laws to take into account, or if you have to work that day — as I did for too many years in the restaurant business — it is okay to skip Thanksgiving dinner.

In fact, I can think of once, maybe twice in the past 30 years when my entire family went full Rockwell, enjoying the holiday seated around the dining room table.

Instead, what usually happens is that those refugees who don’t have other commitments gather at a restaurant for a mid-afternoon feast. For example, I’ll be enjoying the holiday for the second year in a row at the wonderful Chuck’s Southern Comfort Barbeque with assorted family members. They serve an excellent traditional Thanksgiving spread with amazing Tex-Mex and Cajun flourishes. Highly recommended.

Despite all that, I still look forward to Thanksgiving, and the simple treasures it contains. And I’m not just talking about afternoon football on a Thursday!

Sure, there’s turkey and stuffing. Although they are a Thanksgiving tradition, you really could serve them almost anytime during the year and they wouldn’t seem out of place. No, I’m talking about those dishes that would freak my family out if I made them any day except Thanksgiving.

Dishes like green bean casserole.

Can you imagine bringing green bean casserole to a Fourth of July picnic, or serving it on Easter? My family probably would have me committed. At the very least, some smart aleck would say, “What is this, Thanksgiving?!”

Yet this simple recipe defines Thanksgiving for me. A fractured, schizophrenic Thanksgiving, perhaps. But Thanksgiving nonetheless.

Maybe that’s one of the things I love most about Thanksgiving. It never turns out the way it’s supposed to.

Baked Chicken, Green Bean Casserole, and Stuffing

Baked Chicken, Green Bean Casserole, and Stuffing

Green Bean Casserole

2 cans French-style green beans, drained

1 can Cream of Mushroom soup

2 TBS Sour Cream

Two dashes of Worchestershire Sauce

Dash of Hot Sauce

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

2 oz can Fried Onions

In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except fried onions and mix well. Go a little heavier on the pepper than you normally would. Pour into casserole dish and top with onions. Cover and bake at 350F for 35 minutes, then remove the cover and bake another 5 minutes so the onions toast a little.

What are some dishes that define Thanksgiving for you? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!