Archive for ‘Franklin Park’

August 21, 2013

The Local Beet

I would like to thank all who visit this site and tell everybody about another site that I blog at, The Local Beet. It is a Chicago Area site that has a lot of great info for those who live in the Chicago Region.

April 29, 2013

Move 200 miles west and take a little of Chicago with you…

Dahinda, IL: A pack of cucumber seeds, which had an ad for a local insurance agent as part of the label, and summers spent on several cousins’ Wisconsin dairy farms sprouted an interest in growing food that has not diminished. The seeds were sent to my Dad as junk mail. He gave them to me and showed me how to plant them. I was about 10 at the time and was growing up in Franklin Park, out near O’Hare. The garden that I started that year, 1975, grew in size over the years to encompass most of our back yard. My interest in growing food was bolstered by the many gardening and back-to-the-land books that were popular back then and by TV shows like Crockett’s Victory Garden.

Photos courtesy of

I wasn’t alone in Franklin Park in my gardening interests. Many of the homes in town were owned by Italians, Mexicans and members of other immigrant groups who also had huge gardens and each of whom had their own tastes and varieties of vegetables they liked to grow. Grown in the dark rich soil of Franklin Park were many varieties of peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, chard, cultivated types of dandelion, and believe it or not, figs that were certainly not available at the local Kmart garden department. As my gardening experience grew I got to know many of these gardeners and they shared both their expertise and, more importantly, seeds for these vegetables that helped expand my world view.

I later started a career, met my wife Julie, moved to Northbrook, and still gardened growing the varieties and the knowledge gleaned from all of the like-minded people that I met in Franklin Park. Later my wife and I moved to a 22-acre farm in Dahinda, Illinois near Galesburg. The current local food movement was ramping up and wanting to be involved, we started farming and selling our produce locally. Although we love living in Dahinda, I felt a connection to the Chicago Area and wanted a way to bring a part of it out here with me. What better way than to grow the old vegetable varieties that I grew way back in the day Franklin Park!

Among these old varieties that I still grow is the Italian cucumber/melon. Extremely popular among the Italian gardeners of Franklin Park the cucumber/melon is commonly known as an “Italian cucumber.” It comes in many shapes from round to long but the most popular seems to be one that is about 4 inches long. It is covered with downy fuzz that comes off when washed. It has a mild cucumber taste and can be used in salads or can be pickled. Plant the seeds as you would any other cucumber, but I wouldn’t plant them until the soil has warmed and the temperature has been above 80 for several days. The people I knew who grew this carried the seeds over from Italy and saved them from year-to-year, however, they are available from several seed companies including Seeds from Italy.

Ital Cuke
Italian Cucumber/Melon
Photo courtesy of Seeds from Italy

Another hometown gardening memory is tomatillos. There are many varieties and this is a commonly found item in many gardens these days. A variety highly touted by many Mexican friends in Franklin Park, is a type known as the “Mexican Strain.” This larger, heavy yielding variety is not as tart as others and makes a great salsa verde. It can also be used in other dishes like authentic chili con carne. The seed should be started indoors, 8 or so weeks before the last frost. The plants are grown similar to tomatoes but are more delicate than tomato plants. Again, my friend’s seeds were brought from Mexico and saved from year-to-year, but they are also available from Territorial Seed Company.

I would be remiss in my boyhood gardening memories if I did not mention two, very Chicago, varieties of pepper. These are the Melrose And the Chicago Sport pepper. Before the O’Hare area was built up it was one of the greatest vegetable growing regions in the country. Around the turn of the 20th century, many Italian immigrants were buying farms in the Near Western Suburbs of Chicago from the German families that had originally settled the land.

These new farmers began many of the truck farms that supplied South Water Market back in the day and include people like Tom Naples, who’s farm stand for many years was a fixture on North Avenue, westof Chicago. One of the peppers grown in the area was the Melrose, named after Melrose Park. It is an Italian thin-skinned type frying pepper that is great on sandwiches, in stir fries, and stuffed. I grow this variety in Dahinda from seed received from a man from Melrose Park. His grandfather bred a larger- than-normal strain and his family has saved the seed ever since. The seeds for the Melrose are available from many seed companies such as Baker Creek and the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and the plants can be found in many Chicago area garden centers. They should be started indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost and set out when the danger of frost is past.

Melrose Pepper
Photo courtesy of Southern Exposure

The Chicago Sport pepper is famous as the pepper used on Chicago style hot dogs. They are easily grown from plants started 6 to 8 weeks, indoors, before the last frost. The raw peppers are somewhat hot and great used in any dish where one would like to pump up the heat. Left to ripen, they can be dried and used that way for their heat-enhancing properties. Dried sport peppers can also be ground to make pepper flakes. These can be used on pizzas and other dishes that call for dried pepper flakes. But to use them on Chicago style hot dogs they should be pickled. Once I gave some sport peppers to a neighbor who promptly put them on a hot dog, not realizing that they are much hotter when raw. She was not pleased with the results! The seeds for the sport pepper can be found through many seed companies and the plants can be found at many Chicago area garden centers.

Although the seeds and plants for the vegetable varieties I mentioned above are available from many commercial sources, the best source of course, is to find a person who grows a variety handed down and saved from year-to-year. They will create a connection to the past, the community, and to the world.

Seeds from Italy:
Territorial Seed Company:
Baker Creek Heirloom Seed:
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange:

This was also posted at The Local Beet: Chicago

January 30, 2012

Gene’s and Jude’s still great!

Every neighborhood and suburban enclave of the Chicago area has it’s own hot dog stand, sub place, Italian beef shack, or pizza joint that is a local institution. Growing up in the Franklin Park – River Grove – Leyden Township area northwest of Chicago we had Jake’s (not affiliated with the chain) or Grand Stand, both in Franklin Park, for pizza, Al & Joe’s in FP or Ozzie’s, in Leyden Township, for sub sandwiches, The Beef Joint in River Grove or Scooby’s in Bensenville for Italian Beef sandwiches. There were a bunch of hot dog stands in the area but Gene’s and Jude’s, on River Road just north of Grand in River Grove was, by far, the place to go for hot dogs. 

Gene’s and Jude’s started in 1947 at Polk Street and Western Avenue by two guys who worked for the City of Chicago, Gene Mormino and Jude DeSantis. Gene soon lost the stand in a card game. By 1950 they had saved enough money to build a new stand in River Grove. The stand is still going strong today and often time there are lines around the inside of the building and out the door, even at 2 in the morning!
Gene’s and Jude’s menu is limited to Vienna Brand Hot Dogs, Fries (fresh cut from russet potatoes in front of the customers and cooked in old fashioned lard), and the paper wrapped tamales found in many Chicago area hot dog stands. Even though they will give you an argument about it, Gene’s and Jude’s  hot dogs are not in the strictest sense, “Chicago Style” hot dogs since the condiments only include mustard, relish, onions, and sport peppers. Fries are served wrapped up with the dog and there is no ketchup for the hot dogs or the fries. The normal pickle, tomato, celery salt and other condiments usually found on a Chicago Style hot dog are for whatever reason absent as well.
The absence of some of the normal condiments does not take away from the fact they serve up a great hot dog at Gene’s and Jude’s! At this point I must add the disclaimer that I have been eating these all my life and make it a point to stop and get a couple every time I am back in town. If you grew up on Super Dawgs or some of the more places that serve up a more traditional Chicago Style hot dog you may be loyal to what you grew up with. I can see where loyalty to a neighborhood joint that has a sentimental place in your psyche might cause you to wince when you hear that both Rachel Ray and the Serious Eats blog named it the best dog in America. It is always in the top 10 of Chicago’s best quick eats. Also It may be that Gene’s and Jude’s are an acquired taste especially to somebody who is not familiar with them. 
Notwithstanding, a week ago I got the chance to get back to Chicago. I visited some of the old haunts and made the trip to Gene’s and Jude’s. The place and hot dogs were just like I remember them! My wife grew up in Edison Park on the Northwest Side of Chicago and Superdawg was the place to go up there. She makes no secret of the fact that she does not like Gene’s and Jude’s hot dogs and tamales. I do agree with her assessment of the fries being too limp. They taste great, fried in that lard, like fries should be! The problem I think, is that they never have the deep fryer hot enough and the fries cook but do not get to the desired crispness. Other than that I have no complaints. This is a comfort food from my youth and, even though I now live 200 miles away,  I am still a loyal Gene’s and Jude’s customer!

                                        Gene’s and Jude’s  

                                         2720 River Road
                                         River Grove, IL 60171