For Bloomsday, Best Fest Buddy Tom and I broke out the kilts last Friday to hit the Chicago Scots Scottish Festival and Highland Games in Itasca.
Bloomsday is a very Irish lit kind of day. But marking the June 16 in 1904 that James Joyce set Ulysses at a Scottish fest, you say?
It’s not like we set that precedent.
Turns out that in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, of all places, there’s a “HAGGIS-Style! Bloomsday” celebration involving pub crawling, in kilts, around the town, while reading from Joyce’s novel.
The internet also reminded me there’s a wee bit of eating and drinking described in the novel, including gorgonzola sandwiches, burgundy wine, thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, stuffed roast heart, liver fried with crust crumbs, fried hen’s cod roes and mutton kidneys. Plus, if not a consummating consume, there’s an infamous part about tenderizing meat.
So, to keep with our bookish theme, we headed to the fest in part to meet the national chef of Scotland, Gary Maclean.
Maclean, 47, has been working in the restaurant industry since he was 15. He became Scotland’s national chef after winning 2016’s edition of MasterChefs: The Professionals, a BBC “hunt for the next superstar chef.”
Maclean now owns several eateries of his own in Scotland. He also teaches. And the award-winning chef also authored three books, with another one coming out in the fall.
Stateside, his “The Scottish Kitchen” drops Aug. 1. They took advance orders at the fest, with proceeds going to Chicago Scots to support the Caledonia Senior Living & Memory Care facility in North Riverside.
Tom and I live near East and West Dundee. Coincidence? Probably.
Maclean said in his volunteer role as national chef, he wears two hats. He has way more hats than I do, metaphorically at least.
One national chef hat involves work in Scotland promoting food to and for kids and addressing food insecurity, helping people on the fringes with food. Maclean said he stresses the fundamentals of learning how to prepare food for yourself.
The national chef role also involves promoting Scottish food across the globe. Cuba. Singapore. Colombia. India. New York, which Maclean said he knows better than cities in Scotland. To name a few places.
And now a business park outside Chicago. Maclean said the Chicago Scots annual festival was his all-time sixth visit to the Chicago area.
What Maclean said he’s noticed here and elsewhere is the continuing trend building the last 10 years or so of “drilling into the local,” with restaurateurs and patrons looking for ingredients that come from as close to home as possible and reflect a local identity.
At the same time, “you can eat really well or eat really poorly, anywhere in the world,” Maclean said. You can find a gem anywhere, or a dud.
To that point, Maclean enjoyed the snow crab at Poor Phil’s in Oak Park. The fish and chips at a big hotel, not so much.
Tom and I have enjoyed the food at Phil’s. Coincidence? Probably. Either way, this made for conversation about Phil’s eclectic menu.
The stereotype people in the US might have of Scotland’s food revolves around the much maligned and misunderstood haggis.
Of course, Scottish cuisine goes way beyond that organ-meat-and-oatmeal-based dish.
Maclean noted the Scottish larder includes Angus beef, game, sheep, potatoes, freshwater fish, salmon and an abundance of seafood, given the country’s tremendous amount of coastline.
Maclean mentioned larder. Tom and I are on the lard ass side. Coincidence? Probably.
Scotland also has myriad Indian restaurants, a cuisine that Maclean loves and grew up with.
Schaumburg, very close to Itasca, has a good number of Indian eateries? Coincidence? Again!!??
I think we also mentioned the Balmoral Restaurant, which is one of the best restaurants in the Chicago suburbs.
There’s also a French connection with Scottish food, dating as least as far back as Mary Queen of Scots, whose mother was French.
“Mary was the Beyonce of her day, the height of sophistication,” Maclean said.
Mary had a little lamb? Well, Maclean said she had 10 chefs.
Marmalade represents the Franco-Scot food link. So does gigot, a leg of lamb cut.
Maclean said he enjoys telling and learning the stories behind food.
To that point, he appeared on a few morning TV shows in Chicago promoting the fest, his book and Scottish food.
At the fest he prepared three dishes. One featured the aforementioned haggis. Another had scallops with black pudding. Maclean also made cullen skink, a traditional soup featuring haddock, potatoes, milk and onion.
“It’s a bit of a show. Fun. I talk about ancestry, about how we eat and how we used to eat,” Maclean said of his presentations.
Maclean prepared his dishes on induction hobs from IKEA similar to ones he uses back home.
There’s an IKEA not far from where the fest took place. Coincidence? Probably not.
Either way, the onsite demo happened Saturday. Not Bloomsday.
So, after talking to Maclean, our Bloomsday took us to the vendor booths.
Last year, Tom had a kilting accident. He broke a leather portion of his sporran belt.
We wandered over to the stall for Lambert Leather. Tom asked proprietor Jesse Lambert if he had a replacement belt. He didn’t.
Lambert offered to repair the broken leather part. Lambert showed and told us how treacherous it can be to work with leather while fixing Tom’s belt.
That added suspense to our Bloomsday, for sure.
We also wound up learning that Lambert started his five-year-old business in Durand, Mich. as a side hustle. He grew up going to the big Ren Faire in Holly, Mich, which is held Labor Day weekend. Out of that grew a hobby for making costumes and leathery props for friends, family and festive occasions such as Halloween.
Durand is about 36 miles from Birch Run, where Tom has family. Tom asked Lambert if he had been to Tony’s I-75 Restaurant in Birch Run. Tom loves Tony’s because of its big-ass BLT, which has a pound of bacon on it.
Tom did not tell Chef Maclean about this place. But Tom’s face lit up when Lambert said he recently made his first trip to Tony’s and enjoyed it.
Was it a coincidence that a guy who had eaten at Tony’s, one of Tom’s favorite places in the whole wide world, happened to be at the fest and resolved Tom’s sporran issue? Probably.
We became fast friends with Lambert, his wife and their toddler. Tom bought them all beers. Well, not the kid.
Was Tom laying the groundwork for getting a Tony’s BLT delivered to him at next year’s fest?
That would involve planning, not coincidences. Plus, the fest is moving to a new location for 2024. I hope the Chicago Scots fest heads to Arlington Heights or Naperville, like the Chicago Bears.
Anyway, that was a good portion of our Bloomsday. It ain’t 783 pages and 265,000 words like Ulysses.
Not even close. In more ways than one. SEO won’t allow that, for starters.
If there’s a moral to our story, it may be that you can’t have coincidences without having conversations. But who are we to talk about morals? Or morels, even?
Wait. That was the Carbondale tale.
I went full circle there. Or back to the future.
Stream on. Dream on.
It all still ends with an emphatic, tiny dot.