The Reader’s first food critic was a diabetic undergrad with an appetite for the undiscovered

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Sally Banes and Joy Robinson-Lynch

T

he Reader has covered food and restaurants in Chicago throughout its half-century existence, though not nearly as consistently or comprehensively as music, film, drama, or most of the other arts—certainly not every week when I came on as a starving editorial assistant way back in ’95. Back then there was a very occasional visual feature by Leah Eskin called The Purloined Menu where she reviewed restaurants by annotation. And before that, freelancers like Jody Stern and Don Rose (better known as a political wonk) contributed infrequent reviews to the calendar pages under the rubric Restaurant Tours. And in the 1970s an annual Cheap Eats guide collected listings of short capsule reviews. It wasn’t until 1999 when we launched the online Reader Restaurant Finder, a massive database of capsules, that we started publishing food writing weekly in the form of longer reviews and narratives.

And I get it. In the 70s and 80s, food and restaurants in general were nothing like the cultural phenomena they are today. I wasn’t around back then but I gather that in Chicago the food scene was pretty grim.

Or was it? In 1971, Louis Szathmary’s The Bakery had a national reputation for fine dining. The Pump Room was still drawing celebrities like flies on a baked Alaska. And two guys named Rich Melman and Jerry Orzoff opened a place called R.J. Grunts, the first property in what would become the Lettuce Entertain You empire.

It wasn’t exactly the steak-and-potatoes town it was derided for, something the Reader got from day one. On the bottom of page six of the inaugural issue on October 1, 1971, the paper ran a column called Eats written by a University of Chicago undergrad named Sally Banes who, unbeknownst to her readers, happened to be a lifelong diabetic.

In that first review Banes covered a Lakeview Japanese restaurant called Naniwa, framing the piece with a wistful food memory of her first visit as a demure young woman quietly enjoying her teriyaki—“rich and orange-brown on its pale green lettuce bed” —in the company of more talkative male friends. In this milieu she ticks off vivid descriptions of the décor, the service, the flavors, and textures, and keeps an eye out for the budget-conscious reader, concluding with a kicker about the price of female empowerment:

“Since that wonderful, innocent feast I’ve chosen to trade the childlike accoutrements of ladyhood for the rewards and responsibilities of equality in social situations. And I sometimes worry that while I’m holding up my end of a conversation my friends are eating up all the teriyaki.”

It was the times, man. The kid was with it.

When Sally Banes died from ovarian cancer in June of 2020 at the age of 69 she was mourned and memorialized all over the world. But it wasn’t for her food writing. Banes, of course, was the renowned dance historian and critic, the author of eight scholarly books who left food writing and Chicago behind some 45 years earlier.

“She was a renaissance person,” says Joy Robinson-Lynch, her best friend at the time, who was a regular member of her restaurant reviewing cohort. “She had a sophistication about food not common in college students. She liked to eat but she was also a student on a budget.” According to Robinson-Lynch, until she arrived in Chicago, Banes’s diet and insulin injections were carefully regimented by her parents. Like most college freshmen she was suddenly free to indulge in forbidden appetites. “Once she wasn’t under her parents’ thumb she just ate everything,” says Robinson-Lynch.

Banes wrote some 20 Eats columns between that first Reader issue and mid-1973, scouring the city for undersung spots, off the beaten path. Robinson-Lynch recalls she got the gig while working at Plants Alive, the houseplant shop where Reader owner Bob Roth was also employed. Neither remembers who pitched who, but Robinson-Lynch recalls Banes’s first draft wasn’t up to snuff, and Roth sent her back to the woodshed with a directive to study critic Mimi Sheraton, who was then reviewing restaurants for the Village Voice. “She got it right away,” says Robinson-Lynch—and Roth accepted her rewrite. “She started writing these really clever, well-written pieces.” 

In the midst of Chicago’s supposed culinary desert, Banes uncovered a Serbian night club, a Polish smorgasbord, 24-hour bakeries, and Green Planet, a trendy new vegetarian restaurant. “Finally, at last! We were getting some civilization in Chicago,” she wrote, though ultimately found it much too pricey.

The Reader only paid ten, maybe 20 dollars for those pieces and didn’t reimburse her for the money she spent on food,” says Robinson-Lynch. “So she had to find places to make it pay. She discovered that every ethnic community in Chicago had a club, and you could go there and get an inexpensive meal. It feels to me like every weekend we were off to one.” (Roth doesn’t recall how much the Reader paid Banes.)

Some of Banes’s finds are still around in one form or another. There was the friendly Syrian bakery in Back of the Yards that would eventually grow into Ziyad Brothers Importing, whose yellow-labeled cans and jars can be found on nearly every supermarket and neighborhood Middle Eastern grocery in the city.

Two of her “longhaired male friends” were given the cold shoulder at the bar at Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap one night, but Banes and Robinson-Lynch were treated with chivalrous respect at the now-91-year-old red sauce joint. (Robinson-Lynch, a New Jersey native, recalls she broke the ice by loudly dropping the names of a few infamous East Coast mobsters.)

One of those longhaired male friends was Bob James, Banes’s boyfriend at the time, whose first name appears in a number of Eats cameos. “I just remember how difficult it was,” he says. “Describing food is very difficult. It was easy to wear out those adjectives.”

But Banes figured out how to bring the buffet to life at Valois: “A study in brown lies before you, starch and meat, siennas, umbers, oranges, pumpkins, yellows, beiges, creams—punctuated only briefly by pale green cole slaw.”

She recounted a steamy seduction by quiche Lorraine at Casa Bonnifeather in Lincoln Park: “The quiche had arrived. She submitted to it, lost herself in its grip, its massiveness and crust. She pulled away, turning to the thin, cool, wet slices of cucumber, but returned, kept returning over and over, to the quiche.”

Her rave of the budget-friendly steakhouse George Diamond’s leads with a vision of the city that summons the ghost of Carl Sandburg: “Sprawling queen of the Midwest, strong, bulky, and unsophisticated, her rolls of fat dressed in gray snow.”  

Around the middle of 1973, Banes’s Eats output began to slow down, and in October her credit as contributing editor for food disappeared from the masthead. Her last review, of a Loop diner known for its “campy waiters,” describes a near fistfight between a server and some straight diners “intent on protecting their masculinity at all costs.” Banes recommended the pecan pie, and this: “if you tend to get uptight in gay situations, avoid Flo’s at all costs, but be forewarned that in our coming liberated society you will be getting uptight more and more often. Examine your own head.”

None of the friends and colleagues I spoke to can recall exactly why Banes gave up the Eats column, which other writers picked up now and then. But Robinson-Lynch recalls a piece in early ’73 in which she describes a delirious late-night craving for mille feuilles, which worried her friend. “It scared me because this was somebody who shouldn’t be eating sugar.” Banes began to carefully monitor her blood sugar around this time “and that may have helped her move from writing about food to other things.”

In 1974 Banes coauthored Sweet Home Chicago: The Real City Guide, published by Chicago Review Press. It contained eight pages of short restaurant reviews, but as a writer she was moving on toward her life’s work. By then she’d also signed a contract to write what would eventually become her first dance history, 1987’s Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance. Eventually her own performances would be covered at length in the Reader, and in early 1974 her byline reappeared. The first of many dance reviews to come, it was about a performance of Hello Farewell Hello by Daniel Nagrin’s The Workgroup and was headlined, “An Evening of Sexual Angst.”

Meanwhile, the only food-related content in that issue was a half-price brunch coupon for Ratso’s. “At the time, I’d say the dance scene was probably more interesting,” says longtime editor Mike Lenehan. If Banes’s friends and colleagues’ recollections of her stint as the Reader’s first food critic are a little foggy, it’s only because her later work eclipsed it.

The post The <i>Reader</i>’s first food critic was a diabetic undergrad with an appetite for the undiscovered appeared first on Chicago Reader.

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October 26, 2021 at 11:10AM

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