Chicago, April

There are a number of things I like about the USA. The relentless optimism, the excellent customer service, the efficient and decisive organisation. The outstanding breakfast menus.

And this last one is where I felt a little let down on my most recent trip across the pond, to Chicago last week. It seemed that all of Chicago was intent on having eggs, preferrably scrambled, for breakfast, and very little else. At one establishment, my colleague (for it was a work trip, lest any of you think I was holidaying again) and travelling companion Shona, found the breakfast menu had two sections, headed SCRAMBLED EGGS and SCRAMBLED EGG SANDWICHES. Now, I don’t mind eggs, but on the whole, if I’m going to go beyond a bowl of cereal for breakfast, would prefer some pancakes, with perhaps the odd slice of bacon and a sausage here and there. These were hard to find. We usually ended up in a cafe/deli called Cosi, which was a decent place, and baked its own stuff. Cosi now have a chain of such places, but they started out with one, which they claim they based on a small Parisian café. I would contend that the similarity is hard to spot, but such is the way of things. Certainly the coffee doesn’t quite stack up, despite their lofty claims.

At Cosi, they serve their own proprietary bagels, square rather than round in shape. Called Squagels. Indeed. Shona asked for one of these, and was met with a typically American barrage of options. 

“Which type of Squagel? Wholegrain, Plain, Cinnamon Raisin, Poppyseed, Everything, the Asiago Cheese is particularly good?”
I could sense Shona’s knees beginning to buckle here, but the girl kept going…
“Cranberry Orange, Sesame, Chocolate Chip, Basil Parmesan, Jalapeño Cheddar…?”
“I’ll have the one you thought was good” replied Shona, after a brief and futile attempt to compute all that information. (I had the chocolate chip one myself). 

Wednesday night we went to watch some ice hockey. The United Center, where the Chicago Blackhawks play, is known as the Madhouse on Madison. It certainly was a bit mad, no more so then during the national anthem before play began, which was cheered and applauded by the capacity crowd all the way through. To a man, as the anthem was sung, the crowd turned to face the end of the arena to our left. I looked up there to see two giant flags hanging from the roof – the Canadian Maple Leaf, shrouded in semi-darkness, and the Stars and Stripes, brilliantly lit by spotlights. 

When the crooner they had wheeled out for the occasion reached the line “… and does that star-spangled banner still wave…” someone turned on some sort of a hairdryer behind it and it started to billow. The cheering reached fever pitch.

The game was good, but it never had a chance of matching the build-up. Our other tenuous brush with American sport while we were there was a regular view of Soldier Field, where the Bears play, on our way to and from the convention centre. In their wisdom, someone (the architect? stadium authority?) has decreed that the space-age main stands be underpinned by faux Roman pillars, which gives the whole thing the appearance of a space-ship having crashed into a Greco-Roman temple.
But the music was wonderful. Chicago considers itself the home of the blues, by which I think it means the
electric blues. At the Kingston Mines club, we saw a couple of outstanding local bands, featuring Joanna Connor and Eddie Shaw, the latter having played with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

America. Always fun to visit, but it’s good to be back in the UK, a country where the phrase “small coffee” doesn’t equate to “large beaker”. And where proper sports are played. Cricket season almost upon us now. Bring it on!

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