The Most Historically Important Chicagoan-- From1950 to 2000

During a  stretch of time at the end of the last century, out of idle curiosity I conducted an informal private poll among four dozen or so people of my acquaintance.  The poll posed one simple challenge:  Name the Chicagoan whom history will mark as the most important of the last half of the twentieth century.

The majority of the respondent roster swelled with politicians, captains of industry, tv/movie stars and sports figures. Even  literary/journalism names  popped up, though sparsely.  None of those aforementioned categories surprised me.  But one  other category did.  Three respondents, narrowed to near obliviousness by their apparent foodie lifestyle, named–of all things–local chefs.

Yet once I shook off my concussion of disbelief and thought about it a bit, my stunned state began to slip away.  It seized me that in the notably prosperous 90’s  the subculture of the slavish trendies had elevated some prominent chefs to celebrity status. Indeed, a handful were being regarded as culinary geniuses (a word still tossed off with haphazard flippancy), with the help of the local press who rewarded  them with more ink than all the Rissotto al Neo di Seppia  Venetians consume annually. Naturally, the chefs–bloated by fame–began to behave accordingly–according to their clippings, that is. It wasn’t long before the ineluctable  avalanche of prima-donna chef  behavior descended upon Chicago’s culinary landscape.

One example that juts out to me happened during my career as an ad-agency creative director.  Among our clients was a big-time restaurant group whose register of chefs listed one French diva who’d recently gobbled up a minor culinary award.  A resultant agency-created ad celebrating his restaurant landed in the chef’s hands, whereupon he completely rewrote it , starting with a headline bearing the erroneous claim that he had been named by an eminently prestigious organization as the best chef in America. He then returned the rewrite to the ad agency without consulting with his boss, the founder and CEO of the restaurant group. Our fealty to scruples dictated that we report the chef’s butchery to the CEO, who immediately, but  kindly, explained to the fulminating diva that one cannot and should not tell a naked lie in an advertisement. Soon, the agency-produced ad was restored and placed. As you might expect, his nibs, the temperamental, glorified short-order cook, targeted his unforgiving rage at the snitches, us.

And don’t think the chefs themselves weren’t complicit in personally promoting their own undeserving fame.  One owner/chef, the tubby Ina Pinckney, had the good geographical fortune of planting her dining spot in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, just as rapidly being settled by members of the press and tv news.  Specializing in Ina’s breakfast creations, the restaurant drew a regular Sunday morning crowd of Influential Somebodies, whom Ina– tirelessly, unerringly steering her ersatz charm to the Right Tables–courted  in a shameless networking campaign . Ina only paid attention to her other regulars when the place was devoid of even a low-ranking celebrity.  I know; I held a calibration just  beneath Low Ranking Celebrity.

Thanks to TV, the idolatry of The Chef today continues its forward march with more resolute goose-steps than ever. As for the Machiavellian culinary priestess, Ina, she has  slipped through the back door of journalism and is twirling out a weekly column about , of all inconsequential things, breakfast–I suspect not as grand a fame as Great Chef, but I figure she’ll take anything she can plunder.

Oh, yes, almost forgot.  My ballot for most historically significant Chicagoan of the period in question went to an apparently obscure Nobel-Prize scientist named James Watson, who in 1953 along with Francis Crick, discovered the double helix, doubtless the most important scientific breakthrough of that half century, an advance that was to detonate a galaxy of  countless other advances in science.

Funny world, eh?  Where the fame of  meaty matron with a secret for scrambling eggs  can–in far too many circles– gain more recognition than the man who unscrambled the secret of Life Itself.

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