Mario Batali, chef extraordinaire and entrepreneur is opening Eataly, a mega grocery, restaurant extravaganza dubbed an Italian Food Theme Park in the Chicago River North area. I have long been a fan of Batali and a few other celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay and of course Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse who hail from N’Awlins my family roots. Truth be told I’m a foodie. I’ve been known to watch back to back episodes of Chopped and Top Chef while cooking. Naturally I’m excited about the opening of a 63,000 square foot culinary playground like Eataly.
My love affair with stunning displays of all things eatable began early. I looked forward to trips to the Loop with my mom knowing that we would eventually end up at Stop and Shop (Hillmans). The aisles burgeoned with foods from different cultures, countries and regions of America. I remember the aromas of pastries and cheeses and the sight of chocolates piled high on counters. The place was magical for me. I almost had my first born at Stop and Shop because I insisted on picking up a roast before heading to the hospital. I miss Stop and Shop but don’t get me wrong the big Wholefoods store on Kingsbury is pretty OK. I’m sure Eataly will be wonderful. Though from the pictures, it misses the sense of coziness that was evident at the old Stop and Shop store. Perhaps it’s the sheer size of the place.
Thanksgiving evening as I lounged on the couch watching football and leafing through a magazine I spied the article about the opening of Eataly. My daughter in law and I had been discussing something of which I am passionate, Bronzeville. Our conversation included the plans for the Michael Reese site. She is well aware of my concern over a casino being placed there. We engaged in some urban planning over mimosas. Hey what if someone would develop a portion of the land for something like Eataly only with African diaspora theme restaurants and food shops. Development could include a Great Migration Museum on site and the Douglas Camp Museum and a museum dedicated to inventors like Carver, Washington and Lonnie Johnson. The site should be equipped with maker labs stocked with 3D printers, laser cutters, milling machines, vinyl cutters, software and computers. While we’re talking about food we might as well add aquaponics spaces growing fresh produce and fish and a center for teaching healthy eating and cooking.
Our ideas were boundless. The one thing we couldn’t come up with was a name. Eataly is so perfect for an Italian themed venue. What the heck do we do with diaspora? The word is a flawless description of the concept but it doesn’t fall trippingly from the tongue. Michael Twitty, culinary historian writes Afroculinaria a blog about the contributions made by Africa to the world’s dinner table. His particular emphasis is Southern cooking though his knowledge is broad and includes cultivation of heirloom crops brought to this country by Africans. No matter how we thought about our concept the word diaspora continued to surface. African influence in foods goes so far beyond the southern United States. The transatlantic slave routes sowed our culinary seeds to North America, South America and the Caribbean. In North America our flavors were added to French and Spanish cooking along with a dash of Haiti. In South Carolina and the coast of Georgia African fare became low country food. Famous chef and author Edna Lewis elevated southern cooking while showcasing its origins. Yes, we have a significant culinary history.
While I’m lobbying for the Obama library to be on the Michael Reese site, I wouldn’t mind sharing it with Mrs. Obama’s love of healthy eating in a setting that would rival Eataly and museum campus all rolled up in a scrumptious setting. Now what the heck do we call it?