How The 24-Hour Chowathon Changed Chicago's Foodie Scene Forever

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Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

Yesterday we began our oral history of 2002's 24-Hour Chowathon, which signaled the arrival of a food-obsessed internet culture in Chicago which was fascinated with our city's ethnic dining and neighborhoods, and would (arguably) change how the city's food media approached our food scene and thought about the people it was writing for. In this concluding part, we ask several of the participants how their 24-hour immersion in the food scene, and subsequent activity on the internet, changed their views of the city, food media, and their own roles as voices on the foodie scene. A 10th anniversary replay of the event is being organized here.

What do you think you learned about food in Chicago from going on the event?

Tom McMahon: That event really reinforced my appreciation of exploring Chicago, I have always loved the city, but it is often too easy to stay with what is comfortable. This event reminded me that I could try something new in Chicago every day and by the time I get from one side of the city to the other, I could start over again because much of it will have changed.

Rob Gardner: The greatest thing about the event was encountering places that were still there. I knew a few of them, pre-event, like La Milanese (introduced to me by someone who used to work for the County), but I met some places for the first time like Ramova and Freddy's in Cicero. I was amazed and blown away by how time-stopped these places were. The Filbert's factory was in the same vein. I'm glad I had the chance to get to some of these places while they still existed. Other places, like Shan or the Korean [San Soo Gab San], I never got to experience at these hours that we did at the event.

Seth Zurer: I dunno if I learned it from the event, but the experience of getting to know people on Chowhound was humbling there was always someone with more encyclopedic knowledge than you it was an online peer-to-peer university with some of the best food professors in the city ready to drop everything and spend 10,000 words helping you to achieve clarity and deepen your knowledge on the culinary institutions that surround you.

Joan Hersh: I learned that a Korean restaurant could be packed with people at 2 am. That was news to me.

David Hammond: I learned less about food and more about foodists (sorry, Ive got no good name for this group of food enthusiasts, many of whom have become some of my best friends). What was most valuable about this event was the unrelenting impulse for food adventurism that was shared by the band of boundary-pushing Chowhounds who went on this around-the-clock tour of Chicago food. Hanging with a bunch of passionate, committed, food-centrists for a full day, talking about pretty much nothing but food, convinced me that I had found my tribe and that there was, indeed, critical mass for a continuing culinary community of in Chicago.

At the time, we felt that we were in the vanguard of a new food populism, where everyone who ate was deserving to be heard, where everyone was a critic and where opinions about food no longer needed to be sanctioned by official publications. So in that sense, we were drawn toward extreme eating, which included eyeball tacos at Maxwell Street Market, cicadasand eating for 24 hours straight. And we recorded it all online for all of our current and future food friends to enjoy, forever.


What do you think the effect of this event was on your life and subsequent involvement with food?

Rob Gardner: The event, and its subsequent publicity, ushered in an era of similar events. It was a blast, whether it was trying the Spoon Thai secret menu or eating a 3 hour lunch at Gene & Georgetti, Westernathon to Beefathon, it was great to find people who liked this kind of stuff.

Seth Zurer: The whole idea of a "thon" has obviously impacted me that you'd take one slice of the city and explore it with depth and not be embarrassed to say that you went deep into such important topics as the best Italian beef or the best espresso in the city was a profound experience for me. To know that I was not the only one who thought that was a good idea was important. To know that other people took that kind of quest seriously gave me a community to join. I found my tribe. It's also, in a way, the model for Baconfest let's choose one lens and see how deep we can go in our exploration of the culinary pleasures that we can wring from it.

Joan Hersh: I have only good memories, and am still friends with those I was friends with that night. It reinforced my interest in ethnic food and obscure restaurants as sources for deliciousness.

David Hammond: Id like to say it rendered me more enthusiastic about pursing food writing as a second career, but this was still years before I started writing about food for radio and newspapers. What it certainly did was fire my enthusiasm for thinking about food and posting about my experiences online.

Tom McMahon: Again for me it is not directly about the food, the appeal of the idea for me was the adventure. Food is one of the best ways to tell the story of Chicago because ultimately Chicago is a city built by waves upon waves of immigrants over the decades. Each of these waves brought something of their home with them, usually in their food. For example, look at Mexican food and break it down regionally, we are looking at more than a menu, we are looking at how our city and country were built. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and each of these neighborhoods reflects the cuisine of the people who live or lived there.


What do you think the effect of this event was on the food and food media scene in Chicago?

David Hammond: Well, Im not sure theres a direct cause-effect relationship between what happened on that April day 10 years ago and how the Chicago food scene has evolved. Id like to think that it stimulated others to get more involved in posting about food on chat sites like Chowhound and, later, LTHForum.com, and I know that at least one major LTH contributor, Catherine Lambrecht (now a leader in Chicago Culinary Historians and Midwest Foodways) became involved in LTHForum as a direct result of reading about the Chowathon in the Tribune (thanks Monica Eng!). Itd be nice to think that because we created an event that got more people interested in posting about their food experiences online that, maybe, we helped raise consciousness about lesser known food zones in the city and thus, that we raised the bar for dining in the city. Itd be nice.

Tom McMahon: I think it helped put that core group of Chowhound/LTHers on the map. I believe it was Monica Eng from the Tribune who met us at the Korean Barbecue place and ended up doing a story about the event. I think that went a long way towards making LTH a viable player in the food media world in Chicago.

Rob Gardner: [Before this] I think a lot of people liked this kind of food adventure and did a lot of food adventuring, but they were in solo covens. All of a sudden, they were part of something bigger. They could play with others. And you could do so much more when you played with others.

Food reporters, especially for the Reader and Time Out Chicago read what was happening on Chowhound and later LTH and realized people wanted to hear about "real" Thai food or Mexican food on 26th Street. They greatly added to their coverage. It certainly helped that some of the reporters were already chowhounds, and many chowhounds became the reporters.

Joan Hersh: I have no idea. I didn't know the food media was going to publicize this adventure until I saw Monica Eng's column in the Trib.


What's your involvement with food or food media today?

David Hammond: Co-founder and moderator of LTHForum.com; James Beard Award-nominated food contributor to WBEZ, Chicago NPR; weekly columnist, Food Detective in the Chicago Sun-Times; Dining blogger for OakPark.com and weekly dining columnist in Wednesday Journal; and contributing writer for forthcoming encyclopedia of street food.

Tom McMahon: No real involvement, much more of a consumer than a producer.

Seth Zurer: I had a brief dalliance with freelance food writing I did reviews for the Reader and Time Out (including a feature on the Thon concept) and worked a little on restaurant PR content. I also worked my food interests into my theatrical endeavors Chloe Johnston and I wrote a two-person performance art / theatrical cooking show based on the favorite recipes of the last 6 Chicago mayors called "The Mayor's Mouth." I also am one of three founders of Baconfest Chicago. My connection there is definitely linked to my experience as a member of the Chowhound (and later the LTHForum) community and to the idea that there is an opportunity to connect with a community of food obsessives for fun and profit.

Patrick Barclay: I've cooked in kitchens from Japan to Scotland, Washington State to Vermont, owned my own restaurant, sold my own restaurant ten cents to the dollar, and am currently the proud front man for a 900+ degree mobile wood fired oven affectionately known as Ulga.

Joan Hersh: I still work as a pastry chef; still love ethnic restaurants; still have many friends who share that love. I read LTHforum regularly, and participate in some events. but I read very few blogs. I hate Twitter and strongly resist following food trucks around by their tweets. I would say my food media involvement is not huge. there are so many blogs, it's daunting and too time consuming, even though I know there are fantastic food writers/blogs out there. I read Bon Appetit, Saveur, Cooks Illustrated, Food Arts on a monthly basis.

Rob Gardner: I'm editor and publisher of thelocalbeet.com. Over time my interest in "discoveries" ebbed. Instead, my obsession became farmer's markets and locally grown and produced food. I still love Freddy's, Chinatown. I served Filbert's at both of my daughter's Bat Mitzvah's, but what I most want to talk about is local food and local food issues.