Chicago events celebrate culinary heritage

It’s easy to work up an appetite in Chicago, and that especially will be true this spring and summer.

The city has coordinated a massive celebration of its food heritage, expertise, creativity and diversity. “Stirring Things Up in Chicago” is a five-month endeavor that involves museums as well as restaurants, with some events to introduce children to cooking and others to indulge or challenge the gourmand.

For the food historian, “Chicago, the World’s Pantry” is a new exhibit with much to ponder. The free show at the Chicago Tourism Center, open until Oct. 2, is all about the products that have helped distinguish this city as a leader and lover of food.

This, for example, is the place to learn about the Baby Ruth candy bar – how it was introduced as Kandy Kake and sold for 5 cents, how bars were dropped (with tiny parachutes attached to them) from airplanes to promote the product across the nation.

The manufacturer, Curtiss Candy Company, later renamed this candy after the daughter of President Grover Cleveland – and NOT the major league baseball player.

What else? Snickers was named after a race horse. The first 3 Musketeers bar had layers of strawberry, chocolate and vanilla. The Mars candy bar was advertised as “Like a Chocolate Nut Sundae.”

Visitors also learn that Chicago has had three Chinatown districts. William Wrigley Jr. didn’t invent chewing gum – he just made it popular. James Lewis Kraft used to sell his cheese from a horse-drawn wagon, which inspired him to create Velveeta.

There is a drawing of the Union Stockyards, which closed in 1971, and a tribute to the Inspiration Café, where the city’s homeless can work to become self-sufficient.

Products that made the Popeil Brothers famous – from the Chop-O-Matic in 1956 to the Veg-O-Matic and Kitchen Magician – are on display. They are Chicago inventions, too.

Succulent Chicago food photography – be it a single, chocolate-dipped apricot or stacks of fresh bagels – is a symbol of the wealth of diversity that exists in this city. So is a sample of ethnic food products that can be ordered in Chicago’s neighborhoods, particularly the Devon Avenue area.

Food is matched with entertainment, with competitions, with art exhibits and with ethnic history lessons elsewhere in the Windy City.

Dozens of events will expose visitors to food samplings, lectures and elaborate evenings out. “Peel Me a Grape” on June 28 is a cabaret performance that matches courses with choruses. Award-winning chef Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia leads a $150 cooking class Aug. 13. Eli’s Cheesecake Festival, Sept. 17-18, involves free cheesecake as well as a cheesecake eating contest.

Travelers can shop at organic markets with local chefs, take a culinary tour of ethnic neighborhoods, attend food festivals that represent all kinds of cultures. Wine tastings are plentiful, as are sessions where chefs share their secrets and shortcuts.

The breadth of “Stirring Things Up in Chicago” is stunning; go to www.877chicago.com or call (877) 244-2246 to learn more. Ask for the 70-page booklet that lists all activities.

The Art Institute of Chicago’s big summer exhibit is “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre,” which opens July 16 and is all about this randy part of Paris during the late 1800s. There are more than 250 works, sculptures to posters, from 50 artists represented.

The spotlight, though, is on painter Toulouse-Lautrec and his love of food as well as the steamy Moulin Rouge.

On the art institute’s restaurant menu will be French dishes adapted from a cookbook that this artist co-authored. That includes Toulouse Mousse; he gets credit for inventing the decadent chocolate dessert.

The art show ends Oct. 10. For more, go to www.artic.edu or call (312) 443-3600.

A block from the free Tourism Center exhibit is the State Street Marshall Field’s department store and Field’s Culinary Studio, where staff and other inspired chefs teach one- to three-hour cooking classes year round.

The summer schedule was released this month; there are demonstrations as well as hands-on instruction in the seventh floor, roomy and well-equipped facility. About 20 class options exist; topics include “Cooking With Your Kids” ($40 per adult, $20 per child, June 21) and “Cooking with Herbs for Better Health” ($50 per person, Aug. 3).

Store chefs prepare lunch in front of visitors once a month; the cost is $20, which includes a meal as well as recipes. This educational dining option is in addition to the elegant Walnut Room, the less formal Frango Café and the Seven on State food court.

Reservations for classes are vital; go to www.fields.com or call (800) 265-2665.