Confessions of a Former Vegetarian 

How I stopped worrying (sort of) and learned to eat meat again

Page 5 of 5

click to enlarge Stephen Trouvere: "First, everything dies." - PHOTO BY THOMAS CRONE
  • PHOTO BY THOMAS CRONE
  • Stephen Trouvere: "First, everything dies."

Once, maybe twice a week, my partner and I while away an hour of lunch at the Mud House. The cafe and coffeeshop on the eastern, antique-y end of Cherokee Street has become a go-to place for fresh sandwiches and artisan coffee, especially on the weekends, when the line wraps onto neighboring Illinois. It's got something of a serious foodie vibe, but not at the expense of a bit of whimsy; witness a bathroom decorated, floor to ceiling, in vintage game boards, or the small shrine that sells the antique-of-the-week.

The kitchen, partially exposed, is staffed by a good number of musicians and a larger number of personalities, which is proven by some of the conversations that spill out from that bustling back room.

Overseeing the madness of a Saturday or Sunday lunch rush is Tara Lansangan. A million years ago, we worked together at a martini bar called Pablo's, where she cooked in a micro-kitchen that doubled as the walk-through to the patio. After an experience like that, she could be forgiven for never wanting to cook again. Luckily, Lansangan's no quitter, and she and her crew are killing it at the Mud House.

On a regular basis, a small truck bearing the likeness of Todd Geisert rolls down Cherokee from Jefferson. Arriving at the Mud House, out jumps the man himself, delivering some of the pork that the Mud House uses, though not exclusively. Like any business, even one that wishes to source as locally and healthily as possible, finances enter the equation, and Geisert isn't cheap, so other farms fill in the balance of their needs.

"I started using Todd Geisert's products about three years ago when I came to the Mud House," she says. "We use his ham, bacon sausage and pork shoulder on a regular basis and some of his other offerings occasionally on specials. The great thing is having an ongoing relationship with the person who sees the whole process though: from raising the animals, processing them, to personally delivering our orders every week. He's a very busy guy, but he genuinely cares about his customers; he even texts me if I forget to order!"

Knowing some of his go-to jokes and quips by heart, Lansangan adds, "He's affable and really seems to love what he does, which certainly shows in the quality and taste of the final product. It's important to me as a chef that the meat on my menu is local, raised on an actual farm, not in a factory, and is antibiotic- free. We are very lucky to have him close by."

In my world, brunches at Mud House suddenly include more options. For a year straight, I had ordered the Mud Slinger, a beans-and-potatoes-and-eggs concoction that can energize you for a whole day. Putting that in your system is akin to fueling up; it feels good to finish a meal with those ingredients and the evident care put into it. Lately, though, the Mud Slinger's forgotten, kicked to the Cherokee curb by the club sandwich. I did not remember turkey being this good; on this sandwich it's nothing like the processed birds I vaguely recall eating in the 1970s and '80s.

While Trouvere may thank the animal products he uses before putting them under the knife, myself, I forget. Already, I'm become assumptive. I'm still in the honeymoon phase of eating any animal that comes across my favorite menus, but it already feels like second nature.

There's no small amount of self-trickery involved in this. A year back, having tasted nothing more than chicken, I figured that I'd eat meat, but only the self-harvested kind. Unrealistic, that choice; so then came a bit of ethically-grown meat, free of hormones and cages. What inevitably follows is a random sandwich at a friend's house or a knee-buckling trip to a Blues City Deli. Then, there's a quick buy at the market. A "why not?" order at an old favorite. Next, you're dreaming of a plastic package of corporate bologna, "just to see if I remember the taste from 1976." The slope becomes slippery and the choices become more varied and ethically challenging.

I've been regularly experiencing meals that open my eyes, even as they blow my mind. The club sandwich that stands out alongside the Mud House's is that of Union Loafers. That was a stupendous, eyes-closed type of meal. My first steak came from Retreat, the new gastropub on the edge of the Central West End; far from the enormous, plate-sized half-cows served by chain steak shops, this steak was a half-dozen cuts of little perfection, causing me to nearly weep to my server. And the Cuban! Oh, the Cuban sandwich. This is something I didn't know I missed, which I now do daily, having enjoyed a phonebook-thick version at the Schlafly Tap Room one recent weekend night. Game. Changed.

My meat bender's not going to slow soon, and an experience in February drove that point home. I found myself invited to a Sunday night crab-and-crawfish boil, with the critters fetched from the nearby and uber-funky Universal Market on South Broadway.

Over a door-turned-table at the home of a popular south-city alderman, a group of about twenty folks intermittently cracked and scooped shellfish over opened newspapers, drinking wine or Stags, talking about anything but politics. The afternoon stretched past sundown and as folks headed out into the snow, others arrived.

They call this kind of thing a dinner party. It was solid, inviting, warm. Death on the table, much life all around it.

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