Inspired by a recent article in Dining Chicago on the city’s lesser-known signature sandwiches, I set out last week to find and consume three that are native to the South Side: the big baby, the Freddy and the mother-in-law. My expedition very quickly deteriorated into a desperate search, however. I met with caged, closed storefronts, wrong turns, and bad directions. I drove past blocks of boarded buildings, torn signs, and trash, then unexpectedly emerged into neat rows of houses, time-warped out of the ’70s. My physical journey through the South Side landscape to discover the sandwiches illuminated a historic movement of people, cultures, and tastes.
My first success was finding the big baby, a distinctive incarnation of the double cheeseburger. Its birthplace, Nicky’s the Real McCoy, was bright and yellow and red. Devoid of authenticizing pieces of memorabilia, it had the fast-food sterility of McDonald’s, with plastic tables fixed to the ground and brown tile floor. Yet the menu lacked McDonald’s predictability. While families with small children ordered up barbecue, two spindles hung with meat for gyros rotated slowly and beef patties sizzled for the quintessential American double-cheeseburger that would soon melt in my mouth. The big baby was by far the best sandwich I encountered, with its classic combination of juicy beef and onions, American cheese, mustard, and ketchup.
The eponymous founder of Nicky’s, Nick Vaginas, was a Greek man who opened some hot dog and burger stands in the ’60s. Vaginas appropriated the established tools and forms of production in America–hot dog stands, burgers, and buns–and injected Greece into them, in the form of gyros and pita bread. Though Vaginas didn’t stick around (he returned to Greece after only a few years), his sandwich and store remain to preserve his memory.
A similar two-way Americanization characterizes the Freddy, an Italian-style sausage patty on French bread that was conceived in Beverly during the ’70s. After previous failed attempts to lay my hands on this less common sandwich, it was with whoops and smiles that I spotted Calabria Imports on 103rd Street. Nestled in a row of tacky home accessory shops and cafÃ©s, the deli had a distinct community feel. Its founder, Benito Russo, is generally recognized as the father of the Freddy, which he named after his son. The sandwich I received was smothered in chunky tomato sauce, wilted green peppers, and mozzarella, offering a pleasing contrast of textures and flavors: the French bread was fluffy, and the sausage surprisingly well-spiced.
The community atmosphere, rather than the sandwich itself, reflected the story of the South Side’s immigrant past. Calabria Imports is a living legacy to the sorts of shops and food markets newly immigrated Italians opened that have, over the years, slowly become completely integrated.
The essential ingredients of the mother-in-law sandwich are chili and a corn-roll tamale on a hot-dog bun. Despite the efforts of Chicago food history buff Peter Engler, who traced the roots of the big baby and the Freddy, the mother-in-law’s origins remain murky. Today it is hard to find anywhere but at hot dog stands on the Southwest Side, which is where I got mine: at Fat Johnnie’s Famous Red Hots in Marquette Park. After ordering at the window of a clapboard-roofed trailer, I returned to the car with my brown bag. Inside was a soggy brown mess; goopy, watery chili threatened to consume the squishy poppy-seed bun. All the textures–the mealy cornmeal, the grainy meat, the soaked bread–combined into an unfortunate mush in my mouth.
Though it was the least appetizing of the three South Side specialties, the mother-in-law has perhaps the most intriguing history. It bears an obvious resemblance to the Coney dog and the Maxwell Street Polish, but its corn-roll tamale is unique to Chicago, differing from both the Mexican version and the spicy variety common to the South. Both are probable influences, however; Engler’s posts about the mother-in-law on Chicago foodie website LTHforum.com even caught the attention of historians documenting the Mississippi Delta’s “Hot Tamale Trail” (tamaletrail.com). The paths of immigration and the Great Migration of Southern blacks during the early twentieth century have crossed in Chicago to create a unique culinary experience.
Nicky’s the Real McCoy, 5801 S. Kedzie Ave. Calabria Imports, 1905 W. 103rd St. Fat Johnnie’s Famous Red Hots, 7242 S. Western Ave.