Greetings from the heart of summer. So far, July has been very hot and dry, with a few rain showers finally breaking the heat last week. I had forgotten how hot Chicago can be after a year of the much milder European temperatures.
Even if it’s hot, summer in Chicago is hard to beat. The dining al fresco, the many parish festivals and block parties hidden away on side streets tucked between elevated railroads and bounded by leafy parks. The late night bike rides under the peculiar orange glow of the city’s streetlights. Crowds of cooped-up city dwellers head to the shores of the great lakes with picnic supplies in tow; those who can afford it leave town for more remote locations along the shores of Wisconsin and Michigan, or further still to smaller lakes that cover this northeastern-most part of the midwest. The rest of us walk a few blocks east to our favorite beach in the city.
My beach of choice is probably Montrose harbor. There are huge stretches of grass, sand and even a small patches of woods and shrubs, something for everyone. And then there are the vendors, both official stands sanctioned by the parks district and unofficial entrepreneurial operations who ply their wares out of coolers under the trees: brats, hotdogs, hamburgers, tamales, many types of tacos, cups of mango and cucumber soaked in lime and powdered with chili and salt, elote en vaso and large wheat chicharrones with shredded cheese, red hot sauce and cueritos (pickled pork rinds)- not for the texturally impaired or the faint of palate. Add the smoke-smell from the dozens of personal barbecues and you’ve got the quintessence of summer.
I’ve been riding my bike a lot this July. About four days a week I bike fourteen miles each way to Hyde Park from Uptown, all of it over public parks along Chicago’s lakeshore. Despite the annoyance of unwary vollyballers and children at North Street beach, I never tire of the fact that Chicago has over 20 miles of public parks along its lakefront.
And then there are the summer cocktails. Gin and tonics with slices of lime and cucumber, Campari and sodas and micheladas. And Pimm’s cup made with Pimm’s No. 1, of course. This British concoction is no Chicagoan’s cocktail, but given the willingness of midwesterners to drink beginning at eleven AM and their ability to continue throughout the afternoon, I think it could take on. One cannot drink Pimm’s after the sun sets. One is hard-pressed to drink it indoors, although it was so hot two weeks ago that we did.
I was introduced to Pimm’s when I lived in England for a year in 2004-5. Like the cheddar and celery sandwich and chili paneer, I’ve been singing it’s praises ever since. For those of you who haven’t had this drink, it’s worth a trip to your nearest well-stocked liquor store to buy a bottle. Pimm’s No. 1 is a gin-based liquor, good enough with a splash of soda but magical in its punch-form: mixed with ginger-ale or seven-up and an assortment of cut-up fruit. The fruit is key because it absorbs the alcohol and packs a punch at the end. I suppose the traditional thing to have with Pimm’s cup are finger sandwiches, but it would work just fine with anything grilled or shoved between two pieces of bread at a block party or on the shore of lake Michigan.
Pimm’s for a party of 5: chop up a pound of strawberries, a large cucumber and pluck a handful of fresh mint and put half of these into a large pitcher. Add 1/2 a 750 ml. bottle of Pimm’s No. 1 and 1/2 of a 2-liter bottle of ginger-ale (for a ratio of roughly 1:3). Stir but do not over-stir so that it’s still foamy. Ladle this into cups, each with a few pieces of fruit, to serve. Repeat this an hour or two later with the remaining fruit, Pimm’s and liter of ginger ale.