Meet the Maker of City Provisions Delicatessen's Whiskey Bacon
City Provisions Delicatessen
Talk to Cleetus Friedman about the chopped liver he sells at City Provisions, and you'll hear about his grandmother. "Even people who tell me they don't like chopped liver eat this stuff and think it's good." Her recipe, which is the same one he still uses, just has that something extra to it. I asked him what makes it so special, and he says that he grinds the liver not once, but twice. And in that second grinding of the offal, he mixes in the onions and spices, which he implied was the key. He recommends the liver with some crumbled hard-boiled egg on top, which conveniently enough are also sold in his deli case.
And his deli case is one of the several provisional offerings that anchor his Ravenswood grocery store and deli. City Provisions, which he originally aimed to open in 2013 once he established City Provisions Catering a few years ago, opened last year. Its acclaim and extensive repertoire of Midwestern food products has been well documented, and Cleetus is no stranger to social media. Though it's still a neighborhood staple.
I love to go in for its smoked ham sandwich (it comes with Grand Cru Gruyere, apple-onion mayo, and green leaf lettuce, and though Cleetus has the sandwich served on an oatmeal rosemary baguette, I really think the thing is dynamite on its pretzel rolls, and order it as such every time). But when talking with the progressively local-minded chef, he emphasized item after item that make his storefront unique, like his guest brewing series with local breweries (currently his Dark Horse brew, on tap at the store), an impressive collection of Midwest distillers and spirits, and dried goods, local eggs, seasonal produce, and some of the best honey in the city.
But the true reflection of Cleetus as a chef is in the foods he preps, and even packages, in his deli kitchen. Of all things, he first told me about his hummus. The story goes that one day Barry Sorkin from Smoque (reviewed here) gave Cleetus a smoker. "Everything in my kitchen was going in the smoker. Fruit. Vegetables. Everything was going in there." And then he decided to throw chickpeas into the smoker just for kicks to see how the smoky flavor would translate in the creamy spread. The result was smoked hummus, and it has been available since the deli opened, remaining one of the most requested items to this day. To understand Cleetus is to understand that he just doesn't like to stick with the norm, which explains why, as of this week at least, there's even a smoked pumpkin hummus on his shelves. Smoking the pumpkin was an idea that came to him at 4 a.m. one night when he couldn't sleep. Go figure.
In addition to the hummus, the deli is strong with its other prepared foods. Fittingly, right now there are small tubs of cranberry and gravy; there's his Old Bay spiced shrimp salad (with Laughing Bird shrimp); one of the best chicken salads I've had; a parsnip guacamole (because, duh, avocadoes don't grow in Michigan), and even potato latkes and knishes.
And then there's his charcuterie. On it he says, "Of course I'm gonna say this, but I feel like we have some of the best charcuterie in the city. We have a constant revolving inventory of what we're doing, always playing with different things." Like his butternut squash and toasted sunflower headcheese and his country pate with apple powder and clove, wrapped in bacon. It's whimsical charcuterie, and the point is to take what might be off-putting to some, and by using familiar foods, create something that is friendly. His bacon follows this same philosophy, though calling bacon anything other than friendly might as well be the oxymoron to end all oxymorons.
The flagship of the City Provisions bacon fleet is its Whiskey Bacon. Using Koval whiskey barrels, Cleetus treats the pork belly in a Koval Dark Millet Whiskey brine before busting up the barrels to get his wood chips that are then used to smoke the whiskey brined pork belly. The result is a sweet and smoky bacon, and a process that imparts Cleetus' head-to-tail cooking on his preparation in reusing the whiskey barrels. And though head-to-tail isn't a groundbreaking or new idea in contemporary kitchens, it's worth nothing that City Provisions gets a new hog every week from La Pryor Farms in Ottawa, Illinois. When it comes to the bacon those hogs yield, if it's ten pounds of swine, Cleetus says he'll sell that ten pounds before the next hog arrives. No matter the yield of bacon, it sells out consistently (he recommends following the deli on Facebook and Twitter to have the most up-to-date status on not only the bacon, but all products available at the market).
As for the chopped liver, I've never been a fan of the stuff. But Cleetus was right. The stuff at City Provisions has made me a believer.