Is This Heaven? No It’s Iowa

Late yesterday morning, Bill was out in the garage working on his car and I was reading a book. It occurred to me that it was a holiday – Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. Holidays used to be pretty meaningful to me back in the days when I worked hard for a living and got paid to write. When Court was little, a holiday meant a day off to spend hanging out with him. After he was grown and on his own, a holiday still meant that I got to get up when I felt like it and spend the day with Bill doing whatever I wanted.

If we’re in Colorado when a holiday occurs, my grandkids might stop by our house and we may watch a movie or or go geocaching or make some cookies. But when we are in AZ, I pretty much need to be reminded of a holiday as one day is kind of like the next, in a good way.

As it happened, however, I was unwilling to spend the entire day – holiday or not – sitting in my easy chair even though the latest Longmire novel is quite enjoyable and more important, due back soon to the library. So I asked Bill if he wanted to celebrate the amazing civil rights activist Martin Luther King by getting an Italian beef sandwich at Portillo’s.

Well, duh. Of course he did. How better to honor a great man than with a sloppy, juicy beef sandwich?

While driving to the Chicago-based eatery, we passed Sloan Park, home of the Chicago Cubs’ spring training. You might recall that many baseball clubs west of the Mississippi train in the Valley of the Sun in the spring, and play spring baseball games. It’s the only time that I pay much attention to baseball, I’m afraid.

Seeing Sloan Park made me start thinking about baseball. Which further led me to spend the afternoon watching a movie that I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years – Field of Dreams. I’ve only seen Field of Dreams one time, and that was at the movie theater, likely with Court, who would have been 9 years old when it was released. If you had asked me what it was about yesterday morning before I saw the movie, I would have said it was about baseball. That, of course, is true. But the movie is also about making peace with your past. It isn’t until literally the end of the movie that you realize that everything that happened led up to Ray Kinsella (played by a very young Kevin Costner) playing catch with his father, long dead. Ray’s biggest regret was that he had, in anger, said something hurtful to his father, and then never saw him again before his father died. Here was a chance to make peace for a past hurt.

Oh, if only this could happen to all of us, right?

But enough of that. Let’s talk about the beef sandwich. Oh, and don’t forget the onion rings.……

Italian beef sandwiches have had to grow on me. The first time I ever ate an Italian beef, I found it to be, well, ordinary. Haters, don’t hate. Because I came around. I learned to order hot peppers instead of sweet. I discovered the benefits of having my sandwich dipped instead of wet. Wet means they pour the juice over the sandwich; dipped means they fill up your sandwich and then, using a tong, dip the entire sandwich in the juice. This practice, of course, results in a drippy mess that requires a multitude of napkins and a willingness to sacrifice a clean shirt. There’s an art to eating a dipped Italian beef sandwich, my friends. After 25 years of marriage to a Chicagoan, I have learned the art.……

My late mother-in-law loved herself a Chicago hot dog. I never saw her eat an Italian beef sandwich, but up until her final couple of years, she was always eager to go to the Portillo’s near her house where she would order a hot dog and French fries. She saved her chocolate shake for Steak N Shake…..

Arizona is required by state law to post the calorie count for all restaurant foods. Party poopers. Each Italian beef sandwich was 530 calories. Of drippy goodness and, unlike Ray Kinsella, no regrets.

Thursday Thoughts

Weather Woes
Well, we survived the temperature drop here in the Land of the Sun. On my Facebook timeline the other day, I posted something from the Arizona Fox affiliate showing the 10-day forecast which indicated a drop of temperatures into the mid-60s, and their suggestion that we all dig out our gloves, scarves and boots. To be fair, the temperature dropped into the low- to mid-40s during the night, and while that wouldn’t necessarily require what my mother always called mukluks, one’s fingers might get chilly. I must also add something else about our weather. The other day when I blogged about the Arizona media talking about so-called “cold temperatures” that were actually mid-60s, I (and others) commented about Arizonans being weather wimps. This suggestion caused my always-practical brother to send me a text in which he invited anyone who thinks Phoecians are wimps to stand beside him in the bakery department of the various Basha’s grocery stores in which he works when the temperature outside is 115 degrees. Point taken.

If It’s Broke
I mentioned that upon our arrival here in Arizona, Bill has been at work fixing a washing machinevariety of household minor calamities. One toilet fixed – check. Bushes cut back – check. Fixed breaker switch that had tripped – check. Washed dirty window – check. Fixed washing machine – NOT CHECK. Of course, as you would imagine, the fact that the washing machine remains broken is not his fault. He spent several days taking the machine apart, no simple task since the large mineral content in Phoenix’s water results in metal parts being almost impossibly stuck together. Still, he was successful and has ordered the part that needs to be replaced. Currently, the washing machine is in the hallway leading to Jen’s bedroom – the Sanchez Wing is what we call it. Unfortunately, it leaves a space of about 6 inches in which to get by. It seemed workable since Jen is not here. Adults use the other bathroom. Jen’s grands can squeeze by and are happily able to reach their toys in her bedroom. How nice to be 5 and almost-2.

Hug a Vet

Bill enjoys his Italian beef sandwich -- free because he is a veteran.

Bill enjoys his Italian beef sandwich — free because he is a veteran.

We decided yesterday that since we were less likely to have walking weather when we go back to Denver next week, we would forgo our inside exercise and walk outdoors instead. Now, when it comes to walking for exercise, I like to go around in measurable circles. There is a park nearby with a lake that I know is eight-tenths of a mile around, and there is a sidewalk. So I’m prone to

walking three times around the lake and calling it my exercise. Bill, on the other hand, heartily dislikes walking in circles and is much more inclined to prefer a destination walk. What we chose to do, then, was to park our car in that very park and walk to a destination, namely the nearby Chicago hot dog joint. Back and forth added up to just over a couple of miles. The restaurant is owned by a young man from Chicago, and he is always there and knows regulars by name and by order. Also always there is his father, who cleans tables and chats up the regulars. Yesterday, when the Chicago dogyoung owner took our order, he asked if either of us was a veteran. Bill told him that he had served in the Army. “Well, then your lunch is on my dad,” the young man said. “He’s picking up the tab on all veterans’ meals today.” Son of a gun. Is that not the nicest thing you’ve ever heard?

Far from Madding Crowd
Now here’s a random thought to share today. Following Mass on Sunday, Bill and I took a walk around the huge flea market that is open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during the cooler winter months. We didn’t really have anything in mind to purchase, but it’s always fun to see what’s for sale. After we left, Bill said, “Wow, it’s nice to get far from the maddening crowd.” I agreed, and then asked him, “Did you know that the book title you are referencing does not actually use the word maddening? The title is actually Far From the Madding Crowd. Bill admitted he didn’t know that, and it got us both to wondering just what the word madding means. Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, it means maddening. I wonder why Thomas Hardy didn’t just use the word maddening. Show off.


Hey Vinnie, Where’s the Beef?

When I actually worked for a living, I had the opportunity to eat at a lot of really nice restaurants all around the United States. You know, the restaurants where you are served a tiny piece of Mozambique tilapia with stewed raspberries and capers drizzled with Sicilian olive oil on an oversized, square white plate, costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $50, salad not included. For the most part, those meals were delicious and I was able to try a lot of foods I wouldn’t have been able to try otherwise. I am grateful to have had that opportunity.

But for the most part, I am a simple eater. And thankfully, so is my husband. When I told Bill I would take him anywhere he would like for his birthday dinner, he chose a place famous for its fried chicken. And as I go through my recipe files – those on Pinterest and those in my recipe box – the fanciest recipe I have is Coq au Vin. And I haven’t made that for years.

Bill grew up in Chicago – the food capital of the United States in my opinion. If you go downtown, there are innumerable fancy restaurants, similar to those I enjoyed earlier in my life. But the restaurants that Bill enjoyed were not really restaurants at all. They were food joints on the South Side of Chicago. Hot dog stands. Gyros places. Pizza parlours. If he was feeling really fancy, he might go to a locally-owned steak house where they still have red leather booths and serve a relish tray before bringing your salad made out of crisp iceberg lettuce and carrots.

And when we go to Chicago to visit his mother, those are the places we dine. I have mentioned before that Bill’s favorite food is pizza, and his favorite pizza joint is Fox’s, a chain of four or five restaurants on the south side of Chicago. The pizza is thin crust, and he always orders pizza with sausage. Yum…..

Bill Fox pizza

We were thrilled a couple of years ago when one of Bill’s favorite Chicago joints opened up a restaurant in Mesa, right down the street from where the Chicago Cubs play spring baseball. Why not? The place is always busy when we are there, and we go quite often.

Portillo's MesaPortillo’s has all of your Chicago favorites – hot dogs, gyros, tamales, hamburgers. But his (and increasingly my) favorite is their Italian Beef sandwich. Italian beef is slow cooked roast beef sliced very thin, served on a roll that is drenched in the “gravy.” It is served with either sweet or hot peppers. Sweet peppers are simply roasted green peppers and hot peppers are similar to giardiniera – a mixture of spicy pickled vegetables. Again, yum.

Recently he was hankering for an Italian beef sandwich, and it wasn’t handy to make a quick trip to either Chicago or Arizona. So I tried my hand at it, and found a Portillo’s copycat recipe for Italian beef. I’m no expert on whether or not it rivaled Portillo’s but I will tell you it was good, and satisfied my sandwich loving husband. And best yet, it cooked in a crock pot!

Soon we will be eating the genuine article in Mesa. But here’s something to enjoy in the meantime….

Italian Beef

Portillo’s Italian Beef Sandwich, adapted from

1 t. salt
1 t. ground black pepper
a t. dried oregano
1 t. dried basil
1 t. onion salt
3 c. water
1 t. dried parsley
1 t. garlic powder
1 bay leaf
1 (2/3 OZ) package Italian salad dressing mix
5 lb. rump roast

In a medium saucepan over medium high heat, combine the water, salt, pepper, oregano, basil, onion salt, parsley, garlic powder, bay leaf and salad dressing mix. Stir well and bring just to a boil.

Place roast in a slow cooker and pour mixture over the roast. Cover and cook on low setting for 10 to 12 hours OR high setting for 4 to 5 hours. Remove bay leaf and shred meat with a fork. Serve on hard rolls.

Nana’s Notes: Genuine Chicago Italian beef sandwiches are made on a certain kind of bread that’s not available here. I used French hard rolls and it was delicious. Also, the genuine article uses roast beef that is sliced VERY THIN. Since I don’t have a meat slicer, I shredded the meat and it worked great. Chicago, don’t hate me. Finally, the test of a true Italian beef sandwich is that it is so sloppy that you have to lean over your plate to eat it. It might be hard to tell from the photo, but this one definitely was.