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Local Column

Village Idiot: A lesson in discomfort food

Jim Mullen
Jim Mullen

Beverly invited us to dinner the other night, telling us she had just found a new fish stew recipe she was dying to make.

“It just sounds so delicious: Isla Bonita Fish Stew, with smoked paprika, onions, tomatoes and potatoes. I just can’t wait to taste it,” she said.

After a round of drinks and appetizers, we sat down at the table. Beverly pulled the stew out of the oven, placed it on the center of the table and started serving. We all shared a little toast and then started to eat.

I’ve never seen people eat so slowly before. Beverly had a funny look on her face.

“These potatoes are still hard. How is that possible? They’re paper-thin, and they’ve been in the oven for 40 minutes. How can they not be done?”

“The onions are pretty raw, too,” I added helpfully.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Sue said, as she kicked my shin under the table. “You must give me the recipe.”

“I wonder what went wrong?” said Beverly, still puzzled. “I did everything exactly like the recipe said to do.”

She couldn’t stop apologizing for the dish, even though we told her that dinner is just an excuse to get together and talk; it’s not really about the food. Still, I could tell we weren’t much comfort.

Finally, I realized that we were going about it all wrong.

“Beverly,” I said, “think if we had all gone to a fancy restaurant tonight, and the special on the menu was ‘Isla Bonita Fish Stew: our most popular item, with warm but firm yellow potatoes and barely steamed farm-fresh onions in a subtle, delicate broth. A dining experience you won’t find anywhere else.’ You’d have thought the chef was a genius.

“We’d have said, ‘How did he make something so wonderful? Did you notice how the potatoes stayed firm, and yet the tomatoes were so soft?’ We’d wonder if we could possibly make the same dish at home. Just because it’s not what you expected doesn’t make it bad.

“I’ll bet the cook who accidentally spilled a bunch of coconut on top of the shrimp one day probably thought, ‘Now I’m going to have to throw the whole mess out and start over.’ But he didn’t, and now everyone loves coconut shrimp. I’ll bet one day, some restaurant owner said, ‘What are we going to do with all these leftover chicken wings? Everybody wants to eat chicken breasts and legs, but nobody wants the wings.’ Different story today.

“Someday, everyone will want ‘Beverly’s Fish Stew’ the same way they want chicken wings,” I told her.

I don’t know if Beverly bought it, but she stopped apologizing, and we all started eating it a little faster.

It reminded me of a story I’d heard about Captain Cook. When they discovered that scurvy was caused by a lack of vegetables, ships started serving sailors the only vegetable that would last on a long sea voyage: sauerkraut. It’s not something everyone loves, and the sailors wouldn’t eat it. So Captain Cook gave the order that only officers could eat sauerkraut. The sailors nearly mutinied, insisting that they get as much sauerkraut as the officers. The captain grudgingly gave in.

Maybe that’s true of everything in life. If we think something’s not the way it’s “supposed” to be, we’re disappointed. Some of us always are disappointed that we’re not rich or beautiful or tall or athletic or gifted with wonderful voices or have a face the camera loves. We’re disappointed we didn’t get the life that we were supposed to have.

But look again. Do you think the actress on the cover of that magazine is happy? You know, the one who’s currently divorcing her third husband. She likes him, but getting divorced is what stars are “supposed” to do. Their agents recommended it. It keeps their names in the paper.

Now they’re fighting in the tabloids over who gets custody of a dog neither one of them really likes that much. Their agents’ phones are ringing off the hooks. The dog wants to go back to the rescue center and hopes he can get adopted by a couple who actually likes each other.

• Jim Mullen is a syndicated columnist. Email him at

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