In which I resist change.
Before: Meyer Delicatessen.
After: Gene’s Sausage Shop.
Years ago, when I first moved to the Ravenswood/Lincoln Square area, I felt it was the only saving grace of living in America. Precisely because it was rather unlike living in America. For a few blocks, you could be transported to, well, a generic European place. Pastry shops, cafes, a European apothecary, a fine wine broker, weird German figurine peddlers. I guess it was originally settled by Germans, but it had taken a swing to the east by the time I got there. Austrians and Czechs. Then Bosnians and Serbians, or something. At some point they’d all been from Yugoslavia, right? Or from the East Bloc. Or from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I don’t know. The newest arrivals were a bit fearsome. They ran the kinds of places that you didn’t even go into if you weren’t Bosnian or Serbian or Yugoslavian or East Bloc or Austro-Hungarian, because everything was in Serbo-Croatian or something, and moreover, there were always some sketchy types in tracksuits, smoking cigarettes outside this cafe or that PAL-Secam-NTSC video store. It’s too bad, because I was curious. But secretly I suspected some of these men to be in the import/export business, not of videos in need of conversion, but of heroin or young girls. Belonging to the latter category, I chose to remain ignorant of their business operations.
But the less intimidating European types were still there, with their bars and sausage shops and homeopathic remedies. And weird figurines. Lamenting the fact that I had to live in America, I made weekly pilgrimages to Mertz Apothecary and Meyer Deli. It was like a 45 minute European vacation. Along with Cafe Selmarie, which is the closest thing I know to a slice of Paris in Chicago, I could not imagine life without them. When Meyer closed several years ago, I was clearly facing an existential crisis. American creep. It was during the Bush years, and I’d come to expect that the world was becoming more hellish by the day. Meyer was just an unwitting pawn in some metaphysical struggle of evil over good. This is also how I explained the sudden presence of a Coldstone Creamery on that block.
But now that Obama is in office and good is sometimes maybe trying to put up a better fight and of course we should be patient because it’s out of practice and doesn’t have its mojo back, it should come as no surprise that Meyer has re-opened. Bigger and ostensibly better, it now goes by the name of “Gene’s sausage shop.” From the moment I caught word of this re-birth, I dreamt each night of the possibility of joy that would return to my life. And by joy, I specifically mean THIS. There were many other lovely things I could once obtain from Meyer, like marzipan piglets on little cutting boards with little butcher’s knives, Mozart chocolates, Orangina, Laughing Cow cheese, black liquorish kitties, and gingersnaps. Which, to be honest, comprised the better part of my diet in my 20’s. But it was the honey I lusted after in maturity.
I eat a lot of honey. Daily, in fact. I don’t buy sugar. Just honey. And I’m very picky about it. I have to have unpasteurized, local honey for allergies, which rather sucks as allergy season kicks in a good few months before honey season. I want to see bee bits in it, in the local, unpasteurized stuff. Hell, I should just get some bees and eat them… But for general consumption, I’ve never found anything that beats Biophar’s lavender honey, for the price. And price is important, considering the level of general consumption we’re talking about. I don’t even care if it is mass-produced, or Provence honey from, erm, Germany. The texture is perfect, creamy. And it is neither too sugary nor too mild. It is perfect, divine, even. And a staple. I only ever found it at Meyer and was left with a gaping hole in my palate when they closed shop.
So off I went, Saturday, full of hope and anticipation. Soon the coveted Honig aus der Provence would be mine once more!
Naturally, they weren’t carrying Biophar Honig aus der Südfrankreich. Or any decent honey at all, from what I could surmise. And I stood there surmising for quite a long while before inquiring as to what the hell had happened to Meyer’s outstanding honey selection.
I asked a salesperson about it, not in those words, and she snapped back, “No we don’t have that but we’ve got honey made by Gene’s wife,” and looked at me like God would kill a kitten if I didn’t buy that instead. What I really wanted to say was, “Oh? And is Gene’s wife making honey from bees who feed upon the lavender fields in the South of France and somehow end up in Germany?” But I just smiled and politely thanked her, and headed immediately for the rack of eclairs. What the hell? I mean, why have they hired Americans? Surly, overworked little old Germany ladies in paper hats are charming. No matter how terribly they treat you, you can’t hate them. They are from the old country. They have had difficult lives. They probably lost half their family in the war. And they were probably Nazis at one point. (Ok, maybe not, but some of these German immigrants are. I knew a barber who shaved the faces of the SS. So what? He was one of the kindest neighbors ever.) So you do whatever they say. They are built like bulldogs. If they tell you to buy Gene’s wife’s honey, you do it, and you don’t complain about it. You call it a cultural experience and move on.
Anyway, Americans who are bitter about having to work, and in the humiliating job of sales no less, were cramping the euro-style down at Gene’s bigtime. And I was feeling disoriented after the whole honey debacle. Other Meyer staples absent from its newest incarnation: Mozart chocolates, HobNobs. I was also hoping in vain to find some of that weird Norwegian fudge cheese. I’d seen the adorable Andreas Viestad going on about it, and he seems to have good taste. I did manage to find a few gems, however. Or items of curiosity anyway. Baltika. But no #6! And clearly packaged for export. Honestly, who is running this joint? And Saku. I don’t even like beer, but the nostalgia factor was impossible to resist. Marzipan fruits, that emergency eclair, which was indeed heaven, some good french mustard, a strange Russian tea of the Tsars, whatever that means. I hope they don’t mean it in the literal sense. I can’t take much more Russian cannibalism. A nice Edam. I couldn’t bring myself to wait in the Disney World-esque lines for the meat counter. Perhaps I’ll return on a weeknight. They have a little bit of produce and odds of general grocery items. Which makes you think, “Oh, I could do ALL my shopping here!” Then, you realize you can’t. Because you need more variety than the 5 or so plant vegetables they have on offer, and you don’t use Fa deodorant. I think they should nix the apples and deodorant and concentrate on the meat, cheese, sweets and booze, which is why people actually come there. And if you decide to carry Baltika, for the love of god, carry 6.
So, I give the new joint a … 6 of 10. So far. I haven’t actually managed to gain access to the sausage part of Gene’s sausage shop yet. I’m still missing the things I missed before, so it can’t be said to be a new Meyer. Neither can it be said to be a German joint. Though it does carry a wide variety of European products. I think they’re going for quantity over quality. In fact, it reminds me of those early Russian Western-style supermarkets that carried French shampoo and British potato chips and Laughing Cow cheese and ramen noodles. But that eclair was a damn fine eclair. And the delirious sensation of walking into a store and not recognizing the products, not the language, not the contents of the jar, remains. As well as that familiar sensation of being crushed & trapped against a large, precariously constructed display of German Christmas cookies while suburbanites elbow for a spot in front of the headcheese. Well, they got that part right. And it isn’t even Christmas yet.
Another thing about Meyer: even though 50 people might have tried to fill a store with a 12 body fire code capacity, you felt safe because it was so astonishingly tiny in size, that if you should be trampled to the brink of death, your body would be found immediately. There was no place to hide. The atmosphere at Gene’s suggests the same potential for overcrowding and fanatical rushes on Christmas stollen, but in this new vast, labyrinthine establishment, your trampled body might not be found until after the new year. Is it worth such a risk?
It would be if they had my honey.
For now I have to put this on my Christmas list:
Hopefully someone out there knows where I can obtain some, or can obtain some for me. Hopefully without getting trampled to death by rabid germanophiles.