Chicago encourages aggressive eating.

During a recent visit there, it didn't take me long to catch the spirit of the town. I ate hot dogs, ice cream bars, deep-dish pizza, ribs, catfish, perch, red beans and rice, watermelon, prime rib, a multi-course breakfast, a fistful of Frango-mints, chocolate chip cookies with tea, enchiladas, tamales and two types of cactus.

Actually I only ate one form of cactus, churros rellenos. This was a pastry that looked like a cactus, tasted like fried dough, and was filled with jelly. I bought that at a little bakery, La Mexicana on West 18th Street, and ate it right away. The other cactus, a tuna or prickly pear cactus, I bought at a Mexican grocery, La Casa Del Pueblo, around the corner on South Blue Island. That cactus I brought home in my luggage. I am going to mix it with ginger ale, grapefruit juice and vodka to make a cactus cocktail.

Being able to get the fixings for a cactus cocktail at the grocery store is just one of the benefits of the Chicago style of eating that I picked up there. I was in town to attend the annual gathering of the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Association.

Like most professional organizations, this group's annual meeting is designed to increase the skills of its members. Accordingly, the group gives awards for good work, and brings in speakers on topics like nutrition, biotechnology, microwave safety, trends in restaurants, and how to run a taste panel. My mind expanded immeasurably and my waist expanded by about an inch.

In addition to picking up some professional poundage, I also picked up some impressions on the Chicago style of eating. Here are a few.

The city of big portions

Chicago portions seem to come in two sizes: Extra Large and Extra Larger.

While wolfing down a deep-dish pizza at Pizzeria Uno downtown was struck by two truths. First, this was the best pizza in the world, markedly better than any pizza served anywhere else, including the Uno franchises in any other cities. Secondly, when I lived in Chicago about 15 years ago I used to be able to eat this massive, layered, pizza by hand. This time I had to get help from a knife and fork.

At lunch at the Goose Island Brewery, a restaurant in the Clybourn corridor that brews its own beer, I got a piece of prime rib that looked like a scene out of "Lonesome Dove." It was big, red and fresh off the cattle trail. I attempted to subdue it with horseradish and salt, but couldn't eat the whole thing. I stayed with it about halfway through the slab, then had to admit I was whipped.

At dinner at Army & Lou's on 75th near Martin Luther King Drive, the "taste of soul" plate I ordered had enough food in it to feed the South Side of Chicago. After appetizers of fresh watermelon and banana, I got pieces of fried catfish, fried perch, ham hocks, fried chicken, barbecued ribs, plus bowls of greens, red beans and rice, and some sweet potatoes. Again I couldn't finish. My soul was willing, but my stomach said bag it.

At breakfast at the Le Meridien Hotel, a Near North Side hotel so stylish that the bathtubs look like sculpture, the chef served a breakfast so big only farm hands could tackle it.

First there was a plateful of four-grain pancakes that had more fiber than most wheat fields. Then there were eggs casserole, grilled Wisconsin apple-cured ham and potatoes, as well as baskets of scones, muffins, croissants and brioches.

I grew up in the Midwest so my stomach should have been ready for such an early-morning stretch. And for a brief time after the pancakes I felt ready to buck some bales. Once, in Kansas, I tossed some bales of hay onto a farm wagon. My farmhand career lasted about two hours.

But in Chicago, by the time the ham course arrived my former farm boy appetite had wimped out. I have been out East too long, eating toast for breakfast and "bucking" only rolled up newspapers off the front steps.

The city of healthy hips.

Noting the swagger of Chicago, Carl Sandburg once called it the city of the big shoulders. But when I was there I spent a lot of time staring at swaying hips.

I did this for professional reasons. I was following the advice of Mary Abbott Hess, president of the American Dietetic Association, whose national headquarters is in Chicago. In a speech to our meeting, she said that one of the ways to figure out if someone is really overweight is to look at the hips.

If you are a man, your waist measurement should not be larger than the measurement of your hips, she said. If you are a woman, your waist should be 20 percent smaller than your hips. Immediately I took Hess' remarks to mean I should work on widening my hips. All I had to do was make my hips fatter than my middle.

But this proved to be too simple. Hess said that while the new thinking among dietitians is that plumper people can still be healthly, she also said hip size is not the only indicator of healthy weight. In figuring out your acceptable weight, you also have to consider whether you have any weight-related health problems, and where you fall on the height and weight and age chart.

She passed out one such chart, and right away I looked myself up on the table.

According to the chart, a person 6 feet tall who was 19-34 years old should weigh between 140-184 pounds, and if you were over 35 years old you should weight between 155-190 pounds.I was delighted to see, as I read the chart, that it said I had the weight of a man almost 10 years younger. But that was my weight before I went to Chicago.

The city that talks

about politics, religion and food,

in the same mouthful.

Chicago struck me as a town of unusual culinary alliances.

PD As part of a tour of Chicago's Mexican community, I was taken to

St. David's Catholic church in the Bridgeport neighborhood. There Juanita Cahue made enchiladas and gorditas, or cornmeal cakes, stuffed with potatoes and meat.

Assisting her in making this Mexican food was an Irishman, the Rev. Millard O'Keefe. He is the pastor of the parish and an accomplished Mexican cook. The church serves as headquarters for a program that train other priests and nuns to learn Spanish. In between enchiladas, Father O'Keefe, who is fluent in Spanish, told me that another large ethnic

group in Chicago, the Poles, are especially adept at picking up Spanish. The vowels and diphthongs are similar, he said. I took his word for it.

While stuffing a gordita, Mrs. Cahue said she also makes tamales and sells them from a cart at the corner of 31st and Emerald, a mere block and half away from the home of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley Jr. The mayor has not bought one yet, she said, but she is sure he will. The mayor, an Irishmen, loves tamales, she said. As for herself, Mrs. Cahue, the Mexican cook, has a weakness for Italian beef sandwiches.

Family food.

For me no visit to Chicago would be complete without a visit to the home of my cousins, all eight of them. Seminar speakers could tell me about how broad national trends were changing the way Americans eat, but a visit with the Mahoneys could tell me what was going on in the family kitchen.

One afternoon I rode the Lake Street "L" out to the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, ate homemade chocolate chip cookies, drank tea and lis

tened to my relatives discuss matters of food, health and exercise.

The dietitian in the family has removed the salt shaker from the supper table. This has produced howls of protest from the guys. But so far the guys haven't been upset enough to actually get up from the table and retrieve the salt shaker from the kitchen cabinet.

When members of the family eat out, everybody talks about it. For instance, when I was there the one remaining bachelor in the family was being teased unmercifully about

a mash note he got from a woman who sat next to him at a recent business dinner.

As for exercise, my youngest cousin, now 30, showed up with a black eye he said he got by "walking into a door," but which other members of the family said was linked to attending a Chicago White Sox game.

And finally, like many Americans, my cousins are frustrated in their attempts to exercise regularly. They still can't get the parish priest to let them play basketball in the school gym.

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