September 9, 2005
Creamed Spinach à la Berghoff

spinach.jpgIf you grew up in the Chicago area with Austrian or German grandparents (as I did) you would not possibly fail to know about the Berghoff. Actually, these days the marketing department of the Berghoff restaurant is good enough that you don't need to be of Germanic background or even, possibly, from Chicago to know about it. The Berghoff is a culinary Chicago landmark. It has been in the loop of the Chicago (and in the hands of the same family) for over 100 years, serving fine German and European cuisine.

When I was very young, my sister and brother and I would take the Chicago and Northwestern train into the city, where we would be met by our Austrian grandparents. I remember how long the Chicago blocks seemed to my short little legs (some things never change) and being taken to Marshall Field's to pick out a doll. And I remember the Berghoff. At that time, all the waiters were men. Serious men in white aprons, whisking around the tables where cutlery and glasses gleamed. My sister would spread the sour rye bread with mustard that came in a little pot. My grandparents would somberly consider whether to have the saeurkraut of a piece of pig. And I would start salivating at the thought of creamed spinach.

(I find it strange now to look back at that mini-me and wonder "Why did she like so many things that most children hate??" Spinach, liver, smoked oysters, I loved them all.)

I think my first taste of spinach was probably when my aunt sent my cousin and me into the garden to pick fresh spinach for the salad at dinner. That's a pretty good way to introduce a kid to spinach, especially if you top it with a greasy hot bacon dressing.

And then there was the Berghoff cooked spinach: creamy, salty, garlicky, with just a hint of bitterness. The spinach seemed to have just wilted into the little white bowl. I could have eaten it by the pot.

It's hardly a recipe, though. You take a colandar and wash a large quantity of spinach. It reduces amazingly, of course, so put in even more than you think you'll need. Oddly enough, I find that big leaves work better than those tender little baby spinach bunches. I tear the spinach off the big tough spines, roughly. Wash well as spinach is usually grown in sandy soil. Put the leaves, with the water still clinging to them, in a large pot. If you have some fresh garlic (don't bother with old, sour cloves - you want a fresh taste) slice a clove or two very finely and sprinkle them over the spinach. Cover and put on a low flame for 5-7 minutes. While the spinach is cooking, grate a cup or so of parmesan. Check if the spinach is done. It should have collapsed in a thick glossy sludge in the bottom of the pan. Drain the spinach again in the colander and then mix it with 1/3 to 1/2 cup of crème fraîche and the cheese. Salt generously and taste.

The Berghoff used to purée it's spinach as I recall, but I like to leave the spinach leaves in large pieces. If you want to make it easier on your guests, you could use the end of a spatula to cut the spinach in pieces in the pan (once it's cooked). Serve quickly, though, as it's much nicer piping hot.

You might have noticed that in the first paragraph I merely said the Berghoff has "fine" food. This is because we are dealing with three different Berghoffs here. There is the Berghoff of my memories (brilliant food). There is the Berghoff of my childhood as it really was (probably still very good). And there is the Berghoff today. In the 1980s, the grand-daughter (or was it great-granddaughter?) of the founder took over the restaurant and made some fundamental changes. The restaurant had already been forced to back down on its men-only policy for waiters. But in this haven of pigs and cream and heavy beers, she introduced...salads. And pasta and sandwiches. The strict dress policy that had always relegated us children to the basement was revised. And maybe some of these were good changes, or at least inevitable ones. But the place lost some of the old-world charm that I remember. It became yet another "fine" restaurant, serving a mix of European and American fare. For all I know they may be serving hamburgers now. My grandfather would be rolling in his grave.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at September 9, 2005 8:00 AM | TrackBack Print-friendly version

I haven't been there forever. I didn't know that about the granddaughter. I do remember the Berghoff having the slowest waiters in th city. The service wasn't bad, it just took a long time to get the veal or wurst or what ever you were having from the window to the table.

They had great potato pancakes and applesauce. I'm a big fan of their root beer.

Posted by barrett on September 9, 2005 at 9:58 AM

Meg - I walked in last summer when I was in Chicago but didn't have time to eat - I wanted to have the creamed spinach - for my old time's sake too. And a beer! Now that I was old enough! It was one of the first places I ever dined out on my own - well with my little sister Annie. We used to play hooky and I'd take her down there - on the subway - for lunch. I was 9 and she was 7! Sheesh - parents would be arrested now wouldn't they?

Posted by Louisa on September 9, 2005 at 3:21 PM

I haven't been to the Berghoff in about 20 years, but I have loved that place since I was a kid. As I recall, when I was first taken there as a child (~1972) the restaurant has its own set of coins used by the waiter to pay for the food when they took it from the kitchen. I marveled at the waiters when they carried all the plates for a table on their arms, without using trays. They had house brewed root beer, too.

Parmesan cheese? Really? I usually use just cream, nutmeg , cinnamon, salt and pepper.

Posted by Matt on October 25, 2005 at 6:13 PM

Sad that it will be closing at the end of this month. First Field's, now Berghoff's!

Posted by Chris on February 6, 2006 at 9:27 PM
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