Deep dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches, and Chicago hot dogs—those are the classic, iconic dishes of our city, but they are by no means the only foods that are distinctly Chicagoan. There's a whole other layer of Chicago foods that are much less well-known, much less extolled, and never served in kitschy restaurants with names like "Chicago Diner" that sprout up in places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
These other, relatively unknown Chicago-only foods have weird names like Jim Shoe, Mother-in-Law and Big Baby.
No one has thought about and written as much about these foods as Dr. Peter Engler, formerly of the University of Chicago, local guide to visiting food dignitaries like Anthony Bourdain. Engler discovered these foods in the same way as Columbus "discovered" America: it's not that some people didn't know about these foods before. Engler just helped the rest of us find out about them.
Take the Big Baby. If you've lived in the southwestern suburbs of Chicago, you might have noticed this item on menu boards. According to Engler:
"In the late 1960s, a double cheeseburger known as the Big Baby was introduced at Nicky's, a small Greek-owned diner in Summit, Illinois. It seems a Greek gentleman named Nicky opened this place and a number of other hot dog and hamburger stands on the southwest side. Eventually he sold them. The stands that still bear his name (and their many offshoots) continue the Big Baby tradition.
I think it's safe to say that a good many Chicagoans are unaware of this indigenous Chicago hamburger style. Its popularity spread and there are now perhaps twenty places serving the burger under the same name, either following Nicky's classic formula or slightly embellishing it by adding, for instance, lettuce or tomatoes."
The classic Big Baby is a simple sandwich: two griddled beef patties, with cheese inserted between them, and pickle/ketchup/mustard on the bottom of the two-patty assemblage rather than the top. Griddled onions usually go on top, and then everything is all set on a sesame seed bun.
There are, however, variations among the many places on Chicago's southwest side and the few more northerly locations that serve the Big Baby. In the photograph is the Big Baby as prepared at Ryan Poli's Little Market Brasserie (now Mercadito Fish and sans Poli); this excellent chef brought this southwest side burger to River North, so he had to dress it up a little.
Big Baby design may not sound exactly like a breakthrough, but the cheese in the center creates a kind of edible cement that keeps the patties from slipping sideways when you eat the sandwich. The condiments on the bottom hit the tongue, rather than the upper part of the mouth, first, so their tastes are more readily registered on the tongue.
A simple sandwich, but a beautiful thing that maximizes the use of ingredients. If you've never had a Big Baby, you can break that particular cherry at Nicky's The Real McCoy, which was perhaps the first place to actually serve this in-Chicago-only classic.
The Big Baby is a metaphor for all the unrecognized foods that are cooking just below the radar for most people. Not saying it's life-changing chow, but the lesson it teaches is.