Midwestern food is having a moment. A far cry from the land of mayo-based salads and kitchen-sink casseroles, a number of culinary names have gained momentum since the pandemic’s start, shining a light on the rich history of the cuisine, redefining what it is and putting new faces to who makes it.
For former wine professional Erin Drain and her team of contributors behind the recently debuted Stock Journal, it’s about damn time.
Through interviews, essays, poetry, art, and now its own dinner series, Stock — published by the eccentric Ed Marszewski of Marz Community Brewing and the director of the Public Media Institute — is a reminder that the Midwest has always served as a place of exchange and ingenuity, with Chicago near (arguably, at) the heart of it.
Launched in early May and inspired by the likes of Gastronomica and craft beer-focused Mash Tun Journal, Stock proposes questions about Chicago, the region, and our food systems that extend far beyond chef culture and things-to-do lists. The publication is also a culmination of Drain’s career in wine and hospitality, inspiring a push to production that’d been brewing much longer than the 18 months it took for everything to come together.
“When the city burned down [in 1871], so much of it, from an infrastructure standpoint, was built around food — the transportation of food, the transformation of raw materials — including animals — to be sent to the rest of the country, so much of that was here,” Drain says. “We probably should’ve had a much higher degree of national attention for a lot longer, but that’s not always how it works.”
Over Memorial Day weekend, Drain and Marszewski announced the Stock Supper Series, which kicks off Monday, June 12 at Marz’s Bridgeport taproom, and will feature chef Lance Watson, who was included in the first issue in a piece by chef Rafa Esparza, formerly of Finom Coffee and co-founder of Evette’s, highlighting “the next generation.”
The interview “really highlighted the need for places, spaces, opportunities for people who make food, people who grow food — people who do other community building work to be able to interact and do something together,” says Drain.
“We asked, how do we actually stay true to one of the missions of the organization, which is to initiate or facilitate new conversations about food and who is making food in the Midwest?” she adds.
Watson’s pop-ups, Saint Della and the upcoming Francelle’s Supper Club, explore his Creole Louisianian roots through the lens of a native Chicagoan, marrying what are seen as traditional, family dishes with flavors that spark formative, childhood memories like traveling to Chinatown with his aunt, watching his father prepare wild game on the grill, or getting fresh Garrett Popcorn downtown. Seeing Instagram photos of Saint Della’s 2022 Juneteenth dinner alongside John Caleb Pendleton, a floral designer and owner of Planks & Pistils who partnered on the event, piqued Drain’s interest.
Watson’s lineage echoes that of many Black Chicagoans with ties to the Great Migration of Southerners to industrialized, northern cities for better jobs and opportunities outside of Jim Crow law. A chapter of national history, as well as a clear influence on local tastes, it’s an experience that stands in contrast to what many perceive of life on the South Side. Growing up with his siblings and great-grandmother between Hyde Park and Jackson Park, his more profound link to ancestry has served as the primary force behind his pursuits, in and beyond the kitchen.
While he didn’t initially set out to be a chef, Watson became known as “the po’ boy guy” after joining personal chef commerce app Shmeal. A run of pop-ups followed in Logan Square at the former Crown Liquors and Easy Does It; more recent ones include Moonwalker Cafe as well as at local markets. In 2023, after previously capturing votes in the Chicago Reader’s “Best of Chicago” polls, he was in the running for best pop-up and best up-and-coming chef.
With slow, steady successes, he now aims to cast a wider net.
“Being a Black chef, a lot of people have a certain idea or expectation of what you’re going to produce; of what Black food is, what Black food touches. I’ve had that experience being from Chicago where it’s so segregated, while so diverse,” Watson admits. “That was the beginning of me being a storyteller with my food, to change that narrative. I started appreciating the food that was my background more and realized I shouldn’t be ashamed of it. I should be doing it and do it in a way that feels good to me. That feels innovative.”
His latest endeavor, a monthly supper club, Francelle’s — named for his great-grandmother — begins where last year’s Juneteenth dinner left off. Approaching food with an “eat to learn” philosophy and mind toward farming, he hopes to not only foster a deeper understanding of the African American diaspora through his dishes, but also encourage a celebration of cultural intersection — how those connections forged through struggle and sustainability, respect, and joy can help move conversations forward, for himself and for his diners.
“I was taught food is not just a love language for us and the community, it’s about protecting our culture and building upon it,” he says. “Black food is becoming more prominent now. When I developed ‘eat to learn’ as a concept for my private dinners, it was more to curate a history of how certain Black figures have shaped food in general, not just what’s considered ‘Black food.’ And Chicago is a great place for that,” he says.
Next week’s pop-up menu features Saint Della summer cookout favorites: cornmeal-fried catfish platters with hot slaw, a “croque gagnet” roll with andouille sausage and a Scotch bonnet bechamel, and vegetarian smoked mushroom boudin balls.
“This menu is full-circle, it’s the past and the present, and being the first supper for the series drop, I wanted to start very welcoming,” Watson says.
The casual dinner is about having fun, but for Watson, Drain, and Marszewski, it’s really akin to a form of mutual aid, doubling as a creative entrepreneurial hub for under-the-radar chefs without their own restaurants, a kind of bridge building that hopefully extends further than city limits while underscoring Stock’s goals of contextualizing the Midwest in a more substantial way.
Additionally, Drain and Marszewski also want to thank those who gave their time and took a chance on an unknown publication by showcasing their talent at events. Marszewski is familiar with building a loyal readership, as he founded Lumpen magazine in 1991.
“The response has been amazing to this first issue,” Drain adds. “People are reading it. So we said, ‘They want to try your food and they want to know more about you. We want to help put that space together.’”
The next Stock Monday supper with Lincoln Park mainstay Aloha Eats is Monday, June 26. Tickets are on sale soon; follow along on Instagram for updates.