It was a typically soggy and frigid Chicago
November evening when I met with Paul Mannering at our usual
bar. I had known Paul since my college days, over thirty years
now, and twice a year we met here at the same drinking spot,
for a warming drink before we headed off to dinner. Tonight
was Paul's turn to have arranged our culinary adventure, as
we alternated the honors. Upon our last meeting, in April, I
had taken him to a small, off the beaten track eatery that specialized
solely in viscera, those underrated internal organs such as
the heart, kidneys and several other seemingly unsavory entrails.
Paul was disgusted at the notion at first. Yet, we had a pact:
whatever our dining guest ordered for us, we must consume every
last morsel on the plate. The eating process that night had
been lubricated by three rather fine bottles of French red wine.
As I entered the bar there was yet no
sign of Paul. I nodded to the barkeep, sat at the antique mahogany
countertop and ordered a large single malt whisky. I was convinced
that whatever Paul had in store for me to eat tonight was going
to take as much courage as I could muster. I have been blessed
with an iron stomach from childhood, however, I had a gut suspicion
that Paul was about to test that stomach to its boundaries.
I was on my second drink when Paul finally entered. By this
time the rain had intensified and he strolled in looking as
if he had just swum his way there instead of walking. I could
tell that despite his soaking he was in high spirits, for he
wore a subtle smirk on his face. Removing his raincoat and resting
his umbrella, he saluted me and made his way over. I ordered
him his customary double bourbon as he ambled over and sat beside
"So?" I asked inquisitively
as I watched him finish half his drink with the first gulp.
"Where are we heading tonight?"
Paul, obviously feeling far better from
the sudden intake of bourbon, simply winked at me.
"That will take half of the fun
out of it if I told you now!"
We finished our drinks and idly caught
up on what mundane things had been going on in our lives. We
rarely spoke other than our customary bi-annual culinary excursions,
so I informed him of my recent promotion to area manager, and
he shared of his two large and lucrative accounts he had recently
procured after months of wooing. It seems our lives were still
on an even, albeit slightly dull, course. There were many parallels
between us. Paul and I had both graduated with business degrees,
and both had done quite well financially for ourselves. We had
both opted for living in the heart of Chicago, and we were both
contentedly married with children. I had a son and a daughter,
and Paul had three sons.
Paul glanced at his watch.
"Crap, look at the time. We need
to get a move on."
With that he retrieved his cell phone
and called a taxi. Ten minutes later we had finished our drinks,
settled the bar tab, and were waiting in the lobby for the taxi-cab
to pull up. As it did we quickly dashed out into the rain and
tumbled into the back seat.
"Where you heading, gents?"
asked the thick accented driver.
Paul reached into his pocket and pulled
out a business card, making sure that I was unable to catch
a glimpse of it. He discreetly handed it to the driver.
"It is a surprise for my friend,"
The driver read the address on the card,
and the look in his eyes showed his alarm.
"Are you sure you want to go there,
sir?" he asked hesitantly. "There are some great steak
houses that I can recommend. Or if you fancy seafood, I
Paul cut him off mid sentence. "No,
please take us to where I ask."
The twenty-five minute car drive continued
with no sounds of the heavy rain pounding on the cab, the sound
of its engine, and the constant, almost hypnotic, swishing back
and forth of the windshield wipers. I noted with curiosity,
and a degree of alarm, that we left downtown Chicago, to the
suburb of Douglas. I glanced at Paul, who was smiling broadly.
"Don't worry. I know precisely what
I am doing; this is going to be the most exquisite culinary
delight that you have ever consumed," Paul said reassuringly,
obviously noting the look of dread in my eyes.
Douglas is located in the very heart
of the south side of Chicago, a town where gang members mark
and protect their territory ferociously. An area predominantly
black American, and where two white city slickers such as Paul
and I appeared decidedly out of place. The rain by now had stopped,
but what remained was a misty night. I could not fail to consider
that it was the sort of fog reminiscent of one described vividly
in many of Conan Doyle's books.
Five minutes later as I nervously peered
out the taxi-cab window at a vast variety of colorful and oftentimes
elaborate graffiti, we pulled up outside an old building that
looked like a Victorian-era house. Its style was distinctly
American carpenter gothic style, and in desperate need of several
generous licks of paint. The building, which was well lit by
several lamplights, stood two stories high with steep gables
augmented by gargoyles and pointed windows. There was a long
wooden set of stairs leading up to a foreboding front door.
I wondered if we had arrived at the wrong location, and this
was a private residence; however, a hand painted sign on a wooden
post outside of it proved otherwise.
The name of the establishment, "Voodoo
Hoodoo's," was painted in faded red ink. Below it, smaller
black letters which I could just make out stated: "Serving
traditional Jamaican food since 1947."
"That will be thirty-three dollars,
gentlemen," the driver said hastily.
Paul handed him two twenty-dollar bills.
"Please keep the change," he said as he swung open
the door. "And could you pick us up again at midnight please?"
The driver hesitated. "It would
take twice my usual fare to make me inclined to do that, gents,"
he said as he watched us climb out of his cab.
"You've got a deal," Paul replied,
looking the driver straight in the eyes. With that, the driver
nodded curtly at us, then shook his head, in apparent disbelief,
as he thrust the car into gear and sped off down the street.
"So just what sort of a place have
you brought me to? It looks more like a museum than a restaurant."
"You will see. I have been here
three times now, and have never been disappointed."
With that we walked up the creaking wooden
steps to the front door and rang a bell. A haunting chime filled
the bitter cold air, and I was beginning to second guess venturing
inside when the door opened abruptly.
Standing there stood a black man of about
sixty. He was wearing black trousers, a black shirt and a black
tie. His clothing was in sharp contrast to his grey and white
full beard and bald head. He appeared to be well over six feet
tall, with massively broad shoulders that would put most NFL
players to shame.
He looked curiously at us at first, and
then apparently recognizing Paul he beamed a generous smile,
revealing a full set of gleaming perfect white teeth.
"Welcome back, Mr. Wentworth. Your
usual table awaits," he said to us. "And I see that
you aren't dining alone tonight. I am delighted."
The imposing gentleman offered an equally
imposing large hand towards me.
"My name is Mr. Ellin. I am the
I accepted his handshake and found it
surprisingly gentle for a man of his proportions.
"Do come in."
We were ushered inside. At first I was
taken aback by the sight of a front room containing just eight
tables, all crammed together in what had surely been the parlor
and lounge, long ago converted into one larger area. This mismatched
tables and chairs were full of people greedily consuming their
food. The second thing that struck me was the silence. There
was no idle chatter or annoying Muzak playing in the background,
which is a mainstay of most restaurants. All that could be heard
was the sound of the diners fervently slavering down their food.
The next thing that struck me were the abundance of cobwebs
and dust that filled each available nook and cranny of the room.
I was about to once more reconsider eating here, being a bit
of a hygiene freak, when my nostrils managed to breathe in the
most tantalizing aroma I have ever experienced. Paul smiled
at me again knowingly.
Mr. Ellin, who had watched my transforming
facial features go from disappointment to enthusiasm, led us
to the only empty table, set for two.
I was seated into a wooden chair, and
Paul positioned himself in a wicker one directly opposite me.
'Enjoy," Mr. Ellin said with a modest,
well practiced bow, and then left us.
"What a peculiar yet charming man,"
I said to Paul, trying to soak it all in.
"Yes, he runs the place and his
father prepares the food. He has been cooking here, single handedly,
ever since the place opened
I bet he has to be nearly
"Good grief! I wonder what his secret
is," I said, astonished to hear that my meal was going
to be prepared by a gentleman of that age.
"His diet, I suspect," Paul
answered with one of his famous winks.
"So where are the menus?" I
asked, looking about me at the fellow diners. I noticed to my
surprise a vast variety of diners ranging from young college
student types to elderly gentlemen of various ethnic groups.
One thing that struck me, however, was there were no women present.
"Oh, there are no menus. There is
only one fixed dining choiceI have had it three times
now, and believe me, it just gets better and better."
"Is there any reason why there aren't
any women here tonight?" I asked.
"Women are strictly forbidden,"
Paul said with a rather mischievous tone in his voice that I
found a tad disturbing.
Moments later another gentleman, looking
like a younger version of Mr. Ellin, also dressed entirely in
black, arrived at our table carrying a tray of two glasses of
iceless water. Smiling, he placed the two drinks in front of
us. With that, he also bowed and, without uttering a word, left
I watched him walk away, increasingly
"The only drink they serve is tap
water without ice," Paul said, answering the question I
was pondering in my mind.
He again winked.
I sipped on my water and noted a smudge
on my glass. Resigning myself to my fate, I took another sip.
"That is straight Chicago tap water
all right!" I said. "I could damn murder for a shot
A few moments later the waiter returned
to the table, again with a tray. This time he was carrying two
bowls of soup. He carefully placed one in front of each of us,
seemingly deliberately to give a particular bowl to Paul. Once
more, seemingly satisfied, he nodded silently and went to clear
the plates from another table.
The soup, on closer examination, would
be more accurately described as a broth. The two portions were
in mismatched bowls. I noticed that Paul's bowl was slightly
larger than my own. My bowl was a muddy brown color, with an
ominous crack in the side. Paul picked up his own, larger, un-cracked
bowl and began to eagerly drink. I followed suit. As I raised
the broth, my nostrils were filled with the same tantalizing
scent that I had detected earlier. This comforted me, so I drank.
As soon as the liquid met my taste buds, my mouth cried out
for more. I found myself consuming the whole bowl in less than
a minute. What a glutton I must have appeared, but no more so
than any of the other diners, including Paul. The broth's subtle,
curious, yet entirely agreeable taste lingered on gleefully
as I licked my lips in anticipation of the main course. At this
point I stopped worrying about the location, the masses of cob-web
and dust. Even the cracked serving utensils no longer managed
to distract me. On the contrary, in some strange way they were
somehow enhancing my experience. I could not fathom what blend
of magical, masterfully blended ingredients had given the broth
such a unique and sublimely delicious quality.
Paul, with a grin reminiscent of the
proverbial Cheshire cat, nodded at me knowingly.
"See why I wanted to bring you here?"
It was a further ten minutes before any
more food was presented to us. A few of the other diners had
finished their main course at this point, and exited with a
peaceful satisfied expression etched onto their contented stuffed
faces. Almost as if they had experienced some transitional,
life confirming religious experience. I too was convinced that
by the end of the evening my perspective of the world, in some
slight way, would never be quite the same again.
At long last my waiting was over. The
waiter again appeared. This time on the tray were two plates,
each covered with a silver dome. He expertly placed each plate
in front of us, and again, without a word being spoken, pulled
off the lids, bowed and left us to our meal.
Again that same tantalizing scent of
my broth filled my eager nostrils. Only this time it was significantly
intensified and even more intoxicating. I studied the dish.
It was some sort of stew. In the rich brown broth were a medley
of various vegetables, some I recognized and others I did not.
There was also an abundance of white and dark meat. I looked
up at Paul, who was already on his third or fourth mouthful,
grabbed a fork and severed a sizeable chunk of the meat. I held
it up to my nose. This is where the scent originated from. Obviously
the proceeding broth was made from the same curious meat. I
opened my mouth and placed it on my tongue, releasing it with
the fork with my teeth. The first thing that struck me was its
texture. It was succulent and moist, yet it still required just
a sufficient amount of chewing to amplify the enjoyment of it
and maximize its unique flavor profile.
"It tastes a bit like chicken, but
more so," I thought, amused at the realization as I went
in for a second mouthful.
As we consumed, not a single word was
uttered between us. I ate my meal as if I had not eaten in a
week. Quickly, greedily, enthusiastically, and when within a
few minutes my plate was bare and my stomach felt comfortably
full, I felt a pang of regret that the dining experience had
concluded, yet understood that it was the perfect portion size.
Any more would have surely been too much of a good thing.
After we finished eating, Paul and I
sat there, still in silence. I kept trying to conjure up some
way of expressing my satisfaction with the meal, yet I realized
the look on my face surely said it far better than any words
Looking about us, we discovered that
we were the last two diners on the premises. Paul glanced at
"We have twenty minutes to kill
before the taxi picks us up again. I hope he comes back, as
we will have a hell of a time trying to hail another one."
Suddenly the waiter appeared again and
began to clear the plates.
Realizing that we had time to spare,
I heard myself beginning to speak to him, almost despite myself.
"Is there any chance of letting
us have a quick peek in the kitchen?" I asked.
Paul looked back at forth between me
and the waiter, as if watching a fast game of ping-pong.
Suddenly we heard Mr. Ellin's bellowing
voice in the background and looked up to see him marching towards
"Not at all, it would be a privilege.
But, I warn you, some of the things you see might alarm you.
And furthermore, I need your utmost assurance that what you
see there is not told to a single soul. I would not want everyone
knowing our secret and putting us out of business, now would
I?" He chuckled.
"We agree," we said in unison,
almost as if we were joined at the hip.
The waiter glanced nervously at his father,
and then scurried back into the kitchen with the dirty plates.
"Follow me, please," Mr. Ellin
And follow him we did.
We were led to the other side of the
restaurant, through a door that led to a kitchen.
The kitchen was surprisingly small. There
was a double oven, a stove top with a large pot on it, a wooden
table with a particularly large chef's knife on it and a refrigerator
that looked as if it was from the 1950s.
The elder Mr. Ellin, dressed in a white
chef's apron, a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, was focused on
stirring the pot. Hearing footsteps, he turned and smiled at
"Father, these two gentlemen enjoyed
their meal so much that they requested to see the kitchen. I
understand we rarely do this, but I took kindly to them, and
did not think you would mind."
Mr. Ellin senior looked remarkably like
his son. He was not quite as tall or broad shouldered, yet there
was no mistaking the resemblance. Despite being ninety, he stood
with perfect posture, and there was no hint of trembling or
uncertainty in his movements.
"So, I suppose you want to know
what the secret ingredient is, don't you?" he said with
a full strong tone. "Well, you aren't the first, and you
surely won't be the last. I guess you don't look the type who
would steal our recipe, so follow me."
I looked at the two men; both had a curious
gleam in their eye.
"I suppose you have had all sorts
of ideas of what meat I serve here, don't you? Perhaps even
a macabre notion or two has played itself up in your imaginations.
Am I correct?"
Paul and I chuckled nervously.
"This way, please, and all shall
The old chef swiftly made his way over
the kitchen, to another, smaller door.
Turning the knob, it screeched ominously
open. "This is our meat cellar," he said as a gust
of cold air filled the kitchen.
With a strong index finger he flicked
on the lights. Paul and I made our way over to it, and peered
down the staircase.
I have to admit I almost vomited at the
sight that met my astonished eyes. Assembled down there, in
several uniform rows, dozens of carcasses were hung on metal
"We age the meat for at least three
weeks prior to cooking it," the chef continued, "It
helps develops the meat's unique flavor. The ones on the far
right are ready for tomorrow night."
Suddenly Paul's eyes lit up knowingly.
"They are chickens, aren't they?"
"Aye sir, that they are, but not
just any chicken. Chickens in America have had their entire
flavor bred out of them. Tasteless, they are. Those are none
other than greater Brown Prairie Chickens. My father brought
a dozen or so over from Jamaica back in the early 1940s, and
we have been breeding them ourselves in the back yard, cage
free, just as nature had intended. We feed them a special diet,
which adds to their flavor profile dramatically, but that is
a family secret. We are the only restaurant outside of Jamaica
who serves them."
After Paul and I sincerely thanked all
three Mr. Ellins, we realized that it was almost midnight. So
laughing under our breath, we left the kitchen with our vivid
imaginations keenly in check. We went outside to find our taxi-cab
* * *
As they drove off, returning to the bar
for a nightcap, back in the restaurant the three Ellins gathered.
"It is a good job they didn't look
in the second meat cellar," the eldest Ellin said, "a
very good job indeed."