In any authoritative history of the United States, the reign of Chicago as the meatpacking center of the expanding country from the Civil War to the 1920s is critical. Newly laid railroad lines opened Chicago to large urban markets on the East Coast and the ever-expanding Midwestern hinterlands. Not only was the Union Stock Yard a massive monument to beef and hog slaughter, it was accessible to all railroads serving Chicago: it received three million cattle and hogs in 1870 and 12 million just 20 years later. By the end of WWI, in the words of Carl Sandburg, Chicago was 'hog butcher for the world.'
The decline of railroads led to the decline of Chicago's status as the nexus of the beef and pork trade, and the Union Stock Yard finally closed in 1970. But the City of Big Shoulders remains a beef and potatoes kind of town, and travel guides are rife with lists of must-visit steakhouses and burger joints. Matter of fact, a conference we recently attended was held at the non-ironically named Hamburger University, the McDonalds fast-food chain's massive training facility in suburban Oak Brook, Illinois.
While on that trip we found ourselves dining at a restaurant near O'Hare Airport on Chicago's western outskirts. A dozen TV screens showed Chicago sports teams in action while a busy wait staff tended to tables stuffed with businessmen in polo shirts and loose-fitting jeans. Using the locator functionality on the Impossible Foods website, we'd come to this specific restaurant to indulge in an Impossible Burger far from the hipster neighborhoods of inner-Chicago.
Walking in we'd found it incongruous that a plant-based burger would be served in such a burly establishment, yet there it was, proudly advertised in the restaurant's elongated menu that was otherwise bursting with beef and pork and (a little) chicken.
Still, what effect could this pesky burger made entirely from plants have not only in a restaurant practically dripping in animal blood but in a city that practically invented the industrialisation of animal slaughter in the United States and, arguably, the world?
That effect was represented by our waitress, a young woman who practically jumped out of her sneakers when we ordered our Impossible Burger. She was easily one of the youngest people in the restaurant and surely didn't fall within the chain's target demographics, but her enthusiasm for Impossible Foods was palpable. Despite growing up in a culture saturated with beef -- or perhaps because of it -- she'd decided to give plant-based protein a shot and was now a vocal proponent.
When she delivered our Impossible Burger (shown above, with jack cheese and a glistening pond of ketchup) we found ourselves savoring it a bit more than usual, knowing that in Chicago a new generation of diners was perhaps -- perhaps -- about to introduce a new way of eating to a city steeped in the history of animal butchery.