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Category Archives: NIU
Last home stand of the year. Heading for a long off season. But at least the people at the park looked like they were having fun.
I got an e-mail the other day, and it appears that one of my all time favorite local artist will be returning to town at the end of this month. Cathy Richardson and her band will be making the trip back here to Chicago (Berwyn to be more exacting) on Friday, January 29th to play a show at one of her favorite haunts, Fitzgerald’s. The next night, she take a jog way out west to perform one more show at the Woodstock Opera House. That is Woodstock, Illinois, not the more famous concert farmland in New York.
My admiration for Cathy’s work as a singer, songwriter, musician and performer date back to the early to mid nineties. The first time I ever saw her perform was at a bar called Otto’s out in DeKalb near the campus of Northern Illinois University. I believe it was the winter of 1992/1993, and she was the warm-up act for the late Warren Zevon. Warren was doing an acoustic show, just him and a piano and a guitar. It has always stood out in my mind as one of the best performances I have ever seen, mostly because I had been a huge fan of his since I first heard the red covered album Excitable Boy. It was actually my sister Carrie’s album, but it found its way into my record collection very soon after she bought it. For God’s sake, she was a pom-pom girl. She shouldn’t be listening to such cool music as this. Most people will know Warren Zevon from the song Werewolves of London, which was a moderate hit back in 1978, but became a piece of pop culture as the pool playing samurai song from the 1986 film Color of Money staring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. More recently, the piano cords from the song have made a comeback as part of Kid Rock’s somewhat irritating All Summer Long.
Keeping with the acoustic theme of the night, Cathy performed a variety of music both original and covers with just her guitar. Even without benefit of a band to back her up, her talent was immediately obvious. She really caught my attention with a hard rocking cover version of Like the Way I Do by a fairly new and up and coming artist back then named Melissa Etheridge. I was also very intrigued by an original song of her she introduced as The Back of Your Mind. It had a quick pace and a catchy tune, and although I couldn’t make out all of the lyrics I knew right away it was a song I would listen to again. Her final song for the night was a rendition of the Janis Joplin classic Me & Bobby McGee. It was outstanding, and really made me want to hear more. When she finished her short set, she announced that they were selling cassettes in the back of the room, so I headed over to table to take a look. The tapes were a simple black cassette entitled the letter “i”. It only had four songs, the same four on both sides, but I was thrilled that the first song was indeed The Back of Your Mind. I don’t recall what I paid for the cassette, but it couldn’t have been more than $5. Unfortunately, the cassette is now long gone, which is a real disappointment to me, because even though The Back of Your Mind was later re-recorded and included as part of two different CD releases, the other three songs were not. The final song on the tape was a ballade called One Sunday Morning. It was a heart-felt song about the end of a relationship, and although the lyrics could have used a little work, the feeling of the song combined with Cathy’s strong voice made the song a favorite of mine. I don’t recall the name of the other two songs, but one was a really bluesy one with a lot of guitar work. And it was a cheep little cassette tape, so the quality was really not that great. It is a shame it has been lost. I would enjoy listening to it again.
The same night I bought the tape, I also signed up to Cathy’s mailing list. Basically, just wrote my name and address down on a legal pad along with a few other people’s names. Mass use of e-mail and the internet were still a few years away, at least for me anyway, and the AOL dial-up service that most people over 35 cut their computer teeth on was still in its infancy. Some time after that, I starting receiving postcards in the mail that would announce various locations that Cathy and her band would be playing at. Mostly they were bars, but as the weather warmed up, there were also a variety of outdoor festival locations. One that comes to mind immediately, is the Downer’s Grove Heritage Fest. Even as recently as the past couple of years, this has been a festival that Cathy continues to perform at. In the very early days, she would come up with some of the best cover songs to keep the crowd’s attention, one that has always stood out for me was a version of Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic. She did such a great job with the song that it actually inspired me to give it a try on my own at a Karaoke Night somewhere, and the song has actually become one of my own favorites to perform on those rare occasions when I do find myself back at a Karaoke Night.
It was at one of those street festivals that I picked up Cathy’s first full length CD, Moon, Not Banana. That little table in the back had grown to include bumper stickers and T-shirts along with the CDs and tapes, and Cathy had developed quite a following of devoted fans. The CD was produced by Jim Peterik, former member of Survivor and lead singer of The Ides of March. He wrote and sang yet another of my all time favorite Karaoke songs, the 1970 classic Vehicle. As with most recording of this type, the tracks on this CD have very minimal production quality, and they sound raw at best. But that is what makes this CD so good. It perfectly captured the essence and energy of one of her live shows. The CD also had some great songs that have since been lost in Cathy’s live shows. Back Of Your Mind, This Time and Paper Reasons are just three of the best of what this CD has to offer. This CD also contained another lost love ballade with Over the Miles. It seemed to me that this song grew right out of the discarded One Sunday Morning, and it really showed how Cathy was growing as a songwriter as well as a musician.
A couple years later, Cathy put out a two more CDs, Fools on a Tandem and a live recording entitled All Excess: Live @ Park West. Both of these recordings really captured the spirit of those early days, and the rock your ass off mentality that makes for a great bar band. Both contained the powerful Running Out of Time along with Crimes of Humanity and Down for the Count, but All Excess captured the spontaneity of a live performance that just can’t be produced in the studio. Cathy’s late night alcohol anthem Drink, Drink, Drink which was also on Moon, played so much better with the live crowd energy behind it. It also didn’t hurt that legendary radio sidekick Buzz Kilman (former partner for both Jonathan Brandmeier and Steve Dahl) provided the harmonica. All Excess also contained probably the best live blues version of the Spiderman theme song ever recorded, and as an extra bonus there was the hidden track, known to most of her fans simply as Track 69 or The Lipstick Song.
From here, Cathy’s recording got bigger and better production along with a lot of critical acclaim. Snake Camp, The Road to Bliss, and Delusions of Grandeur all produced some excellent music. Cathy’s career also took some interesting turns including landing a staring role in Love, Janis the musical based on the life of Janis Joplin. This production hooked her up with the former members of Big Brother and the Holding Company where she took to the road and performed with them. She has since relocated to San Francisco where in 2008 she became the new lead singer for the reformed Jefferson Starship. I have to be honest here and say that I have not heard any of the tracks on that CD, but I really should give it a try. I can’t imagine Cathy would associate herself with the project if she didn’t feel it was making some great music. Obviously with all this going on, it has become more and more difficult for Cathy to return to her old stomping grounds here in Chicago, but I for one appreciate that she makes an effort to do so. Even if I do miss the good old days and the less produced music of Moon, Not Banana and All Excess. I have a lot coming up that weekend including a wedding to go to on the 30th, and getting a sitter two nights in a row may prove my undoing. I have included a link to Cathy’s website for anyone interested in getting more information about the shows.
Oh, one final note. Remember when I was talking about those strange career twists. I forgot to mention one of my favorites. For anyone who may have had small children who enjoyed the Noggin show Jack’s Big Music Show, you may have already come face to face with Cathy Richardson. Here she is with some of the shows stars. Again, I have never actually seen the show, my kids are all past the age of this type of educational TV, and it would be down right spooky of me to watch them on my own. But once again I have to give Cathy credit for hooking up with this program. Only I have a feeling she is not singing Drink, Drink, Drink for all the little kiddies. That’s not quite the education the kids need.
Sometimes it is just too easy being the World’s Greatest Dad. And one of my biggest secrets is Rice Crispy Treats. We all know them, and we all love them. What’s not to love? Gooey, crispy, buttery treats. Cheep and easy to make, and they make the kids happy. Sometimes it really is true, that the simplest things in life are the best. This is why I have included these tasty little treats as part of my repertoire as far back as high school. In college, for some reason still unknown to me, I was elected President of our Student Advisory Committee. I was a Theatre Arts Major at Northern Illinois University, and one of our main sources of fund-raising came from the sales of concessions during the intermissions of our stage productions. We mostly sold homemade cookies and brownies and such, but we bought many of these items from one of the faculty members who made them. They were usually really good, and they looked great, but when I realised how much we were paying for the items, I decided that we should save the money and start making the items ourselves. At the same time, I also introduced our top-selling and most profitable item, the Rice Crispy Treat. I made them myself most of the time in my basement apartment located on Linden Place there in beautiful DeKalb Illinois. Other students pitched in and made other snacks like the classic Toll House Bars, or when time was short we would buy the bakery cookies from the Pick-N-Save. But it was the Rice Crispy Treat that was the star of our concession table.
And they are still a star with me and my kids. I made a batch during the half time of yesterday’s football game between Green Bay and Arizona. That’s how easy they are. And I was done before they even kicked off to start the third quarter. When Alex and Molly got home they were so thrilled, it was like Christmas had arrived all over again. Molly took a sack lunch for school today, and I made sure she got an extra-large treat so that she would be the envy of all her friends. You see, kids don’t understand just how easy they are to make. They just know they taste good. Rice Crispy Treats are absolutely the easiest treat in the world to make, and the homemade ones taste so much better than those crappy pre-made packaged treats they sell. They are so easy to make, I can’t understand why anyone would want to buy the pre-made treats. Molly usually helps me make them, so it is also a great fun way to get your kids involved. She adds all the ingredients, and I do the mixing which is really the toughest part of the whole process. I aways leave a few globs of the mix behind in the pot, and Molly spoons out the leftover warm stuff as an extra special treat.
In this case, it is perfectly ok to use a generic store brands when making Rice Crispy Treats, you do not get a better tasting treat if you use the actual Rice Krispy Cereal. I usually just use the Meijer Store brand. The total cost for all the ingredients (rice cereal, marshmallow, and butter) will usually range between three and four dollars, and the simple recipe can be found on most all brands of rice cereal or marshmallows. The only real hint I can give you is to use the miniature marshmallows, they melt a lot easier and quicker.
Maureen is a little more advanced than me, and her claim to fame treat is a scrumptious concoction she calls a Rollo Cookie. Basically, it is the Toll House Bar cookie with Rollo Candy added into the mixture. She has her own shortcut when making this treat, she uses the pre-mixed packages of Betty Crocker Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix, and then makes them as she would any other pan cookie. She then adds about a dozen or so Rollo candies spaced out inside the mixture. Also a very easy treat to make, but most of the time I am only trusted with unwrapping and inserting the candy. The best part about this cookie is eating them when they are still a little warm. You bite into one of the candy pieces, and the warm carmel just oozes out in your mouth. Of course this recipe does require the actual use of the oven, so it is a bit more advanced then what I make.
If you choose to hunt around the internet for other rice cereal treat recipes, you will notice there is an unending amount of variations to the basic treat. Chocolate versions, frosted treats, the addition of raisins or granola. I even spotted a version that added coffee to the mix. As if the sugar wasn’t enough, do we really need caffeinated Rice Crispy Treats. The most adventurous I got was this past Christmas when I added green food coloring to the mix and then topped the treats off with some cinnamon imperial candy. It gave them a nice festive color, but the red hots scared off my kids. But they couldn’t have been that bad, because my sister Carrie ate three of them in one sitting. She makes a bunch of really good cookies and such around the holidays, so it was kind of a kick to see her enjoy my simple little treat.
For the most part, I just keep to the original. I just make the basic Rice Crispy Treat. It is what I enjoy, and what the kids like best. Like I said at the beginning, the simplest thing are sometimes the best. If all it takes is this quick little fun treat to put a great big smile on your kids face, isn’t it worth the fifteen minutes it takes to make them. Sure, sometimes it seems like your kids are asking the world of you, but what they really want is just a little bit of your time and love. So little effort, so much in return. And if you don’t have any kids, make up a batch and bring them to work. I guarantee you will be the office favorite.
Because it is impossible not to smile when you have a mouth full of Rice Crispy Treat.
I spent a good portion of the mid-eighties in DeKalb, wandering aimlessly around the campus of Northern Illinois University. I had a lot of good friends, and I have had a chance to catch up with many of them through the marvel of the internet known as Facebook. As I have reconnected with various people from my old college days, I once again find that many of those memories seem to be connected to food. They include picnics and parties, The Cornball, and our first Thanksgiving dinner at Laura and Patty’s place. And of course, as with most college campuses, there were the various restaurants and bars that became our hangouts and meeting spots.
Being a Theatre Major, my home base on campus was the Stevens Building, and more importantly, the smelly old couches by the call board. This was also the backstage area for our main theatre, O’Connell. At almost any time of the day, students and sometime faculty could be found here talking or resting or studying. And almost certainly smoking. Although I myself am not a smoker, it would seem very strange to me to return to that spot now that smoking is no longer allowed inside the building. It was just a part of the ambiance of the call board. I guess back in those days, I was too dumb to realize my lungs needed saving.
Out the back door of the Stevens Building was a small parking lot which then led to a strip mall and our main source of food on most days. There was a McDonald’s on one side, but at least for me, it was not a place I would visit very often, mostly only when they were having a fifty cent cheeseburger sale. There were other fast food restaurants in the area, a Burger King and a Pizza Hut, but these types of establishments really lend nothing special to any area. It is the smaller local favorites that truly defined our eating habits. Our first choice if you were in a hurry and had to get back to class was a small hotdog stand called PJ’s Red Hots. It was much smaller than Tom and Jerry’s, the competition further down Lincoln Highway, but in my opinion, they had the better fries. Simply cut from whole potatoes and deep fried with the skin still intact. And for a little extra a glob of cheese or chili or both could be piled on top. PJ’s served the basic Chicago Style hotdogs and burgers. It is also where I first fell in love with that deep fried pastry known to many as the pizza puff. It has absolutely no redeeming dietary value, but come on, cheese and sausage and pizza sauce all wrapped up in a crispy crust that was soaked in scalding oil for two minutes, what on earth could be wrong with that? That is unless you bit into it too quickly and burnt the roof of your mouth.
A few doors down, if you had more time and felt like a deli sandwich or some good soup, there was The Dill Pickle. Considering that they actually named themselves after a pickle, I always thought they should have the best pickles, but they were really only ok at best. What they did have was some very good pastrami, and the best potato salad that ever came in a small condiment cup. Unfortunately, they were usually too expensive for my college budget, and the extra dark interior did not make it a good place to study. Study sessions were reserved for The Junction.
The official name was The Junction Eating Place, and since the idea of a coffee house had not quite caught on yet back in 1984 to 1987, it was the closest thing we had to a Central Perk. As the name would indicate, the theme of the restaurant was a train depot, and there was an actual working model train that ran around the restaurant close to the ceiling. We almost always met at The Junction in a group, so the little Greek owner would mostly sit us in the back. Our favorite corner was one of those half booths where those who sat against the wall sat on an orange pleather bench, and those in front of the table got chairs. I myself preferred the very corner of the bench where I could rest against the wall and put a foot up if no-one was sitting right next to me. But the Junction was not just a student hang out. I actually had a class one semester that met at the Junction. It was a playwriting class, and we would all sit around drinking coffee, eating giant cinnamon rolls, and reading our scripts. Many years later, I stopped at the Junction with my daughter Stephanie, who at that time could only have been four or five years old, and to my surprise, the little old Greek man at the counter recognized me. He offered to sit me in the back like the old days, but since it was just the two of us, we opted to be sat in one of the booths by the front windows. That way we had a great view of the Pizza Villa across the parking lot.
There are really just two words needed to describe The Pizza Villa. Beer Nuggets. Anyone who spent any time as a student at NIU just had a flashback to a late night munchies fest. Anyone who has never been to DeKalb just thought “Huh?” Beer Nuggets were originally made from left over pizza dough. It would be chopped up into rectangular cubes or nuggets, and then they were deep fried. That’s it. Deep fried pizza dough. The proper way to eat them was with a side of sauce. I enjoyed rolling them in parmesan cheese after they had been adequately dipped. At two in the morning, the best way to eat them was as quickly as possible. Pizza Villa cornered the market on late night munching with these little balls of deep fried dough. They had a fleet of trucks that could be seen weaving in and around campus, and besides delivering pizza, they also carried extra bags of Beer Nuggets. All you had to do was flag down a truck and present the driver with whatever crumpled up bills were still left in your pocket, and you had an instant late night snack.
For the more adventurous late night eater, there was one final stop that could be taken, but only the most fool hardy all-nighters would ever survive to actually see a visit to Dot’s. Just off the corner of Lincoln Highway and 1st Street, almost undetected by most passer-by, there was a small little restaurant that almost never seemed to be open. Its tiny green awning and window simply said “Dot’s”. The story as I heard it was that Dot’s late husband was a truck driver, and he would often have to make overnight hauls. When he would return in the morning Dot would get up early and make him breakfast. Over the years, this habit became a business, and Dot’s grew into a popular stop for overnight truckers and early morning delivery people. This is why the restaurant would open at 4 am, and then be closed before most inhabitants were even aware it had opened. Dot was a slight woman with short platinum blond hair. She was the cook and did not seem to ever come out from behind the counter. In front of the counter serving the food was a chunkier woman with dark hair and the standard waitress outfit like you would see Flo wear on Alice. I don’t recall her name, but I want to say it was Velma or Thelma or something like that. Or I might just be stretching it a bit in my memory because it seems like that’s what her name should have been. There was really no reason for a menu in Dot’s since the only thing she served was the Special. Two eggs, two strips of bacon, two sausage links and hash browns, all cooked in its own slab of butter. The coffee was awful but hot, and the food was greasy and good. Or as good as one can remember considering it was four in the morning.
I have to be honest and say that I probably only made it to Dot’s twice during my years at NIU. It always seemed like a good idea, but since my basement apartment was only a few blocks away on the curve of College Avenue and Linden Place, see it wasn’t really a corner, the two streets just sort of forked off each other, my apartment was often the meeting ground from where we would wait until Dot’s would open at 4. Most nights we didn’t make it, and I would wake up the next day with a floor full of people and an empty stomach. Dot’s closed down a few years later and got swallowed up by the mega bar next door called Otto’s. Dot passed away and it would seem a piece of history passed with her. But her story lives on in part because of people like me and my old college friends who also made it once or twice to the little place simply known as Dot’s. And because someone in DeKalb had the right idea to name the little ally that runs behind the building where Dot’s restaurant was once located. Go ahead and MapQuest it now.
It’s called Dot’s Way.