The backyard looks (and smells) different today – Chicago Magazine

Since the Union Stock Yard opened in 1865, Chicago has been getting its food from behind the Yards. That hasn’t changed, but now that the Stockyards are long gone, so have the foods themselves.

Peer Foods was a pork packing plant built on the corner of 46th Street and Bishop Avenue in 1925 and close to the millions of hogs driven through the back doors each year. The packinghouse outlived the warehouses until 2007, turning hog carcasses into salted pork feet and bacon, when it abruptly closed after a merger with an Indiana meatpacker.

The three-story building still stands, but today it’s home to The Plant, a consortium of micro-food businesses that includes a brewer, cheese maker, beekeeper, chocolatier and Sacred Serve, which makes coconut meat and mushroom gelato. . Peer Foods’ faded wall of steers and pigs is enhanced with new paintings of urban farmers harvesting lettuce and peas.

In the popular stereotype, Chicago is a carnivorous city devoted to Polish sausage, Italian beef, and hot dogs. As the smell of bacon wafting through the historic Stockyard Gate attests, there are certainly plenty of meatpackers behind the yards. Park Packing Co., the neighborhood’s last butcher shop at 41st and Ashland, sends its products to Kiki D’s restaurant across the street, which serves them barbecued ribs and carnitas. But the presence of hydroponic farms growing microgreens and herbs where pigs were once torn apart is a sign of Chicago’s evolving taste.

“We have about 15 to 20 small food businesses,” says Carolee Kokola, director of enterprise operations for Bubbly Dynamics, which owns and operates The Plant. “It’s questionable whether it’s actually mostly vegan, certainly vegetarian. This is a very different food production enterprise.”

(On Nov. 12, the Plant will even host a symposium on the Future of Meat, which will discuss “the implications of the meat industry and alternatives for its future.”)

A wall inside the Factory that references the building’s past. Edward McClelland

The plant’s most up-and-coming food tenant is Back of the Yards Algae Sciences, which conducts experiments using algae in its third-floor lab. Some of the uses they’ve discovered are: food coloring for candy, a heme analog for meatless hamburgers, and high-protein nutritional supplements for sports drinks, chocolates, and pasta. The company employs a mycologist whose work with mushrooms culminated in a collaboration with Whiner Brewery, The Plant’s first-floor tasting room: a hard seltzer with algae, wheatgrass and mushroom extract.

“It’s full of stuff,” said Katie Spear, Yards Algae Sciences Director of Operations. “It has chlorella, spirulina, wheatgrass, and about eight different mushrooms—sweet things like that.”

Although it is a post-meat manufacturing hotbed, The Plant at least embraces packaging’s past as an aesthetic, architectural and historical principle. Pure Foods’ “Pork Chart,” a diagram of the cuts of meat into which pork can be divided, is still on the wall. It’s a black-and-white mural depicting a USDA inspector standing in front of men cutting up carcasses. Smoking rooms have been turned into toilets with their chrome doors intact.

The plant also houses the Packingtown Museum, which this magazine called “the best small museum for Chicago history buffs.” The one-room display of photos of the animal shelters and slaughterhouse was created by historian Dominic Pacyga, the author of the book. Slaughterhouse: The Chicago Union Stock Yard and the world it created, a local and Union Stock Yard worker behind the Yards from 1969 until it closed two years later. As a child, Pasiga remembered the animal towers that smelled like “open sewage” and the cowboys who drove through the neighborhood to catch the animals that ran away. Pasiga worked as a cattle herder, unloading trucks and transporting pigs and cattle to garages where they would wait to be purchased by local slaughterhouses.

“The cattle were easy,” Pacyga said. “They’re not very bright. Pigs are smart. Pigs know. You can say what you know. The most noisy death in the slaughterhouse is the pigs. They scream like children.”

Edward McClelland

Under the ceiling of the room stretch metal rails where pig carcasses were once hung. Pasiga says warehouses are an important part of Chicago history because “in 1890, one in four Chicagoans depended on the meatpacking industry for their income. Five hundred thousand people visited the warehouses a year. They came to see the murder. “If you grew up on a farm, everybody knew how to kill an animal.”

In 1971, Pasiga graduated as a security guard. That’s when he heard the news on WGN that the warehouses were closing. Before World War II, warehouses were in decline. The city’s biggest butchers—Armour, Swift and Wilson—were closed. Western cattlemen sold directly to slaughterhouses.

“Times are changing,” says Pacyga. No place illustrates how times have changed for backyard food production better than Plant.


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