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Heather Greenwood Davis and her family visit the Cloud Gate installation at Chicago's Millennium Park.

Heather Greenwood Davis

“Where is the milk?!?’

For years, it was my mother’s mantra. She’d bellow it with one hand on the open fridge door, her confused face lit by the soft glow of that 15-watt bulb, eyes raised to the heavens as if to ask God himself why and how the four litres of milk she’d purchased a few days ago had disappeared.

There was no mystery. My brother was a teen.

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Until you’re paying to feed one, you can’t really understand. I have two teenage sons: Food does not come into our house; it passes through it.

The six pints of blueberries you bought this morning? Gone by noon. The four extra pork chops you thought could be your family’s dinner tomorrow? Inhaled over a commercial break.

This astonishing rate of food consumption has a surprising consequence: It makes travel tougher. Now, your ever-ravenous children are away from their well-stocked pantries and roaming hungry across the planet. You’ll try to revert to their toddler days when your purse held secret stashes of Goldfish crackers and raisins, but there is no purse large enough to battle teen hunger. Your only real hope is to make food part of your plans.

That’s why we’re in Chicago.

The city, host of the culinary James Beard Awards since 2015 (and until at least 2021), has no shortage of delicious, gourmet foodie options, but even if your tastes tend to the simple you’ll be in nirvana.

You can thank Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair for that.

“It put Chicago on the map,” explains Chicago Detours tour founder Amanda Scotese, who tells us on a walk through the city that, along with pavilions celebrating agriculture and technology (the dishwasher debuted here), the six-month long fair introduced snacks most Chicagoans had never seen before.

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Among them: Vienna Beef hot dogs, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Wrigley’s chewing gum and Cracker Jack popcorn.

A waiter brings out a Chicago-style pizza.

Heather Greenwood Davis

Over the years, Chicagoans have developed signature culinary styles. The Chicago hot dog focuses on mustard and relish (never ketchup). And while the trademark for “Chicago Mix” Popcorn is held by Candyland – a company in Minnesota – the cheddar cheese and caramel mixes locally made at Garrett’s are synonymous with the city.

The World’s Fair also introduced the brownie. On the History is Hott tour at the Palmer House Hilton, hotel historian Ken Price shares with us the legacy of Bertha Palmer. While the hotel itself is legendary (the first in the country to have electric light bulbs, in-room telephones and elevators), it’s Palmer who would go on to be remembered as a pioneer of the women’s movement. She ran the “Woman’s Building” at the fair and when she asked her chef to create a cake that was dense enough to be eaten without a fork, the brownie was born. Considering each of my children ate at least three of the tour samples, I’d say they too are grateful.

Chicago-style pizza came much later, likely the 1940s, as we learned on the Pizza City USA tour.

Steve Dolinsky, ABC food reporter and multiple James Beard Award winner for his TV and radio work, is one of the hosts who takes small groups across the city on foot or by bus.

Climbing at Maggie Daley Park’s rock-climbing wall in Chicago.

Heather Greenwood Davis

His forthcoming book on local pies, called Pizza City, USA, lists 101 spots ranked in 10 style categories. We sample four on the tour and my boys both declare Labriola’s Chicago deep-dish pie with its traditional “pinched and pressed sausage” their favourite.

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But Chicago is equal parts angel and devil: The food is rich and delicious, but the walkable city also means that touring works up an appetite. We find ourselves out early and home late every night to take advantage of spots such as Maggie Daley Park’s rock-climbing wall and skating circle, the Art Institute’s exhibits and plenty of shopping. Luckily, we are never too far from food. Our Absolutely Chicago Segway tour stops at a hot-dog stand. We pass Revival Food Hall on our outdoor sculpture walk, with just enough time for a brisket break at Smoque BBQ. And we conveniently find ourselves at Latinicity – the country’s only Latin cuisine-focused food hall – just before our stop at the theatre (our Hamilton tickets here were half the price of those in New York and a new exhibit about the show and the history that inspired it arrives in 2019).

Night after night, when the waitress proffers a dessert menu, my husband and I wave it away. But not my teens. They dive in with the same gusto I reserve for my IKEA catalogue.

“Who can say no to dessert?” the 16-year-old asks rhetorically each time.

Not you, son. Not you.

The writer’s trip was subsidized in part by ChooseChicago.com. It did not review or approve this article.

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