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There are lots of admired people on Chicago's food scene, and lots of well-liked people, but the list of people who are genuinely loved is probably fairly short, and Ina would be on practically everybody's. Partly because everyone who's moved into the hot Randolph Street restaurant row in the last decade wound up having breakfast meetings at Ina's and got to know her; how lucky for them that the hot strip came with a Jewish grandmother built in. So the news that Ina's is closing at the end of the year isn't like a lot of closing stories—"I'll never be able to have that again"—but more like, you can't go home again. Which isn't to say that her heavenly hots (light and fluffy pancakes) or blintzes (even fluffier) won't be missed; just that this is a food story about more than food.
I said hello to her a few times, and thanked her for feeding my family, but I didn't have my Ina story until, ironically enough, a storytelling event that she and I were paired up for.
It was in April, as part of Fete Chicago's food festival, and it was being staged at Ina's by 2nd Story, which puts on nights of true-life storytelling around town. Mostly the stories wind up being about young people and relationships, and at our first read-through, that's what two of the four turned out to be. The third was me, working up a story about teaching my kids to appreciate ethnic food around town. (You can hear it here.) The fourth was Ina's.
After hearing Ina's story, we all knew that none of us wanted to read after Ina.
Ina's story was about two incidents, really, decades apart, but it wasn't just that her story covered a swath of history, from World War II to the new millennium, in a way that nobody else's could compare to. It was also about polio, which she had suffered from, and fought, as a child. It was about dreams, and your parent's love, and art and feeding people and saying thanks and about ten other big, important things.
The read-through was like three people each telling a joke, followed by the fourth reading Tolstoy. Don't follow an animal act, and don't follow War and Peace or Ina Pinkney.
Since she and I were last on the night of the performance, and since we had all heard each other's stories a dozen times by then, Ina and I hung out "backstage" (that is, her back room) during the first half of the performance, and we talked about Check, Please! and she bemusedly mocked me for what I was reading (The Unofficial Guide to Disney World—hey, we were leaving the next day) and other things while I watched her put on her makeup. Ina wears fairly heavy makeup, and she was frank about it being her public face—"I have to look the same whenever I'm in public, or people don't get that it's me." She is 100 percent genuine, but she also understands showmanship, and she was readying herself for the part of Ina that night, as she did every day before her restaurant opened. There wasn't much difference between the part of Ina and Ina, but backstage Ina could be a little more caustic about, say, teenagers who ask her questions without a "please" or ever looking up from their phones. Like most sweet, big-hearted grandmothers, she's one tough cookie.
Anyway. There's no real story to my story, just that it was a privilege to have her to myself for an hour or so along the way and be in the presence of someone whose horizon is so much wider than what you feel like your own gets beaten down to some days. She's had a big life. She had a big story to tell that was only a small part of her own experience. You'll notice I haven't really said what Ina's story was about. That's because it's here and I don't want to spoil it, and you really have nothing better to do than to go listen to it right now.
Ina's, 1235 W. Randolph, 312-226-8227, breakfastqueen.com