When I wasn’t drooling in chocolate shop windows or nose-deep in a waffle, I was trying to learn government secrets, specifically what makes Belgian waffles superior. I learned that their distinct flavor and texture come from using a special type of sugar, Belgian pearl sugar, notable for how it caramelizes into what is being made. I planned to spread this information like a WikiLeak when I returned stateside, but first I had some exporting to do. I was crestfallen when the sugar wasn’t available at any of the shops in the Brussels airport, including the airport grocery store. (I drowned my sorrows in a quart of blood orange juice, which I downed before I went through security. Lesson: never shotgun blood orange juice for the pain of it going down the wrong way is unmatched.)
When I returned home, my Google searches told me that Belgian pearl sugar is not easily found in America (Uff da!), but was often sold at IKEA (Var sa god!). But how would I get out to the suburbs? I began scrolling through my mental list of friends with cars who could be easily bribed with waffles that required no syrup. But then it came to me: IKEA is Swedish and I live in Andersonville, the Swedish neighborhood of Chicago. Perhaps there would be a less-than-obvious trend of Scandinavians stocking their stores with Belgian products. So I summoned Viking-like courage and barreled into the bleak Chicago winter toward Erikson’s Delicatessen.
The plump, blond proprietress of the family-owned business—open since 1925; my Swedish uncle recalls going there as a boy—eagerly waddled out from behind the counter. “We had some [Var sa god!], but it looks like we’re out. [Uff da!]” I inquired about the Swedish pearl sugar on their shelves, but she let me know that substitutions would not work, especially when making authentic Belgian waffles. It seems that despite possessing nearly identical names, Belgian pearl sugar—notable for how it caramelizes—is diametrically opposed to Swedish pearl sugar—notable for how it does not cook into what is being made. You’ve probably seen Swedish pearl sugar before; it is used for the large ornamental crystals found on Swedish cookies. (I wondered: Did the first translator to use the phrase “pearl sugar” feel ripped off when another translator chose the same phrasing? Was the second translator using the phrase despite crucial differences during chemical reactions more foolish or less foolish than Columbus when he declared America to be India?) The plump, blond proprietress told me she would get a shipment of Belgian pearl sugar later that week.
When I returned I was hungry and desperate. I had called ahead to make sure they were stocked and an impatient, bossy man answered the phone. When I asked if the shipment of Belgian pearl sugar had come in yet, he checked and let me know that they did have some pearl sugar. But he had not specified its country of origin. Didn’t he know the difference between the two pearl sugars stocked at his family’s store? He was not nearly as knowledgeable as the Swedish woman from last time. Uncertain of my waffle-y fate, I once again put on my horned hat to go pillaging in the cold.
Erikson’s was packed but thankfully they were stocked with the sugar I sought as well as its inferior cousin. Both were made by Lars' Own and to make matters more confusing the two products had nearly identical packaging. While mothers with antsy children decided on how many pounds of potato sausage, the man from the phone rang me up on the 1920s cash register. When I pulled out my plastic, the man pulled out his impatient, bossy demeanor that he had acquainted me with earlier on the phone. He successfully added “annoyed” to his list of defining adjectives. He let me know it was "cash only" in a manner that suggested the workday was his puppy and I had just kicked it.
Meek and cashless, I left to find an ATM. This short errand turned into an odyssey as every ATM I found had extortionate fees that one-by-one I rejected. Eventually, I had walked far enough north on Clark St. to reach the Jewel/Osco, where I used my debit card to get some cash. Back at Erikson’s, still sadly devoid of the plump, blond, accommodating proprietress, I held my fresh $20 in clear sight as I returned my Belgian pearl sugar to the purchase counter. Showing no appreciation for the effort I made to return with hard money, the bossy, impatient, annoyed man asked me, with disgust, if I had the cash. I looked at the $20 that I was already holding in plain view and said yes. He sure hated me for buying things from his family’s business. By the time I left, he had added a noun to go with the adjectives in his defining features: jerk.