When I met Cam Brenson the other day, he was deep into the E’s — Estonia, Eritrea, Egypt. We had Ethiopian for lunch. He was expecting to continue the next day with Ecuador. He had already picked through Chile, Cuba, Cameroon and Croatia, and was making plans to hit Finland, Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia and France.
I am a fan of people with unnecessary goals. Like collecting every model of vacuum cleaner, or visiting every Taco Bell in existence. Brenson, who works in marketing at a tech company in Chicago, has a more thoughtful goal: He wants to eat at least one dish from every country on Earth without leaving the greater Chicago area.
Since January, he has been posting videos of himself on TikTok eating those meals. He uses the tag @BoredinChicago, though considering the work and prickly issues he must navigate to accomplish his goal, he may be the least bored person in the city.
His videos, which are posted alphabetically by nation and only now moving into the F’s, have drawn an average of 100,000 viewers per post. What started as a personal project has become decidedly public.
“When I did Canada, I went to (Lincoln Square’s) Dear Margaret and, in the comments section of the videos, some people got very grumpy,” he says. “Dear Margaret is clearly French Canadian, but still, people came in hot and told me that it wasn’t true Canadian food. There’s even a war going on right now in my comments about whether a salad I ate was Macedonian or Bulgarian. A shopska salad. It’s the national dish of Bulgaria and even has the colors of the Bulgarian flag, but a lot of people from North Macedonia, which shares a border with Bulgaria, consider the shopska just as much their tradition.”
He looks at me warily and tears off a piece of injera, the spongy Ethiopian bread that, depending who you talk to, is just as much a part of Eritrean and Sudanese tradition.
Consider even the seemingly uncomplicated question of how many nations exist.
The United Nations recognizes 193, plus two “observer” states, Palestine and Vatican City. But not every U.N. nation recognizes every other U.N. nation. Of those 193 U.N.-sanctioned countries, you won’t find the countries of Taiwan and Kosovo. Greenland, which mostly controls itself, is a territory of Denmark — not unlike Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States. Scotland and Wales are a part of the United Kingdom and therefore not really independent. But don’t tell that to a Scotsman. Indeed, if we decided the number of nations by flags, we would have about 250 countries.
Brenson is sticking somewhat to a U.N.-affiliated definition of country; he’s going with 197, including Palestine and Taiwan.
Sovereignty is a slippery question.
But salad is a minefield.
When he began making these videos, Brenson just wanted to try Cambodian food. Or Romanian. There are bigger TikTok accounts, but if BoredinChicago were a nation, to judge by viewership and vibe, it would be Sweden, midsized, well-meaning.
He’s been tempted to have fun with the definitions. His father is British, so he has considered rocking the boat here and there and acknowledging the fluidity of cultures. For Great Britain, he has thought of eating chicken tikka masala, one of its national dishes, though it’s often associated with South Asia and definitely not with Yorkshire pudding.
Brenson’s wife, he says, isn’t that thrilled with his passion project. It’s become a time suck. Every Wednesday, when their corgi goes to day care, it was a chance to eat out. “Now we don’t argue over where we eat,” he says. But she has to help him hold the camera.
At our Ethiopian spot, a server approaches with a carafe of coffee.
She pours a dark stream of Ethiopian. Brenson stops her. “I’m sorry, I’m being annoying,” he says, “but would you pour again, so I can film? Sorry, I’m causing chaos.”
She smiles and pours again.
Brenson sips. His eyes go wide: “Wow.” He looks at me: “Sorry for the camera and stopping, but I was introduced to an expression, ‘The camera needs to eat first.’”
At the risk of journalistic heresy, I must reveal I held his camera for a single shot of Ethiopian treats. Brenson directs me to play the camera stand and record him picking around a large tray. He nibbles and looks floored, dish after dish. Which, he says, is his actual reaction. “I’m not a food critic and I’m not very critical. I never post a negative experience,” he says. “I also wouldn’t say I have a refined palate because of all this. I haven’t been anywhere I didn’t love. At the worst, the places I have picked have been a 6 out of 10.”
Still, compared with the billion other TikTok accounts that claim to reveal the out-of-the-way culinary secrets of Illinois, his videos can be uncommonly smart. When he can’t find a restaurant dedicated to food from, say, Estonia, he eats at a festival organized by the Chicago Estonian Center of Lake County. When he finds a strictly Egyptian restaurant harder to come by than expected, he settles for a bowl of molokhia, a traditional Egyptian soup served at Salam, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Albany Park. He includes flags, maps, notes of biodiversity and the correct order of eating Danish dinners, and though he is offered a lot of free meals these days, he never accepts.
“I first joined TikTok in 2019,” he says, “and I think I may have been the first person in Chicago to post that kind of ‘Hey, have you been to this cool restaurant’ kind of content. But now a ton of people post exactly the same content. To the point where I don’t actually go on TikTok, personally, just to browse. It’s all the same thing. It’s all: ‘This is my day in the life of living in Chicago. I go to the gym and shoot some content, then I was invited to this cool pop-up and look at this cool bar, so shout out to this cool company for comping a meal …’ Does anyone actually live those lives?”
He shakes his head and takes a bite of sambusa, a samosalike fried pocket, folded up like origami.
“You are supposed to disclose if you received free food on those videos and I would bet most of the time, (free meals) go undisclosed,” he says. “I mean, look, I can afford the $20 or so.”
Brenson, who is 30 and lives in Humboldt Park, grew up in La Grange and attended Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Because he studied abroad in China for a while, when it came time to eat Chinese in Chicago, he faced another uncomfortable question: If I am eating my way across the globe, do eat the Chinese food (or Italian food, Japanese food or Mexican food) that is obvious and ubiquitous to most Americans, or try something interesting? For China, he went with the latter, the crepelike jianbing at Jian on Clinton Street, a typical Chinese street food he relied on as a college student.
His tastes, he says, have not evolved during the early months of this project. Instead, “it’s forced me to do the thing I had hoped it would do — force me to expose myself to more. There is so much in Chicago people don’t even try once,” he says. “For Chile, I had this Chilean corn pie that looked like pot pie and had eggs and the server was like, ‘You sure you want this?’ and I was hyped. And it was absurdly sweet, just mind-boggling for me.
“For Cambodia, I went to Khmai in Rogers Park, which is actually fine dining. Incredible. I had no idea what I would be eating and you have these shredded papaya salad, this coconut salmon curry thing wrapped in a banana leaf, sour beef soup. Wonderful stuff.”
The project has expanded not only his palate, but also his mindset.
“A lot of how we think about food, I think, is kind of defined by what people hate and how people hate on different culture’s foods and how they feel it seems weird to them,” Benson says. “But there is a reason these dishes travel this far, and besides, tastes grow, tastes change. Plus, I will probably never go to Afghanistan, but doing these videos, I’m sampling it.”
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Winter started with A’s — Armenia, Algeria, Austria.
Spring segued into B’s — Belgium, Bolivia, Belize.
He never could find Azerbaijani food in the Chicago area, and, in his preliminary research on national cuisines, he’s come up blank on the Ivory Coast. (Yes, he is open to tips and suggestions. Send him a note through his website, BoredinChicago.com.) “The best experiences — this is telling — have been when I didn’t do the research I do before figuring out the next restaurant and went in blind and someone saved me,” he says. “I went to a Belarusian place and the menu was in Russian. What do I do? Someone helped.”
When I first saw his videos and the dutifulness of how he approached his project, I assumed he was doing this partly as a modest 2023 cry for world understanding. Turns out, he was just looking for a continuing hook for new videos, something to do between his more ordinary videos about lunch specials and weekend things to do — which does not take away the ambition and thoughtfulness of the project itself.
He is not prone to on-camera gushing. He eats, he says, “like a mindless zombie staring into the void.” Sometimes he pumps his fist in the air after a particularly good bite, but even then it’s self-conscious. Intentionally or not, he provides room for you to question what “authentic” world cuisine even means in an online global community. He eats “the ultimate Czech grandma dish” (a dill soup named koprova) and makes you hungry for a Belizean restaurant on 63rd Street.
“Eventually I will work my way towards Yemen and Zambia and Zimbabwe,” he says, “but as to where exactly I’ll eat that, I don’t know. That’s a question for two years or so from now.”