Sunday, January 24, 2010

Local Eats in the Winter

After one of my last posts where I said something about putting down those strawberries and picking up a winter squash, I thought "Really?  What are you to do about fruit in the winter?!"  I had to go grocery shopping the next day, and went to my local store.  For the first time in my entire life I realized that where the price is listed for each fruit or vegetable, the sign also states where it came from!  Apparently this was old news to my husband, but somehow it had escaped my realm of consciousness lo these many years. So, perusing the store, I realized that the bananas I ususally buy were from Chile.  The strawberries, however, were from California.  As were the oranges and mushrooms and carrots.  I pretty much stood still staring at all the food, realizing that my entire life I had probably not eaten anything local except what I grow.  My growing skills not being all that great, and my space being limited, we can safely state that 99.9% of my diet has always consisted of something shipped from a distant land.

The next few days were filled with frustration.  I was eating my lunch of stawberries, cottage cheese, and a rice cake with peanut butter, and I again realized that nothing was local.  How the heck was I supposed to eat local!  I looked out the window, and once again the sky was grey, the ground was grey, my outlook was grey.  What the heck grows in the upper midwest in the winter anyway?!  "maybe there are greenhouses somewhere" i thought, as I took to my trusty computer.  I began googling "local food chicago", and came up with precious little. There is a local food chapter in chicago, but their website is not very helpful.  They have links to restaurants downtown that serve local food, but I don't eat downtown that much.  They also have links to farmers markets, but it is out of date.  It's easier to just go to

Which I did.  I looked up CSA's, and became even more depressed.  First of all, there are only 2 that even provide food in the winter. ALL CSA's in this region are far more expensive than I can afford.  They also only give you veggies, you have to buy a SEPARATE share for fruit or dairy!  And it's not convenient, you pay all this money and then you still have to drive 3 towns away to pick it up at some local drop point.  This was very depressing.  This is not an entirely bad concept- I am not a CSA basher.  The point is that you buy a share of a concept, you take ownership in a farm, it is community supported.  I think this is great, I just don't personally earn enough money to buy concepts right now- I can only afford food.  One of the thoughts that came to me was "what did pioneers do?"  Well, I think they didn't eat fresh fruit in the winter.  I think they canned, dried and cured things in the summer, and had only that in the winter.  What else could they do?  This is a concept I will be trying to live by as the year progresses.  You will be seeing posts about my attempts at canning, I guarantee.  But for now, what to do?  Jumping on the locavore/slow food movement in January was not looking like a good plan.

Somehow I ended up stumbling upon the Green city market.  It appears to be the only farmers market operating in Chicago during the winter.  So, I decided to go.  This was not an easy journey.  The market operates select Saturdays from 8a-1p in a nature museum in Lincoln Park.  Their website mentions the museum numerous times before ever giving you the actual address.  The other confusing factor is that in the summer it is at a different location.  So they have 2 maps, 2 sets of directions, you have to make sure you look at the right map- a fact I overlooked.  Anyway, I took the train from a neighboring town into the city (my town of course does not run trains on the weekend, though it does run a train during weekday rush- VERY ANNOYING!  Did I ever mention that my community is poorly planned?) It's ~ 15 drive to the train station, then 1 hour train ride.  Then I caught the 151 bus to lincoln park, which was ~ another half hour.  I got off at the wrong stop due to reading the wrong map, and had to walk another 20 minutes!  So far I was off to a rough start.

Upon entering the market, I became very frustrated.  I have been to outdoor markets in the summer, but inside a museum was different.  It's not exactly set up for vendors of food.  All the tables were crammed together, crowds of people bottlenecked throughways, you couldn't even see some of the vendors due to the crowds!  I was losing it!  Shopping at Wal-Mart can be frustrating, given all the people and narrow aisles, but this really out-did it!  I calmed myself down though, and started walking around just to see what was there.  I became further irritated by the lack of signage, or signs that were on the floor and written on a dry-erase board and had been erased by people brushing up against them.  I was also annoyed by the whole process of going to individual tables and paying for each purchase.  When I had previously shopped at farmers markets, it was for fun, casual.  This time I was trying to do my actual grocery shopping, it was a necessity, and I wanted to pull my hair out.  I had been following tweets about the market and saw that duck eggs should be for sale, but had not seen a single egg yet!  I stumbled onto a table with lamb bratwurst and decided to buy some.  The woman in front of me asked about eggs, and the guy told her he had duck eggs.  "Ahh!  Here they are!  Why aren't they on the F*in' Sign!" I thought.  Then it was my turn to buy my brats.  I asked about the eggs.  I told him "They aren't on your sign!" He said "this way I get to have more meaningful conversations with my patrons". I snorted silently to myself.  "What a pretentious jackass" I thought.  After all, every patron of this market seemed to be some self-absorbed, rich "do-gooder" just out for a good time.  They weren't really here to try to eat local and save the earth like me! They just wanted some other excuse for spending money!  These were my angry thoughts anyway.  But then this nice farmer started explaining duck eggs to me, and his farm, and we had a nice chat.  I started simmering down.  I found some blue potatoes at a nearby table, spoke to that farmer about what the heck a blue potato is.  I found crimini mushrooms at another table and learned the best way to store any mushroom is in a paper bag on the lower shelf, another farmer trade secret!  I found some heirloom apples at another table, and have since decided they are teh best apples in the world!  Then, the all-time jewel was when I stopped by the pasta table and the woman selling pasta told me of a web-site called Irv and Shelly's Fresh Picks.  "It's like the Pea-Pod of local foods" she told me.  This is an amazing insider tip!  Somehow this site never came up in my google searches, yet upon perusing it, I think it is the HOLY GRAIL for suburbanites!

And this is the key to the farmers market.  Yes it is annoyingly crowded.  Yes you have to bring cash.  Yes you have to pay for each thing, not just collect it all and pay as you leave.  Yes this is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from what your normal shopping routine is, and probably inconvenient.  BUT- you actually get to talk to the farmers, the artisans, the people who feed you!  You get not only information about how they make their food - which is quite powerful when a real live person looks you in the eye and says "we do not use antibiotics"- but you also get tips on food storage, food preparation, and where to buy other things.  YOU GET A COMMUNITY!  This is clearly stated on the green city market web page, but I didn't get it until I got it.  It's really a fabulous thing.  Suddenly those rich do-gooders turned into normal people.  They actually are doing good, what was my problem?  I started talking to one lady about her bag- it was made from plastic grocery bags.  Apparently her pastor makes them for everyone she knows!  What a nice moment in time.

I loaded my re-useable bags with purple carrots, blue potatoes, elk meat, lamb brats, mushrooms, heirloom apples, duck eggs, acorn squash.  I ate a local croissant, then caught the bus back to the train station.  I was in such a community-minded mood that I spoke to a fellow commuter on the train for a good half-hour!  If you live in Chicago, you know that people do not talk to other people here.  If you don't already know each other, you will never know each other.  But the market seemed to change all this, even though the other commuter did not shop at the market, and we never once talked about it.  Something had changed in my psyche and it suddenly seemed acceptable to talk to strangers and be pleasant!  If that's all that came of the market, then that's good enough for me.

For all our talk of wanting to keep the world from spiraling into irreversible global warming, it's important to remember why- so we can go on living.  What's the point if you won't even talk to each other?  Visiting the farmers market helped me buy local, organic foods- one step towards saving the planet from pollution and warming.  Visiting the market also helped me make ties to my community- feel a little more connected to the people around me, strike up friendships even if they're just during  a train ride, and ultimately take a little more responsibility for my personal corner of the world.

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