A while back, the Editor-in-Chief and I were talking why’s. Regardless of the arguments over food miles, Michael made the excellent point that local food is special because it gives you a taste of your region. That it is still a very good thing that we all do not eat the same things every day. To eat local is both to wallow in our native products and to be fortunate enough to get a hold of certain tastes. Fall is especially a time when the best or most unique of the Midwest foods come to bear. You might be able to find some of the items below at area farmer’s markets; some you might need to roadtrip or work to uncover.
- Black walnuts – One of the most frequent questions I get is about local nuts. A lot of nuts come from warmer climates. You will not find an almond or pecan in a Chicago area farmer’s market. You have to go awfully far down state in Illinois to find English walnuts. Yet, right up here, we have a nut, a nut that is probably tastier than any, the black walnut. Of course, it has the drawback of being incredibly difficult to crack and unravel. Be aware though, that when you get to the fruit you will find something so intense that Chefs have been known to disavow them. You may find them tasty or too tasty.
- Paw-paws – I will admit that while I have been to Paw-Paw, Michigan; I have never actually tasted a paw-paw. I am dying to. Here’s a native fruit that sounds tropical, looks tropical, like a breadfruit, and reportedly tastes tropical. They are in season now. I’d love to track some down. Maybe you will.
- Persimmons – The Midwest is strong in p fruit. This one is probably better known than the paw-paw but still difficult to find in the Chicago area. Some of that, I will admit, comes from the fact that its prime zone is a bit South of us, in the regions of Indiana below Indianapolis. It still counts as Midwestern. The best persimmons are the ones that ripen fully on the tree and are only reaped after they fall to the ground. Drive around Indiana this time of year and you will find homes where they have gathered from the family tree. Remember the Midwestern persimmon is not the same as the persimmons found in the supermarkets.
- Wild mushrooms – We are not special in the Midwest for our wild mushrooms, and some of the most prized, like the chanterelle, are not really found around here. There are plenty of wild mushrooms to try. Dried, they can be enjoyed all year, but the flavor and texture of fresh mushrooms should be partaken.
- Grapes – There are other parts of the nation that have native grapes. Our style of grapes can be found in the Northeast. The South has their own seeded grapes with intense, odd, musky flavors. That does not diminish the local grapes. It is often noted how tastes can trigger ancient memories, and the taste of local grapes always transports me back to the days as a kid when we picked at small grapes off a backyard fence. Perhaps that is when the seeds of my local obsession were planted.
Finding and eating unique foods is one of the best reasons to be a locavore. Great luck this weekend in your hunt.