What Will Spring Taste Like

March 18, 2009 at 8:46 am

Rob Gardner

How many Chicagoans tempered their enjoyment of the weather yesterday with fear of colder days ahead. It rarely snows in April but I swear we all expect it. Is it the food? In Berkley, they’re eating asparagus, fava beans and new onions this week. In Chicago, it’s sprouts. Or is it? What will spring taste like?

Sadly, spring in the Chicago area will taste nothing like Chez Panisse. Spring peas arrive at about the start of summer. In Alice Waters world, spring food means three things. There are the first born, the preemies, and the early risers. The first born are the hop shoots, the fiddlehead ferns, the edible for a short time, stinging nettles or the equally shortly edible dandelions, and especially those spears of asparagus. Preemies means food grabbed before it has fully grown, for instance, baby carrots and turnips. The early risers are those plants that take little time from seed to harvest, like peas. In Chicagoland, we get a smattering of first born but not much else in spring. We do have our own version of spring crops, hoop-house fare. Progressive farmers grab beets and spinach and even zucchini from their poly-vinyl covered grounds. On top of that, there is over-wintered crops. Instead of baby carrots, our first carrots may be mondo carrots, but don’t fear, the cold storage left them extra sweet. There is spring food to be had.

The problem for us local eaters is finding that spring food. There are very few farmer’s markets open during the spring in Chicago. Compounding that, the markets are ill-equipped for spring fare. Are there vendors that forage for morels and ramps and wild watercress, stinging nettles and the such? Restaurateurs get their hands on some of that, what about us? Even the farmers with hoop houses sell more to restaurants or via CSA than they do through markets. This is the first year Green City will operate in the spring. What will they have?

The best place I know for local spring food is the isthmus city to the northwest, Madison. The Madison market runs year-round, indoors through April 11 and then outdoors the rest of the season. Not only is the Dane County Market there, it has food. That market hosts folks who come in only a few times a year, but when they come in, they come with morels and other delicacies. A trip to Madison may be your best bet to see what spring tastes like.

And nicely enough, my wife and I happen to have a trip planned for Madison this weekend. The market will still be indoors, but it should be interesting. You know I’ll report back (and follow it on Twitter @LocalFamily). I am especially interested in how you all manage to see what spring tastes like.