In the midst of the buzz this week about Julie & Julia, I’ve been thinking about one of own Chicago food icons. It was just a year ago today, that Abby Mandel, the founder of the Green City Market, succumbed to her year-long battle with cancer. So on this day, this woman blogger will try her hand at honoring the great legacy that Abby bequeathed to Chicago.
Judging from the number of market bags that I own, I’d been going to Green City Market for several years before I met Abby Mandel Meyer in person. In 2005, Purple Asparagus agreed to organize the Market’s Saturday kids programming. We’d worked out most of the details of our involvement with her then-assistant, Jeanne Pinsof. Nevertheless, the final okay had to come from Abby herself. I’d been primed for my conversation with her by a board member of ours was also on the Market’s board so I knew that she had a reputation of being imperious. And while this personality was one that I’d become used to in my career in Big Law, this was my first contact with someone of this stature in my new profession so I was nervous. I remember precisely where the conversation took place. It was late May and she was weaving in and out of the rows of Nichol’s vegetable plants. Trim and well-dressed with her notable Chanel sunglasses, we had our first of many conversations while walking through the Market. She was direct, but gracious, clear with her goals and appreciative of our efforts. Nothing like I had anticipated.
I’ve heard the complaint that Abby was “divisive”. Not surprising as she was a driven woman with big goals and a personality to match. She expected a great deal from those around her, but she demanded a lot from herself as well. And if you did a job well, she was quick to praise and her praise meant a lot because you knew it was honest and well-deserved. I always believed that this was the secret to working with Abby, which was difficult for some because it was a true test of your mettle. You could never phone it in with Abby.
Mother, Wife, Author, Impresario, Advocate – all of these and more apply to Abby. Abby was a pioneer of the local and sustainable food community in Chicago. Ultimately, she is largely responsible for a marked improvement of our diets and our lives. I love to hear the stories about the market’s humble beginnings in the alley behind the Chicago Theater and how, with Abby’s convincing, the farmers agreed to come and the chefs agreed to support them. Abby also made local food cool. She knew that if you made the market a destination not simply another errand to run, it would flourish beyond wildest expectations. Eleven years later, the local food movement is in full bloom. While she left us far too soon, I’m still so glad that she was able to witness last year, which I still view as the Green City’s break out season with thousands of visitors flocking to it each Wednesday and Saturday.
I’ll miss many things about Abby, her candor, her directness, even her characteristic shorthand in responding to emails. Only the week before she passed away, I had received an email response to a question I had asked: “lets talk mon.” Sadly, I know now why we never did. But most importantly, I will miss the opportunity of not getting to know her even better. I remember the funny, inspiring and heartfelt testimonials that were provided by chefs, friends and relatives at her memorial. Suffice to say, it was hard to keep a dry eye. Abby was a great woman who challenged and inspired and I personally am grateful to have known her and as a community, we’re lucky that she called Chicago her home.
Truly, there’s no better way to honor Abby’s memory than to support her legacy. Visit the market’s website, to learn more about supporting the Green City Market.
The Chicago Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier is organizing an event to honor Abby’s memory at North Pond Café with a three-course Market lunch with wine. 11:30 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, September 9 at North Pond in Lincoln Park. Cost is $55 per person all-inclusive.
For information on purchasing tickets, click here.