Thin Guidebooks: Eating Local in the Chicago Springtime

April 16, 2010 at 8:45 am

Rob Gardner

Along the shelf with Illinois’s Challenging Ski Slopes and An Authentic Tour of Jerusalem’s Pit BBQ comes this one: Eating Local in the Chicago Springtime, thin guidebooks.  The Local Beet is all about practical approaches.  We want to show you how to eat local.  When days turned darker, we were there for you with pointers toward winter eating.  The thing is, we had some good solid advice for the cold weather locavore.  You could build your own root cellar, find winter markets, enjoy rutabagas.  Know what our advice is for this time of year.  Kvetch.

What do we say more than anything around here.  We say, the reasons to eat local do not end when the weather turns cold.  We showed your how this could be done by storing and preserving as well as shopping the winter markets.  We say then that the reasons to eat local do not end when the weather turns warm.  Yet, we have less to show you how to do it.  In fact, we know more than a few restaurants knee deep in the local ethos that turn to distant products to shore up their menus this time of year.  Not good cheats either, like maybe some first run salmon; no we are talking peas and strawberries and other classic veg of the season.  For many, seasonality trumps local.

Many things hamper Spring eating.  Foremost, obviously, our tricky weather means a late start for our area farmers.  While some farmers have been out in their fields cutting their first crops, our farmers are just a-plantin’.  So those peas and such are several weeks away.  Now, if we look all around us, we see green and growing: nettles, ramps, garlic mustard, watercress, dandelions for pete sake.  That’s what that ate once upon a time when we all ate local.  We could write a thick book on foraging, but for the average consumer, our advice in getting these items is thin.  As we noted this week in the Local Calendar, there are few markets around now, and the people selling now are not selling these things.

Maybe we should advice patience.  In the best of circumstances, is there a lot to Spring eating.  What’s your first fruit of the season, well a vegetable, right, rhubarb.  Are you sticking sticks of rhubarb in your kid’s lunch.  No, you rely on stored apples.  Hell, even the citrus this time of year is coming from storage.  We go crazy eating asparagus, but are we just doing that because asparagus is all there is.  The thin guide of Spring eating could counsel limited expectations.  We do have sorrel.

Or it could say loud and clear, kvetch.  Get your expectations in order.  Know that April is probably the hardest month to eat local, but do not settle for out of state peas because it’s that time of year.  Raise your voice for markets opening now.  The Dane County Farmer’s Market in Madison goes outdoors in April, filling the Capital Square in Madison on their first try.  We know because we have been there.  Not only do we need markets but we need our farmers to harvest their weeds for us.  Surely, they can find much to sell.  Again, they are doing it up there.  

Kvetch this Spring about the lack of options.  Then, let’s do something.  Implore your local market to open earlier.  Let your favorite grower know you will be there buying her foraged food.  Shower those few farmers growing now with love.  Buy all of Vera’s green garlic.  Grab all of Vicki’s turnips. Go to Evanston for what Henry’s bringing.  Be irked now about limited Spring offerings, but be a pain for next year’s season.  Demand it and it will be there.  Climate matters only so much in how we eat local in the Spring.  What matters most is our ability to find local food this time of year.  Let’s all do what we can to move the Local Beet’s Guide to Spring Eating to a new shelf next year.

Please share with us your frustrations in finding Spring food.  Kvetch away!  Also, share with us your ideas and suggestions for improving the state of seasonal eating this time of year in Chicagoland.  And as thin as our advice is, we still have the resources to eat local now.  The reasons to eat local do not end just because the weather warms.