From Our Beet Reporters – My Summer in Food – 2010
As I look back on it, my entire summer focused on food from sourcing to growing to selling. Just a few years ago, I worked at a fast-paced advertising agency and my summers were my busy times, full of deadlines, trade shows and late-night client dinners. Today, I’m a stay-at-home parent to a very active 18-month-old boy and I’m reconnecting with nature. It’s been quite a ride.
Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Lose
In May, I started getting the taste for strawberries. After spending hours spent on the Internet, I found Mulberry Lane Farm in Loda, IL. The Aardsma family employs organic practices on their farm, growing mostly berries but also vegetables and chickens. On the day of our picking appointment, my family piled in the car and made the short trip to the tiny town of Loda. I spent several happy hours picking berries with a few other visitors and the Aardsma children while my husband and son admired the chickens. I picked over forty pounds of berries, packed the car and headed home. A few minutes after we arrived in Chicago, I checked my messages. Apparently, I’d left half my berries at Mulberry Lane. I felt pretty dumb, but the next morning we drove back down to Loda where I picked up the rest of my berries plus more “seconds” perfect for making jam. Then we traveled on to Champaign for some family time and geocaching.
I made a similar trek in July, this time west to Blueberry Ranch in Mishawaka, IN. This organic blueberry farm welcomes pickers throughout the season. The first time I visited, I ended up with 30 pounds of Bluecrop berries priced at $1.50 a pound. I visited the farm again later in the season for another 20 pounds, plus a box of frozen berries for my mother-in-law.
This September, I’d hoped to be heading out to Berrien Springs, MI to Earth First Farms to pick apples. We’d been there last Columbus Day and loved the quality of the fruit. I leased a tree for just $50. All the bounty from my Empire tree would be ours. However, certified-organic Earth First Farms suffered a devastating insect infestation which wiped out their entire crop. That’s the risk in being invested in sustainable and local agriculture; there’s reward and there’s risk. We hope to lease a tree for next year.
Gardening As Metaphor
My son was born last April, just as I put my garden in. Through the summer, my garden grew out of control as I struggled mightily with postpartum depression and the isolation of being a new mother. When I started my seeds this February, I was determined to do better with this year’s carrots, beets, herbs, lettuces, peas, beans, tomatoes and zucchini. I had visions straight out of propaganda posters — me and the boy, side by side, working and playing in our flourishing garden.
But the long cool spring was not on my side. My zucchini fell to some kind of disgusting mold or fungus and I lost most of my Roma crop to blossom end rot. However, my son absolutely fell in love with ground cherries, one of the few things I planted that actually did really well. He’d sit in my garden boxes, choose the choicest ground cherries and pull back their tomatillo-like husks while I weeded and plucked ripe veg. No, it wasn’t everything that I’d imagined but my three garden boxes ended up giving me more than just food.
In addition to our backyard plot, we also participated in the allotment-style Peterson Garden Project. This community garden, located on the site of a WWII Victory Garden, brought together like-minded novice and master gardeners to grow food, share knowledge and just have fun. During the summer, we enjoyed potlucks and parties, fashion shows and season-end foraging. Watching the impact that the Peterson Garden Project had on its participants inspired us to start a demonstration garden in the park near our house. This project at Eugene Field Park will start next spring.
Friendship and Food
My friend Rachael works a full-time weekday job and works at several farmer’s markets on the weekends for Lehman’s Orchards of Niles, MI. She wanted some help at the Portage Park Farmers Market, held on alternating Sundays. Since I don’t get to talk with adults as often as I’d like, I jumped at this opportunity.
Every other week, I’d put on my apron and head over to Portage Park to help her set up the table, tent and merchandise the goods. Over the season, we moved bushels of peaches and apples, baskets of tomatoes and raspberries, bottles of honey and cider. I grew to look forward to the regulars’ raves and new customers’ questions as much as the few hours away from being a caregiver. It didn’t hurt that we took home whatever didn’t sell or was damaged so at the end of the season I ended up with pints and pints of peach and apple butter.
On the Subject of Jam
I love jam, jelly, preserves, conserves, marmalades, you name it. We go through so much jam that I decided that I could probably cut down my consumption of this sugary wonder if I made it myself. I figure that with each spread of the knife, I’d recall how much work it requires and use it more sparingly.
When we returned from Loda with my strawberry haul, the great jamsperiment began. At the end of a long evening, I ended up with eight huge quarts of fresh strawberry jam. A neighbor asked me to pick her gooseberries and currants for her this summer, as she was too busy to keep up with the crop. I repaid her with a pot of redcurrant jelly for glazing game and gooseberry jam. She returned the gooseberry jar within the month after her three-year-old devoured the contents with peanut butter. My blueberries became jam, too, albeit a looser, less sweet variety than in stores. All of these jams smack of summer and, hopefully, love.
I’m already planning the next of my food adventures. This month, we built covered boxes for growing winter crops. These boxes, made with windows reclaimed from the curb, will hopefully produce mache, tatsoi and spinach to keep us crunching on salads through a good chunk of the winter.
I’m hopeful that next year’s growing season will be long and productive, yes, but more than that, I look forward to more experiences that enrich my soul and build family memories.
Shylo Bisnett lives in the Albany Park neighborhood in Chicago and is currently planning a vegan Thanksgiving menu that will please even her carnivore brother.