The Gripes of Spring – Part 1

March 22, 2012 at 9:54 am

Would not you want to eat those now?

It’s pretty common in Chicago to go straight from Winter to Summer but usually that happens around June.  This year we seemed to have hit summer a week before the calendar said Spring.  Besides rarely getting great Spring weather around here, we rarely get great Spring produce around here.  Clearly, some of the gripes of Spring come from our northernly zone.  When they’re harvesting their asparagus in California, our grounds may still be frozen rock hard, or if they are no longer frozen, they’re big pits of mud and incapable of providing food.  Still, there’s stuff of Spring that we could get better.  Our inability to have more local food this time of year has me griping.  Today, I’ll gripe about the fact that too many otherwise locally focused chefs jump ahead when it comes to Spring.  In a future post, I’ll talk about the bigger gripe, the lack of outlets, locally, for Spring produce.

Imagination draws to pictures of Spring foods.  First, there’s the pastoral lamb, ready just in time to break the fast.  Second, there’s all those early risers, shoots and leaves and tiny bulbs.  Our stacks and stacks of Mediterranean cookbooks tell us that Spring brings us peas and tiny carrots; fava beans and the artichoke crop.  Asparagus should have been around for a while by mid-March.  There is no better source for what a Spring menu looks like than Alice Water’s always changing offerings at Chez Pannisse.  It’s all there this week, the peas, the asparagus, the favas; wild mushrooms and spring greens. Man it sounds good.

Too good for Chicago area chef’s to pass.  Listen, I’m not going to name names here.  There are too many chefs that I wholly respect.  Too many chefs that do so much already for our eat local scene.  I’m not going to blame anyone specifically.  Still, there’s too many folks out there who work so hard to rely on locally-focused menus, even in Winter, that just cheat this time of year.  Even something like ramps, they’ll jump ahead and get from some other part of the country.  You hear how they’re tired of root vegetables.  You hear that they’re just anxious to throw something new on the menu.  You might even hear that “Antinious” defense, that eating artichokes and favas this time of year is a measure of cultural pride, the same way one eats a cream filled donut on St. Joseph’s Day.  I hear all of those arguments, and I find them all very good arguments.

Let us, however, not give in to good arguments.  After all, don’t we also have a good argument: eat local!  Now, you ask, “Rob, does not the Local Family eat plenty of oranges and such in the winter, and don’t you drink too  much coffee anyways, since when were you such a stickler.”  Right, I’m not a stickler, and I see nothing wrong with eating in-season citrus.  Yet, we find a distinct difference between something that is never in season locally, a tangerine, and something that will be in season locally, like asparagus.  Moreover, when we’re going for the citrus shelf, we really have no other choices. Spring time, the locavore does have choices.  Maybe the choice is to stick it out with storage crops a bit longer.  Maybe it’s time to finally dig into the stash of sunchokes in the back of the fridge.  It is very possible to eat local in the Chicago area in March and April, and if it’s possible to eat local, than we should be eating local.

At the end of the day, the greatest thing about eating local, I think, is to have a true taste of Chicago, a cuisine of Chicago.  Too much still, Chicago area chefs look to the tastes of elsewhere, especially to the Med, Spain and Italy, for their tastes.  Yet, the most interesting restaurants in the world, I mean the very, very, most toppest restaurant in the world, Noma, is one known for its obsession for creating a taste of place.  The most sophisticated eaters of the world realize that eating local matters.  Part of the taste of Chicago is how it tastes in March and April.  That taste will arrive when the leaders of our cuisine use what’s available in March and April.  What if, however, the available of March and April mostly consists of imported peas and asparagus.

We hear that gripe too, and we realize it’s hard to make Spring food when there’s not a lot of places to get Spring food.  Well, this year, we have to gripe a little less because there will be thriving Spring farmer’s markets at Green City and Evanston as well as a few other area markets.  Gripe less we will, but stay tuned for Part 2 of the Gripes of Spring.