The Gripes of Spring – Part 2
If you think the that Chicago area locavores thought the deepest, darkest, coldest, cruelest time of year was winter, you would be wrong. If you thought we eat localers griped the most during January and February you would be wrong. We gripe the most in March and April. I summarized some of the gripes last week. I complained about too many otherwise locally focused chefs jumping ahead this time of year. I feel too many look to what is in season elsewhere, not what is in season here-where. Today, I get on to the more serious gripe, that our best intentions for Spring get stymied by the lack of outlets for Spring produce in the Chicago area.
To battle our Springs issues, it helps mostly to understand what is in season in April and May in our part of the world. Hint: it’s not peas, artichokes and fava beans. Maybe not this year, but nearly any other year, it’s not asparagus either. It is not, as I griped about last week, the stuff that fills too many menus of the restaurants “tired of winter”. What we can eat in the Spring are three types of things. First, we can have a robust harvest of hoop-house crops. This includes hearty greens and small roots. Second, farmers can start wringing from their fields, rhubarb, green garlic, leeks and other early onions. Third, we can eat the first shoots and leaves that burst fourth as the globe slowly tilts us closer to the sun. For instance, watercress can start sprouting even when there is snow on the ground. Look around. My lawn is already fully in-bloom with dandelions. A forager could find stinging nettles, fiddlehead ferns, ramps, and various other edible plants all around. The problem remains, not what is in season, it’s where to find it.
Ten or so years ago, Mike Gebert raved about the multiple courses of “hillbilly food”, a/k/a ramps, served by the then, VERY avant garde, Grant Achatz, at Trio [the link to MikeG’s Chowhound post appears lost, but this other Trio thread mentions the hillbilly reference.] Now, sometime Beet reporter Mark Smrecek, claims there is a ramp backlash. Between then and now, ramps have become the signature plant for chef’s looking to show their committment to Spring. To me though, ramps also epitomize the inability of every day eat local eaters to get their hands on Spring. Ask yourself every time you see a reference to ramps on a Spring menu, where did they get that ramp?
The potential to get your Spring ramps does get easier in 2012. For the first time (I believe), there will be key farmer’s markets in Evanston and Green City Market during March and April. Other farmer’s markets are getting a-goin’ earlier too. We used to have no farmer’s markets to shop this time of year. We now have some farmer’s markets to shop this time of year. Yet, the larger question remains, will be able to find ramps at these markets?
It’s not just outlets. The problem with Spring is that a lot of the produce is not cultivated. I mean does a farmer grow nettles? So, to get this fruits of Spring, one needs to forage. Now, one of the great things about running an organic farm like Marty Travis of Spence Farms, is that anything that touches your fields, assuming the lack natural poisons, can be eaten. So, some farmers roam their fields for the cress coming up near the creek, the wild onions rampant. That helps. Those farmers may be good enough for a chef or two, us? What about a freelance forager, can they supply us?
As far as I know, or can tell, our area farmer’s markets have no vehicle for letting seasonal foragers in for a few weeks. This is different in Madison. If you go to the Dane County Farmer’s Market in April, when it first hits the streets for the season, you find guys and gals who come just to sell the morels they gather. The bottom line, you will find a lot to buy there in Spring. Here, what you can buy mostly looks like what you can buy months earlier. You know, canned salsa, eggs, good cheese…soap. And those other crops of spring, the hoop-house turnips and bunches of leeks, they’re fine for keeping us from starving, but they’re not what makes us excited. We want to eat what’s new too.
I gripe when area chefs cheat Spring by using produce not around at all in this area. I gripe even more though when area chefs use products that are around that I have a hard time getting. I have a big gripe over local eating in the Chicago area over the ability for consumers to get their hands on ramps, morels and than other items they see on good menus.