Friday, September 11, 2009

Market Report: My Kind of Town

chicago-cucumbersAt a certain moment, it happens to every New Yorker (especially perhaps, to those of us lucky enough to live below 14th street). Manhattan starts to seem like the beginning and ending of the known world. It’s not hard to understand; the whole universe is on your block: a Michelin-starred French restaurant, totally authentic falafel and a truck selling tasty late-night tacos are all within 100 feet of your front door; in my case, there’s also myriad sex shops, smoke shops, and churches….go figure. Take away this proximity to urbanity, and, like so many other transplants, I immediately feel like a bona fide New Yorker.

It’s a feeling that’s confirmed when I travel to other cities. Everything is slightly off – restaurants are huge, with cavernous dining rooms and multiple floors, and so are the portions; the dinner salad is served on a buffet platter. Often times, even the people are larger! Everywhere closes early, and no matter how hard I try, I always seem to be the last person in the restaurant, with teams of waiters wiping down tables, restlessly waiting for me to leave…at 9:30 PM!

But, as those of you who read this blog know, my last year has seen more and more trips out of New York. One of the stops I’ve been frequenting lately is another, windier American city – Chicago. And while I may have many of the usual complaints (the weather sucks, you have to drive everywhere, and many of the restaurants just don’t live up to the hype), if there is one place where Chicago clearly outshines dear old New York, it is in the farmers’ market.

chicago-herbsThe Chicago markets, like those in New York, jump locations throughout the week. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Green City Market sets up on the south side of Lincoln Park, a central hub akin to Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket. However, as a city-girl at heart, my favorite market has always been the slightly smaller Thursday market that sets up in Daley Plaza on the steps of Mies Van der Rohe’s iconic tower. Clustered in the shadow of Chicago’s architecturally breathtaking downtown, this market feels like a natural extension of Chicagos’ very own concrete jungle. Booths are nestled between the plaza’s jutting fountains and amazing sculptures (Picasso’s giant Aardvark is central, standing across the street from a quirky, friendly piece by Joan Miró), and between women in smart business suits rushing by boys loafing with skateboards – a diversity neatly mirrored in the bounty of produce that surrounds you.

chicago-tomatoAnd oh, what bounty! The Northeast’s tomato blight and resulting shortage seems like a distant nightmare here. In booth after booth, sit bin upon bin of beautiful summer tomatoes: green, yellow, purple and red, large and small, from waxy and round to weirdly bulbous heirlooms, just like a September market ought to look!

Amidst these and all of the other staples – piles of colorful peppers, a growing range of autumnal apples, zucchini with their blossoms, corn still sweet inside their husks, and gargantuan cucumbers both green and yellow – there is also a particular abundance of root vegetables: huge shallots, soft-ball sized white onions, big dark beets, hot pink radishes and heirloom potatoes galore, the sort of good sturdy food that seems appropriate for America’s heartland.

What really sets the Chicago markets apart, however, is everything they provide above and beyond just plain veggies. Unlike New York, these are markets where you can actually do all your weekly shopping. From bread, to proteins, to dairy, the stalls at the Chicago farmers’ markets have a range to rival any actual supermarket. Plus, you can munch on a meal as you shop! Kitchens are set-up and strewn throughout the markets so you can sample the wares and snack on omelets, smoothies, crepes, sandwiches, burgers, sausages, salads and of course, Chicago dogs…ALL made from fresh foods farmed on local lands.

chicago-butter

On my most recent trip, browsing between produce booths, I stopped to try three different types of honey, an exquisitely creamy white cheddar from a big-bearded man also selling giant tubes of sweet cream butter (perhaps the best I’ve EVER had!), and some spicy sopresatta made from the cured meat of Illinois hogs. I got a dairy free mixed berry smoothie blended with apple cider, and a mushroom, ham and creamed spinach crepe made right before my very eyes. There was hand-milled flour and oatmeal, freshly baked muffins and baguettes and a booth selling wonderfully fragrant and studiously labeled herbs, blossoms and aromatics of every variety. Everything, in other words, a foodie could hope for.

Which, in a way, might be Chicago’s saving grace. Usually, upon arrival, the first thing I do is head to the market and fill my refrigerator with delicious food finds. That way, it matters less that I’m not walking distance from Minetta Tavern’s New York Strip and the Christopher Street taco truck; I can stay home and cook. As long as there’s someone there to share a meal with, the food makes up for all of Chicago’s other faults.

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