Thursday, February 19, 2009

Who's That Weirdo With a Box of Kale on My Porch?

Even though the recent temperature soar was merely the typical tease that always seems to happen in February (I remember living in Boston, working in some awful office in Central Square, stepping outside into the sunniest February day ever; the strong light made the 40 degree day feel like spring was there at last; of course, that door slammed shut later that week with a massive Nor'easter that buried us in snow until, roughly, August), it is time to start thinking about all the wonderful edibles we have to look forward to this spring and summer. Earthy, dirty (this is a good thing--I used to suck on rocks as a child just to get this flavor--some might call it minerality) fiddlehead ferns, young peas, and the ubiquitous ramps--everything green, not to mention baby lambs. Then, later in the summer, the sweetest corn; juicy, red (red! can you believe it?) tomatoes; big fat zucchinis and squash. I once received a zucchini of the largest order from a friend and lived off of it for nearly a week; looking back, I really hope the size was due to the abundance of sun and water rather than that of Miracle-Gro. Yikes.

The point here is that ISN'T THIS EXCITING? Despite my being enamored with all of the availability of produce while visiting California recently, part of the reason I have to live in a place with four seasons is all of the anticipation that it brings. Would sitting on the shore of Lake Michigan on one of our hot summer days really be as sweet as it is without the biting cold of winter? I love to walk out on the icy pier of Hollywood Beach in the winter and soak in the frigid wind off the lake, look at the ice floating in the water, and revel in the calm, seeing in it me sitting in the same spot in the summer, drinking something cold and delicious (no doubt something lime-based due to the excitement of my recent purchase of a really good lime squeezer), sweating it out, then jumping in the lake. One needs a night in order to enjoy the day, right?

Braising and roasting turns in to sautéing and straight from the garden eating turns into grilling and smoking turns into pickling and preserving turns into more slow-cooking once again...

All this brings up the very important question of where we'll get our food this year. Gladly, Chicago's Green City Market, despite seemingly becoming a haven for double-wide strollers and chef-spotters, is nevertheless (or perhaps because of this) growing each year, and never really goes away--I believe this is the first year it's open year round. So, every Wednesday and Saturday, we can stock up--and this is really a great place to begin our understanding of food and seasonality, and why eating local is important. Shopping at farmers' markets allows us only what's in season, and what was able to grow. It helps us understand why we cook what we cook, when we cook it. Oh--THAT's why we see arugula on every menu in the summer. THAT's why we hear food-types talk about the crime of out-of-season tomatoes. THAT's why I go nuts for peaches every summer.

To take this further, I present the CSA. That's Community Sustained/Supported Agriculture. To those who aren't familiar already, this is how it works:
  • You buy a share of a CSA up front from a particular farm at the beginning of the growing season. Much like buying stocks. But I trust farmers way more than I trust bankers.
  • Depending on the share you buy, you pick up, or are delivered a box full of the farm's produce. This will only include what they were able to harvest that week. This means that if you live in Chicago, you won't be getting any bananas or coconuts. This is also the sign of a true CSA--I've come across some that slip in California produce to pad the box. The way I see it, buying the share is investing in the farm and trusting the outcome. If they don't have enough produce to fill the box that week due to a huge storm or drought, well, that's part of the risk taken by each CSA member. After all, this is the risk every single farmer in the world takes when they buy and plant a seed, isn't it? This is reality, and I'd prefer to have less in the box if less is what's available.
  • You eat the box of food. Part of the challenge is making something delicious if all you get is, say, rutabagas (though this is unlikely). It's the anti-Costco. Wonderful, isn't it?
A lot of places add their eggs into the mix, and sometimes you can even add something like a chicken. Which makes that chicken very special. It reminds me of a time, during my cheffing days, when I was on the phone with a purveyor of great, clean, well raised chicken and pork. He also had some rabbits, and asked me if I wanted some. It was autumn, and who doesn't love a good rabbit stew? I thought about it, and asked for 6. Then I did a bit of math and changed my mind. No, make it 9, I said. And it struck me, that seemingly small decision I just made was going to take the lives of 3 rabbits that were currently hopping around, wiggling their noses, eating grass somewhere on his beautiful farm. And I think we get removed from understanding that in our day to day lives. I believe that if we eat meat, at some point, we've got to be able to face what it is we're eating, and take the life from it ourselves; otherwise, are we really entitled to it? I'm not saying that everything we eat has to be hand harvested, but I feel that we, as eaters, need to be more aware of what we're taking when we do eat. To that end, we took a group of cooks and servers down to his farm, toured it, and killed some chickens ourselves. It really opened some eyes; I'll always remember a couple of grill cooks saying to me how it changed their perspective--that every time, in the heat of a busy service, a chicken breast (or anything else for that matter) gets wasted, that's a part of a life that gets wasted, and that's not something they really thought of much before.

ANYWAY, a good source of information on CSAs is Local Harvest. You'll get a good list of CSAs nearby; it'll tell you where it can be picked up and how involved you can get. The thing to remember, though, is that it is a group effort--I think to get one's head out of the mindset of simply paying for a service is important--rather, it is just what it stands for--community sustained agriculture, and for it to work, we've got to act like a community; we've got to share in the risk that these farmers are experiencing every day, and we've got to treat these wonderful, whole foods that they are bringing to us in a respectful (and delicious) way.