Green City Diary: Vegging Out At A Chicago Farmers' Market

So is my farmers' market habit getting a bit obsessive? Yes and no. But mostly no.

The photo above is my haul from my visit Saturday morning to Chicago's Green City Market, located at the south end of Lincoln Park -- the actual park, not the neighborhood. This still life includes peaches, apricots, sweet cherries, raspberries, blueberries, swiss chard, lettuce, asparagus, sugar snap peas, creamery blue cheese and sheep milk feta, and a loaf of 7-grain bread from the Bennison's Bakery stand (no relation, even though a lot of people seem to think that's how Benenson should be spelled).

Not included in the photo is a slice of black raspberry and rhubarb tart from Floriole Bakery, which Barb and I split as soon as I got home. Hey, I walked 2 and a half miles to get to this market. I earned a little pastry!

Here's a photo of the Green City Market taking on a visit a couple of weeks ago...

I have to admit, I can get carried away at a farmers' market. I am not much of a gambler, but I use the same advice that is often given when you are visiting a casino: Take only as much money with you as you can afford to lose. The other limitation, especially when you've got a long trip home via bus and walking, is only buy as much as you can actually carry. Today, the two factors coincided, so at least I knew when it was time to leave.

Today's tab, more guess-timated than exact, was about $70. That's probably not much more than you would pay for this quantity and quality of items at an upscale supermarket such as Whole Foods, but likely is more than you would pay at your local Jewel store for similar items shipped in from California, Florida or some other faraway point.

I can justify the expense, at least to myself, because I love to cook and we mostly eat in, a choice but pretty much a necessity as I work to get established in my aspirational second career as a food writer. If we had to, we could almost certainly live on that $70 worth of earthly delights for a week. But it is super-easy to drop $70 on a single, fairly average restaurant meal these days.

I can appreciate that you might get sticker shock the first time you see a $6 quart of strawberries. But price reflects supply, and this has been a rough growing season for farmers in this region. An unprecedented March heat wave was followed by a hard freeze that wiped out much of the tree fruit crops (peaches, apples, cherries, etc.) in Michigan and some other parts of the Midwest. If it doesn't start raining soon, drought could be a factor for crops later in the year.

But the produce that is available is, for the major part, simpler better than what you can get at your conventional market. Here are my five reasons why you should visit your local farmers' market:

Freshness: The biggest reason to Buy Local is that the produce probably was picked just yesterday and then driven at most an hour or two to market. That means that the fruits and veggies can be pick at the peak of freshness. While most supermarket produce is still plenty good for you, and you should eat it instead of fatty junk food, it has to be picked less ripe to avoid spoilage or bruising on its long journey to your hometown. You won't find baseball-hard peaches or partially green tomatoes at a farmers' market.

Support Your Local Small Farmer: The nice folks who truck in their produce are not doing so out of some 1960s hippie back-to-the-land notion ... not that there's anything wrong with that. This is how they make their livings (yay, capitalism!). You've got to eat, so why not buy from people who are practically your neighbors?

Green Greens: Much of the produce sold at farmers' market is grown using sustainable and/or organic practices (yay, eco-consciousness!). Better for you, better for the environment. Win-win.

Playing Outside: Hey, you've got to shop for food sometime. And isn't it kind of a drag spending part of your weekend inside a crowded supermarket? Why not, even for a change of pace, go shopping in a park instead. A lot of farmers' markets have kind of a festival atmosphere. And some people bring their puppies. Buying lettuce is just more fun when there are puppies.

It's A Short Season, After All: In reality, even addictive farmers' market shoppers will have to buy most of their yearly produce from conventional markets. That's because each crop has a pretty short growing season around these parts. Strawberries are pretty much gone. Asparagus season is close to over. Peas are waning. And those cherries and apricots and peaches that survived the freeze are now ripening a couple of months ahead of schedule, so get them while you can.

But maybe the best way to put things in perspective is to go out the night before shopping and have a meh-tasting meal washed down with a couple of $10 rail gin-and-tonics, which is something a lot of us do with a fair amount of frequency. Then paying a little premium for an almost perfect peach might not seem so prohibitive after all.

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