Green City Market Brings Spring to a Cool Chicago

Though it’s nine a.m. on an early spring Saturday, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum buzzes.

Colorfully clothed tables crowd rooms on the first and second floor, juxtaposed with museum store wares and signs touting new exhibit “Food: The Nature of Eating.” Shoppers equipped with canvas tote bags peruse offerings from two dozen area farms, as young families drawn to the museum’s collections check their purchases at a second-floor “Veggie Valet” station. There is friendly chatter, much of it from vendors – tips on carrot preparation, discussion of growing methods. For many, that spirit of fellowship is one of Green City Market’s central draws.

Vendors on the first floor of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, April 6, 2013 (Photo by Jacquelyn Thayer)

Vendors on the first floor of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, April 6, 2013 (Photo by Jacquelyn Thayer)

“It’s nice to know who’s going to be consuming your produce,” says Nick Nichols of Nichols Farm & Orchard in Marengo, Illinois. “It ends up being a lot more personal, and you realize where everything’s going.”

Green City Market began in 1998 as Chicago’s first sustainable farmer’s market. Today, the not-for-profit organization operates year-round, hosted indoors at the museum every Saturday from November through April and at an outdoor Clark Street site in the warmer months.

Nichols Farm & Orchard was one of the market’s first vendors.

“It originally started off with I think like 10 farms,” notes the 34-year-old Nichols of an endeavor that now includes nearly 60 vendors in summer. “Definitely a lot more customers now, a lot more people buying local and farm-fresh.”

Nichols Farm & Orchard, situated at the front of the entrance, boasts plentiful offerings even in this cool season. Basil and popping corn supplement a lavish array of root vegetables that includes 10 varieties of potatoes, like the heritage Rose Finn Apple – its poetic name, one product sign informs us, a mistranslation from the German Rosa Tannenzapfen, “pink fir cone.”

Produce, however, is less abundant this week than it will be in summer. Instead, canned goods have become a sideline for some farms, such as Beloit, Wisconsin’s Grass Is Greener, which introduced its Bushel & Peck line of preserves last year.

“There’s already a lot of other fresh produce vendors here, so it’s nice to carve out a niche for yourself,” notes the farm’s Graydon Chapman, 28.

Prepared foods offer another niche. Gayle Voss of Belvidere, Wisconsin’s Prairie Pure Cheese has found one effective strategy for cross-promotion.

“The fresh bread people, when we get outside, are right next to me, and I’m good friends with Al from Nordic Creamery who has fresh butter, and I was thinking ‘Why am I not making grilled cheese?’” laughs the 52-year-old Voss. “I use the toppings from other vendors – the fresh tomatoes, today I have the fresh arugula from Majestic Farm. In the winter I’ll use jarred products from Southport Grocery and Café, but they buy their ingredients from Green City Market.”

Concern for the local is constantly emphasized. Placards at each station highlight “miles to market,” the distance goods have traveled to reach Green City. Most range from 60 to 100 miles; Chicago-based restaurateur Zullo’s is only four. Across the aisle, Dyersville, Iowa’s Becker Lane takes the distance prize at 203.

But distance is relative for Becker Lane, one of the region’s premiere organic pork producers, which offers both meat – featured today in chili prepared tableside – and, more recently, cookies and carnitas.

“This particular market is the only market where [Becker Lane] could showcase their product as a super-local product, as a super-organic product, as a premium product,” says vendor Brad Newman, 29, of Green City’s appeal. “It doesn’t get diluted here. It could be showcased the way it should be.”

Super-local, super-organic, from fresh eggs to beeswax candles to dog bones. This mission is what sets apart Green City Market – and unites the community that gathers here weekly.

(Written for DePaul University’s seminar in Lifestyle Reporting)

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Food Safety for the Vegetarian

by Jacquelyn Thayer

Much of the talk regarding issues of food safety and food-borne illness concerns meat. But vegetarians need to be cautious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in November 2005 that fruits and vegetables are responsible for 12 percent of all instances of food-borne illness and 6 percent of outbreaks, more than is caused by meat, dairy, or eggs. This is a major change from the 1970s, when produce accounted for only 1 percent of illness and 0.7 percent of outbreaks. While these numbers may be inflated simply because more fresh produce is consumed now than thirty years ago, the increase can also be traced to poor sanitation in some growing regions and farms, a greater distance of production between grower and consumer, and, to some degree, chemical resistance in bacteria.

Lacto-ovo vegetarians have their own set of concerns, for they must also consider the problems associated with dairy and egg products. Raw milk is associated with E.coli, salmonella, campylobacter, and listeria. Even pasteurizedbles are dairy items are susceptible to spoiling. Raw eggs are little better. Although salmonella can be found in only one out of every 20,000 eggs, the sheer number of eggs produced each year — 7.62 billion in 2004, according to data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — certainly makes those odds seem less favorable.

However, you needn’t fear the numbers. By taking certain regular precautions, you can continue to safely eat a fresh, balanced diet.

What is it?

Foodborne illness typically causes fever and gastrointestinal distress of varying degrees. E.coli, however, has been known in 3 percent to 5 percent of cases to cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, the symptoms of which include anemia, heavy bleeding, and kidney failure. Salmonella infection, meanwhile, may become lethal if the bacteria enters the bloodstream. Although anyone can contract foodborne illness, certain groups are more susceptible than others: the elderly, the very young, pregnant women, those with compromised immune systems, and those who have consumed large quantities of the bacteria.

How does it happen?

Fruits and vegetables, of their own nature, do not contain the kind of harmful bacteria carried by animals, although some, like kidney beans or parts of the rhubarb plant, can be poisonous when consumed raw. According to Ahmad Adloo, certified food safety professional, “Their natural fiber, vitamin, mineral and other phytochemical properties are in many ways resistant to certain toxins and microorganisms that may be dangerous to the human body.”

The danger comes in how they are treated. “Produce now comes from all over the world, and some places don’t have the same standards” as the U.S., says Dennis Thayer, registered sanitarian and food safety manager for Luby’s Corporation. The water used in growing can be contaminated with sewage-related bacteria, while a loose cow grazing on or near the fields can naturally spread e.coli. Produce handlers may also be infected with highly contagious viruses such as hepatitis or Norwalk virus. The hazards of this situation were seen in 2004, green onions traced to Mexico were served at a Chi Chi’s restaurant near Pittsburgh and were linked with the illness of 600 people and the death of four.

Produce growers are taking measures to prevent further outbreaks. Some major retailers, like Wal-Mart, are employing a kind of bar code technology that tracks the progress of produce from farm to store. This makes it easier for them to catch a bad shipment of produce before it reaches consumers. Growers within the U.S. are educating their workers on proper procedure, emphasizing the importance of handwashing. Even many small growers are beginning to treat their water supply, which is a necessary step for those farms on which animals are also raised.

What can you do?

How can you make sure your produce is safe? “Always get your vegetables and fruit from a safe source,” says Thayer. Most large retailers fall under this category, but homegrown or small farm-grown produce can also be safe, provided that you or the small growers follow appropriate safety procedures. These include using commercially-prepared fertilizer and carefully following instructions on pesticide labels. Washing the produce before preparing it is necessary, as is washing your hands, which most experts consider to be the most basic step to proper food safety.

Cooked vegetables come with their own set of issues. To prevent the growth of botulism – the toxin most commonly found in cooked vegetables – it’s essential to keep them hot or rapidly cool them. “Don’t leave them in what we call the ‘temperature danger zone,’ between 40-135 degrees Fahrenheit,” Thayer cautions.

If you also consume dairy products or eggs, what additional concerns do you need to have? Raw milk has been in the news since December 2005, when 18 people became ill with E.coli after drinking unpasteurized milk at Dee Creek Farm in Woodland, Washington. As raw milk is illegal in 22 states and is not widely available in those where it is legal, however, it’s far from a common concern. The most basic problems associated with dairy result from consuming spoiled products. This can be prevented by understanding package dates.

Most products bear a date that indicates by what date a store should sell a product. This is merely to ensure that consumers purchase the product at its best quality. Factors other than time, such as improper temperature, may also cause a product to become unsafe. When a product does not indicate a “sell-by” date, but simply lists a date with no explanation, it may still be a sell-by date or may refer to the product’s expiration. Usually, fluid milk products — that is, items such as milk, yogurt and cottage cheese — are still considered fresh seven days after the sell by date, but it is not guaranteed, warn experts. As the coding system varies according to manufacturer or retailer, it is probably best to consume the product on or by this date.

Eggs are a famously risky item, most usually when raw or undercooked. To ensure that salmonella bacteria is destroyed, it’s necessary to cook the eggs to at least 140 degrees. It is also important to store them properly, below 45 degrees. Eggs should not rest between these temperatures for longer than two hours.

Not all egg-based products, however, are adversely affected by improper temperature. Mayonnaise is commonly implicated in cases of food-borne illness following, say, a picnic that included potato salad. This is placing the blame on the wrong shoulders, experts say. Mayonnaise is a highly acidic food and, as such, is not a hospitable environment for bacteria growth. Other less acidic foods are, though, such as potatoes or hard-boiled eggs. When these items mix with mayonnaise, they lower its acidity and create a more inviting home for bacteria. At the same time, the egg yolks in the mayonnaise provide protein on which the burgeoning bacteria can feed. So if you use mayonnaise, concern yourself more with how it will be used than how long it will be kept out – although that’s clearly important, too. A good option might be to pack the mayonnaise separately and mix it with salad ingredients or spread it on your sandwich immediately before eating.

Most cases of food-borne illness are contracted at home, due to little lapses – failing to wash your hands or washing them too quickly, improperly cooking or storing high-risk foods, and not following appropriate sanitary guidelines. This means, however, that you also have the most power to prevent illness. By becoming aware of the particular hazards that exist for vegetarians, you can ensure that you and your family don’t become another statistic.

Originally published on Beyond Barbecue, May 30, 2006

Review: Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious Recipes

Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious Recipes
Giada de Laurentiis. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2005.
ISBN 1-4000-5258-0
$32.50

Review by Jacquelyn Thayer

Italian cuisine has long been a favorite of Americans, so much so that it has become convenience food. Jars of highly-processed tomato sauces line grocery store shelves, while pizza is one of the nation’s most popular fast food choices. In Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious Recipes, however, Food Network star Giada de Laurentiis shows that authentic Italian cooking celebrates freshness and flavor, without requiring great expense of money or time.

The book is arranged by course, beginning with antipasti and ending with dolci, or sweets. The recipes strike a nice balance between main dishes and sides, healthy and rich fare, and meals with meat or fish and those without. Helpfully, the book also includes a list of suggested items to stock in your pantry. A majority of the ingredients used can be found in most grocery stores, although a handful of recipes call for less common items that are more likely to be found in a specialty store. Success of many of the recipes depends upon use of fresh ingredients, but this does not have to be expensive, provided the recipes are prepared seasonally. De Laurentiis also occasionally makes use of shortcuts such as pre-washed baby spinach and store-bought (but freshly-baked) pound cake.

Each recipe is headed by technical or historical information about it and the book includes vibrant color photographs of some of the recipes and ingredients. De Laurentiis says that she believes “a great meal does not have to be difficult or complex,” and she demonstrates this with her easy-to-follow instructions. Everday Italian is a great resource for anyone interested in a fresh approach to the food of Italy.

Originally published on Beyond Barbecue, May 24, 2006

Review: Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
by Ruth Reichl
New York: Penguin Books, 2005
ISBN 1-59420-031-9
$15

Review by Jacquelyn Thayer

Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise is a humorous and enlightening look at the job of the restaurant critic, or, more accurately, the job of the highest-profile restaurant critic in America.

Reichl was the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times for nine years before accepting the position of restaurant critic for the New York Times in 1993. During an encounter with a waitress on a flight to New York, Reichl learns that the city’s finest restaurants have her picture pinned up in order to alert the staff to her illustrious presence. Fearing special treatment from the restaurants – which could produce an inaccurate review – Reichl decides to devise a series of elaborate disguises for herself. The book is a collection of anecdotes about her experiences as a critic and, in many cases, as another person.

Reichl’s stories are often both funny and thought-provoking. One illuminating moment about the restaurant world comes with her comparison of two visits to Le Cirque, one of New York’s most celebrated and expensive restaurants, one in which she dined as herself and the other in which she posed as a nondescript, Midwestern woman named Molly. While Ruth received the best treatment possible, even being seated while the King of Spain must wait for a table, Molly is seated at the bar, despite having a reservation, is refused a wine list, and is treated badly by the busboy. Reichl experiences several moments of internal conflict over this: “I felt torn between Ruth and Molly. The former was gleeful; this terrible treatment was going to make very good copy. But Molly was wondering why anyone would subject herself to this.”

Reichl also learns much about herself in this process. She becomes her late mother, Miriam, for two meals.

The first is a dinner at 21, where she takes on Miriam’s habit of causing trouble for the staff. “Soup was never hot enough, meat was always too well done, salads were overdressed or underdressed or served at the wrong temperature. She sent everything back.”

She then enjoys lunch at the Four Seasons, where she has a revelation about her own attitude towards fine meals. “My mother could be difficult, but when she was happy she was uniquely capable of abandoning herself to the moment. By becoming her I had shed the critic, abandoned the appraiser who sat at a distance, weighing each bite, measuring each dish.”

Reichl cleverly adds variety to her narrative by including in each chapter her review of the restaurant being discussed and a recipe that relates to the story in some way. Occasionally it is an adaptation of an item served at the restaurant, such as Risotto Primavera from Le Cirque, and at other times it is tied to some personal experience, such as Moules Marinières, a mussels dish that her mother “did really well.” One collection of recipes, intriguingly, is “A Frugal Repast for Betty,” one of Reichl’s more nondescript characters.

We are made privy to the inner workings of the New York Times. Reichl battles with editors, chairmen, publishers, and the critic she replaced over her ratings system – too few stars given to New York’s elite establishments – and her fondness for ethnic cuisine.

In addition to its concern with the dining world, the book traces Reichl’s life during her first years at the Times. She discusses the peculiarities of going out with her husband and young son while dressed as a redhead named Brenda – and realizing that when she was, she was “my best self, the person I always wanted to be.”

Reichl experiences professional dissatisfaction and personal tragedy over the course of the narrative, but her story comes almost full circle at its conclusion. Garlic and Sapphires provides readers with fascinating glimpses into the mindset of the critic and true food lover, while also allowing us an opportunity to meet Reichl as a person – a wife, mother, daughter, and friend.

Originally published on Beyond Barbecue, May 22, 2006

Bella, Buon Giorno!

by Jacquelyn Thayer

Buon Giorno Café
15033 Nacogdoches Rd, San Antonio Texas, 78247
(210) 967-9830

Entering Buon Giorno Café is like stepping into owner Anna Cassandro’s cozy Italian villa.

Vivaldi music resounds from a stereo perched atop a magazine-filled bookcase. Calendars of saint’s days, filled with reproductions of great works of Italian art, hang from the walls. The country knickknacks that cover the windowsills and many shelves are a rather eclectic touch, but their effect is counterbalanced by the large display case of “Italian Souvenirs” placed near the door. Three long bookshelves are crammed with books on art and history, health- and cookbooks, and, appropriately, Italian dictionaries and grammar books. The owner and one waitress greet customers when they enter. Unlike in many other coffeeshops, customers order and are served at their tables. Buon Giorno is first and foremost a cozy Italian café and, as such, is at its best when serving Italian specialties.

Buon Giorno is best-known for its Italian pastry. The tiramisu and zuppa inglese are both creamy enough to melt in one’s mouth, and the cannoli ($2.25 for one) is filled with what seems to be a delightfully simple blend of ricotta, mascarpone, a touch of sugar, and chocolate chips. The prices are even more appealing than the fare. A single slice of cake costs only $2.50, while a whole tiramisu or zuppa inglese is $20, not an unreasonable price given its high quality.

Buon Giorno is, of course, a café, and as such the quality of its coffee must also be considered. It is, fortunately, excellent. The hazelnut latte is made with a high-quality espresso so that it is rich and toasty, but not at all bitter. The prices here, too, are refreshing. A large cup of plain espresso costs only $3.25, a pleasant change from the prices found in certain coffee shop chains. Even Buon Giorno’s flavored coffees, such as Almond Joy, cost, at most, $3.75. The most expensive item here is the Caffe Breve at $5.00, perhaps because it is a latte based on half-and-half rather than milk. Other beverages, including Italian cream soda and staples such as iced tea, juice, and milk, are also available.

The rest of the menu is fairly expansive. It includes the usual café fare, such as muffins, bagels, and croissants, and does well in this category. The banana nut muffin, for one, is tender and not too sweet, and a bargain at $1.35. The menu also features soups, salads, and sandwiches. The minestrone ($1.50 for a cup, $3.00 a bowl) is another success, thick and herb-scented and featuring chunks of fresh vegetables. The salad selection is small, but includes a fruit plate in addition to garden salad and chef salad; the prices here range from $1.95 to $4.25.

Buon Giorno falters, however, when it comes to sandwiches. The menu lists several interesting choices, such as the Italian Sub, Reuben, and Chicken or Seafood Salad on Croissant, at prices hovering between $4.25 and $4.55. What it does not list is a vegetarian alternative. A cheese-and-vegetable sandwich can be made to order but it is, sadly, not quite worth the effort. The cheese is merely a thin slice of processed white cheese, and the tomato, at least on this visit, was pink and unpleasantly under-ripe.

Despite its sandwich missteps, Buon Giorno Café is a unique alternative to other coffee shops. Its homey atmosphere is in stark contrast to the more corporate feel of a place like Starbucks, and the authentic Italian fare it offers is the most welcome difference of all.

Originally published on Beyond Barbecue, May 21, 2006

The Farmer’s Market: Fresh and Friendly

by Jacquelyn Thayer

Hazel Mondim with her produce

When asked to identify her favorite things about farming, Hazel Mondim mentions two. “I get exercise I need and the taste of fresh, hand-picked vegetables – not the cardboard taste you get in grocery stores.”

Most who visit a farmer’s market agree with her on that second point. The produce available at a farmer’s market is typically fresher and more flavorful than what can be found in most stores.

Perhaps one of the most attractive aspects of farming and selling is the sense of community it fosters.

In addition to her homegrown vegetables, Mondim is selling goat cheese. She explains that it was made by a neighbor who raises goats. As he’s spending the morning milking, she is selling it for him. “We grow everything we sell,” she says, but is more than willing to assist a friend in need. Likewise, a friend of Mondim’s has spent the last three weeks assisting at the booth. Mondim demonstrates this friendly attitude further by excitedly introducing me to another vendor, Jeffrey Braune, who teaches agricultural education in inner-city San Antonio and sells produce as a side job. His message as a farmer and educator is that even in an urban setting, one can grow good produce, eat well, and even sell some of the produce in a farmer’s market. This is a close-knit world, one that is also strongly interested in its own perpetuation.

Produce from Jeffrey Braune’s booth

What shoppers don’t usually see, though, is the effort that goes into growing and tending the produce.

“In Texas,” Mondim remarks, “You can’t legally gamble, but you can plant.” South-central Texas weather makes a farmer’s job difficult. “The dry, the possibility of hail.”

Still, the agricultural life holds a certain appeal, especially for those who grew up in it. Mondim first learned the value of growing one’s own produce from her parents. “In the Depression, you grew everything,” she says. “I’m 70 years old, I’ve been involved since I was growing up.” She later passed down her own knowledge to her children. “As a divorced single mom of three, I had a garden that provided fresh produce for the kids.” Today, she says, her two sons are “very agriculturally-oriented because of the raising they had.”

Compared with her lifelong experience in farming, Mondim is a relative newcomer to the world of the farmer’s market. She has “been in farmer’s markets since the mid-‘80s,” she says, when Jim Hightower, who was then the agricultural commissioner of Texas, promoted a system of direct retail by farmers to consumers. This resulted in the establishment of weekly or bi-weekly farmer’s markets throughout the state, including the Seguin Farmers Market, which can be visited at 510 East Court St. in Seguin, Texas, every Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon.

Seguin Farmer’s Market seen from the street

Mondim grows her crops seasonally, with her May produce including a few varieties of squash, Swiss chard, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes and cucumbers, her fastest-selling items. She and her friend enthusiastically suggest recipes using the produce, including these two for pattypan squash:

**Wash off the squash and slice cross-wise. Dip slices first in a mixture of milk and egg, then in breadcrumbs. Fry slices in butter and olive oil, turning so that both sides are fried evenly.

Wash the squash and dice. Boil for a short time, just until squash is tender. Toss in butter or margarine and add onion, peppers, tomato, and garlic, to taste.**

Pattypan squash and zucchini at Hazel Mondim’s booth

Originally published on Beyond Barbecue, May 21, 2006