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Greener Pastures: Ray Pride checks the organic farmer’s market where the chefs shop

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Wednesday mornings through October, for the sixth year, Lincoln Park reverts to farmland, or at least to the fruit of the land. The grassy expanses host an intimately scaled town square, Chicago’s Green City Market, a not-for-profit group whose goal is to support fresh, local and sustainable products.

Founder Abby Mandel’s supervised the operation as chairman of the board of directors for six years. “And I make organic plates every single Wednesday so come by and have one.”

Last Wednesday’s treat, for her, were crepes made with butterkase cheese and chives from Wisconsin.

With hardly a breath, she recalls another taste entirely. “We had the most amazing radishes. That sounds pedestrian, but when you taste those radishes…”

The first market had “a lot of old friends,” with thirty-five vendors, up from twenty-four last year and twelve when they began in 1998. Their requirements for vendors have grown stricter over the years. “It’s an intimate space,” she says of the patch of park, “But we can expand ad infinitum.”

That is, so long as the vendors submit to “a very strict application process that asks growers about the pesticides and herbicides they use, how they prepare their soil, what’s the history of the soil, all the things that go into a sustainable market, which means we want to support farmers who sustain and support the land despite their agricultural work.” Ninety-five percent of their growers are organic, she says.

It’s notable how many of their vendors are supplying organic beef. “That’s fantastic,” she enthuses. “Organic beef! I cannot tell you how delicious that beef is. It’s so carefully raised, no additives, no hormones, no animal feed.”

“We have the best creamery this year. We continue to have two organic bakers,” she says, the list continuing. Like everyone else, David Robb of the Traders Point Creamery of Zionsville, Indiana, finds the words tripping off his tongue as he points to his hands-on operation. “All products are certified organic from our own herd of grass-fed Brown Swiss. We offer whole organic non-homogenized milk, with the cream on top, organic chocolate milk, organic European style whole milk yogurt, and organic raspberry-, peach-, banana-mango-, and orange-flavored yogurts.”

“Food you can trust” is the Market slogan, but it’s the taste that lingers. Most food is harvested within a day or two of the market, including a range of heirloom varieties. The vendors sell only locally grown “sustainable” foods that are certified as being raised according to organic or integrated pest management agricultural practices, a system which reduces pesticide use to a minimum. (The Green Market also takes pains to note that making farms economically viable through direct-marketed produce and meats reduces the likelihood of farmland being sold for commercial development.)

“We have some artisanal cheesemakers from Wisconsin,” Mandel tells me, “and they’re going to be coming down every week. That is very exciting to us. We really like to have hands-on vendors and farmers and producers so our customers can talk to them and understand how they do and why they do it and what’s so good about it. I think everybody is sourcing better food.”
It began with chefs. There are true believers amongst their clan, Mandel says, “maybe a nucleus of ten chefs who are really, really committed despite the price, but they feel that passionate. Their dishes are more interesting.”

But the market offers something else, something just as tactile. “I feel personally that the camaraderie at the market is the most exciting thing. The shoppers, the chefs, the vendors, all together to improve the food on Chicago’s plate. It’s an idea that ‘s come into its own,” she says, admitting “the first few years it was like a party without a guest list.” But it’s a large party now, blooming with “the special care that all these growers have to have their product.”

She’s excited that American palates are becoming more knowledgeable. “Outside of this country, they’re all so much more sophisticated than we are. They pay attention to their food and so many people here take food for granted. Other countries are really tuned into their food. [We] can go to the supermarket and get it cellophane wrapped and don’t care if it’s from Chile or Mexico or wherever.”

Robb says Traders Point Creamery started last July through local and regional farmers markets, and they’re using the Market to explore the possible expansion of their product into the Chicago area. “Whole Foods has expressed an interest in carrying our product in Chicago if its customers want it,” he says, hoping to develop his customer base to evangelize for Whole Foods and other stores in Chicago. Beyond marketing, however, he says the reward is “watching a person’s face when they sample our product.” It’s great when “people react with pleasure, ‘Wow!,’ or ‘That reminds me of the milk I had I was a kid’!”

Demonstrations by noted chefs are offered at 10:30 each market-day morning, including Trattoria No. 10’s Theodore Gilbert this week, followed by Rick Bayless and Daniel Kelly of D. Kelly’s; Tru’s Gale Gand, Lula Café’s Amalea Tshilds and Jason Hammel. Mas’ John Manion, Blackbird’s Paul Kahan, Fred Ramos of Pili Pili and Carol Watson of Milk and Honey Café are among the others.

The market runs from 7:30am-1:30pm each Wednesday through October 27, rain or shine, at 1750 North Clark, above the Chicago Historical Society at the south end of Lincoln Park.

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