My first week back in Chicago I ate many tacos, bowls of pho, pitas full of tzatziki and greasy flaps of gyro meats: a score of the migrant cuisine I missed. I was little a wild and haphazard. A little food slutty.
As weeks wore on, when hints of stability came softly, and frankly, when the reverse culture shock ebbed, I was able to be more deliberate about what I ate.
Unsurprisingly I drove straight to the markets on Argyle Street in search of non-overpriced Asian groceries and spices to cook up a few dishes from the Philippines: savory and peppercorn laden chicken adobo, tamarind-soured and Hungarian long pepper-heated pork sinigang, yes, and then beef caldereta, which was probably the prettiest dish I’d made in recent memory – the deep dark olives, twinkly green peas, red bell peppers, carrots and potatoes beef stew. Pleased, sated, missing my second home a little less and yet thinking of what the next week of food I might cook and eat would be, I realized I have no idea what’s in season.
In my former life, my home cooking strategy involved looking through the cupboard, searching online for a new recipe or digging through a folder of well worn favorites, scrawling up a little shopping list and then never deviating from this list when actually shopping in an effort to minimize the well-designed time and money suck that is the 21st century American supermarket. Oh, and always, always, eating before going to Jewel, lest my hangry brain takeover my wallet and I’m out two bills. That’s what it was, for a decade or so of my so called American Adult Life.
At home I was the self-centered captain of my food destiny and picking what I wanted to eat beforehand with the sureity and knowledge that the ingredients, whatever I wanted, whatever time of year it was for the most part, would be there on the shelf or in the produce department.
Then I traveled abroad and things were different, to say the least. I had to give myself over to the fact that I didn’t know what grew here, what swam or grazed or flew here, how to pick a good one and then how to cook it. Lots to learn and improvise. Cooking happens more like jazz. What you could get at the market, what was in season, was always changing, and changing what you cooked and ate. This was especially pronounced whenever I found myself in the countryside.
In France, we picked sorrel from the garden, a lemony, dark green leafy vegetable, that my host dad made into a casserole. In China, we ate the mysterious and delicious “mountain greens.” In the Philippines, we looked for the last of the lanzones crop from down south until there were none. Lanzones are a cousin to lychee. A gentle squeeze on either end of the fruit and the skin will give a little so you can peel it off. The sap stubbornly sticks to fingernails but the flesh revealed is lustrous. Probably the best lanzones we got was from a guy carrying a few kilos in plastic bags into the hospital where my aunt was getting a checkup. We took all those off his hands, ate them out the back of our trunk in the parking lot. Basically I kinda fell in love with fruits and vegetables. Here’s a little fruit porn to tide you over.
But this is Chicago in the middle of winter. There’s fucking nothing in season. Without modern highways, air freight, railroads, canning and other industrialized food processing techniques, refridgeration and chemical preservatives, no one could live here between September and May… And that’s nothing short of remarkable in my book. Today I paid a little visit today to the Fulton Market, Chicago’s meatpacking district of old – from Upton Sinclair‘s days till now. Jackhammers tearing down or rehabbing the old punctuate the cold. A familiar ting-ting of the railroad crossing gates and flashing red for good measure now transport more suburbanites back out to their pastures than cattle or sides of beef nowadays. Pallets stacked high on small forklifts. Butchers in their whites catching a smoke break out by the docks, just beyond the curtains of overlapping clear plastic. Construction workers in their fatigues and emptied lunchpails going home for the day. It’s dying a little bit, maybe, but you can still see it.
The day I went for this photowalk in Fulton Market was the day after Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, passed. Someone had put up their national colors up in a tree… I snapped, posted on Flickr, tagged Chicagoist and they featured it on their home page.
Time to check out the Green City Farmer’s Market on Saturday and see what’s up.