Report from Chicago

Chicago in April is cold. As in an maybe 37 degrees and sleeting–in stark contrast to the lush, almost summer-like conditions I left in Sonoma County last week.

Now granted, it was a little thick-headed, but thinking of spring back home, I actually asked someone if there were any good farm markets I could visit around here. She looked at me like I had two heads. Right. It’s winter here. Local produce is still months away. Unless of course, you’re into ramps.

Sometimes it takes getting away from home to really appreciate, well, home.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been trying to eat my way through Chicago as well as attending a food conference that has organics and sustainability (along with post modern gastronomy, but that’s another story) as its foundation.

The whole thing is actually pretty surreal. To my insulated Cali-thinking, I forget that for much of the country, organics, farm markets and sustainable practices are pretty much in their infancy. Locally-grown foods have a wow-factor that’s palpable. And, many of the high-end restaurants here in Chicago are doing the kind of farm-centric menus that we’ve seen in Northern California for years. Artisan meats, root purees, you know the drill. Farm chic is totally hip.

In fact, yesterday, I made a trek across town to a restaurant called FEED for roasted chicken, fries and corn pudding “down home kind of stuff. The interior: Think Moline feed store. The food: Think Moline feed store. In a good way. It was homey and warm. It was cheap. And they had chocolate cake. But the whole thing seemed so out of place in this downtrodden industrial neighborhood. A sort of country-show for urbanites. But all I could think of was how much better I liked the exact same meal–chicken and fries at the recently-opened West County Grill a few weeks ago, not just because uber chef Jonathan Waxman made it, but because it just felt more real. Less of a show, but clean, honest, local cooking.

Which is all pretty weird, considering that Illinois is covered with farms. An hour outside of Chicago is pretty much cornfields from here to Colorado. This is true farmland. But even here, they’re relearning much of what we’ve come to accept as standard in California. Fresh. Local. Seasonal.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Chicago has some incredible food. It’s nice to finally eat a pizza that doesn’t contain sundried tomatoes and arugula. I’m loving the omni-present chocolate lounges. You can’t get a better burger (or at least a more nostalgic one) than at Steak & Shake. I’m looking forward to eating at Moto, a post-modern gastroexperience that includes edible paper and (at least at one point) bacon suspended on a trapeze.

But it’s so nice to know that the warm, SoCo spring is waiting for me back at home. Along with a Rosie Chicken or two.