For being such a great food town, Chicago comes up short in the farmers market department. Yes, we’ve got neighborhood farmers markets that pop up in parks and plazas every weekend from mid-May to late October, full of organic, locally sourced produce, eggs, meats and more. But as exciting as these are, there’s still something missing.
That was brought home this weekend when we traveled to Detroit to see the "Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo" in Detroit exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum. It was an amazing show in a truly world-class museum. Almost as much fun was our visit to Eastern Market, a farmers market that’s been around since 1891. It is the largest historic public market in the United States, and it is bustling, with some 45,000 visitors every Saturday, its busiest day.
Eastern Market figures prominently in Marion’s life — her family shopped there every weekend when she was growing up. St. Louis, where I grew up, has a smaller but even older market. Soulard Farmers Market has been around since 1779. Some of our favorite cities boast markets with similarly rich histories. Boston's Haymarket Square has been operating since 1830. Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market was founded in 1907. Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market traces its beginnings back to 1803. And although it’s moved around a bit, Columbus, Ohio’s North Market first opened in 1876.
Each of these markets has its own personality, but they have some things in common. First, they help feed their respective cities. As a St. Louis city audit says, “Soulard Market serves the St. Louis Metropolitan area by providing the community with fresh wholesome produce and other merchandise at reasonable prices.” They also serve to bring whole communities together. Walk around any of them and you’ll see a diverse mix of people shopping shoulder to shoulder, talking, laughing, sharing tips on where to buy what and how to cook it. Eastern Market is particularly rich in live performances. On this visit, we saw or heard solo guitarists, two different saxophonists, a classical string duo, a blues band and an amazing tap dancer accompanied by a drummer.
Another thing theses historic markets share is the support of their cities’ governments. Soulard has been owned and operated by the city of St. Louis since 1842. Columbus only recently turned over control of the North Market to a not-for-profit group. In St. Lawrence Market’s case, Ontario’s then Lieutenant Governor got the ball rolling. All these governments saw — and continue to see — the value of bringing good fresh food to their citizens as well as bringing those citizens together.
To be sure, Chicago’s neighborhood farmers markets are supported by the city. But there is no historic, permanent, year-round market here, and we are poorer for it.
We saw lots of great stuff at Eastern Market this weekend and bought too much, considering our long, unrefrigerated car trip home. But one of our star purchases was garlic scapes. The thin-stalked twists you see above show up in farmers markets in late spring and early summer. Garlic scapes are the stalks or flower stems that grow from the bulbs of hardneck garlic plants. They are harvested to prevent their flowers from diverting energy from the development of garlic bulbs.
Garlic scapes are a softer, gentler version of garlic — milder, sweeter, gentler. But they are still garlic, with the same benefits and, yes, pitfalls. Gentle, green, seasonal, rarified, and also, definitely still garlic.
When Marion saw these beautiful, seasonal green bundles, she devised a couple of recipes in her head on the spot. This delicious, citrusy, garlicky potato salad was one of them.
Potato Salad with Garlic Scapes and Bacon
Serves 3 to 4
Choosing scapes. You most likely are going to find garlic scapes in a farmer’s market or specialty grocer. For this recipe, the best scapes feel tender and yielding to the touch — not stiff and wooden. Save the ones that are woodier for other uses, such as simmering in a braise or a soup or, if you are feeling quite adventurous, piercing a cocktail olive. I also tossed one woody section into the cooking water along with the potatoes to slightly amp up the garlic taste.
8 ounces Yukon Gold potatoes
4 ounces bacon
4 or 5 garlic scapes, flower bulbs removed and the rest finely chopped
bacon fat (optional)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
freshly ground black pepper
1. Peel the potatoes and cut them into small pieces of similar volume so that they cook uniformly. Cover with water, add a teaspoon of salt, bring to a boil and simmer until tender but not mushy. Drain and immediately put into a large bowl.
2. Meanwhile, sauté the bacon until just crisp and cool on a paper towel. Save the bacon fat! Crush the bacon into tiny bits. Mix the olive oil and lemon juice in a little bowl.
3. Toss with salt and a generous grinding of fresh pepper. If your cardiovascular system is feeling extravagant, sprinkle one or two tablespoons of bacon fat all around the potatoes and gently mix. Then add the dressing and gently stir again until all is well mixed. Add the crumbled bacon and almost all the garlic scape. Stir to incorporate and blend everything well. Taste and adjust for piquancy and seasoning. Scatter the remaining bits of scape on the top and you are ready to serve. This is good warm and it is also good cold, the next day. It’s just good.
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