Woodstock, Illinois –
When I travel, I like to visit nearby farmers markets. It’s fun, it’s educational – there’s always more to learn about how farmers and markets address the issues caused by modern agriculture. Plus, I like fresh, local foods. My current trip has brought me to Woodstock, Illinois, famous for being the town where the movie, Groundhog Day was filmed. The town square is the very definition of quaint, I’m not here to visit Bill Murray landmarks nor did I make the journey to check out a market that was voted the #1 market in Illinois (Go Illini!), instead I have returned to the town where I attended high school and the place my dad now calls home to see parents and while I’m here I’ll check out local foods.
Spoiler Alert – The market really impressed me.
Woodstock, located in the center of McHenry county, is about 50 miles northwest of Chicago. Move to the east and the area is quickly and decidedly exurban, moving to the west and land retains much of it’s agricultural identity that has defined the county for the last sesquicentennial, and yes I could have said 150 years, but that takes the fun out of knowing big words.
When I was a teen I could look out my window and see fields lined with perfect rows of corn or soybeans that began across the street and ended someplace in Nebraska; possibly Wyoming. Yet, the idea of eating something local, was and considering the first item I saw when I walked into the local grocery after arriving was cellophane wrapped heads of iceberg lettuce – local foods might very well still be an anathema in this area.
My brother, who arrived before me, told me it was a pretty cool market. I didn’t not believe him, but I still find myself surprised by size, the attendance and the selection of foods. Dad picks up tomatoes grown in the last town we all lived in together, Harvard. Harvard, located 20 miles up Rt. 14 has suffered as much as any midwestern town whose commerce was built on light industry and agriculture. Many of the sellers today are from Harvard, it makes me glad to see farmers doing well. It bodes well the city can draw on it’s agricultural heritage and new, younger farmers can make a go of it with direct farm sales.
Tomatoes are a pointed choice for my father: Dad has a thing about tomatoes, his repeated belief is that no one has grown a decent tomato since when Hitler was alive. I just want to mention my pop was extremely young during this edenic junction in history and even though I understand that no single food better represents large scale production at war with family enterprises, taste and seasonality than tomatoes, it’s just not true there aren’t good tomatoes anymore. The proof is in his bag, super sweet cherry tomatoes, a variety developed in the last decade, I don’t know why he has to be all Andy Rooney about this issue. I also know logic isn’t going to win the day, so I opt out of the conversation.
I likewise get tomatoes, ground turkey, what turns out to be insanely good smoked bacon, summer squash and cheese and potato pierogi, which was combined with kielbasa and caramelized onions – a meal that is battling a deep dish (A pizza delivered by a man who couldn’t have been nicer, but also sported what appeared to be a non-ironic mullet and drove a vintage Trans-Am) as the best thing I’ve had here. The pierogi were probably better, but the whole pizza experience – I mean that just wins.
Although I had no idea, it turns out this market was here when I was. It began about 30 years ago when 3 to 6 farmers would gather on Saturdays to sell food out of their trucks. The market has now grown to 50 plus vendors and possibly about a 1,000 shoppers on hand as I visit. Downside is that only two farms sell eggs. The woman who I bought the turkey from says she brings on average 50 dozen eggs a week and will sell out in the first hour. The other vendor just chuckled at me when I asked for eggs at 11:30. All I can say is ultimately that bacon didn’t need an egg, but I really don’t see how it would have hurt.
Trips to my Ur-market in Madison and Chicago’s city run markets are on the agenda. Updates to follow. If you visit a market when you travel, we’d love to hear about and see pictures; email me at firstname.lastname@example.org