A typical article in Saveur
magazine is a fairly personal tale recounting the author’s explorations and discoveries of some particular dish or ingredient, often in some remote or romantic or exotic corner of the world. I’m always jealous of these experiences–the 1940s port the host happens to have in his basement cellar, the casual, whipped-up-on-the-spot, impossibly decadent four-course lunch, the sort of nonchalance and ordinariness with which such extraordinary adventures are had.
The family Deacon was lucky enough to have such an experience this past weekend at The Spence Farm.
Spurred on by Terra’s post on the Events board
, we were greeted early Sunday morning by the prettiest spring day to date, a welcome turn since we had a one-year-old and a three-year-old in tow. I knew relatively little about our mission or our destination–we were going into the forest to dig ramps, whatever that entailed.
So we headed down I-55 to just outside the town of Fairbury, about a 2 hour drive. We were greeted at the farm by Kris and Marty Travis. Kris is the farmer, Marty helps, but his real stock-in-trade, we would learn, is as a woodworker, fashioning beautiful reproductions of Shaker furniture. There were only a couple others there at that point, so we got a chance to chat a bit with the farmer’s, to meet Terra, and let the kids run free for a while.
We were soon joined by a varied collection of helpers–some Chicago food enthusiasts like ourselves, some others from downstate, some neighbors, and a number of Chicago-area chefs and cooks. After we had all gathered, we piled into a van to head down the road to the ramp-laden wood.
Marty explained how to go about digging the ramps, and we set to work.
Despite the help of our two young boys, work proved slow for us.
Eventually, as Kate was trying to determine how much dirt Luke had ingested, the farmers’ son Will (the young fellow leaning against the tree in the top pic) came to help me and we quickly filled our box.
I admit I felt a bit guilty about being down to “help” dig ramps, since we were probably out digging for only about 30-45 minutes. We (the 20 or 30 visitors) were certainly of service to the farm, since they have more of the profitable ramps growing on the land than they are able to pick each year, but I have no doubt that the Travis family could have easily doubled the total ramp yield by devoting the day to ramps rather than guests.
(As it turns out, though, the farm is aiming to be as much an educational endeavor as a food producer.*)
Somewhat to my surprise, the time spent digging ramps is about half the time required to clean them.
Most people preferred the digging to the cleaning. And I can’t say I entirely disagree. But I liked the cleaning too. When digging, there’s a greater sense of accomplishment and a greater closeness to the land…you’re in the woods, you’re harvesting the earth’s bounty, you work up a sweat. The cleaning, though, has it’s own quiet rhythm that I actually very much enjoy, like pitting cherries or shelling beans. Sitting around on overturned 5-gallon buckets, soaking up the fresh, warm spring sunlight–grab a handful, rinse the dirt off, peel off the slimy, oniony skin, and repeat. The task of cleaning everything we picked was so unlikely, that the joy in the cleaning wasn’t about reaching a goal–it was just about the doing…bunch after bunch, ramp after ramp. I could have sat there and cleaned ramps for hours on this afternoon. But I wasn’t about to miss lunch.
What a wonderful and delicious treat. There were a bunch of cooks from Chicago restaurants that concentrate on local and organic produce…Blackbird, Vie, 312 Chicago, and a few others. I’m not sure which precisely were responsible for cooking lunch, but boy oh boy, did they put out some satisfying food. Ramps, of course, sautéed with some fresh shiitakes from Terra’s neighboring farm (Henry’s, I believe, of farmer’s market fame). She also provided lots of fresh, creamy eggs–some scrambled, some incorporated into a Spanish tortilla-type potato dish–and a variety of homemade jams and jellies. Another local farmer brought milk, yogurt, and cheese from her goats. Chicago visitors brought Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam, some Tomme de Savoie, some country pate (which it appeared one of the cooks had made), fresh bread. There was ham salad and guanciale and yellow cornbread and blue cornbread, and this was one fine and fitting meal.
It was a meal where you could feel you contributed, even though you actually did very little. It’s a bit ridiculous, how little, in fact. Here in our city apartment, with our concrete backyard parking lot, we really do live along way from the land our food comes from. The simple joy of spending four or five hours on a real live farm, and less than half of that actually working, is a wonderful respite from city life. But how pathetic that that four or five hours is such a culture shock. That the contrast with “real life” is so stark. That the farm is so far removed from how we live that two hours of work there can actually seem like doing
something in a way that 40 hours in an office can’t. That maybe Luke was eating the dirt not because he liked it, but because he doesn’t know dirt–not forest dirt, farm dirt, outside dirt–he just knows dirt mixed with wood chips in a forest of iron trees that sprout tire swings and monkey bars.
Now, unlike my wife, I love the city. I love Chicago’s towering peaks and foreboding canyons. I love the lights and the bridges and the sooty buses and the mass of humanity you are forced to encounter when you go just about anywhere. And when we leave town, the Chicago skyline always brings me great joy upon our return, like how I imagine a great bejeweled city rises as an oasis in the middle of the desert. I always have a sense of returning to livelihood and vitality. But driving away from the farm, not so much. For the first time I can remember, I nearly dreaded the man-made monuments to civilization that I knew would, with their enormity and overwhelming power, push the farm–those few simple hours–further back in my memory.
The Chicago skyline, if not urban reality, was forestalled somewhat on our return by a stop at Amanecer Tapatio
in Joliet. I was really looking forward to this segment of the trip, as the place has received quite high praise on this board and on Chowhound. I wasn’t about to be put off by the fact we’d just had a rather full midday meal a few hours earlier.
When we walked into the restaurant around five, there wasn’t a table to be had. Impressive to see the place so busy. We were seated and served by who I presume must be Monica, though I couldn’t recall her name at the time.
The salsas were wonderful, both with quite a good dose of heat (too much, in fact, for the whole family but me). Monica claimed that the salsa verde was simply tomatillos and peppers, but it was so thick and creamy I find that difficult to believe. The roja had the nice earthy, chile-ness that good red salsas have.
Taking a cue from previous reports, we both ordered an entrée off the daily specials board. For Kate, it was chilaquiles, for me costillas en chile morita
, or something similar, which is pork ribs stewed in a sauce based on chiles morita.
It’s hard for me to judge the chilaquiles because the tortillas were so fresh and so good on their own that I wasn’t so interested in the sauced preparation. Kate was happy with them, though. I liked my dish quite a bit as well. The beans (I believe RST has written somewhere about their beans being quite unique–found something
–mayo cobas, I guess) were not to my taste; the rice was excellent. Overall, and based on this limited exposure on a relatively full stomach, I like this restaurant, though I didn’t get a good sense of what, if anything, separates it from the better restaurants in Chicago. However, I do plan to make it a stop when I pass through Joliet.
Finally, the ramps. I felt a little guilty driving home with 5 pounds of ramps, but hey, I picked ‘em and I cleaned ‘em, left lots at the farm, and they’ve got more than they know what to do with anyway. The funny thing about all this is that I’m not even sure if I’d ever had a ramp before. This is a really good vegetable. Most surprising to me is the leafy part–it’s flavor reminds me of arugula, but with a garlic bite instead of a pepper bite. It’s a tremendous salad green. I’ve pretty much been using it in everything…they last, but 5 pounds is a lot. We’re probably about ¾ through, and we’ve used them in salsa verde; in tacos with grilled skirt steak; grilled ramps with olive oil, salt, and pepper; grilled pizzas
with ramps, mushrooms, and blue cheese; ramp and potato soup; ramps and eggs…and I’m not sure what’s to come. Someone on Sunday advised wrapping fish in the leaves and grilling it. Mmmmm….rampalicious.
*More information about the Spence Farm can be found at http://www.thelandconnection.org
. Also, there is an article in The Reader this week about the dig on Sunday, though I’m not sure if it’s available online. Also, see the Events board for more on next Sunday’s event