You have to wonder how many tourists would actually visit Chicago if they knew how it got its name – that would be from the wild vegetable that used to be known to Native Americans as “skunk plants.” That was a long time ago, but in the next week or two you can sniff out the faint, slightly acrid aroma of this plant, if you're taking a trip through a Midwestern forest. Eight Forty-Eight food critic David Hammond has the story.
The Winnebago gave Chicago its name, which roughly translated means “skunk place,” so called for the native ramps, some of the first greens to emerge in early spring. Near Spence Farm, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, there's an annual dig of these wild things that lures some of Chicago's most adventurous culinary pioneers.
MARTY TRAVIS: I'm Marty Travis, and you're on our family farm, which has been in our family for 178 years. It was the first farm in Livingston County, settled in 1830, by my fourth great grandfather. We call it Spence Farm, because my grandparents were the Spences. It's a 160 acre farm, and this ritual of the ramps, we've done this event for the last five or six years, invited our chef friends from all over the city and downstate to join us...
Along with chefs from restaurants like Frontera and 312, Chef John Bubala of Timo and Bacala is out here picking ramps with his kids. Bubala loves to use these fresh, leek-like shoots to give Chicagoans a taste of their homeland and their history.
JOHN BUBALA: … it's a great way to bring a product from the country into the city and let our diners and guests see and taste what's a natural product that can't be cloned, can't be seeded, it's a wild plant…it's an opportunity to give your guests something that comes local and natural.
Connecting downstate with downtown, resident with region, consumer with producer motivates activists like Terra Brockman of the Land Connection, who sees the ramp dig as an opportunity to reach out and reestablish relationships. Recently, Brockman organized Rampfest, a bustling downtown fund raiser that brings together chefs who test their culinary mettle against Chicago's namesake vegetable. Brockman tells us there are plenty of reasons to be more thoughtful about our food.
TERRA BROCKMAN: It matters to any body who eats, …in terms of the quality…in terms even of national security. People don't think about this very much, but we are now a net food importer as a country. For all of our existence, we've been a net food exporter... Now we actually import more food than we export. So we're getting into a fairly vulnerable position. In the same way that you get dependent upon foreign oil, and we all know kind of how that's gone, do we really want to be dependent upon foreign food? The other part of that is…we cannot really afford to have food coming from thousands and thousands of miles away. Not to mention that this food has been picked long ago, it's not as fresh; it's not as healthy; it's not as tasty. So for many, many reasons, people should care.
Paul Kahan of Chicago's Blackbird and Avec restaurants, who was also at Spence Farm ripping ramps out of the deep mud, prepares some remarkably tender beet-marinated sturgeon with ramp kimchee. He's upfront about why he cares to cultivate relationships with local farmers.
PAUL KAHAN: To be honest with you, from one standpoint, we're a little selfish. We want beautiful, pristine product that's raised the right way…If we buy food from conscientious farmers that treat the land well, the food is healthy…they grow food the right way, they don't use harmful fertilizers, they treat the earth really kindly. Each year we try to get a little bit greener, and do a little bit more. ..we meet new farmers every year, and it's just our way of supporting what we believe is right.
Chefs at Rampfest seem guided by their palates AND by a moral imperative. Their food must taste good but it also must BE good. Greg of Greg Christian Catering pauses from cooking ramps with shrimp to express a passion that goes beyond flavors on the plate.
GREG CHRISTIAN: We're coming to the end of the times when people are disconnected from Mother Earth. And as we are at the most …disconnected, we are striving, reaching further to grasp that connection…and now that the pendulum has swung all that way to the side of disconnectedness, we're coming back…
For a Midwesterner, there's an undeniable resonance to eating native plants that have been growing hereabouts since before the Winnebago. For folks at Spence Farms, ramps are just one of many traditional foods we've ignored for years and are now making their way back to our tables.
MARTY TRAVIS: Paw paws are native on our farms and our woods already…but there's a great market and a great demand for paw paws, so we've ordered…about 400 paw paws that we'll plant into an orchard. We also do many different types of “wilds,” like the lamb's quarter, or the chenapodium, and the purslane, and then we do the wild plumb…
There's a lot of good food coming out of Illinois soil, foods we may have forgotten about, foods we may not even notice as we tromp through the woods, foods that offer us a way back.
David Hammond is a contributor to Chicago Reader and Time Out Chicago. He also co-moderates LTHForum.com, the Chicago-based culinary chat site.