September 30, 2007

The Gadabout—September 28, 2007

Autumn quarter at the University of Chicago starts at exactly the wrong time.

During late September and early October, the time when fall foods and traditions are at their most delicious, students of all years instead initiate the revival of Bartlett, Pierce, B-J, and the Med.

All too soon, winter begins, and fails to stop for another six months.

In these remaining few weeks left of autumn in Chicago, when the nearest apple orchard is over an hour away in Indiana, the closest thing to a pumpkin patch is Daley’s “Pumpkin Plaza,” and the most legitimate autumnal food a Grande Pumpkin Spice Latte at Bart Mart, the Hyde Park Farmers’ Market is the perfect local gateway to the apple ciders and pumpkin pastries of yore.

The Hyde Park Farmers’ Market may be familiar to those who stay in the neighborhood over the summer, but it often falls out of mind when autumn arrives. For three more weeks after classes start, Midwestern farmers, bakers, and florists sell their wares on the cul-de-sac at 53rd Street and Harper Court. A small collection of nearly a dozen stalls, it’s certainly no Green City Market in Lincoln Park, but it’s quaint, manageable, and a pleasant walk from the center of campus.

Also, with the faint smell of bacon grease from Valois piercing the air and the occasional Hum and Sosc professor perusing produce, it’s unmistakably Hyde Park.

Given that it is, in fact, a farmers’ market, fresh fruits and vegetables comprise a good proportion of the items for sale. Despite the lateness of the season, summertime favorites like tomatoes and watermelons still manage to hold their own in both quality and quantity right alongside more traditional fall fare such as Brussels sprouts, spinach, corn, and squash.

The five types of apples that we spotted—Gala, Honeycrisp, Jonathan, Macintosh, and Jonagold—and the 13 varieties of gourd, including green “gooseneck” gourds and Halloween-ready pumpkins, give the Co-Op a run for its money in variety, not to mention taste. The Honeycrisp apples we munched on the way back were absolutely perfect in their red-and-green shading and wonderfully sweet flavor.

For other “fruits” of nature, a couple of stalls provide less common farm products. The herb varieties, for example, were excellent for the more ambitious of student cooks. One stand carried everything from cilantro and mint to thyme and arugula, while another stand offered small but leafy basil plants for $5.

If the fragrances emanating from Bath and Body Works make you physically ill when within a 20-foot radius, check out a stand that sells a variety of handmade soaps as an alternative.

What brought home the autumn’s appetizing appeal for us, though, were the three stands selling baked goods: Garwood Farms, Marylin’s Bakery, and Fulton St. Bakery. Here, at these stalls, lie the edible glories of pumpkin donuts, scones, cinnamon-swirl bread, and caramel apples. In less than five minutes, we had picked up an oatmeal raisin cookie, a miniature strawberry-rhubarb pie, a half-gallon of cider, and two types of scones, all for less than $15. For those traveling on foot, it would be wise to bring a large canvas bag or a senior-citizen cart to transport purchases.

Sandwiched between 53rd Street and Harper Court’s Calypso, the Hyde Park Farmers’ Market doesn’t exactly conjure up images of a bucolic paradise. However, it’s certainly the best place nearby to appreciate true fall flavors and food. A trip here also provides samples of produce and baked goods from farms in Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana.

With the recent focus on eating locally grown, sustainable food, feel free to shame the person who just purchased a kiwi flown in from Argentina. Where pumpkins and squash abound and there are gourds galore, it’s clear that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree at the Hyde Park Farmers’ Market.