By Thane Peterson I thought all strawberries were pretty much alike until I went shopping with Chef Sarah Stegner. Here we are in front of Lloyd Nichols' stand at Chicago's Green City Market. Nichols, a tanned, work-hardened farmer from rural Marengo, Ill., is handing us different ones to try: Honey Eyes, Jewels, All Stars, and Sparkles. They look the same to me, but each one hits the tongue with a distinctive burst of flavor.
"Which did you like best?" Stegner asks politely before nudging me toward an answer. "The first one, right?," she prompts. "The Honey Eye."
For people who hate the shrink-wrapped, industrially grown produce offered in most supermarkets, the next few months are a godsend. All over the nation, truck farmers are starting to haul fresh-picked fruit and vegetables, hand-crafted cheeses, newly laid eggs, farm-raised fish and meat, and homemade breads and preserves into urban areas for sale at farmers' markets.
THE CREME. But the type of outdoor market Chef Stegner and I are shopping at is several cuts above the garden-variety ones you're likely to find in your local community. This is the crème de la crème of farmers' markets, where top chefs and gourmets do their shopping.
There are a number of farmers' markets around the country, with some of the most famous being the ones on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, at Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., and at New York City's Union Square. These are vastly superior to run-of-the-mill outdoor markets because their vetting process allows only local farmers to set up stands. At markets without such oversight, the produce often is bought from wholesalers and resold by nonfarmers. There's no guarantee the produce is grown locally -- or that it's any fresher than what you find in the stores.
However, Chicago's Green City Market, in Lincoln Park, goes most of the other top-tier markets one better. It was started in 1999 by chefs and other passionate foodies who invite only the very best growers to participate. The 22 farmers involved know they must maintain stringent quality standards to win orders from the chefs. At this market, farmers can't even make the first cut unless they use organic growing techniques and follow the principles of sustainable agriculture.
FERVENT SUPPORTER. The result, says Stegner, "is that the farmers take great care...and there is a beautiful taste to [their products]." Many of the customers here are chefs and sous-chefs from Chicago's toniest eateries -- places like the Frontera Grill, Tru, Naha, Blackbird, and the North Pond Cafe.
It would be hard to find a better guide to the Green City Market than Stegner. The 37-year-old is the dining-room chef at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Chicago. Business travelers and such magazines as Gourmet and Condé Nast Traveler rate the Ritz as having one of the top hotel restaurants in the U.S. Stegner has won a passel of cooking awards, including being named "Best Chef in the Midwest in 1998" by the James Beard Foundation. She's also a fervent supporter of the Green City Market.
Stegner has a kind face and a quick laugh, but she's one tough cookie when it comes to matters of food. A stillness usually comes over a farmer when Stegner arrives at the stand. These folks take great pride in what they produce, and an approving nod from a top chef is kind of like having Tiger Woods remark that your chip shot isn't half bad.
TASTE TEST. Chefs also tend to make some pretty hefty purchases. "What have I ordered from you already?" Stegner asks Chis Covelli, the man behind the counter at the Tomato Mountain stand. He thinks for a moment: "Let's see -- 20 pounds of broccoli, 10 pounds of scallions, 10 pounds of kohlrabi, and I was hoping that if I have a little extra at the end of the day, you'd take that, too."
"I'd be happy to," she replies, and we're off again.
I try to gather buying tips from Stegner so I can do a how-to guide on picking the best produce. However, most of our conversations on that score go something like this:
Me: "How did you happen to pick out that particular basil bunch/pea pod/strawberry/red scallion/endive as the very best one?"
Stegner extends her hand and commands: "Taste!"
Now, we're at the Heartland Trading cheese stand. Stegner grabs a little wooden sampler spoon and plunges it into a pot labeled Amish Blue Cheese.
"Taste," she commands for the umpteenth time, and I do, marveling at the pungent creaminess of the it. I ask her how she decided that that particular cheese was the great one, noting the 20 other varieties in front of us.
"I tasted them all," she replies. I finally realize that that's the answer I'm going to get to all such queries, so I try a different tack.
"Have you had a cholesterol test lately?"
"I'd be afraid to."
SOMETIMES A BARGAIN. You'd expect the prices at a market like this to be astronomically high, but they aren't. Paul Maki, a one-time newspaper editor who is now president of Home Grown Wisconsin, a cooperative of organic farmers from around Madison, says he figures prices are maybe a quarter to one-third higher than in a supermarket. But not always. Home Grown's organic strawberries are just $2.50 a pint this week, vs. up to $4 in the stores. And Maki says, in addition to being cheaper, they're "fresh, organic, no spraying, grown the way they should be."
Some of the stuff you can find at the Green City Market can't be found at all in supermarkets. And in some instances, other bargains can be had. Stegner, who won't sacrifice quality to save money, says the $7-per-pound Wisconsin Amish Blue is comparable in quality and texture to French Roquefort that goes for $32 a pound.
For now, the Green City Market is open only on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (it moves indoors during the winter). But Stegner hopes that one day it will grow successful enough to be open at least three days a week.
Many of the market's supporters are idealists who believe passionately in safeguarding the environment and preserving small family farms. "If we don't dig in our heels and help them, these family farms are going to disappear," says Abby Mandel, one of the Green City Market's founders. Stegner denies that the market is a reaction against industrial agriculture. "It's about not losing a choice," she says. "It got kind of scary there for a while. You almost couldn't find local produce. By shopping here, we assure the farmers that we support their work."
GRASS-ROOTS MOVEMENT. I suspect that the Mad Cow scare and worries over genetically engineered food will make farmers' markets -- especially ones that try to guarantee the purity and quality of the food available -- far more popular. A similar setup, the Clayton Farmer's Market, has sprung up near downtown St. Louis. After a six-week trial last year, it's in its first full season this summer.
Also, people are reacting against the inferior taste of much of what's readily available: the rock-hard supermarket tomatoes and peaches, and the processed, tasteless cheese. And that reaction may have bigger ramifications. After all, 15 years ago you could hardly find a decent cup of coffee in America.
Then, along came Starbucks, Peet's, and others, and everything changed. The difference is these higher-quality farmers' markets are part of a grass-roots movement among people who care passionately about food. It may never reach the proportions of the coffee craze. But if you want the same high-quality food at home that you get in expensive restaurants, this is the place to start. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online