Lynn Peemoeller is a food systems planner and president of Slow Food Chicago
Spring hits Chicago like an overdue baby. It’s a welcome relief when buds start to blossom and life shoots up from the earth. At the first outdoor farmers market this week, I was pleased to find fiddlehead ferns (foraged in Indiana) among the verdant edibles.
But these are not the frosted brown coils of fern tasting of forest that I have had in the past. These thin fronds fall loosley from their stem cascading like curly split ends. They taste more like nutty asparagus and behave like Chinese long beans.
This is a head scratcher. Just how many types of edible ferns are there? I had wrongly assumed there was only one variety of this unusual treat. But how delightful to discover I was wrong.
Mother nature enchants me with her vast biodiversity of edibles. Just what is the variety of these ferns anyway? And who was the person responsible for getting them to market so they could make their way to my plate? What is the history of foraging fiddlehead ferns? Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste and the RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) alliance are working with farmers and breeders to capture the most delicious of regional and seasonal food traditions to prevent such rarities from going extinct.
Edible ferns are not a turn-on to everyone. (My Dad responds with a shudder.) But, the world is full of other foods with vast genetic and cultural histories that elicit joy and intrigue – many of which never make their way into conventional grocery stores. Some of the most iconic heirloom foods in the Midwest are tomatoes, potatoes, apples and livestock like heritage poultry and pork.
Slow Food Chicago is working with regional farmers to expand the endangered vegetable varieties being grown in the Midwest. Our goal is to catalog all the Ark of Taste varieties that are being grown for market in Chicago and host tastings for consumers and chefs. We are lucky to have many farmers who have upheld foraging and farming traditions as well as experimenting with growing heirloom and heritage crops. This supports regional biodiversity and creates demand for these unusual and delicious varieties. After all, it just takes one Cherokee Purple to get you hooked on heirloom tomatoes for life.
This summer we are also promoting homegrown heirloom tomatoes. We have over 400 seedlings that we will be selling at farmers markets in late May. We hope to encourage our members and all tomato enthusiasts to commandeer precious urban outdoor space to try to grow their own. In the fall we will celebrate the harvest with a tomato festival; a tomato-themed potluck; and a weeklong heirloom BLT theme at a number of restaurants throughout the city. Extra credit goes to the chef who manages to produce a BLT entirely from Ark products!
Another local program that we are supporting is a fledgling urban orchard called the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project (CROP). This non-profit is raising hundreds of varieties of heritage fruit trees (apples, pears, paw paws, persimmons, raspberries) on urban land and acts as a fruit-oriented community garden. Although many trees are grafted and safely nursed on a temporary site, the organization is seeking a permanent location for its orchard and education center.
This fall, Slow Food Chicago is thrilled to play host to the third in a series of RAFT Midwest heirloom fruit and heritage orchard restoration workshops. Our goal is to bring people together to capture and explore the local flavors and traditions of these well-loved fruits. We will be working with our local growers to procure delicious and unusual varieties for tasting, and help encourage more people to grow heirloom varieties.
I think apples are a much easier sell than fiddlehead ferns, at least for an educational and tasting series. What’s great is that the RAFT alliance and the Slow Food Ark of Taste celebrate nature’s biodiversity in its many forms. Whether food comes from the land or on water, in trees or from the forest floor, edibles are all around us and the traditions of hunting, harvesting, preparing are all part of our collective history as the human species as much as it is as our regional culture. We hope that Slow Food Chicago will be able to contribute to the preservation and promotion of food culture of the Midwest through our work with local farmers and consumers.
So what about those ferns? I give in to simplicity; just parboil in salt water. Munching those forest fronds is like a vacation from the modern world, taking me back, way back to the hunter-gatherer in my soul.