Mike Sula, in this week's Reader, reports on an Uzbek [ed. is that Uzbeki?] restaurant in Buffalo Grove that I've been meaning to try. The women behind Chaihanna lament their vegetables:
"In Uzbekistan, she says, the carrots are light yellow and taste better."
Maybe, perhaps, there is no carrot grown around here that tastes as good as Uzbekistan, but I tend to doubt that as carrots are especially suited for our Northern climate. In fact, when the ground thaws just a bit more, Farmer Vicki of Genesis Growers is gonna remove the carrots that have been whiling a way in her ground growing ever so large and ever so sweet. See the thing is, I doubt very much that Chaihanna's cooks buy from Farmer Vicki. Neither do the cooks at any Thai, any Vietnamese, Middle Eastern or Mexican place that I know. Wait, scratch the Mexican. Rick Bayless may not buy from Farmer Vicki, but what he does not grow himself, he buys from other local farms (in season at least). These cuisines centered themselves so much around great produce. Imagine your fatoush, your orange curry, your quesadilla de flor de calabeza made with local, farm fresh stuff. When an "ethnic" foods tend to get spruced up, your Pasteurs, your Alhambras, most of all, your Arun's, there's a tendancy first of all to dicker with the recipes; more important, most of the extra money seems to go into the decor. Why not the sourcing?
When I dream local, I don't so much dream about fresh produce in March, year round markets or a chicken that can be had non-frozen (although these are all on my wishlist), what I really dream about is a person running a little ethnic joint that is working hard to find great ingredients for his or her food. My dream faces five challenges. First, there is time. Sula's Uzbek ladies were so busy baking their breads and pickling their watermelon, did they possibly have time to shop the markets. Second, even if, per chance, they could hit the market, what would they do come winter. Even Paul Virant sneaks stuff in sometimes. Third, there is cost. Can many of these places recover the higher food costs for local food? Fourth, there is the is the menu problem. Bayless uses local farmers when. All of these places have their near set menus. Menus based on expectations for that food, best sellers if you may. Do any of them adjust their menus seasonally? Finally, and probably most pervasive, there is no infrastructure in place to get these people local foods. Some of that dovetails to the first issue, time to shop, but I think it's more. Like I say, do those woman even know such a carrot can easily be found. Really, these issues are near impossible to overcome. I can dream.