Where Do Portobello’s Come From and Other Burning Questions Answered During Farmers Market Field Trip

By Patty Wetli | Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Gayle Voss, of Prairie Pure Cheese, and Carol Tollas, of Mick Klug Farm, offer youngsters a lesson in local food. Credit: Patty Wetli

For those of us who grew up in households where frozen corn was the special-occasion alternative to canned niblets, the palates of today’s youngsters are astounding.

“They eat pesto and falafel and they’re three,” said Jadranka Schechinger. “I didn’t go to a farmers market until I was in college.”

Schechinger was among the parents chaperoning St. Matthias pre-schoolers (4910 N. Claremont Ave.) on a field trip to Tuesday morning’s Lincoln Square farmers market, where the youngsters sampled paninis, apple cider and pickled mushrooms.

“Do you know cheddar?” asked Gayle Voss of Prairie Pure Cheese. “Yes!” shouted the tykes. “Do you know Butterkäse?” “Yes!”

OK, maybe they got carried away on that last one, but Schechinger swears her kids love kale. She brings them to the market nearly weekly and has discovered that recruiting their assistance goes a long way toward getting them to eat the food they’ve helped to select and prepare.

The goal of the field trip, organized by St. Matthias parent and local food advocate Jim Javenkoski, was to reinforce classroom lessons, expose the children to new things and provide hands-on learning.

“We just finished our apple theme,” said teacher Betsy O’Donnell who, along with co-worker Nancy Garber, shepherded 35 three-year-olds to the market. Healthy eating is part of the children’s regular curriculum, and the market expedition provided an opportunity to offer “more knowledge of where their food comes from.”

“It’s really important to let them see and experience the freshness of a local farm,” agreed Carol Tollas, who greets hundreds of kids each week from her post in the Mick Klug Farm tent. Education extends to adults as well: Tollas delivered her own “apple theme” on why certain varieties of the fruit will be absent from the market this year.

Unusually hot temperatures last March confused the apple trees, which dropped their too-early blossoms during April’s freeze. No blooms, no fruit. Mick Klug lost half its crop, according to Tollas; Seedlings is rumored to have lost 70 percent. As a result, Cortland’s will be missing this fall, she said, and “no pun intended,” Cameos might not make an appearance either.

By comparison, mushroom farming is a far less risky proposition. Todd Allison of River Valley Ranch & Kitchens supplied the St. Matthias group with pickled samples but he’ll have fresh varieties year-round. The mushrooms grow indoors in beds stacked five high. “It looks like an army barracks,” said Allison.

River Valley also cultivates 37 acres of farmland (only 10 acres per growing season), harvesting tomatoes, peppers and garlic the size of a small fist. When a customer questioned whether the bulbs were from China, we assumed he was joking but Allison set us straight. “Ninety percent of the garlic in grocery stores is grown in China. They bleach it to make it white.”

How do you get a group of 3-year-olds to sit still? Food! Credit: Patty Wetli

Clearly Allison holds the advantage in terms of sustainability but not everyone is buying what he’s selling. “There’s not a lot of gray area with mushrooms,” he conceded. “People either love them or hate them.” Yet Allison has noticed of late a growing appeal among children. “Most of the time, especially 10 years ago, they’d say, ‘Ugh, I don’t like those things.’” Now, some of his steadiest, most loyal customers are kids.

“A lot more kids are open to trying these things,” he said. One seven-year-old vegan is a fan of River Valley’s mushroom patties; another young girl stops by every week to declare herself the “mushroom monster.”

Speaking of mushroom monsters, we won’t leave our readers hanging any longer: Where do portobellos come from?

Turns out, according to Allison, they’re actually overgrown creminis, picked past their ideal harvest time. Once considered the bastard step-child of the mushroom family, portobellos were routinely thrown out, considered too tough to eat fresh. It finally occurred to someone to cook the things and voila, “They became a delicacy.” Today, portobellos are so popular, creminis are often sold as “baby bellos.”

That’s our lesson for today. Class dismissed.

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