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The grateful fed

November 30, 2011

As we close out November, this is also probably the last day for those participating in the thankful exercise. The month that contains Thanksgiving is a great time to consciously and literally give thanks as much as you can. (I like the Spanish name for the holiday better: Dia de Accion de Gracias. The direct translation is “Day of the Act of Thanking.”) Several of my friends have dedicated themselves to posting about what they’re grateful for each day of the month. Nonprofits and even for-profit businesses get in on the act in November, too. I must have received at least 10 emails from nonprofits, titled with some variation of “We’re thankful for YOU!” And it’s just not the Thanksgiving season unless we’ve received our warm thankfulness card from our State Farm agent, complete with the pre-printed “handwritten” signature.

It IS important to remember to appreciate things you tend to take for granted. And food, as the most basic of things we may take for granted in the developed world, is as good a thing to be thankful for as any. So while Thanksgiving can seem to be a holiday that has no theme other than overeating, as Jim Gaffigan puts it, taking a moment to appreciate a bountiful harvest meal is not a bad thing.

And this year I’m also very thankful for the things that surprised me — that I didn’t expect. It’s a great feeling when there’s someone, or something, that exceeds your expectations. It doesn’t happen often. But my first visit to the Logan Square winter farmer’s market this year was one of those things.

In years past, before I was pointedly seeking local fruits and vegetables, I knew the winter market was there but didn’t go until February and March – when spring began to come into sight around the bend and I sought early relief. So, I was used to the enjoyable but fairly spare offerings of the early spring farmer’s market (mainly crates of frozen blueberries, eggs, salsa, Wisconsin cheese- actual produce is few and far between). Thus, even knowing that Thanksgiving is a seasonal meal of plenty — despite seeing the vibrant diversity of produce at the late-October outdoor markets just as they ended — I walked into the beautifully shabby Congress Theater on November 20 expecting the lean pickings of a February market. I mean, it was winter-jacket weather. How much could there be?

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Maybe it was because the vendors were crammed inside instead of setting up their stands down the street, but I was overwhelmed by the color and stacked varieties. After walking down one side of tables, met by purple and white cauliflower, red and green cabbage heads, carrots, turnips, leeks, lettuce, kale, spinach, apples, potatoes, three kinds of squash, the tight little heads of Brussel sprouts still arrayed up their stalks (all of these items local andĀ ORGANIC), I was practically ecstatic. The November farmers’ market had the MOST variety I could remember seeing, nowhere near the least.

I then realized the end of the outdoor markets had been only a feint of the end of the growing season, brought on by the need to keep the vendors and customers themselves from freezing, not by the decrease in fresh produce available. If I was more in tune with what can be grown in the Midwest and when, this would surely not have been a surprise. October is when most people I know give up on their home gardens. But the harvest is nowhere near done and dead.

Autumn is my favorite season, but this fall has been a surprise. I remember picking nearly all our Swiss chard by flashlight a few nights after Halloween, expecting it to start to droop and freeze with the cold weather. Now, the day before December 1st, our neighbor’s chard is STILL growing. Partially that’s due to the unseasonably warm weather. But it’s also due to the hardy weather tolerances of cool-season vegetables, which I find I never quite believed before now. (You can’t REALLY grow a second crop of lettuce in the fall, can you?)

For this Thanksgiving, Dave and I were able to prepare a Tofurky roast we were incredibly proud of: Surrounding the vegan, wild rice-stuffed “bird” was our traditional medley of potatoes, carrots, and quartered onions. But this year every single one of those vegetables was both locally grown and organic. The bite-sized purple and white potatoes were even dug out of my dad’s very own garden. Something to be VERY thankful for.

But while I’m at it, this year I’m also giving thanks for every person working to create a world kinder to animals, kinder to people, and kinder on the earth: through our food system, and otherwise.

Thanks to Mercy for Animals, an awesome Chicago-based organization that takes on the very tough and courageous task of going undercover to expose cruelty on factory farms (among other efforts to eliminate cruelty to farm animals and promote a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle). When they made public the abuses of chickens they discovered at the facilities of a major egg producer just before Thanksgiving, McDonald’s dropped the supplier that very same day. Target and Sam’s Club went on to do the same.

Thanks to the police officer caught on video stopping traffic to escort a family of ducks off a busy highway. (People can still surprise you with the good they do.)

Thanks to the market vendors who called, “Happy Thanksgiving!” as each customer walked away from their tables loaded with bags of produce, who helped make my November a very warm one.

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