Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sundays with Sparky - Sparky's excellent Strawberry Adventure

One of my favorite things to do with Sparky is to pack the family in the car and look for a food adventure: finding out where food comes from, be it the farm or a grocery store, or even a new kind of restaurant is an important way to learn about food.  This particular adventure happened a while back, but I thought I'd post it today because strawberry-picking season has just begun.  It was the impetus for me to create a Chicago-area U-Pick map on the sidebar of my blog.

On our own for an afternoon, I decided to take advantage of the unseasonably cool weather and find us some strawberries right off the plant. As the pickin's up North were slim, we opted to head southwest to Indiana. I don’t like to drive on highways on a good day – but especially so on a beautiful cool summer day when the alternatives are so wonderful. Therefore, we opted to take the first course of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour, and followed Lakeshore Drive through to 41 to 12/20, Indianapolis Boulevard, through to Highland, IN. Though I’ve driven this route previously, I had forgotten the beauty of the parks and marinas south of Hyde Park.

So, after a fairly short drive, we found ourselves in Highland, at Johnsen’s Blue Top Drive-In, one of the last of a dying breed that is probably no more.  Sparky loved the kitsch of the place (not to mention the vintage Star Wars pinball machine inside) and, as it was windy, we opted to eat inside the car. He actually made our young waitress blush by shouting, sparky voce (an antonym for sotto voce) “The service in this place is GR-EAT!” and, after the appetite increase from channeling Tony the Tiger, dug in with abandon to a nicely charred hot dog, seasoned fries, sherbet and a Green River soda. I ordered a pork tenderloin sandwich, a very nice rendition- breading a bit heavy for perfection, but still quite good.

After a nice lunch, we turned the corner onto Ridge Ave (or Rt.6) and drove for about 8 miles to Johnson’s Strawberry Farm in Hobart. (feel free to insert your favorite double-entendre about Johnsons here) Johnson’s is a large restaurant/farmstand/garden center and at first I was concerned we’d be headed into a farm disfigured by corn mazes and pony rides, but that was fortunately not to be.

The farmstand at the moment had, of course, strawberries and a few other local products, along with a few veggies like tomatoes and zucchini. The garden center put ours to shame, with a whole series of little “rooms” with fountains and animal topiaries – but of particular interest was a large section of herb plants, in particular a large variety of basil, including two different varieties of Thai basil.

We explored the stand and adjacent bakery a bit (I was a bit disillusioned by the strawberry pie: it was the glazed strawberry kind, of which I am not a fan – though, a few of the other pies looked promising.) I asked where the U-Pick area was, and was given directions that went something like: drive out back past the white barn, over the river and through the woods…we passed a field of pumpkin plants, some raspberries and some sweet corn, tomatoes and peppers which are probably waiting their turn for U-Pick. Driving around the corner, we came upon the requisite handmade sign, and another, offering the 6 gallons-for-the-price-of-5 deal.   It was busy, even for a Wednesday - I can't imagine what the weekends must be like.

Sparky and I had a fabulous time picking our two gallon’s worth and having bruised-strawberry wars - nothing like collecting more delicious red berries than you can eat right off the vine - from a sitting position.

I packed our booty in a cooler I’d brought for that purpose, and we headed directly North to Gary – the closest beach, at Marquette Park. This experience was an education, to say the least. The park is beautiful; old art-deco statues and park buildings have been lovingly maintained - there’s a large playlot right by the beach with a lot of quite new equipment. The beach itself has, albeit in the distance, one of the best views of the Chicago skyline available without venturing onto the lake itself.

That being said, you can’t help feel that the remainder of the skyline must weigh heavy on the citizens of Gary: on either side of the beach, stretching almost as far as the eye can see, are the factories that can be seen from the highway as well, curved like smoke-fingered arms reaching around to pull you in. Though they’re miles away, their presence alone makes the beach claustrophobic. It’s a grim reminder that the pristine Chicago lakefront comes at a price, paid for us by the citizens of Indiana. I commend the City of Gary for keeping up the lakefront park so well, despite this unavoidable reminder of the symbiosis between their City and this giant, unlovely, pragmatic behemoth.

Fortunately, all of this was lost on Sparky, who just likes to play in the sand.

Back on the road, we ended our day at Spring World, a Yunnanese restaurant in Chicago's Chinatown. One of the adventures in ethnic eating is sometimes convincing your waitress to give you what you ordered.  They have a delicious tripe dish, but in order to convince my waitress that I knew what tripe was,  I finally resorted to drawing a spiral on my stomach with my finger, nodding and saying “tripe, yes!” (which fortunately was received well.) Sparky and I also ate excellent lamb brochettes with cumin, chive dumplings, tofu “french fries” and crispy duck.   All of it was excellent and very welcome after such a long and tiring day.

What was the highlight of this extremely busy and adventurous day? Well, for me at least, it was driving home to the sweet tune of Sparky reading recipes aloud and planning future meals from Roald Dahl's cookbook, Revolting Recipes.

No comments:

Post a Comment