Ninety-Nine Things We Like - Part Three - Local Foods Edition

We love local food. We love the artistry and intention that goes into making products that you cannot find anywhere else in the country. You simply cannot go to the Pacific Northwest or the Piedmont of the South and find products like these. You can find other beautiful, delicious things, but we can claim something special about our region and we should celebrate it. Yeah! Now from the list below, not all of the items are 100% Chicago-sourced (we don't grow chocolate in the Midwest, sadly), but they were put together here in the city, the state, or, at the very least, the region (the furthest away is Ann Arbor, MI). There are a couple reasons why this is important to us here at Sustainably Queer. First, when products are coming from nearby, fewer resources are used to deliver to us. That means there's a lower carbon footprint for those products, and there is a pretty good chance that the products will be more fresh when we receive them especially since, depending on the item, we could go directly to the source. Also, we have the opportunity to get to know the producer. Quite a few of the folks listed below have booths or attend the Good Food Festival in March (at UIC), and we met a number of them this past year. We tasted their products; we shook their hands; we got hooked. When there is good food involved, we are all over it.

Alright, so here are a few of our favorite local products, remember the numbering continues from our previous post about our favorite local sustainable restaurants:

38. Co-Op Hot Sauces - We have been enjoying Co-Op Hot Sauces since Kristl ordered Rachel a four-pack via Groupon Grassroots in 2012. The company was established in 2003 and they use all local peppers to make their sauces. They are part of the team that makes up the cafe Sauce and Bread Kitchen on Ashland Avenue. They make their own sriracha (Chi-racha) which is really delightful.

39. North Shore Distillery - We decided to only officially include this distillery, because this is the only one that we have personally purchased from, but Rachel has enjoyed spirits from Few and Koval as well. Pre-epilepsy diagnosis, Rachel's drink of choice was a gin and tonic, and she very much enjoyed North Shore's Gin No. 6, but you really cannot go wrong with any of these companies if you want to enjoy well crafted spirits from a local distillery.

Kristl poses with Arize Kombucha at The Plant during Open House Chicago

40. Arize Kombucha - We bought three cases of Arize Kombucha for our recent wedding celebration, because Nathan from Arize brings the same artistry and small batch mindset to kombucha brewing that many craft brewers bring to beer. People who had never before tried kombucha were really impressed with its subtle flavors and the fizzy, sour punch it holds. Arize is available from small, local grocers, (even on-tap at True Nature!) listed below.

41. The Brinery – The Brinery is one of those gems we unearthed at the Good Food Festival and have never reburied. They are located just outside Ann Arbor, Michigan and have the best sauerkraut ever. They also make exceptional kimchi. They make all the lacto-fermented foods that we would love to make on our own time (and eventually, hopefully, we will), but for now we are thrilled to have a source that will make legit fermented foods without additives. If you live closer to Ann Arbor, you can get fancier things from The Brinery or you can pay a lot of money to have them shipped, like their obscenely popular fermented sriracha that sells out very quickly: it MUST be worth it. We buy their products from Urban Orchard in Andersonville.

42. Kalona SuperNatural (Whole Fat Products) - If you are going to spend the money to buy high quality products like Kalona and then get the reduced fat version of them, we need to have a talk. Low fat products almost always have added sugar and other stabilizers. Whole fat products are only 4% fat, so it's really not that big of a difference, considering the processing the product goes through to remove 2% fat. Anyways, Iowa is right around the corner and Kalona's butter, cottage cheese, milk, etc, is pretty much always our first choice for dairy.

43. Bee-Bop Honey - We chose to have Bee-Bop supply the favors for our wedding celebration, and we have definitely gotten rave reviews. We did not go into this blind though. Kelly has a couple of hives on the south side of Chicago (which we have visited!) and her bees collect honey from wild flowers and gardens all over her neighborhood. We found Bee-Bop honey at Virtu, a boutique in Wicker Park, just sitting on a shelf, and we loved it. We decided we needed more and went straight to the source through Kelly's Etsy page.

44. Bike-a-Bee - As a disclaimer, we haven't bought this honey, but we have tasted it. It was available for tasting and purchasing at farmers markets last summer, but we were overwhelmed with wedding honey. We did want to include Bike-a-Bee, however, because the concept is so gosh darn clever.  One woman, with some helpers, has fifteen different beehives in different sites that she manages by bike. Brilliant. It's low impact and it's simple.  Let's think of more start-ups like this.

45. Vosges Chocolate - Now we enter the phase of this post where we talk about sweets for a while. Don't be mad. Vosges is a Chicago company, and the creator, Katrina Markoff, has a very ambitious commitment to sustainability. Their website indicates that all of their packaging is 100% post-consumer recycled material, that they have recently started growing their own chocolate in Belize, in order to control the supply chain from start to finish, while upholding fair labor laws. Also, it's delicious chocolate. We highly recommend the blush caramels with Hawaiian red sea salt and li hing powder, but you cannot go wrong, whatever you choose.

46. Katherine Anne Confections - Katherine Anne is an establishment at farmers markets and craft fairs around Chicago, year round. She sells show-stopping caramels, marshmallows, fudge, and other treats. She doesn't use artificial ingredients or anything you wouldn't be able to find on a farm, like the dairy farm she grew up on (with the exception of chocolate, which as we mentioned at the outset, is not local to the Midwest). Her offerings change seasonally, as they should, and they are always a delight.

47. GrownUp KidStuff - These folks are not shy about getting people to taste their menagerie of chocolate sauces, so if you've been to a craft fair, or visited the Galleria in Andersonville on the weekend, it is possible your taste buds are already familiar with their product line. That being said, GrownUp KidStuff is a very simple company selling a very simple product that is very simply delicious. We have only purchased the spicy chocolate hot sauce, which is funny because Kristl doesn't like spicy things, but it was palatable for her, and the person having us taste things suggested that we make a balsamic vinegar reduction with the spicy chocolate sauce and put it over vegetables. That got us to buy it. We only did it once, and we've eaten it over ice cream every other time. Weird, I know.

48. Butter Bella Shortbread Cookies - Ok, so the website for Butter Bella does not give a lot of specific information about the quality of their ingredients, but they do indicate that their cookies are made with "pure" ingredients in small batches for high quality. Now, if my palate can be trusted, these claims can be completely substantiated, because these are the best shortbread cookies I have ever encountered. We love all of the flavors, but the lemon and the mocha are particularly nice. Whole Foods carries them at most locations in the "International Cookies" bins, and they have plastic cartons of larger cookies as well. (This is one of the rare cookies that Kristl has been completely unable to recreate in the kitchen. When we want shortbread cookies, we buy Butter Bella. Done.)

49. C&D Farms - A couple of our friends got together and gifted us very generously with a meat share from C&D Farms for our wedding celebration earlier this year.  C&D Farms specifically raises happy hogs on their own land and then they have very close relationships with other small, intentional livestock producers in the area to bring a truck full of animal products to the city several times a week. Thanks, Jess and Sarah!

50. Mint Creek Farm - Mint Creek is really the Cadillac of local sustainable meat, and while they raise a variety of animals, they are known for their lamb. The farm is known for being biodynamic, which means, they not only use the land, but they intelligently give back to it to improve the soil and water quality around them. Mint Creek Meat is available at most large farmers markets in Chicago and they have CSAs available. We buy from them for special occasions, like last Thanksgiving, we were able to get a fresh, never-frozen turkey from them and it was the best thing on earth. Or at least the best turkey I've consumed. We actually visited the farm during our mini-moon after our legal wedding last year and the animals really seemed happy. They were all on pasture and well cared for.

51. Rishi Tea - Rishi Tea has really become the gold standard of loose leaf tea, at least in this region. If you are going to an independent coffee house in Chicago, and you choose tea, 4 out of 5 times, you are going to be choosing from a selection of Rishi Teas. Rishi's headquarters is in Milwaukee, but they source their teas from organic, fair trade locations in asia or locally, depending on the type of tea. The tea is fantastic and there aren't weird flavors or additives to make it taste fake.

52. Cafe Chicago - Now I know that people have very strong opinions about their coffee, but this group is worth buying a bag just to try. We are not coffee drinkers, but we heard the founder's story at, where else, the Good Food Festival last year and we are determined share the brilliance of the Chicago Coffee Co-op with our readers semi-annually. Café Chicago is a worker-made, worker-run cooperative that roasts, packages, and distributes great tasting, fair trade, organic coffee in the Chicago area. I know True Nature sells their coffee, at least, give it a whirl.

53. Tomato Mountain - We love Tomato Mountain for a couple reasons.  First, they are a beautiful organic farm, they follow sustainable practices, they are a great source of sustainable produce, and they come to markets in Chicago all the time, even the winter.  They are good people and good farmers.  We also like them because they not only grow wonderful fresh produce, but they convert it into delicious cottage goods, like salsas and tomato jams for the winter. (Although, when we buy their tomato jam it rarely makes it through the weekend.) People from many different states have been gifted their Sungold tomato jam courtesy of us truly. They are worth checking out for tomato goods or a CSA from WI. (They deliver their CSA to your door!)

Radical Root Green House

54. Radical Root Organic Farm - I think we have a soft spot for Radical Root in our SQ heart of hearts because we've kind of watched them grow from their farm incubator space, donated to their greenhouse construction, participated in their egg share, and Rachel even spent a day working on their farm. If there's a para-urban farm that we know best, it's Radical Root, and they're just really nice and knowledgeable. If you are looking for farmers in IL, with a CSA including eggs, who also comes to farmer's markets in the city, these are your farmers. If you want a more in-depth write up on Radical Root, check out the Farm Focus we did on them back in May.

55. Peck & Bushel Fruit Company - There's a weird thing about apples. They are absolutely the number one most pesticide ridden fruit out there, but we totally want to go scamper among the trees, biting into apples willy nilly, bringing our children and casting caution to the wind. Well, if you can get your caution back from the wind, there are two orchards within a reasonable driving distance of Chicago that do offer You Pick weekends for organic apples. Peck & Bushel is outside Milwaukee and they have a lot of interesting apple varieties. (Always be sure to call before you go, because sometimes the You Pick days and times do shift, as it is a small operation.) The other organic You Pick is Earth's First Farms in Berrien Center, MI. Their products are more widely available in Chicago at Farmer's Markets and small groceries. The varieties they have for You Pick are a little more traditional, so if that's your bag, you might want to try them instead.

56. Joe's Blueberries - We have been to Joe's Blueberries twice to pick blueberries, and both times we came home with over ten pounds of amazing berries to freeze for the winter. Joe's grows blueberries with no pesticides or chemicals, and the berries are plump, sweet, and abundant. Unfortunately, we've already used up all our blueberries from this past summer, BUT the website has informed us that there are a couple stores in Chicago where they keep frozen blueberries in stock all year 'round. Thank goodness! (They also have gift cards!)

57. Rushing Waters Trout - This is a company that took advantage of the beautiful "rushing waters" in Palmyra, WI to create a semi-natural trout farm. They raise the fish using chemical-free aquaculture practices and then catch, process, smoke, and sell it on site and also, conveniently for us, in Chicago at a number of different locations. The fish is delicious and they also have dips. Yum!

58. Farmed Here - Rachel was lucky enough to visit Farmed Here as part of her Urban Agriculture class, and it is a very interesting company. They started out using the concept of aquaponics to grow primarily basil for markets such as Whole Foods, and now they have expanded to sell microgreens and lettuce mixes. Their business model is solid and their products are beautiful, plus they are one of the players in the game providing undeniably local produce to the Chicago market twelve months a year with no chance of environmental factors to interrupt that.

59. Phoenix Bean - Our last offering on this list that is a food product and not a grocer is Phoenix Bean.  They are a staple at Chicago area farmer's markets and they are not shy about providing samples. There are two very compelling reasons to buy from Phoenix bean over other tofu producers: 1. They are local, their plant is located in Edgewater, and 2. They do not use GMO soy beans to make their products. So, for those of us in Chicago, if we want tofu (and it is really good tofu) or other tofu products, like salads and marinaded tofu, this is your go to place. (Also, we should note that you can buy a limited selection of their products directly from the factory for a lower cost, especially if you only want regular tofu, it's a good deal. Otherwise, farmer's markets are the best place to get the full range of products.)

INTERMISSION: We thought we would be remiss if we did not include in this post a short list of places where we purchase these products. There is no way we can guarantee that they will all be available at every location obviously, but all of these markets are very much connected to the local food scene.

60. Dill Pickle Co-Op - Dill Pickle is, as far as we know (and believe me, we would like to be proven wrong) the only currently open brick and mortar co-op in existence in Chicago. Co-ops are awesome because they are non-profits, run by democratic process, and exist to connect communities to their food and to each other. Dill Pickle was created by Logan Square residents for Logan Square residents, but we have visited a few times, and picked up our fresh, never-frozen Mint Creek turkey there, because they are also a hub for Urban Agriculture businesses to sell their wares in a consistent way.  If you live in or near Logan Square, we highly recommend checking out Dill Pickle.

61. New Leaf Natural Grocery - New Leaf is a tiny baby grocery store (like it's one loop around that's it), but they have a little of everything and it's competitively priced. So, as soon as you know they exist, they are totally there for you in a pinch. Their location is a short walk from our house, so if we realize we have run out of a vital ingredient, one of us can sprint to New Leaf and pick it up. They also offer weekly grocery boxes and home delivery of said boxes, which is probably very convenient for some people. (I, Rachel, like to personally select (pick up and scrutinize) all of my fruits and vegetables, as you might imagine. Kristl, on the other hand, wants to try the weekly grocery box because she's sick of buying groceries 2-3 times a week.)

62. Urban Orchard - Urban Orchard has done some reorganizing since they first opened to really become a very functional and accessible grocery in the heart of Andersonville. They are one of the few stores we've found in the city that sells products from The Brinery and they have gone out of their way to source local, sustainably produced products. They also have a full coffee bar, if that's what you're into.

63. True Nature - This place is our number one source for eggs, meat, and kombucha. More than any other place currently in Edgewater, True Nature strives to provide the products and processes that make it easier to live a sustainable lifestyle in our neighborhood. They were able to stay in business across the street from Dominick's and now they are coming up with ways to stay in business with the challenge of an incoming Whole Foods in Summer 2015. And unless Whole Foods starts sourcing hyper local cheese, meat, honey, eggs, etc, we think True Nature will still survive. (AND they have a green waste composting program, rad!) We buy most of our meat here, as they have an affordable meat co-op with a lot of variety available. As a side note, True Nature is the biggest supplier of Arize Kombucha on the northside. They have a tap, growlers you can fill, and an a assortment of 16 oz bottles available almost all the time. If you want to try Arize one cup at a time, this is the place to give it a whirl.

64. Southport Grocery - Southport Grocery easily could have slid onto our sustainable restaurants list, but they call themselves a grocery first, so here they are on the grocery docket. But hey, if you are looking for a brunch place on Southport, this is really your best option. In terms of grocery items, Southport Grocery really hits it out of the park with beautiful locally sourced cottage goods. I don't know if you would absolutely go here if you were not already planning on eating here or were walking down Southport for something else, but it's good to know it exists, and certainly, if you live in the area and you need some Co-Op Sauce or GrownUp KidStuff for a gift, this grocery is your best friend.

Chicago Market's photo tweet of the day we joined.

65. Chicago Market - We think we've saved the best for last, but part of that is because it doesn't exist yet, at least not as a store where you can buy things. Chicago lacks a large scale co-op where smaller cities in the region, like Champaign-Urbana, Madison, and Milwaukee have large thriving co-ops or even co-ops that have multiple locations (See Outpost in Milwaukee). A community co-op like Dill Pickle is awesome and important, but it doesn't have the member numbers and bargaining power to promote change in the market the way that a larger co-op will. Chicago Market's timeline is to open in fall of 2015, this thing is really happening! We are members, many of our friends are members, and it's something that we hope our readers would consider as well. They also have memberships available for gifts, if you need an awesome gift for a local, foodie friend of yours.

All the small businesses above and many others need places to sell their goods. It's very hard to get started in that, especially if your strength is in growing vegetables, for example, and not business. A market that guarantees a fair price for producers and a good product for consumers is a win-win all around. Rachel spent last summer working at a farmer's market; getting up early, doing lots of heavy lifting, and spending all day selling vegetables for $400-500 profit is a lot of hard work for not much pay-off, and that was in a wealthy suburb. Most urban farms are on the south side of Chicago where vegetables aren't "worth" as much.

It's unlikely that the emergence of Chicago Market will push Whole Foods out of Chicago or that the other small stores we mentioned will be threatened by it.  A co-op holds a different place in ethos of the city's grocery budget, and it's something Chicago has been desperately lacking.  If you have any interest in joining the Chicago Market, you can get more information here, or feel free to ask us questions. The initial investment is high, but they do have a payment plan which makes it really easy. (Ten payments of $25 is really inexpensive way to help an awesome source of local, sustainable food succeed!)

This concludes our post on local goods, please click here for part one of our list on our favorite local charities, here for part two on our favorite sustainable restaurants, and keep an eye here for part four on other local businesses and artists we love that you might want to check out. Huzzah!

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