MCA Farmers Market: Art for Art’s Sake, Honey for God’s Sake

After a delay caused by the COVID-19 restrictions, the Tuesday SOAR Farmers Market on the plaza outside the Museum of Contemporary Art opened for the summer last week. And with the precautions made necessary by the pandemic, the scene is almost as surreal as some of the works inside the still-shuttered building.

Certainly, the most important aspects of the old normal are still there, at this and the other farmers markets allowed to reopen around Chicago over the past few weeks. The locally produced seasonal vegetables and fruit, meat, breads, jams, honey and other products — all produced within the Chicago foodshed, which includes much of Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin — are available in profusion and great variety. You are almost certain to get a friendly greeting at each farmstand, often from the farmers themselves and their staff.

“Know your farmer, know your food” is a longtime slogan for farmers markets.

What’s missing is the freewheeling street festival atmosphere that most of us farmers market fans know and love. The SOAR Market — SOAR stands for Streeterville Organization of Active Residents — is located a block east of Michigan Avenue, on Mies Van Der Rohe Way, between Pearson Street and Chicago Avenue. But for now, there is only one entrance, on the Chicago Avenue side.

At the entry, you are greeted by a very nice person who squirts a blob of sanitizer onto your hands. Most of the vendors are aligned in two back-to-back rows, and no wandering: Foot traffic is one way, counter-clockwise (if you want to revisit a stand that you passed by, you have to make the full circle around). It is 100% look but don’t touch, as only the vendors are allowed to handle product. Social distancing is a must, and you can only guess if that friendly farmer greeting is accompanied by a smile, as facemask-wearing is mandatory.

So the farmers market experience is not as much of a happening as we’re used to. But it is also a refuge for those of us who appreciate a community of people who are acting with the utmost responsibility to keep COVID-19 from spreading further.

The haul from the SOAR Market on June 30, as the regional growing season is hitting its stride.

The SOAR market has been around since 2015. As a Lakeview resident with easy access to Green City Market — Chicago’s premier farmers market, located at the south end of Lincoln Park (the actual park) during the summer outdoor season—I confess this was my first visit to SOAR, but I believe I’ll become a regular. The 7am opening (it runs until 2pm each Tuesday) accommodates my busy day-job schedule.

While this location was pleasantly uncrowded during my June 30 food-shopping spree, it is very convenient for residents and workers on and near the Magnificent Mile. It may also benefit from the fact that the major downtown markets run by the City of Chicago, the Tuesday market in Daley Plaza and the Thursday market in Federal Plaza, are still closed with no opening dates yet announced. In addition, Green City Market, which typically is open on both Saturdays and Wednesdays in season, is going Saturdays only this year, which makes SOAR a convenient mid-week alternative for folks with easy access to Streeterville. (Green City’s next market is Saturday, July 4, from 7am-1pm. A schedule for all farmers markets that have reopened around the city can be found here.)

Green City fans will find enough familiar vendors to feel right at home. If a farmers market can have an “anchor” store, SOAR’s would be Nichols Farm and Orchard, located near Rockford in Marengo, Illinois, and the region’s biggest diversified farm. With an amazing variety of common and more unusual produce varieties, Nichols has a stand horizontal to the Pearson Street end of the market, which means you simply cannot miss it.

Other Green City regulars featured at the SOAR Market include Ellis Family Farm, River Valley Ranch mushrooms, Bennison’s Bakery, Smits Farm, Finn’s Ranch, Gayle’s Best Ever Grilled Cheese, and Phoenix Bean Tofu. But you can also make new friends at several other stands: For example, I got my first fat, juicy blueberries of the season and my first heirloom field tomatoes in my first visit with Lyon’s Fruit Farm.

Hopefully soon we’ll be able to feed our heads and our souls inside the Museum of Contemporary Art. In the meantime, don’t miss the opportunity to feed your face (after you get home and take your mask off, of course) with that super-fresh, healthy food from SOAR Market.

Bob Benenson
Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.