Cleveland chronicles: food blogging

Jun 16, 2007

Two great days here in Cleveland, focused on food.

Yesterday, once the babysitter came to take charge of the girls, my mother-in-law and I drove to Cleveland’s busy, colorful West Side Market, where I bought a small tub of Lake Erie Creamery chevre, cloves, a cinnamon-filled crepe, a chicken-and-tomatillo tamale with pineapple-coconut-jalapeno salsa, figs and a papaya. Joanne bought cherries, morels, lamb loin and a cherry strudel.

The papaya I took with me later in the day when I drove to the east side, where I had a delightful chat with Michael Ruhlman on his front porch. He inscribed a nice note to me in my copy of The Reach of a Chef. We talked about his blog, and about his future visit to Durham to headline a BlogTogether food blogging event — we had almost confirmed his July 23rd participation in The Lantern Table event, but Michael is getting called away for a television gig, so we’ll be shooting for a September visit instead. (Mark your calendars: Cleveland gets the Bourdain treatment Labor Day weekend.)

From Cleveland Heights, I drove west on Superior Avenue, through East Cleveland and some of Cleveland’s poorer, more decrepit neighborhoods. I pulled up around East 29th Street for a haircut at Stefanek Barbershop (whenever I’m back in Cleveland, I always stop by for a cut, the best I’ve found for my head of hair anywhere in the world — and only $10).

Adequately groomed, I went with Erin for a dinner date at Three Birds Restaurant in Lakewood, Ohio, and we talked nonstop, trying to chart a course for our next years to best balance our careers, family needs and travel desires. This restaurant was fantastic and hip, with beautiful people, excellent service and delicious food. My appetizer — oven-roasted stuffed pablano [sic] pepper, pulled pork, butternut squash mole sauce and creme fraiche — was on par with the best appetizer I’ve ever had. My entree was also perfect: pan-seared sea scallops, Pecorino Romano grits, grilled asparagus, sorrel sauce and julienne lemon, with two glasses of Willamette Valley Vineyards pinot gris.

Yesterday afternoon, I was finally able to speak with Bob Jones, a farmer in Huron, Ohio. Bob and his family run The Chef’s Garden, which caters almost exclusively to chefs across the country, providing them top-quality, hard-to-find vegetables and herbs. Their farm is across the street from where my mother-in-law grew up; she and Bob were one year apart in school, and Bob took over the farm of Charlie Nickels (Joanne’s father) when he passed away. For 15 years, Joanne has been telling me stories about her father’s innovations — ice-chilling corn, growing asparagus for market, gathering local farmers into a cooperative of sorts to supply the Cleveland market — and pointing out the Jones farm. We’ve talked about visiting The Chef’s Garden for many years.

So I called. “My mother-in-law is Joanne Nickels Shaughnessy,” I said. “Can we stop by for a short visit to say hi and see your operation?” Sure thing, said the farmer.

We showed up this morning at our scheduled time, 9:30, and Bob and one of his sons, Lee, were sitting at a picnic table waiting. Lee was in his trademark overalls, pressed short-sleeved shirt and red bowtie. Right away, Bob and Lee were reminiscing about farmer Charlie and his beautiful daughter, who, when she drove the tractor through the fields of sweet corn, caused every teenage boy in Erie County to have a crush on her. Lee also mentioned how Charlie’s forward thinking, and the county’s one-time claim to having the most vegetable farmers in the country, were foundations to the mission of The Chef’s Garden.

For the next four hours, we got the royal tour of the farm, just as a celebrity chef would. First Lee took us through the marketing, seeding, packing and shipping areas — pointing out the pictures of Alain Ducasse, Charlie Trotter and even Michael Ruhlman — and giving us leaves and shoots to taste along the way. The highlight? Shoots of sweet popcorn grown from Schlessman Seed. The tender shoots of lemongrass were also quite tasty.

Then, Lee’s brother Bobby drove us through the fields, pointing out a dizzying array of vegetables and herbs in various stages of growth; The Chef’s Garden harvests most of their produce when it is small or even just as blooms.

Bobby passed us back to his dad, who took us over to the The Culinary Vegetable Institute for a tour of that gorgeous building, and more stories from the past. I learned from him that white asparagus is white because a shade over it prevents the sun from hitting it, while also keeping the sand and dirt from getting blown into the tips. Before he bid us farewell, he handed Joanne a box of freshly picked produce, which, once opened back in Cleveland, prompted a big smile from Joanne.

This was an amazing day, a fertile day, and I feel honored to have been along for the ride. Joanne, meanwhile, crafted a delicious meal from the lamb loin and morels, veggies from Huron and gnocchi from Ohio City Pasta.

I see that my friend and fellow Tar Heel Blogger Justin Watt published a post today about food.

Anton Zuiker

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