A Co-Op was the reason that I learned to love food.
When I turned 15, I went on a trip to Paris. Between the breathtaking grandeur of Notre Dame and the artistic glory of the Louvre, I ate. I ate a lot. There was funky cheese, real ice cream, and wine by the carafe, and for a teenager from Iowa, this was quite a thing.
But this isn’t the typical food writer story about the glamour of Europe. Paris didn’t make me a food person. Iowa did.
When I got home to Iowa City, I don’t remember how I ended up at the New Pioneer Co-op. My parents were members but rarely shopped there, preferring the giant, much more sterile splendor of the new Hy-Vee. No matter how it happened, I did end up there, and something clicked in me. I saw those cheeses, sitting in a cheese case that was much smaller than the big supermarket’s but somehow seemed more interesting and alive, with handwritten signs and pictures of farmers. I saw that ice cream, except instead of generic five gallon buckets, it came in tiny containers filled with exotic flavors. I saw that wine, too, and accidentally broke a few bottles of it when I ran a cart a little too fast.
I saw food. Real food. And now, thanks to traveling, I knew what real food looked like.
From then on, I was the only high school kid who spent his allowance on groceries. The stranger the better; I bought everything and tried to cook something with it. When I went to college in Minneapolis, I joined two different co-ops, and was always the one who would rather go grocery shopping than go to a party.
Then I moved to Chicago. And there was nothing. This was back before Dill Pickle, when the old Hyde Park Cooperative, a venerable institution but a sad excuse for a grocery store, was all there was. And for years, that’s how it was. I shopped at farmers markets and small gourmet stores. I gasped at the prices at Fox & Obel and gritted my teeth at the ups and downs of Whole Foods.
Until this strange thing called Chicago Cooperative came across my Facebook feed. Back when I was Food & Drink Editor of Chicagoist, it was my job to look out for anything interesting happening in the food world, and when I saw that, I had to learn more. I met Greg Berlowitz, interviewed him, and wrote about it. We food people tend to stick together, and one small favor turned into another until I just gave in and joined up.
We all have a story about when we started to care about what we ate and where it came from. That’s mine. I hope that yours (and that of your family and your children) can have a chapter labeled “Chicago Market.”
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