Getting a feel for Philadelphia’s local-food scene
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When you come from a smaller city in a rural area and your main local-foods choices consist of a couple of upscale restaurants or your own home cooking (with produce from the farmers market, of course), sometimes you want to know what it's like to have all those "elitist" choices that locavores in large metro areas possess — and that naysayers like to criticize. So even though I'm usually perfectly content to enjoy my simpler options at home, when I discovered an opportunity to visit my lovely friend Alice in Philadelphia, I jumped at the chance.
Since I've become so accustomed to a largely local diet at home, I get nervous about traveling for fear of not finding plenty of fresh seasonal produce. I knew that Alice regularly frequents her local farmers markets, so I was certain that we could eat well on that alone. But what I didn't realize (until she sent me a copy of her local food directory) was that many restaurants and sources for local food are spread all over the Philadelphia metro area... and that I could go a whole weekend eating almost nothing but local food.
As I made my arrival plans, she suggested that we meet in the heart of the city, just a few blocks from Reading Terminal Market at a fun little gelateria called Capogiro's. All of the gelato selections are made with hormone-free milk from local dairies, and many of the flavors incorporate local seasonal produce. And though I had to stand by my traditional favorite of chocolate-hazelnut, I also indulged in a Concord grape gelato that tasted like my own homemade juice whipped into a rich, creamy dessert. Alice succumbed to the same, along with a pumpkin gelato made from Lancaster County pumpkins.
The most important meals of the day
We saved most of our local-food explorations for Saturday, when we could focus on the charming Chestnut Hill neighborhood, just a pleasant stroll away from Alice's apartment. We hiked first to the High Point Cafe, a popular morning hangout in an eclectic neighborhood (and across the street from the influential Weavers Way Co-op). Locals have the cafe's brunch routine down pat: come early for the pastries and excellent coffee, linger for fresh crepes, or have an early lunch made with quiche fresh from the oven. I spotted a small plum custard galette when we first walked in, and we followed that with a spinach crepe with carmelized onions and goat cheese as well as an orange-chocolate crepe. Before we left, we had also shared a wedge of the vegetable quiche packed with zucchini, roasted red pepper, eggplant, and Gruyère cheese.
With such a filling start to the day, we were well prepared to take the scenic (and hilly) route through the neighborhood, admiring the abundant clusters of wild grapes dangling from trees on the way to the Chestnut Hill Farmers Market. Alice has cultivated ties with some of the farmers and stopped to visit with them, asking about one's biodiesel project and swapping recipe ideas with another, and at most of the tables we bought something delicious. I even bought some organic carrots and broccoli, a small jug of cider, and some smoked goat cheddar cheese (from Misty Creek Dairy) for breakfasts on the rest of my vacation.
We returned home, picked up the car, and headed into the city for the tail end of the Headhouse Farmers' Market, where we found Alice's favorite Macoun apples. Along the way, we stopped to watch families work in the South Street Garden, one of the flourishing community gardens in the city. (I'm jealous... I'd love to have a community garden plot back home.) After wandering up and down the streets and stopping for a cup of chai at a little Middle Eastern cafe, we drove back to Chestnut Hill for a couple of errands before feeling ready for dinner.
There we faced a dilemma: after all our walking and noshing throughout the day, we weren't really sure if we wanted to go out for a light meal or to return home to whip up something. As it turns out, when you bring together two passionate cooks and eaters, the only appropriate response to that dilemma is yes.
We wandered down Germantown Avenue to a cozy little place called Cresheim Cottage, and a careful survey of the menu posted at the door persuaded us to enter. Several dishes proudly listed the local farms where ingredients originated, and the combinations of seasonal flavors proved irresistible. After starting off with a local ale, we shared a bowl of the cream of wild mushroom soup, and I made inroads on the plush roasted root vegetable salad (with pumpkin-seed-encrusted goat cheese) while Alice tucked into a sweet and savory grilled duck confit pizza with fig molasses and shaved Pecorino.
Having had our fill, we returned home to relax and to enjoy dessert: a shared slice of raspberry-vanilla cream tart with the end of the season's berries (from the High Point Cafe) as well as a fresh Macoun apple paired with some of the cheddar goat cheese found at the market, all chased down with an herbal brew of lavender and mint from my friend's garden.
It's a Dog's life
Come Sunday morning, after a good night's rest and a chance to digest all the good food from the day before, we were ready to continue our mission before I hopped a train to my next destination. Happily, the one restaurant I had specifically requested to visit is located near the 30th Street Amtrak station, making it the logical choice for my send-off meal. The owners and staff of the White Dog Cafe, one of the leading proponents of SOLE food and ecological and social activism in the Philadelphia area, lay out their philosophy on the menu and in the brochures available at the door: "eating good food is not only important for flavor and nourishment; eating is also a political act." The menu lists their regular farmers and suppliers, the wait staff is knowledgeable when asked about the origins of various ingredients, and the restaurant's newsletter and foundation highlights (and sponsors) a number of local events from films and lectures to farm dinners.
We started our brunch with a shared salad of mixed organic lettuces tossed with a soft and almost sweet lemon-olive oil dressing and topped with creamy chèvre. For the next course, we both enjoyed dishes featuring organic Lancaster County eggs, local cheeses, and fresh herbs or produce. Alice's omelet came with house-made maple-sage sausage patties, while I skipped the Amish ham accompanying my scrambled eggs in favor of roasted red-pepper grits. And while brunch doesn't need to be followed by dessert, once we looked at the dessert menu, we knew we couldn't leave without a sweet treat. Staying true to her love of goat cheese, my dear friend chose the cheesecake, and I selected the pawpaw cream pie for my first taste of this strangely exotic native fruit with a custardy flavor reminiscent of toasted coconut.
The downside to this local-food frenzy, as you might expect, was the amount of money we spent. A few of these restaurants were on the upscale side, and their prices reflected the ambiance on display. Some items at the farmers' market were more expensive than I might have paid back at home, too. But given what I saw at other restaurants and groceries in Philadelphia, I suspect that those prices more accurately reflect the nature of a big-city economy than the nature of local foods. (And I have to wonder, then, why those who criticize local foods as being more expensive and elitist don't turn the same argument on gourmet restaurants, gourmet markets, and especially processed foods in general?)
While I'll be glad to return home in time to close out the farmers market season there, I'm grateful for the chance to get out and see how much stronger the local food movement is becoming. I sometimes feel a little isolated in my hometown, even though several of my friends are firm supporters of local foods, and as much as I enjoy reading and connecting with other local-foods bloggers, it's not the same as sitting down to break (local) bread with friends. Getting out of my own little bubble reminds me that people have many reasons for supporting local food production and many ways of showing that support, depending on their geographic and socio-economic locations. Even with the expense of some of my choices on this trip, I'm encouraged by the growth of an increasingly diversified and rich system of food production, and I have hopes that the good local food we're seeing in more and more places will tempt even those diehard critics.
Contact information for the restaurants mentioned:
Capogiro's, 119 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia, (215) 351-0900
High Point Cafe, 602 Carpenter Lane, Philadelphia (Chestnut Hill neighborhood), (215) 849-5153
Cresheim Cottage, 7420 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia (Mt. Airy/Chestnut Hill neighborhoods), (215) 248-4365
White Dog Cafe, 3420 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, (215) 386-9224
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