Week 2, Day 6

I don’t even know where to begin today, but I do know where to end, so I’ll start at the beginning. I really like my yoga studio away from home where I started my day. I’m starting to get to know people there. It’s a really nice, unpretentious studio that I’ll miss when I come back to Connecticut.

I came home after yoga, changed and headed off to my planned adventure for the day: a tour of Plant Chicago (locally known as The Plant) and a stop at the farmers’ market there. I admit to completely misunderstanding just exactly what it was they do at there. Essentially, they are creating a circular economy, where the excess byproducts (they don’t like to say waste) of one company become resources for another. They are not creating new technologies, but connecting together proven technologies as a sort of test bed and proof of concept for this type of reuse on a fairly large scale. On to the tour.

First, I kept thinking of Roger Abraham throughout. This place is like Roger’s hobbies on a grand scale and all interconnected. We started out in the aquaponics room. The basic idea is: fish poop, poop fertilizes plants, plants grow, people eat plants, food for fish comes from spent grain from the brewery (more later). I that murky water, they are growing tilapia, which tolerate crowding. The fish are a hybrid of two species of tilapia, so they cannot reproduce, which prevents a population explosion (yes, these people are aware of Jurassic Park). The fish’s water is filtered through the hydroponics tables, providing nutrients for the plants which, you can see, look amazing. The plants are grown in inert clay pellets, which are the ball-like object below them. A super cool thing is that those grow lights are motorized, so they move back and forth slowly to get light to all the plants. Fun fact: there is a common myth that plants don’t absorb green light, however, when The Plant used LEDs with no green in them, the plants grew oddly: very stalky. Plants use green light.

Next, we moved to the mushroom farm. They use coffee bean waste from the on-site roaster to grow several varieties of organic mushrooms. The space is like a giant reverse grocery store refrigerator; it keeps the mushrooms at the right humidity and temperature. I bought oyster mushrooms at the market and sauteed them up for dinner with some kale. Very yummy.


We moved upstairs to see a room which showed the condition of much of the building when the Plant started. The room was originally used as a meat smoking room by the former tenant, Peer Foods, who still are making meat products after 150 years. (The Plant is located in Back of the Yards, made famous in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. There is an animal fat rendering plant next door which produces soaps.)

Originally, the room was lined in terracotta. That was removed at some point and replaced with stainless steel smokers, which are now being retrofit as toilets. The doors close from both sides and seal you in. No chance of unpleasant odors getting out of there!

We moved on to the Pleasant House Bakery, which I mentioned last week: think Coriander Orange Custard Doughnut. This week I missed the Chamomile Custard doughnut, but managed to snag the second last blueberry filled. They have a wood fired oven built into the factory. The wood they use is all urban wood, trees that have been taken down around the city. The ash is used to fertilize the gardens and for other purposes in the Plant. Also, they grind their own grains. And produce some seriously good bread. Seriously.

The last stop in the building was the Whiner Beer Brewery, which provides heat and spent grains for other uses in the Plant. I wondered if the Plant occupants needed to audition for their positions. It turns out that they are largely self-selecting, having a commitment to sustainable production.

The last stop was outside and through the market. There we saw the small flock of chickens, and the mound gardens, called hugelkultur, which is basically a big pile of wood covered with dirt which you grow things in. It helps the wood break down more quickly and provides nutrients to the garden above it.

There we also saw the as-yet-to-be-completed anaerobic digester. It looks like a giant steel tube. When finished, it will be able to accept 30 tons of food waste (four big dumpsters full) a day. It takes 30 days for the breaking down process to happen, and the material that comes out the other side can be used as fertilizer. In the meantime, it produces methane gas which will be used for heating The Plant.

In the other adventure for today, I went to Mariano’s, a local upscale supermarket. The closest one was about a mile from here. If you are from upstate New York, think Wegman’s. If you are from Connecticut, think Big Y in Northampton, Mass. Sorry, nothing like it exists in Connecticut as far as I can tell. I got nice cheese, grapes, and some other stuff.

If you are my wife, stop reading here. Everyone else can continue reading.

On the way back, I saw a sign for ice cream, and stopped in at J smile 51. Good move. The people who work there are super nice. I got some tiramisu ice cream (super good) and a Pecan bar to bring home. It actually made it. This thing has a pecan chocolate crust, a layer of some buttery goodness and a chocolate top. OMG. Don’t tell my wife. Especially don’t tell her about the other pastries there. OK, maybe do tell her. She’ll be here in a heartbeat, and I do miss her so. Tomorrow is her birthday, and I may have to celebrate it with some specialty thing they call Egg Waffle and Honey Toast. Do I even need to know what it is with a name like that? I think I might have to eat two, you know, because I have to eat Jean’s share. You’re not reading this, are you Wifey?

A side note: during yesterday’s panel introductions every panelist shared words to live by, and I agreed with every one: To whom much is given, much is required; Everything happens for a reason; and the like. I thought about what I would add to those. My additional words to live by: If you can pay someone a sincere compliment, take the courage to do it.

I was walking home from J smile 51, and I passed a house with extraordinary gardens. In this part of Chicago, all gardens are small, often smaller than 3 feet by 6 feet, which is the size of a front “lawn”. I’ve passed this house several times on walks, and smile every time. Not satisfied using up the whole yard, there are planter boxes on the sidewalk and stoop. Today, a trio was conversing (in Spanish) on the porch. I asked if they were the gardeners. Two of them pointed to the third, and said “She is.” I complimented her on the garden’s beauty, which started a whole conversation on how the gardens were her “babies” and that the back yard is full, too. Her smile upon learning that someone noticed her effort was so deep and genuine. Win-win.



3 thoughts on “Week 2, Day 6

  1. FWIW, a sincere compliment: I’m gonna be greatly disappointed when you return east, as this travelogue is so entertaining—a summer must read.

    We’re gonna travel to Chicago one of these days to visit … I’ll use this as a resource when we go, but that’s not its primary appeal to me: rather it’s the sense of wonder and enthusiasm you evince as you discover these under-the-radar treasures. Ah, to be a scientist …

  2. Too bad wordpress doesn’t have a ❤ button.
    I am reminded of an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert (http://www.onbeing.org/program/elizabeth-gilbert-choosing-curiosity-over-fear/8786) I heard this morning, where she said "Oh, I love curiosity our friend. I mean, I think curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it's a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes not so available. And so when we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there's a great deal of pressure around that…And curiosity is an impulse that just taps you on the shoulder very lightly and invites you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look a little closer at something that has intrigued you." And I think this'll have to go in my blog later today, because, as I heard before on this show, we are all seekers of truth, and that seems like raw truth to me.

  3. As it is my birthday, I command you to return home with baked goods in August. Scarlet asks for meats products.

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