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Remembering Food Revolutionary Abby Mandel

A chef and columnist who many culinary enthusiasts remember as a technological pioneer for her early embrace of the Cuisinart food processor took a technological step back when she founded the Green City Market ten years ago.
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Every week some 4,500 people amble through Chicago's Green City Market, some in search of a particularly pungent bunch of arugula, others simply admiring the cornucopia of fresh farm products available in the heart of Lincoln Park, and many just seeking a green refuge, with healthy snack potential and live music, for their children. One person who always turned up until recently was founder Abby Mandel, who died yesterday after a year-long bout with lymphoma.

Abby, a chef and Tribune columnist who many culinary enthusiasts remember as a technological pioneer for her early embrace of the Cuisinart food processor, took a technological step back when she founded the Green City Market ten years ago to educate the public about high quality farm produce and expand the market for local farmers and producers. Independent of the city's green market system, the Green City Market is the only Chicago green market limited to sustainably produced or organic products.

Easier said than done. The wars over what constitutes "sustainability" are being fought around the country, so it's no surprise that Abby Mandel had the occasional critic calling her "divisive," as someone on one of the Chicago food chat sites recently did. True or not, it's a quality needed to keep the market from degenerating into a hodgepodge of vendors uninvolved with the farm products and detached from the educational mission that needs to accompany social change movements, especially if they involve food.

Abby was rarely seen at the market without a large armful of fresh flowers and produce. But make no mistake, her eyes never strayed far from the market vendors. I got an up-close look at this on more than one occasion as a so-called "Market Resource" for the Green City Market. That means that, though I am not a farmer, I do go to the market at 7 a.m. most Saturday mornings to volunteer at the information booth where I provide shoppers with directions to favored vendors, answer questions about how the market operates, reply to questions from would-be vendors, and field the occasional complaint.

I was still new in this role when a nattily dressed man asked for help in locating Abby. His sharp attire struck me as a little out of place, I confess. As we waited for Abby to return to the info table from her round of vendor visits, he started to bend my ear about the sublime western smoked salmon he wanted approval to sell at the market. The two stepped aside and Abby heard him out. But the answer was no. However good, the salmon was not locally produced.

Try delivering that message to the guy who won the World Cup of Bread - beating out the French - when he wants to sell chocolate croissants. It happened two years ago to Jory Downer from Evanston's Bennison's bakery and then again this year when he wanted to sell products with raisins, dates, figs, and orange peel - none locally sourced. His sales people at the market still get half a dozen or so complaints every market day.

"We stomp our feet and call everyone names and then we get over it," Downer told me, "but I respect that they stand for something." He still sells over 600 loaves of bread and 600 pastries a week at the market.

I have worked in and with a lot of resource-strapped non-profit organizations and the tug of the almighty dollar can be pretty fierce. It's easy to rationalize decisions that you think might have a financial benefit. But there's peril, too, as Abby's long-time friend Donna La Pietra, a market board member, pointed out.

"Abby Mandel knew how important it was to hew to a line," she said. La Pietra and her husband, journalist Bill Kurtis, own a grass-fed beef ranch in Kansas called Tallgrass. "You can't have a fuzzy edge if you're trying to revolutionize the way food is viewed, raised, produced, and eaten."

At the information table, we're called on more than occasionally to explain why certain products can or cannot be sold at the market. But as much as we may struggle with definitions that are still fluid, Abby was always clear about what needed to be done. "She always moved forward and never looked back," Sarah Stegner, chef at Prairie Grass Café and co-founder of the market, told me.

Anyone who was at the market's summer barbecue, one of its big fundraisers, last month knows what Abby Mandel has accomplished with the market. Not everyone would want an event with 50 top Chicago chefs cooking with market produce to be likened to the Taste of Chicago, as some commented about the event. But if you had Abby Mandel's educational mission, you'd probably embrace this back-handed compliment, as I did.