The breeze is cool this morning. Hot coffee, as opposed to iced, has crossed my mind. In years past, Labor Day did not signal the end of summer, but Chicago is on a slightly different schedule than the rest of the Midwest. We may have another hot spell, but it’s highly improbable. So unlike Columbus, where tomatoes and other delicious members of the nightshade family continue producing into September, Chicago summer gardens are essentially done. What’s grown is grown. It’s time for kale, chard and all those other things that just end up as depressing spindly messes under my green thumb. Yet gardens are a big deal here. There is always some kind of neighborly discourse to be had about what we’re growing.

This year, I stuck with the basics: 4 kinds of tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers and various potted herbs. Except for the mint, the herbs grew really well. (Ed. note: I do ask myself how it’s even possible to fuck up mint. I suspect some kind of blight or our premature ravaging of its gifts for mojitos.) Halfway through the season, when the rest of the plants were lagging behind, the herbs gave me hope. Just wait. It’ll all come through. I had this vivid fantasy in my head about caprese and puttanesca and cucumber salad. I held back the full brunt of my seasonal cooking urges, eschewing the subpar offerings at our humble grocery store for what, in theory, would be flooding forth from my garden. But here we are with a dozen mediocre plum tomatoes and one very small Cherokee Purple on the counter.

When confronted with repeated failure, I often turn philosophical. After last summer’s “meh” growing season, I worked a vaguely animist theory of a damned earth to explain why nothing grew. This was supported by the fact that no one else’s garden flourished in any noteworthy way, except my parents’ in Columbus; nevermind that my dad has a compost heap. This year, my thoughts have turned away from the earth toward the socio-economic. Why is it so goddamned hard to get a decent tomato in Chicago in the height of the growing season? Chain groceries are excused from this question because we all know that those tomatoes come from a lab in California. Those that can be held accountable are the pickup trucks on the corner, the small grocers and the farmer’s markets. Why are your tomatoes so expensive in the middle of August? And why does the quality of these jewels not reflect the price? We could sit here and mull over the late start to the growing season, the weeks of rain punctuated by suffocating, filthy heat, but it doesn’t sufficiently explain what looks more and more like a feudal food economy in our beloved, bitchy Windy City.

Why you no give me good tomatoes, Chicago? Are they only reserved for those Gold Coasters and Northshore folks who never cook anyway? Apparently they are.

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