April 2002

Cherry Scoop

Tomorrow morning, I’m going to the Justin Herman Plaza Farmers Market. I haven’t been there in a while, as I don’t usually go unless I’ve missed the Ferry Plaza on Saturday. However, I’m definitely going in the morning because on Saturday I got word from Juan that the Hamadas will be scooping the other vendors this Tuesday at the Justin Herman Plaza market by bringing the first cherries. Juan thinks there is a chance they’ll scoop everyone at the Ferry Plaza next Saturday also. 

I was delighted to learn that while the vendors give the appearance of placing all their focus on the care and upbringing of their own products, they are also all spying on each other. I can just picture a pickup pulling up to the ridgeline with a very large pair of binoculars sticking out the window. “They look ripe yet, Jake?” 

I don’t know how widely word has spread about the cherries, but San Francisco is in some ways a small town and news travels rapidly. I’m planning to drive down the hill to the Castro and park, taking the F Market streetcar down to the plaza so that I won’t have to try to find parking nearby. I do this fairly often anyhow because I can park so much closer to the Castro F Market stop than I can to Justin Herman Plaza. Besides, if they run out of cherries too early and the riot starts before I can get away, there’ll be burning cars and stuff blocking the streets and I won’t be able to drive the car back anyhow, even assuming that my car is not one of those burning. The underground Muni line, on the other hand, remained on schedule even during the White Night riots, plowing serenely through the tear gas. 

It’s good to know the terrain.

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Peanut Butter

I am the salt king of San Francisco. I shop for the sourest grapefruit so I can salt it; I eat cantaloupe with salt and pepper; I have made concerned friends wince as they saw me wielding the salt shaker at dinner. And yet, I like my peanut butter unsalted. So naturally, my favorite peanut butter, Laura Scudder’s Old Fashioned, is available in San Francisco only salted. As a compromise, I have taken to cutting my salted Laura Scudder’s with the unsalted Adams 100% Natural. I’m sure this is causing many of you to wonder how it is possible that a gourmet as discriminating as myself is able to stomach a peanut butter other than Laura Scudder’s, even when mixed half and half with the good stuff.

Well actually, I had kind of wondered about this myself. How could it be, I thought, that Adams’ tastes just as good as Laura Scudder’s? Could I have somehow failed to include Adams when I was doing my extensive comparison tastings a few years ago?

And then, this morning, it came to me. As I was preparing to mix a couple of jars, I noticed that both Laura and Mrs. Adams were members of the J. M. Smucker team – the Orrville, Ohio, Smuckers. They had both joined the Smuckers upon learning of the cost reductions they could enjoy if they used the same jars and just paid for separate paper labels to distinguish their products. Well of course, quantity discounts for all that glassware.

In the old days, truckers with their loads of freshly harvested peanuts headed toward Orrville until they reached the outskirts of town, where the road forked and there was a big sign with an arrow pointing left for Mrs. Adams and right for Laura Scudder. The guys knew which fork to take.

Later, Laura and the Adamses moved their plants to new locations side by side on the Interstate loop around town and the truckers went around to the back of the appropriate building to unload, depending on whether they were carrying the 100% Natural or the Old Fashioned.

Then, back in the eighties, the accountants figured out that Laura and the Adamses could save a bundle by consolidating their receiving docks and separating the 100% Naturals from the Old Fashioneds in house.

In the nineties, an employee dropped a note in the Suggestions box that had far-reaching consequences. A radical proposal, actually, but one which was implemented after it was understood that the savings it offered could be utilized to amplify the Executive Bonus Program.

The implementation was straightforward. The wall between the two buildings was knocked out and the processing lines were combined, thus creating a huge pile of extra parts which were sold when the scrap metal market was at its peak. With only one processing line, the companies were able to achieve significant cost reductions by out-processing many of the processors, including the suggester, who had not thought through all the consequences and had had other expectations for his reward.

So now, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the line processes the 100% Natural peanuts and the Adams label is pasted onto the jars. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, it’s Old Fashioned time, and the Laura Scudder labels are used. The entire processing line is steam cleaned at the end of each day to prevent any possible cross contamination.

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“Auntie” Revisited

I wrote “Auntie,” (in Journal 1986) to describe an incident in 1985 in which my aunt, while her sister stood there watching, handed over to me for delivery to my sister a crystal bowl that her sister coveted.  At the time, I assumed that her only motive was to spite her sister.

Three or four years after that incident, my aunt became less and less capable of living alone, and her daughter’s visits became more frequent. One of these visits overlapped one of mine, and I told the daughter about the incident. She mentioned that she had been very fond of the bowl herself but then immediately observed that, well, she hadn’t noticed its absence. Somehow, over the subsequent years I fixated on the idea that my cousin deserved the bowl more than my sister because of the circumstances under which my aunt had given away the bowl, and I brought this concept up to Becky on, I’m sure, many occasions.

Then, last December when I had developed a medical problem that I thought signaled my imminent demise and was trying to atone for as many wrongs as possible, I wrote Becky and wasted my deathbed wish by saying that she really must give that bowl to its rightful owners…the descendants of our aunt. She got back to me and told me that she had started feeling guilty about this herself a while back and had just been too busy to do anything about it. Damn, I should have asked her to stop smoking.

So I immediately called my cousin and got a recording: “This number is no longer in service.” Oh dear, I thought, she’s fourteen years older than me and I haven’t called her in eight or nine years and I’ve let her die on me. I knew she had two daughters but didn’t remember their names…their first names, much less their new last names.

Then I wrote to my cousin’s last known address in Denton. The letter didn’t come back, but I didn’t hear anything either. So about a month ago, I Googled around and discovered that she was on a committee of the First Christian Church in Denton. But there was no church directory that listed the phone numbers or addresses of the membership. There was, however, a Membership Committee for whom email addresses were listed, so I found a member of the committee my cousin was on who was also on the Membership Committee, and wrote her an email telling the story of how my sister got the bowl and explaining that after these many years my sister had agreed that it should go to our cousin or one of her daughters and asking this woman if she could please contact my cousin, if she were still alive, and ask her to contact me or my sister.

The woman kindly emailed me back the next day saying that she barely knew my cousin but that she was good friends with one of her daughters and would pass the message on to the daughter. After what was to me an agonizing delay, my cousin wrote Becky with some additional information of which I had been unaware.

She pointed out, as a minor aside, that it was more like ten years before my uncle’s death that he had given the bowl to his sister rather than “shortly” as I had said. More importantly, my cousin disclosed that he had been her mother’s favorite and that when he died, her mother had transferred all her affection to my father. (In those huge families, there was nowhere near enough affection to go around). My cousin also said that she had never seen her mother as upset and grieving as she was when my father died back in 1969. And finally, my cousin revealed that when she was going through her mother’s things after her mother’s death, she found a handful of letters from herself and selected others but a fat bundle of letters from Becky. Apparently my aunt had saved every single card or note Becky had ever sent her.

All this put quite a different spin on things. My aunt’s transfer of the bowl to Becky had not been, as I had assumed, purely to spite her sister. Rather, spiting her sister was just an additional pleasure since she had had other reasons for wanting to give the bowl to Becky. My cousin also suspected, quite rightly, that the bowl was the only heirloom Becky had from that side of the family.

So my cousin had written that she felt Becky should keep the bowl. Becky then confessed to me that she really, really did just love the bowl, which she has prominently displayed atop a china cabinet that was our maternal grandmother’s. And furthermore, her partner could not help observing that in the same room there was art from some of the better minor artists in this country but that everyone who entered that room ran immediately to a point directly in front of The Bowl and stood there ooohing and aaahing.

What I learned from this was that what I had to atone for was not my role in transferring the bowl to Becky but rather for assuming that my aunt had acted purely out of spite. That and a ten-year campaign to convince Becky that she ought to give the damn thing up. Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to generalize from this lesson and cut more folks more slack.

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The Fruit Factory

The Fruit Factory is on the highway to Tracy just a couple of miles on the left beyond the cutoff to I-5 South. It’s open only July-October (more or less) and is, in spite of its name, mostly a bean farm (most particularly beans that you can rarely buy fresh in the Bay Area – butterbeans, cranberry beans, black-eyed peas, and pintos) although they also have good tomatoes, okra, etc. Pick ’em yourself for the best bargain.

The first time I went there early one Saturday morning about ten years ago, I stood in stark contrast with all the other customers. None of the other customers was anywhere near my age. They were all either a lot older or a lot younger. And they were all black. And then I realized, who would be seeking fresh black-eyed peas and butterbeans and okra? Maybe somebody who grew up eating this stuff? And can’t find it in decent quality at the grocery store? And is retired and taking the grandkids “out to the farm” to harvest some of the good stuff?

So I went there every fall for several years, mainly to pick up crates of fresh pintos and cranberry beans. I brought them home, shelled them out, and blanched and froze them. It was a lot of work, but then for the following year I could serve them to deserving dinner guests. Then I discovered that the Iacopis at the San Mateo Farmers Market had superb Romanos and cranberry beans and Italian butter beans. And then I learned that the Iacopis were at both the Ferry Plaza and Justin Herman Plaza farmers markets right here in San Francisco.

So I stopped making my trips to The Fruit Factory, even though I do miss their wonderful tamales and that peach cobbler they served in their tiny little kitchen.

Note: In August 2002 I received their annual postcard listing available items. Apparently missing people like me, they’re trying to broaden their customer base, as in addition to the old favorites they now selltuvor, guar, papadi, and valor papadi. Mother didn’t feed me none of them.

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