He lives in Vista in a 400-square-foot cottage he’s rented for the past 20 years. He gets around by bike and bus. He has problems with his back. When he speaks you hear the inflections of North Bergen, New Jersey, where he was born 51 years ago, 30 blocks from the Lincoln Tunnel.
Facciola’s home sits at the rise of a small hill from which you can see the mountains east of Vista. New housing developments, acres of pastel stucco, march down the mountains. On Facciola’s small hill, songbirds sing in sapote trees, lizards rattle through fallen avocado leaves. Argentine ants stream single file around his front door. At the foot of his driveway, a hawk picks at a gopher’s entrails.
Fifteen hundred books stand in tall tidy stacks throughout Facciola’s home. Useful Plants of Ghana; A Guide to Mangoes in Florida; Traditional Bulgarian Cooking; Vegetables of the Dutch East Indies; Lost Crops of Africa; Medicinal Plants of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; Agaves of Continental North America; Handbook of Indigenous Fermented Foods; The Useful Plants and Drugs of Iran and Iraq…and, of course, The Art of Uzbek Cooking.
In the kitchen, the blue Formica counters are clutter-free. In the bedroom, the brown bedspread lies perfectly flat on the twin-size bed. In the closet, 15 plaid flannel shirts hang beneath a shelf on which 12 neatly folded cotton T-shirts sit beside six pairs of faded but neatly folded jeans. Beneath the shelf, three metal filing cabinets hold 2000 alphabetized brochures from 1300 rare fruit and vegetable suppliers.
“I’m a little obsessive-compulsive,” Facciola says.
In the monumental Oxford Companion to Food, author Alan Davidson describes Facciola’s work as “indispensable.” Charles Perry, of the L.A. Times food section, says, “If there’s anyone in San Diego you should interview about food, it’s Facciola. He’s brilliant. Everybody who’s serious knows him.”
Facciola likes to work at night. On his slow, eight-year-old ibm clone, he prowls the Web for obscure books. He tracks down answers to the questions that bother him.
“There’s a kind of incense candle used in Thailand to perfume certain kinds of cakes and cookies. I need to know what that incense is made out of.”
In precise faint script, he takes notes. He files them away. He tries not to think about starting the third edition of Cornucopia: A Source Book of Edible Plants.
“The first edition nearly killed me. It took 12 years. For 5 of those years I worked full-time on the book. Just sitting there in front of the computer. I didn’t do anything else. I started having health problems. Dizziness. Stomach upset. Bloating. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I’d call friends at 5:00 a.m. and say I thought I was having a heart attack. My doctor said it was all stress-related. By the time I finished and published the first edition in 1990, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I had to take a ten-month sabbatical to recuperate. I went back to New Jersey and relaxed. The second edition, which I published in 1998, took me 2 years to compile. It was a little easier, but still, it was a lot of work.”
Cornucopia’s second edition is 678 pages long, weighs almost four pounds, and describes 3000 species and 7000 varieties of edible plants.
“Depending on who you read, there are 20,000 to 80,000 species of edible plants in the world. So, you know, what I’ve done isn’t even a drop in the bucket. It’s good for what it is, but it’s by no means complete.”
To get a feel for what Facciola does during his late quiet nights, open Cornucopia and turn to an entry, like the one for Helianthus annuus, the sunflower:
“…The seeds are eaten raw, boiled, roasted, salted, or made into sunflower butter, nut milks, and tempeh. In the Ukraine, they are used for making a type of halva. Also the source of an edible oil used in salads, cooking, margarine, etc. Young seedlings, called sunflower lettuce, are popular with natural foods enthusiasts. The flower receptacles can be steamed and served like artichokes. Ground seeds are sometimes added to soups. The bittersweet flower petals can be cooked with pasta or other foods. The boiled seeds are mixed with water and honey to form the refreshing Ethiopian beverage called suff. Germinated seeds are blended with water and fermented into seed yogurt or seed cheese. The young petioles are eaten grilled and seasoned with oil and salt. Roasted hulls of seeds are used as a substitute for coffee. Produces a yellow honey with a rich, distinct, buttery flavor that is excellent for baking.…”
Facciola goes on to describe 25 varieties of sunflower, each variety cross-referenced to a supplier who sells its seeds.
“The suppliers: 1300 suppliers. Getting the information together so I could list suppliers was difficult. Tracking down who sells what. They’re all over the place. All those brochures. First of all, I had to get the addresses. Then there was the writing away for the brochures, then waiting to get them. Reading them. Indexing them. And, you know, brochures change from year to year, so in order to be accurate you have to make sure you have the most recent ones. It was quite a task for one man by himself.”
If you think your backyard would be improved with an apple tree, Facciola gives you detailed information on 367 varieties and tells you who sells them. If you’ve been toying around with the idea of growing edible algae, Cornucopia lists dozens, including Grateloupia filicina: “In Hawaii, the slippery, hairlike branches are finely chopped and lightly salted and then eaten in salads or with raw liver, beef stew, limpet, raw fish relish, or dried and broiled octopus. In China, the branches are added to soups or boiled until they form a gel, which is then flavored with sweet or salty seasonings.…” (The referenced supplier for Grateloupia filicina is the Department of Botany at the University of Texas, Austin.)
Cornucopia seems complete. Browsing through Facciola’s descriptions of 40 different kinds of turnip, it’s almost frightening to contemplate a more comprehensive work. The Petrowski turnip: “An old Alaskan favorite that is firm, shows some resistance to root maggot, and is excellent for storage.” The Teltow turnip: “Succeeds well in light, sandy soil. When cooked it has a peculiar flavor, completely different from other turnips — it is milder and more sugary, and the flesh is almost floury, instead of juicy and melting. The peculiar flavor is in the outer rind; when used it should not be peeled. Used in the preparation of a German delicacy called teltower ruebchen, produced by browning young turnips in sugar.…”