“You’re eating bug excrement.”
Stephen Facciola and I are standing in the parking lot of a Middle Eastern grocery in disheartening Anaheim. The streets are eight lanes wide. The blocks, a mile long. The air is hot, humid, smoggy. Strip malls and traffic stretch on and on to the hazy horizon. Facciola has just handed me a chewy white square of Iranian candy that tastes mostly of rose water.
The bug excrement, the gaz, gives the candy some of its texture and sweetness. Actually, it’s called Gaz of Khonsar. The jumping plant louse of Iran, Syamophila astragalicola, sucks sap from a plant, a relative of locoweed, and excretes the gaz. Peasants harvest it in late August. Who knows if they’ll be harvesting it next year, or the year after? The world is changing.”
While I chew bug-excrement candy, Facciola stares at me. He is a slight, bearded man in blue jeans and crimson suspenders. He is one of the world’s foremost authorities on edible plants.
He arches his bushy eyebrows. “Interesting, isn’t it?”
Earlier in the day Facciola and I drove to Los Alamitos to pay a visit to Frieda’s, Inc., the country’s premiere importer and distributor of specialty fruits and vegetables. Inside the reception area, a huge white banner announced, “WELCOME STEPHEN FACCIOLA.”
As we walked through the front door, the receptionist gave a helpless little cry. “Balloons! Where are the balloons? We always have balloons for our important guests. I don’t know what happened.”
Tristan Millar, Frieda’s lovely director of marketing, bounded into the room. She pumped Facciola’s hand. Her black ringlets quivered.
“It’s a great honor, a great pleasure, to meet the author of Cornucopia. You don’t know how famous you are around here. We all use your book. Our buyers, our marketing and sales departments. I use it all the time. It’s a tremendous resource. Frieda loves your book. She’s here, by the way, and she wants to meet you.”
Frieda Caplan is one of the people who changed the way America eats. You’ve seen the bright purple Frieda’s label in supermarket produce aisles. Caplan, a native Angeleno, began her career in the early 1960s as a cashier in L.A.’s downtown produce market. One day she noticed a box of brown mushrooms that no one was buying. On a whim she started to talk them up to her customers. Hey, these mushrooms are fresh, they’re good, why don’t you try them? The more she talked, the more she sold. Caplan figured she was on to something. She started her own business, Frieda’s, Inc. Fresh brown mushrooms, which had been regarded as unusual and “foreign,” quickly became common on supermarket shelves. A few years later, Caplan was nationally known as the “Kiwi Queen” for having single-handedly introduced the fuzzy brown fruit to America. Frieda’s, Inc., now occupies an 81,000-square-foot building, employs 115 people, imports from more than 40 countries, markets more than 500 items, and does more than $35 million in annual sales.
“Frieda wants to meet me?” Facciola stared at the toes of his leather Converse tennis shoes.
“Yes.” Millar pumped his hand some more. “She’s a big fan of yours.”
Millar led us through Frieda’s cavernous facility, through vast chilly storerooms packed with Caribbean root vegetables, Puerto Rican mangoes, Chilean cherimoyas, Israeli lychees, Thai pineapples, Mexican chiles, Californian pomegranates and cactus pears, South African tangerines. Forklifts prowled the aisles. Workers stacked big boxes of perfumy melons onto shelves. Following behind Millar, Facciola quietly took it all in. Without warning, he stopped in his tracks.
“Wait,” he said, holding a hand in the air. “Uzbek melons. I’m not seeing any Uzbek melons.”
Millar grimaced. “It was a bad year. The quality was very poor. They sent us a few cases, but we hardly accepted any of them.”
“Oh, boy.” Facciola sighed. “A bad year? Must have been the rain, or the weather wasn’t hot enough or something. They’ve had the worst luck.”
Millar leaned close to him. “Very bad luck. You know, don’t you? You heard what happened?”
The two exchanged a meaningful look.
Millar glanced at me. “It’s quite a story.”
At the time of our visit, Frieda’s was in the throes of Donut Peach™ season. On every office wall, vivid posters extolled the fruit’s virtues and sales potential. (The fruit’s squat, donutlike shape makes it popular with children.) Here and there amid the child-centered Donut Peach™ propaganda were framed photos of Frieda’s past. One picture, taken in 1964, showed Caplan, a statuesque, handsome woman, standing before an Air New Zealand jet. She holds aloft a kiwi fruit from the historic first shipment to America. Caplan’s posture is ramrod straight, her smile triumphant.
On our way to meet Caplan, Millar paused to introduce us to one of the company’s buyers. Facciola whipped out a small rumpled paper sack from his back pocket.
“Here, try these,” he said, passing around the sack. “Raisins. From Uzbekistan. They’re excellent.”
The four of us stood there, thoughtfully chewing the raisins. Millar and the buyer looked at each other and smiled.
“They’re better, sweeter, than California raisins,” said the buyer.
“They’re not oily like California raisins,” said Millar. “And they’re moister.”
Facciola chuckled. “Well, I think they’re some of the best raisins I’ve ever eaten. Uzbekistan produces some of the finest grapes and melons in the world. You guys should go there.”
“Tell me,” said the buyer. “Would you know who to talk to about buying these raisins?”
“I’m sure,” Facciola said, “I could find someone.”
Millar squeezed his shoulder. “These raisins are wonderful. We depend on people like you, Mr. Facciola, for tips on new products.”
As we made our way through Frieda’s corporate offices, young fresh-scrubbed marketing types left their computers and phone calls to introduce themselves to Facciola. They shook his hand. They led him to their bookcases and pointed to their copies of Cornucopia.
“I use your book every day,” said one young woman. “It’s a godsend.”
At the very rear of the marketing department, Caplan stood waiting for us, one hand on her hip, the other clutching a sheaf of documents.