“Well, well,” she said. “Mr. Facciola, at long last.”
“It’s the Kiwi Queen.”
The two faced each other, big grins on their faces, a little awkward in their mutual admiration.
“Of course you know, Mr. Facciola, that I’m a big joke in the industry. I’m a laughingstock. The Kiwi Queen can’t eat kiwi! My lips swell up. It’s grotesque. I think I ate so many while I was traveling around trying to sell them — I must have eaten thousands — that I developed an allergy. I can’t go near ’em.”
We all laughed. There was a pause. Caplan and Facciola began speaking in what sounded like code.
“The llacon?” Facciola asked Caplan. “What happened? I see you’re not carrying it anymore. Or I at least didn’t see any llacon downstairs in the coolers.”
“The llacon, the llacon. It was a terrific product…”
“Better than jicama. You have to admit that. Much better. Not as fibrous. Sweeter. Juicier. More like a fruit.…”
“Yes, I know. I loved llacon. We just couldn’t move it.”
“There’s already too much jicama around, and it’s cheap.”
“That’s what I suspect.”
“Too much jicama. Who needs another jicama-type product?”
“That’s a real shame.”
Facciola turned to me, whispered, “Llacon. The Bolivian sun root. It’s a member of the sunflower family.”
He and Caplan started to swap names, to compare notes on big players in the exotic fruits and vegetables community. (“I’m sure you’re acquainted with Paul Thomas in Bonsall. Cofounder of California Rare Fruit Growers. You have a lot of rare fruit and vegetable people in San Diego.” “Dr. Condit lived in Vista. Do you remember Dr. Condit? Taught at UC Riverside? The world’s foremost expert on figs.”) The conversation was winding down when Facciola asked Caplan about Uzbek melons.
“Just horrible. A real tragedy.” Caplan frowned and shook her head. “Raisa was in my office just two days before it happened. She wanted my help. She wanted my advice. Just two days before it happened. Unbelievable.”
“I went up to Fresno to see the melons,” said Facciola. “I had to see it for myself. Very weird. Nobody seems to know what variety of melon it is. It’s a secret. I have a few hunches.”
Even in the seemingly cheerful world of exotic fruits and vegetables, unpleasant things happen. One of Caplan’s protégées, for example, a woman Caplan painstakingly mentored, left Frieda’s, Inc., to start her own rival company. The Uzbek melon saga ended on an even darker note.
As Facciola later explained to me, the area where a fruit or vegetable was first cultivated usually maintains the greatest number of respective varieties. Peru, for instance, the potato’s homeland, has the greatest number of potato varieties. Central Asia, which botanists consider ground zero for melon cultivation, has more than 1000 kinds of melon. Because so many melons have been cultivated there for so long, have been, over many centuries, selected for appearance and, above all, flavor, Central Asia, most notably Uzbekistan, produces the world’s finest melons. In the 1990s, a few Russian immigrants thought they could make a fortune by introducing America to one of these famous melons, one identified only as the “Uzbek melon.”
The story remains murky. Yakov and Raisa Altman left Odessa, the Ukraine, in 1975, and settled in Detroit, where Yakov found work as a tool and die worker for Chrysler. Eventually the Altmans and their young son moved to the San Fernando Valley, then Santa Monica, then, finally, to Pacific Palisades, where something mysterious happened.
Yakov owned a car repair shop in Long Beach, and there would seem to be a very real question as to just how the owner of a Long Beach car repair shop could afford a home in Pacific Palisades. But by the mid-1990s Yakov and Raisa were successful enough that they were hunting for investment opportunities. Something, they said, to make their retirement more comfortable. They met Victor Kotchkin, another Russian immigrant and a one-time importer of Russian art and samovars. Kotchkin had lived in Uzbekistan, in the former Soviet Union, and it was his idea to raise the “Uzbek melon” in Fresno County. Kotchkin leased 200 acres of farmland. He brought in melon seeds from Uzbekistan. He brought in four laborers from Uzbekistan — Abdullaiev Hirula, Abdulasisou Abduhafis, Abduraculov Abduracashed, and Abduraculov Abdugaper. With the very first crop, Kotchkin had problems. The soil was unsuitable. Then bugs attacked the seeds. When the surviving seeds sprouted, worms ate their fragile roots. After several unsuccessful melon-growing attempts, Kotchkin started to run out of money. He needed investors. Yakov and Raisa Altman paid Kotchkin $200,000 for a 50-percent share of his business.
The Altman/Kotchkin melon venture was a source of comment in rural Fresno. Kotchkin’s Uzbeki workers wore small square embroidered caps. They built and lived in a yurt-type structure beside the melon fields. When the melons ripened, they offered them to Mexican farmworkers in exchange for water. The melon fields were also a place where much screaming was done in Russian. Americans weren’t, as Kotchkin had hoped, taking to the large, torpedo-shaped Uzbek melon. Neighboring farmers said he didn’t know how to create a market for his melon, that he didn’t understand product distribution or quality control. Raisa and Yakov Altman weren’t so much interested in Kotchkin’s excuses as in a return on their investment. Raisa drove from Pacific Palisades to Fresno to scream at Kotchkin in the melon fields. Mexican farmworkers who witnessed these scenes guessed she was screaming about money. Debts continued to mount. Profits failed to materialize. At around 5:00 p.m. on September 24, 1998, an unknown man knocked at the front door of the Altmans’ Pacific Palisades home. When Raisa answered, the man fired two fatal bullets into her chest.
lapd homicide has several suspects, such as Victor Kotchkin and Yakov Altman, but no real evidence. The murder remains unsolved. In the exotic fruits and vegetables community there was speculation that the assailant had been after a cache of the mysterious Uzbek melon seeds. There was murmuring about the Russian mafia. Kotchkin continues to grow his Uzbek melons. You can find them, locally, at Whole Foods markets. This year the melons weren’t very good. If anyone was more disappointed than Kotchkin, it was Stephen Facciola.