“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.
“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.
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.…”
One warm morning, after having spent some time perusing Cornucopia, I drove to Vista and picked up Facciola so we could visit a few of his North County friends. We drove past cactus farms and avocado groves, past specialty nurseries for herbs and flowers. Facciola knew the names of the owners, how long they’d been in operation, how their businesses were doing. His back hurt, he said, but the drive, the scenery, seemed to relax him, and soon he began to talk about how he became interested in plants.
“Growing up in North Bergen, I didn’t have much exposure to nature. I was a normal kid. I loved baseball, sports. My dad was an electrician. Neither of my parents were much interested in gardening. But my maternal grandparents had a vacation home on Lake Hopatcong in northern New Jersey. I come from a big Italian family, and every summer all of us, maybe 20 people, would go up there to get away from the heat. It was wonderful, especially for the kids. Fishing. Swimming. Picking berries. And it was there, I guess, that I got my first taste of nature. I loved it. My parents say that at the end of every summer, when it was time to leave Lake Hopatcong, I’d cry because I didn’t want to go back to the city.
“During high school I was pretty much interested in sports. I played a lot of basketball. When I got to college, Pace University in Manhattan, I was too much of a jock to pay attention to my studies. The only class that interested me was art history. On the whole, I was pretty aimless. I lacked direction, which wasn’t unusual for a college student in 1970. I finally got tired of the whole lacking-direction thing and I dropped out. Instead of going to a commune, I went to my grandparents’ summer house and ended up living there alone, on my own, for five years.
“What happened is that my aunt worked at a magazine factory, and she’d bring me damaged copies of whatever they’d been printing. And one day she brought me some copies of Rodale Press’s Organic Gardening magazine. Euell Gibbons, the back-to-nature guy — you know, Stalking the Wild Asparagus — had a column in Organic Gardening. I started to read it. The philosophy interested me. The idea of self-reliance, independence. This idea of living in nature. Making it on your own. My grandparents had this place no one was living in most of the time. Rent was free. It was up there in a rural setting. I think I’m kind of a maverick, and it was sort of a maverick kind of thing to do. At that time, people who were natural mavericks got caught up in that sort of thing.
“I fished in the lake. Trout. Pickerel. Perch. Catfish. Bass. I rode around on an old Italian ten-speed. I foraged. There was plenty to eat — wild asparagus, hickory nuts, poke salad, huckleberries, daylilies, and Japanese knotweed, which you can use as a rhubarb substitute. I was already leaning toward vegetarianism, so not having meat wasn’t a problem. I started to grind my own wheat and bake my own bread. I worked a few menial jobs. I started to read about plants and I started to get to know what was out there.
“I noticed that there was a lot of wild witch hazel growing in the woods near my grandparents’ summer home. Through some magazine I found out that there was this seed dealer in Montana who bought witch hazel seed. I contacted him and we started doing business. I must have gathered hundreds of pounds of witch hazel seeds. And for a while, that’s how I supported myself. I think it was a spiritual way of life. Living that way in nature, you got a sense of connectedness. I guess you could say it was almost a closeness to God, if you define God as the way nature works. I was just a hippie gathering seeds.
“I ended up going out there to Montana, to work for the seed dealer. Seventy-five miles west of Missoula. He was a real John Bircher type, and I was this longhaired, bearded hippie who’d been living near a lake in northern New Jersey. Why did I go? It was just youthfulness. The seed dealer gave me this small house to live in, and during the summer it was incredibly hot. Some nights when I couldn’t bear it anymore I’d go down and sleep in the basement, where it was cool. I went down to the basement and I slept with the mice.
“I think the final straw was this little accident I had with a pressure cooker. I know now that instructions for pressure cookers say that you’re not supposed to cook rice in them. But I didn’t know that then. It was brown rice. It had to be brown rice. I was cooking brown rice and all of a sudden there was this huge explosion. I ran into the kitchen and the ceiling was covered, completely covered, with brown rice. The ceiling covered with brown rice. And there was a big hole in the ceiling. It took me forever to clean the ceiling. Not long after that, I got a ride out to California and ended up in Davis.”
Facciola worked odd jobs in Davis and spent his spare time reading in the stacks of UC Davis’s agriculture library, learning as much as he could about botany. In 1978, he made his way down to Vista, where he found work at a few of the area’s nurseries. In 1980, he was hired by Exotica Rare Fruit Nursery as manager and propagator. (“But I wasn’t,” he admits, “that great of a grafter.”) While at Exotica, Facciola traveled with its owner to Hawaii and Ecuador in search of unusual, marketable plants. As he did in Davis, Facciola continued to read.
“We were always getting calls from people wanting to know where they could buy seeds for this rare vegetable or saplings for that rare fruit tree. There wasn’t any single resource you could turn to for answers. I was reading a lot of different catalogs at the time, and if I read about something that sounded great, something I wanted to order for the nursery, I had a hard time finding who carried it. I had to consult a lot of different sources. It was very time-consuming and frustrating. So I got this idea for a book that would have all the information anyone could want. Descriptions of species and different varieties. Information on how the plant was used. How it was grown. How it was cooked. How it was eaten. Information on suppliers. I wanted to do a book that could give you all that.
“So I started developing the idea, collecting brochures, catalogs. I had no idea how to do a book like that. I’d never written a book before. It was all self-taught. For seven years I worked part-time on the book, mostly gathering information. Then I quit my job at Exotica and started working full-time. Two full years of research. Three full years of writing. My family helped me out financially. I got loans. For about five years I lived on $300 to $350 a month. Talk about deprivation. Talk about barely scraping by. Trying to make ends meet. Living on less than $4000 a year. I was totally dedicated to getting the project done. I worked and worked and nearly ruined my health. I got a bank loan for about $17,000 to publish the first edition. It sold about 4500 copies.
“I get letters from people who bought the first and second editions. I keep a file of those letters. People from as far away as Australia write and tell me, ‘God bless you for writing your book.’ It means a lot to some people.”
The late-summer sun was high in the sky when Facciola and I arrived at the home of someone to whom Cornucopia meant a lot. Ali Fouladi, a trim, handsome man with an aquiline nose, left Tehran many years ago. Now retired, a grandfather, he’s tried to re-create a little of what he lost. On a hillside in Bonsall he has eight acres of land, several of which he’s transformed into an Iranian garden. Spare, orderly, the garden is defined by clean gravel paths bordered by rose-scented geraniums, eight varieties of fig and, closest to Fouladi’s heart, more than a dozen varieties of mulberry.
We at first didn’t go into the garden. We sat at a table on Fouladi’s terrace, where he’d set out dishes of pistachios, tart dried Iranian cherries, a plate of fresh plums, figs, and cucumbers. Hummingbirds whirred through the air around us. Off to one side, in a large vine-covered cage, turtledoves cooed. On the terrace, and in his large backyard, Fouladi has built several tacht, waist-high carpeted platforms on which Iranians like to sit, snack, drink tea, and chat. Fouladi cracked open a pistachio and stared at a mountain across from his home. The mountain’s entire top had been leveled for an enormous pink stucco house.
“I hear it belongs to an arms dealer,” Fouladi said. “His home has a 360-degree view. You can see all the way to the ocean. There are only two people living there. The arms dealer and his wife. The guest house alone is 5000 square feet. Why would you want to have a guest house that large? Your guests would never leave! On the other hand, with so much land, with such a big house, I guess you’d never notice.”
He dropped his pistachio shells onto the tablecloth. He cleared his throat, considered the pink stucco house.
“An arms dealer. The world’s a funny place, isn’t it?”
We talked a little about Iran. Fouladi gradually led the conversation back to mulberries. He led us into his garden.
“You really must try these berries,” he said. “So you can understand.”
We went from tree to tree, Fouladi picking each berry with care. “Stephen is quite a scholar. He’s helped me find some of these varieties. I want you to taste the ripest.”
Hidden among broad, light green leaves, the berries were one to two inches long, and very sweet. They looked like raspberries. They tasted like cherries, but their flavor was more subtle, more floral. And they were very juicy. They stained our lips and hands a surprising bright red, like fresh blood.
Moving and speaking more quickly, Fouladi picked and handed us more berries
“In Iran, you almost never find fresh mulberries in the market. They’re too fragile. You’ll find them dried. They’re considered medicinal. They’re used in a tea that you drink when you have a cold. It’s good for congestion. Everyone’s familiar with dried mulberries. But my family had a house outside Tehran where we went every weekend when I was growing up. The long driveway up to the house was lined with mulberries, different kinds. And I remember very clearly the mulberries from my childhood. Getting out of Tehran to the countryside, where it was very beautiful. Some of the most beautiful countryside you could ever see. In the summer the mulberries would ripen, and I remember how they tasted and what it was like to be at that house with my family. All of us together.”
Fouladi marched us up and down gravel paths, handing us more and more mulberries. Juice stained my shirt, my lips, my legs. We arrived finally at a kind of greenhouse where he kept pots of jasmine vines. He rummaged among them, picking their long white blossoms.
“This is Iranian jasmine. A friend of mine smuggled some clippings back from Iran. I don’t know how he did it, how he managed to get them through customs. I’ve been growing them here. This is a smell you won’t believe. It’s the finest jasmine in the world, the most delicate.”
He dropped a handful of blossoms into my berry-stained hands.
“Please, smell them. You won’t ever forget it.”
The perfume wasn’t as strong as the usual jasmines grown in Californian gardens. There was a vague spiciness to the Iranian variety, something like nutmeg. I could have stood for a long while with my nose buried in the blossoms; Facciola, however, was anxious to go. We had an appointment at noon to meet Roger Meyer, who grows 30 varieties of jujubes in Valley Center. Meyer actually grows quite a few other things, but jujubes are close to being Facciola’s favorite “underappreciated” fruit, and according to Meyer, several of the most delicious kinds were ripe. Facciola and I thanked Fouladi and sped away. We bumped along rutted backcountry roads. Facciola talked about jujubes.
They’re also called Chinese dates, he said. The Chinese have cultivated Ziziphus jujuba, the small berrylike fruit, for 4000 years, and at present grow more than 400 varieties. Over time the fruit has spread through Southeast Asia, the Near East, and the Mediterranean. Although nothing else truly resembles the jujube tree, around town you’ve probably seen some of its distant relatives, various varieties of ceanothus, the wild lilac. These shrubby evergreens are used locally as groundcover. The jujube is a beautiful, generous tree with narrow bright green leaves and an unusual zigzag branch pattern.
We could see them as we topped a hill in Valley Center. Nearly 500 jujube trees are scattered throughout Roger Meyer’s ten acres. He and his wife Shirley were packing crates of shiny, lumpy kiwano melons when we arrived. The Meyers’ bearlike dogs trotted out to greet us.
Roger Meyer, a chemist by profession, came to jujubes in a roundabout way. He and Shirley were growing kiwis on their Valley Center land when a nursery owner encouraged him to plant a couple of jujubes. The trees did well and within one year were producing lots of fruit.
“I thought they were tasty,” Meyer told me. “But Shirley and I really didn’t know what to do with them. One day she dropped a few in with my lunch and this Korean guy at work saw me eating them and he went nuts. ‘Where did you get those? Where did you find them? Where can I get some?’ We had no idea they were such a big deal in the Asian community. So we planted more trees and now every year we sell hundreds of pounds to Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese markets, mostly in Orange and Los Angeles Counties. People come down here to buy them too. They’re just amazed that they’re able to find them fresh.”
Jujubes are olive-size, some are pear-shaped, some are more slender. Greenish yellow at first, they turn a pale yellow. Left on the tree, they go through another stage when they ripen to a mahogany color. Within a few days the entire jujube is dark reddish-brown and wrinkly. When ripe, the jujube is crisp and sweet and some varieties have an applelike tartness. When jujubes darken, they’re sweet like dates, have the same sugar concentration as dates, and the finest varieties have an intense caramel flavor.
While Meyer and I talked and walked through his groves, Facciola hunted for his favorite jujubes. He recognized most varieties by sight, knew where they were from, if they were best eaten yellow or brown. Meyer took us to a tree he identified as a “Russian 2” variety.
Facciola bounced on the balls of his feet. “These are great,” he said. “Russian 2. Most people prefer them when they’re juicy.”
Facciola considers jujubes “one of the most underrated fruits in North America,” and the Russian 2s were delicious, a bit like tart apples, but sweeter, their flesh denser.
“These are good,” Facciola said, his hands full of Russian 2s. “Wait till you taste the Honey Jar.”
When dry and dark, the small round Honey Jar, a new Chinese variety, tastes like milk caramel. Not creamy or mushy like dates, the texture is lighter. It was odd to taste a fruit so small that filled my mouth with such a deep, sweet flavor. I wanted more, but the sun was very hot and I could feel the skin on my forehead starting to burn. Facciola didn’t care about the heat. I left him there with the Honey Jar tree and went to find shade.
Shirley Meyer told me she had ice water in the apartment above the garage where she and Roger were packing kiwano melons. A cheerful, matter-of-fact woman in a blue baseball cap, T-shirt, and shorts, Shirley gave the impression that her marriage to Roger had been an enjoyable adventure. “Chemists,” she told me, “often love botany.” “Who would have guessed,” she told me, “that we’d be growing and selling jujubes.” She shook her head and laughed.
From the apartment’s kitchen window, you can see the hills and mountains beyond the Meyers’ ten acres. Looking at all the dark green, I remembered something I’d read in a brochure published by the California Rare Fruit Growers Association, something about how North County was paradise, how you could grow almost anything you wanted there. Kiwis. Jujubes. Mulberries. Rare and wonderful things. It was a kind of heaven.
“When we bought our land here in the mid-1970s, it was the middle of nowhere,” Shirley told me. “We bought ten acres for $40,000. It was very isolated. And now people are building homes here. There are housing developments. If you look over to the east you’ll see this big house on top of a hill. It’s like a lot of the big new homes out here, built by retirees. A woman lives alone in that huge house. She’s a widow now. I think she’s lonely. Yesterday she brought me down a plate of zucchini bread. I think she just wanted someone to talk to.”
The zucchini bread sat untouched on Shirley’s kitchen counter. Outside in the hot sun, Facciola filled brown paper bags with pounds of jujubes. Honey Jars. Russian 2s.
“I have to take just a few with me,” he said. “The season comes only once a year.”
Facciola, normally low-key, understated, was ecstatic among the jujubes. I noticed, as we spent more time together, that he came to life only in the presence of plants he loved. I saw this happen on two other occasions. We went to pay a call on Ben Poirier, a collector of tropical and subtropical fruiting plants. Poirier has transformed an acre of Fallbrook land into a jungle so dense and exotic that you expect to hear panthers growl in the underbrush and monkeys chatter overhead. Poirier estimates that he has more than 200 different kinds of trees on his land, among them allspice and bay rum. (When crushed, the bay rum’s leaves release an aroma of cloves and cinnamon, a note of menthol. The smell is much stronger and cleaner, more complex, than the bay rum aftershave your grandfather might have used.)
Poirier shepherded us through his trees, pointing out his more amazing specimens: the 15-foot-tall Babaco papaya, a hybrid that thrives in South America’s highland areas; the very ugly ice cream bean, a lumpy, acid green banana-size pod whose leathery skin conceals a sweet, perfumy, cotton-candy-like pulp; the Buddha’s Hand tree, a citrus, whose fruit looks like a gnarled bright yellow human hand; the Tacso vine from Ecuador; the Marula berry from Africa…
“But where’s the Prunus salicifolia?” Facciola asked.
“Way over on the other side of the property.”
“Are any ripe?”
“You bet, it’s loaded.”
Facciola sprinted off through Poirier’s jungle.
When I caught up with him, he was pawing at the branches of a tall, dark green tree, popping small red fruits into his mouth.
“The Capulin cherry,” he said between bites. “Another underrated fruit. It’s from Mexico. Doesn’t need a cold climate. And it’s prolific. Look at this tree. It’s filled with fruit! Well, it was more filled before I got here.”
The other time I saw him as happy was when we went to Escondido to see Dennis Sharmahd, a specialist in “edible landscaping.” Sharmahd is a tall, burly fellow with a long brown braided ponytail hanging down his back. He roves around his three acres in a broad-brimmed straw hat. Behind his rustic home he’s built a wood-burning hot tub and an enormous yurt. He dries sage in the enormous yurt. He sells the sage to an essential oils manufacturer in Oregon who sells sage oil to Native Americans who use it to scent their casinos.
“I guess,” said Sharmahd, “the smell keeps the gamblers awake.”
Sharmahd is half-Iranian, half-Anglo. He was raised a Mormon. He describes both his doctor brother and his late physicist father as geniuses.
“I was an intelligent child, but I was more the artistic type, the type that liked plants. While everyone else in my family was off getting their doctorates, they sort of left me in the backyard to eat fruit.”
These days he’s mostly interested in heirloom tomatoes and sunflowers, which he selects and grows for seed. He’s also trying to promote the Brazilian Butia capitata, or jelly palm, which bears small, round, orange-colored fruit. They look unremarkable, but when you bite into them, their juicy, fibrous flesh has an intense pineapple flavor.
“I call it the piña colada palm,” Sharmahd said. “If you crack open the seed, it tastes just like coconut.”
The two of us were pretty much on our own with the jelly palm because Facciola had grabbed a pair of tongs and a big white plastic bucket and dashed off to Sharmahd’s field of prickly pear cactus fruit.
“He’s got mango-flavored ones and papaya-flavored ones. They’re terrific!” Facciola yelled over his shoulder.
“Take all you want,” Sharmahd said needlessly.
He guided me around his property and introduced me to a stubby cactus that produces a raisin-size fruit that tastes like a blueberry. He showed me his Mexican sunflowers, his yard-long beans, his amaranth, his tomatoes.
“The gophers are very particular about the tomatoes. If they find a variety whose roots they like, they’ll eat an entire row. Some years I’ll plant a variety that they really like and it’s like gopher paradise out here. The golden weasel is a gopher predator. I need to attract more golden weasels to my property.”
Facciola came walking toward us, lugging his bucket filled with prickly pears, a contented grin on his face.
“I can go home now.”
As we drove back to Vista, the sun was starting to set, the mountains around us began to turn purple, and often, at the very tops, lights twinkled where new homes had been built.
“I’m getting used to it,” Facciola sighed. “Anymore when I see a mountain without a big pink stucco home on top, it looks strange to me, almost naked.”
He was quiet for a while.
“In our lifetime, all this land up here is going to be houses. Houses and strip malls. Nothing but houses. Most of the rare fruit and vegetable growers will probably be gone. They’ll disappear. The kiwis. The jelly palms. The jujubes. Who’ll remember that they were ever here?”