I have a confession that you, the chef who launched “California Cuisine” from her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, might enjoy: I grew up eating rejects.
On our 80-acre family farm near Fresno, California, we raised peaches, nectarines, and raisins. Mom and Dad worked the fields, three kids helped out when we could, and our summers were devoted to the home packing shed. We harvested from June to September. A work crew picked the fruit, and in the shed we sorted and packed them into boxes, ready for shipment to grocery stores.
The peach culls interested me the most. Some were cut or bruised and insects damaged a few, which terrified Dad. (He believed in that old joke: when you eat a peach, what’s worse than finding a worm? Answer: half a worm.) Other culled fruit had aptly named defects: “split pits,” “suture cracks,” or “misshapen.”
Dad hated the green fruit the most because we couldn’t pack them. The phrase “could have been” accompanied each one; the idea of lost potential bothered us all.
But most of all, I loved the soft, overripe, gushy ones. First, the aroma grabbed my attention: these smelled like real peaches. Biting into one, the juices would drip down my cheeks and dangle on my chin. Then, the nectar exploded in my mouth as the pulp slid past the tongue and down the throat. I stopped and savored the moment of pleasure: smacking my lips, sucking my tongue, and still tasting peach. I gorged myself and grew fat.
I was spoiled: I ate the best and expected the best. Yet I was confused: why couldn’t we sell these gems? Dad explained that the fruit would start rotting or “breaking down” as soon as we put them in the box. Once, he brought home a rejected carton with juice dripping from the bottom. It never made it to market.
Dad understood flavors as well as the realities of the marketplace. We set a goal of doing our best and trusted that the old peach varieties would keep ripening after we picked them. If they were good when we packed them, they could become great in transit. But I still savored the rewards for being part of a peach farm. I knew the rejects were often the best.
After college, I came back to the farm and got married. Marcy’s and my dream was to provide learning experiences for our children.
When our daughter, Nikiko, was 13 years old, we treated ourselves to a journey: we followed our peaches to market. Every summer, the family packed specialty boxes for select buyers, usually restaurants or gourmet retailers specializing in organic produce. We tried to make these our best (although Nikiko also knew of the “other” best ones, the gushy culls we ate in the shed).
Yet Nikiko was confused as to why I was so fanatical about culling out those that weren’t quite ripe or had some minor flaw. I was terrified not by the cosmetic defects but rather by the maturity of each peach: I dreamed of perfection. Nikiko blankly stared back as I attempted to expound about the art of growing peaches. I failed in my explanations, my words too abstract, my metaphors confusing.
That summer, we journeyed from our farm in Fresno to the San Francisco Bay Area for a quick trip in the middle of harvest, a rare event for the farmer to pull himself away from his fields. While there, we visited your restaurant in Berkeley. Alice, you had been using our fruits for years. We were honored to be part of your delicious revolution — to eat foods in season and grown locally.
At the restaurant, they were preparing our peaches for dinner desserts. Nikiko saw something I could never convey. Each peach was washed and carefully placed in the middle of a white plate, stem side down. Later, just before serving, they’d add a quick drizzle of color, like a raspberry swirl. Nikiko’s peach stood alone, as the centerpiece. She stared at the trays and smiled; I sensed a type of closure. She now understood how the peaches were served, eaten, and hopefully enjoyed. She learned of perfection only by knowing the rejects.
Our second child was a son named Korio who was much more relaxed while growing up, as were his parents. He, too, spent summers in the packing shed and worked hard, though he’d rather play. He delighted in our annual summer ritual — with each different variety of peach or nectarine, I’d find the first ripe piece of fruit from the orchard and share it with the family.
We’d stand around the butcher-block island in the kitchen, taking a thin slice of the latest treasure and grinning when it melted in our mouths. I wanted to teach a sense of value to the kids: as we all did our best and if nature cooperated, we just might, with luck, get close to perfection.
There were contradictions, I tried to explain, such as growing something that may be getting so expensive our friends couldn’t afford them. But value was all relative and personal. This was much too complex for the then 10-year-old Korio, so he simply asked for another slice.
I decided to show a real-life example of value to him, so we visited a local grocery store. I explained that the price of our organic fruit — which may sell for three dollars a pound — was actually not that expensive. First, I hoped people ate all of the fruit because it was ripe and didn’t waste half and toss it away. Second, you had to compare prices relative to each other. So I selected Twinkies as an example. The three-ounce sugary sweet treat sold for about a dollar. I calculated that to be over five dollars a pound, and told my son, “See, now which is more expensive?”
He carefully eyed the sponge cake with cream filling, then looked at his father and nodded. I felt proud, having taught a lesson about values — both in our work as a family farm and the real price of foods we eat. I turned to walk out, but was interrupted.
“But Dad,” Korio pleaded, pointing to the packages of Twinkies. “Aren’t we going to continue the research and buy some to take home?”
I felt rejected. All I could do was weakly smile.
Food lessons will always be with us, part of our continuing education. Right, Alice?
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