The customer is always right— except, of course, when she’s dead wrong. I should know; for over twenty years I “stood behind my product,” literally and figuratively, in a series of farmers’ markets from Monterey to Corte Madera and I have listened to so many, many customers that I sometimes wonder if there’s anything I haven’t heard. During those years in the markets I made a lot of good friends that I still keep up with. And I had thousands of happy interactions with good-spirited, kind, pleasant, patient, intelligent and understanding people. It says something about my psyche that most of those positive experiences have slipped through my memory like clear water through sand, and now, five years after participating in my last farmers’ market, the people that I remember are often the most problematical individuals I dealt with. We are harvesting radicchio today so one woman in particular shines out of the past like a new penny.
It was a summer morning in San Francisco at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market at its old location down on Green Street. I saw her before she saw me, an elegant woman languidly riding a crest of self-confidence. She swanned into my vegetable stall looking like a million bucks, or rather like a trust fund, two hedge funds, three homes, and a million bucks in liquid assets. After a brief appraisal she selected two heads of Chioggia radicchio. I put the radicchios on the scale. They were big, purple, and heavy. “That will be four dollars,” I said.
She plucked some bills from her purse and handed them to me. “My husband prefers coleslaw made with red cabbage,” she said. “But being Italian, I prefer a shredded cabbage salad made with a Savoy cabbage. I see that you don’t carry it.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. I wasn’t surprised that she was Italian but I’d taken her for an Argentinian. She had that deeply tanned look, with blue eyes, ash blonde hair, gold accessories and a certain Latin-flavored accent to the voice that I’d encountered in upper class women from Buenos Aires.
“But these are Chioggia radicchios,” I said. “Not red cabbages.”
She looked me right in my mud brown eyes. Her baby blues were as cool as an alpine lake in the Val D’Aosta. “Are you going to tell this Italian housewife that she doesn’t know her vegetables?” she asked.
I considered my options.
What I wanted to tell her was that Chioggia radicchio has a deep purple color, not unlike red cabbage, and that upon achieving maturity it forms a ball-shaped head, like cabbage, but that radicchio is a chicory, a member of the Compositeae, like its distant cousins the lettuces, artichokes, daisies, dandelions and sunflowers. Red cabbage, although it looks superficially similar to Chioggia radicchio is classified in the Brassicacea, and like its mustard, radish, and cress relations it will display a distinctive flower with four petals arranged in the shape of a cross when it blooms.
And I wanted to add that radicchio is much-misunderstood by us Americans, who have only recently encountered this vegetable and know it mostly as it appears torn up in pieces as a bright component of the popular ready-shreddy bagged, pre-washed salads. Most consumers here are yet unaware that in Europe this bracingly bitter green is appreciated as a cooking green to be grilled or caramelized. I wanted to share a couple of recipes with her. And I also wanted to tell her that in the 20 years that I’d been growing radicchio I’d seen the seed become more available, and that the variety of radicchio in her hand was called “Leonardo,” and that it was the best, most consistent form of red-headed radicchio I’d ever grown.
She waited for me to speak.
“The customer is always right,” I said.
“Now you’re talking,” she said, and she collected up her purchase and swept off.
So was I a money-grubbing sleazebag, or what?
In my defense, even when I argue with my own wife at home it rarely works out well for me, so I certainly don’t see any percentage in arguing with someone else’s wife on a sunny morning in a beautiful city, especially when “winning” means looking like a dumb peasant, losing four dollars, all the while shaming an entitled Italiana and probably losing her business forever. I’m fine with being a peasant, but I prefer to be a shrewd one. And, simply put, I needed her four dollars more than I needed to be right.
So the following weekend guess who shows up at the market? My Italiana trots her tootsie into the stall and confronts me with a hard look. “That was the worst tasting red cabbage I’ve ever bought,” she said.
“But my husband said it was very nice radicchio.”
“I’m delighted,” I replied.
She rolled her eyes, sighed, and gave me the flash of a smile. “You’re a doll,” she said. Then she bagged two bunches of basil, handed me some money, and exited stage left, back astride her crest of self-confidence, riding towards her next purchase. The difficult ones are hard to forget.
© 2012 Article & Photos of Chioggia Radicchio and Red Cabbage Cornucopia by Andy Griffin.