Fresh broccoli is health food, but it almost killed me. It was in the early 1980s, when I worked at Star Route Farm in Bolinas. After a day in the fields, I’d walk downtown, buy a six pack at the liquor store, and sit on the sea wall at the end of Brighton Street looking out over the ocean. When it wasn’t foggy I could see the San Francisco peninsula off to the southeast across the Gulf of the Farallons. As the evening sky grew dark, the distant city lights would brighten, and soon San Francisco would float free from the hills she’s moored to and sparkle in the night from across the water like a magical ship. If I was going to make the drive south to the city later that night to deliver the farm’s harvest, I wouldn’t drink. But San Francisco glittered all the same for being so near at hand yet so far from my world at the same time.
Now that the largest organic farms are owned by the largest corporate farms, and most of the little independent hippie natural food stores have been swallowed whole by the big fish, vegetables are displayed for retail like sculptures or jewels and it’s funny to think back to those early days of the natural food movement when consumers half expected organic vegetables to be beat up, wilted, or dirty compared to “regular store-bought vegetables.” Some perverse customers even needed organic produce to look battered, as if being unclean or un-cooled was proof that the vegetables had really sprung from the earth. In the early eighties Star Route Farm had thirty acres under cultivation, which made it one of the largest organic farms in California. The vegetables we grew were beautiful in the field. But the industry was young then, and farmers and store keepers alike lacked the tools, and sometimes the knowledge, to perform the post-harvest handling procedures that could help deliver on the whole promise of organic, fresh and natural.
Take broccoli for example. Truly fresh broccoli is a revelation. When I worked at Star Route Farm I didn’t earn much money, and I saved my wages for important things, like beer and toilet paper. ate everything I could from the fields. The first time I cut a head of broccoli and steamed it four minutes later, I was amazed . The broccoli had a sweetness I’d never tasted before. Any dressing or sauce would have only clouded the fresh purity of the flavor. But to deliver some facsimile of that green sweetness to a distant customer is tricky. As broccoli ages it begins to express the odor and flavor of the mustard oil that is a characteristic component of every member of the Brassica family, from arugula to broccoli to cabbage to kale. Nowadays, organic growers follow the same post-harvest handling practices for broccoli as chemical farms do. These procedures help retain some semblance of freshness in the crop over time and distance. But back then post harvest technology was beyond our reach and the economies of scale that make it possible were not yet present.
As soon as commercial broccoli is harvested it’s packed into a waxed cardboard carton, and the boxes are stacked on a pallet. The pallet of broccoli is then fork-lifted into a hydro cooler, where water chilled to 34 is rained down through the boxes, washing away the field heat, until the core temperature of the broccoli drops into the thirties. Then the pallet of chilled broccoli is forked from the hydro cooler into a chamber where each box is pumped full of slush ice so that the broccoli is embedded in a square artificial glacier. The broccoli is then held in a refrigerated warehouse until it’s sold. The ice melts, but it melts slowly, trickling cold water through the broccoli stems. After the sale, the refrigerated truck that comes to carry the broccoli away backs up to the portal of the refrigerated warehouse until the rubber lips of the insulating diaphragm .kiss the square mouth of the refrigerator trailer and create a seal. Then the doors are raised, and the pallet of broccoli is trundled from the refrigerator warehouse into the refrigerated trailer. The doors are closed, the truck pulls forward, the lips unlock, and the truck drives off across America.
The pallets of broccoli will move from the reefer truck into another refrigerated warehouse at a regional distribution center. Food scientists will tell you that it is almost as important to the shelf life of green vegetables that the temperatures they’re stored at be stable as to be cold. Fluctuating temperatures cause tissue breakdown, just as warm temperatures do. At the regional distribution center pallets of broccoli are broken down into smaller units for delivery in other refrigerated trucks to outlying stores, where the boxes of broccoli will be stored in walk-in coolers. From there, individual bunches of broccoli will be lifted from the boxes where they nest, and laid out for the consumer to ogle on beds of crushed ice, or perhaps stacked in a pyramid beneath florescent lights and treated to an intermittent icy mist. These are the links in the “cold chain” that makes our “fresh anytime anywhere produce departments” in chain stores possible. Unless or until the frantic increase in the cost of oil one day makes waxed boxes, water chillers, freezers, ice, and trucking too expensive to ignore, it’s this cold chain that makes fresh broccoli cheap enough to waste.
But in the early eighties in the natural food industry was only just coming to grips with the techniques of post harvest handling or the goal of serving a national market. For Star Route Farm, as for most organic farms in the greater Bay Area, marketing a crop meant harvesting vegetables during the day and hauling them to Veritable Vegetable in San Francisco at night. Veritable Vegetable, or “V.V.” to produce insiders, was a feminist organic produce distributor collective. The women at V.V. delivered to the all the little hippie health food stores. Veritable has matured into an institution. Even men work there now. It makes me happy to see Veritable’s trucks on the road today because I know she’s a survivor that’s managed to evolve in the face of stiff competition. When the women at V.V. complained to us that our broccoli was turning yellow we had to listen. They suggested we find some way to ice it down.
We didn’t have an ice machine on the farm, and we didn’t know where to go to buy one that could
make the quantities of the crushed ice slurry we would need, so my boss had me buy ice in town. There isn’t much town between Bolinas and San Francisco, especially if you consider I delivered at night in a big truck that was hard to park. So I’d leave the farm around nine PM, late enough to avoid traffic, but early enough to get to the liquor store before it closed for the night. I’d drive slowly around the Bolinas lagoon to avoid hitting animals. The eyes of the racoons and possums crossing the highway to forage for food on the tidal flats would flash in the glare of the headlights. Just past Stinson Beach I’d gear down for the slow grind up the grade that hugs the rocky cliffs. I’d stay in low third past Slide Ranch and gear down even lower for the descent to Muir Beach. The swirling fog in the headlights was disorienting, but I’d keep the window cracked open so the fresh air would keep me alert, and I could smell the brine of the ocean and hear the boom of the surf at the bottom of the cliffs. The uphill grade past Green Gulch was steep, and the road downhill into Tam Junction was curvy. I wouldn’t pick up speed until I got onto southbound 101.
The streets of San Francisco were jarring after the wilds of West Marin. I’d blink against the brightness and watch for drunks and tourists instead of coons and possums. Veritable Vegetable was located in the warehouse district south of Army Street. I’d stop at a liquor store on Bayshore Boulevard that was nearby and stayed open late. The night clerk got to know me. He couldn’t leave the register, but he’d take my money, hand me the keys to the freezer they had out in back, and I’d load all the bags of ice they had in their cooler onto my truck. I’d spread the boxes of broccoli out across the loading dock at V.V. and open them. Then I’d rip open the bags of ice, one by one, and pour the ice into the boxes, then close them, re-stack the pallet, and roll it into Veritable’s cooler. It wasn’t cheap, it wasn’t efficient, and it probably wasn’t even effective, but back then, that was the best we could do.
One night when I got to the liquor store both lanes of Bayshore Boulevard were blocked by a couple of pimps with flashy cars. I don’t know for sure they were pimps. They could have been librarians dressed to kill, out for a night on the town in dark glasses and comporting themselves like fighting cocks, so that ignorant country boys like myself would presume they were successful pimps. The casual manner they took the whole street for their own was threatening. I parked behind them and stepped into the liquor store.
“Sorry Boss,” the clerk said. “No ice in back, but you can take what we’ve got in the store.” He waved me towards the refrigerator cases full of beer. “It’s closing time anyway.”
I went down the aisle, past the display racks of potato chips and the shelves of cheap wine. In the back corner there was a freezer locker with some ice— not enough that I’d be able to ice down the broccoli in conformance with optimum post harvest protocol, but more than I could haul out to the truck by hand. I went to get my dolly.
The two pimp/librarians were still blocking the street, but out of their cars now, strutting, boasting and swaggering. They knew each other, but it wasn’t clear they liked each other. One of the girlfriends was thirsty. “Come on baby,” she called out over the dissonant blare of music pulsing and clashing from both cars’ stereo systems. “Get me a drink.”
I pushed my dolly back to the liquor store, and proceeded to the rear of the store. I laid the dolly down so I could load it. I was on my knees pulling out ten pound sacks of ice when I heard the two pimp/librarians push their way into the store. Ding went the bell. They both wanted liquor— Courvoisier for the one, Johnny Walker for the other. And they each wanted to be served first. It
wasn’t going well for the clerk, who had to decide which arrogant prick of a customer to offend. I straightened up to pull my dolly. From where I stood I could see that the clerk had slipped one hand under the register. Just then, another man entered the store, white, bald, and wearing a camouflage army surplus jacket. He grabbed the first bottle of wine he came to and shoved it onto the counter next to the register.
The pimp/librarians pushed forward to object, and the white guy reached to pull a handgun out of his jacket. If he was intending to rob the store, he’d picked a bad night. Before he had his pistol drawn and leveled, the clerk and both pimp/librarians pulled their guns on him. I dropped down behind the Cheetos and the Ding Dongs. There was a frozen moment while the bald man with the gun decided whether or not he cared if he got shot. The clerk broke the ice.
“No worries Boss, just leave”
And he did, moving slowly backwards out onto the sidewalk. I peeked around the snack rack. The clerk pushed the two bottles of liquor towards the pimp/librarians.
“Thank you sirs. On the house. Come back soon. We’re closed for tonight.”
If delivering produce into the city in the middle of the nights had its film noir moments, there were things about it to appreciate too. The night-shift always plays by its own rules. Meddlesome middle managers are tucked away in bed. Working nights means never getting enough sleep, but the stress of having your circadian rhythms scrambled is partly compensated by a degree of freedom not often seen during the day. There’s a “we’re in this together” feeling that gives you something in common with everyone else you meet, and there’s a camaraderie among strangers at night that’s missing in the daylight.
I remember one night run from the farm into the city. It had rained off and on all day, and at dusk the storm intensified. I left the farm at ten in the evening and drove slowly around the Bolinas lagoon. The tide was rising. The incoming wall of sea water acted like a dam at the mouth of the lagoon and blocked the outward flow of rain water streaming down off the ridges of the G.G.N.R.A. The lagoon was full to the brim and wavelets already lapped at the pavement. At Stinson Beach the wind hit the broad side of the truck like it was filling a sail. Highway One was closed ahead due to a mud slide, so I turned up the Panoramic Highway and away from the coast to take a detour over the shoulder of Mount Tam. There was no traffic and no creatures to be seen. All intelligent sentient beings were snug in their nests, tucked under rocks, sheltered in the holes of tree trunks. The road was covered in twigs and fir needles whipped from the trees by the wind. I stared into high beams and navigated around loose rocks in the roadway. When I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge I felt the full force of the gale, and I held the steering wheel tight in both hands to keep the truck from bucking.
Trucks that cross the Golden Gate always pass through the toll plaza in the far right hand lane. Since I entered the city on a regular schedule, every Tuesday and Thursday around eleven PM, I’d gradually came to know by sight the woman who worked for the Bridge Authority taking tolls. When her mustache and beard grew out enough to contrast oddly with her eyeshadow and rouge it became obvious, even to me, that she was a transvestite. I’m embarrassed now to say that I told jokes at her expense back on the farm, because she had wings under her vinyl windbreaker.
When I pulled up to her booth that night she was waiting for me.
“You hauling potatoes, sugar?” she shouted up.
“How’d you know?”
“You’re allover the scanner! Northbound C.H.P. turned around to look for you. Your potato box lids have been blowing off all across the span.”
“No shit!” she replied. He’ll ticket you . Littering. Spilling your load. Causing a traffic hazard! Take the Presidio off-ramp. They won’t look for you there.”
I gave her my money and took her advice, dodging back into the cover of the tall black cypresses in the Presidio. Sure enough, when I got to Veritable Vegetable the top layer of potato boxes, 50 in all, were missing their lids. I hadn’t secured the plastic tarp well and it had blown away, exposing my cargo. The strong winds I encountered on the Golden Gate must have sent the lids flipping and twirling off in the night like bats. The potatoes were wet from the rain and glowed bright red under the florescent lights in the warehouse.
The following morning I returned to San Francisco in my Volkswagen bug with a load of dry potato
box lids folded flat so the warehousewomen could efficiently stack the order I’d delivered. As I crossed the bridge I stayed in the far right lane hoping to thank this person I’d been making fun of, but she was gone. I guess she only worked graveyard. I never saw her again.
Several years ago in the dead of winter I took my family for a vacation in the City. It rained the entire time, but we had a nice time anyway. Some friends who were off traveling let us house-sit their home in Sutro Heights. Late one afternoon I took my daughter, Lena, and my son, Graydon, for a walk in a lovely park that perches high on the cliffs above Ocean Beach, and we wandered down the rain washed city streets to Baker Beach The clouds over the sea lifted long enough for me to see the outline of Bolinas Head on the northwestern horizon. So much had changed in twenty five years. The same rocky Marin Headlands, the same black cypresses in the Presidio, the same gray, choppy water under the Golden Gate Bridge, but I was different. I had my own farm now, south of San Francisco, with a wife, kids, employees, and a sagging body to care for.
My kids got bored as I stood there looking out across the Golden Gate, and they tugged at me to
leave. So I left. I knew what had happened to the organic food movement I’d come of age in, and I
keep in touch with my friends at Star Route Farm, but I left wondering whatever happened to the clerk, the pimp/librarians, the thief, and my drag queen toll taking angel. So much water under the bridge, but what a beautiful bridge.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin