I’m a Doll

Chioggia radicchioThe 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.

Red Cabbag CornucopiaShe 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.

Tote of chioggia radicchioI couldn’t think of a thing to say.

“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.

Photo Essay: Whistler-Wilson Ranch

The Whistler-Wilson Ranch is an amazing property that the Big Sur Land Trust recently acquired with the intention of passing it along to a public entity. The land lies up San Jose Creek behind Monastery beach and borders both the Palo Corona Regional Park, Point Lobos State Reserve. This winter I took Red on a walk up the canyon to the top of the ranch to survey wind and rain damage to the ranch roads. Here’s a short photo essay from that walk.
Red following me up the redwood canyon from the beach.1. Red following me up the redwood canyon from the beach. She goes slowly because there’s so much to inspect. I saw weird mushrooms, flowers, and bobcat tracks. The Whistler-Wilson Ranch is unusual in that it has native redwoods and Monterey Pines growing next to each other.

Whistler-Wilson Ranch Essay photo #2






2. We got to the old cabin and looked out at the meadow from the porch. You feel like you’ve gone back a hundred years here.







Whistler-Wilson Ranch Essay photo #3

3. I started up the hill and looked back through the sycamore trees at the meadow. The hills are steep so as you ascend you go through different ecological zones quickly.

Whistler-Wilson Ranch Essay photo #4




4. Sycamores like the wet canyon bottoms. After leaving them we came to the live oaks shrouded in Spanish moss. Spanish moss is a lichen and it’s very sensitive to air pollution. You can tell the air is clean here from all the lichen hanging from the branches.

Whistler-Wilson Ranch Essay photo #5

5. When we got up higher we could look down on the hunting cabin tucked away in the redwoods.

Whistler-Wilson Ranch Essay photo #6






6. On the south facing slopes there were early wildflowers; Indian paintbrush and wild iris.




7. Back into the oak forest on the north facing slope.

Whistler-Wilson Ranch Essay photo #7

8. And voila! Up on top of the hill looking down on Point Lobos. Preserving this property is a significant step in preserving the integrity of a very sensitive and vulnerable ecosystem.

Whistler-Wilson Ranch Essay photo #8



Photos by Andy Griffin.

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