I don’t do drugs. The only mind-altering activities I engage in is sleep deprivation, and I’d say that my list of vices includes the knee-knocking roster of Splenda, graphic novels, and English Breakfast tea. Oh, and a serious watermelon addiction.
Yes, there have been interventions. Friends have commented on the speed and agility with which I can take a knife longer than my forearm and dissect a Cucurbitaceae. A friend has nervously asked how much money I’ve spent — “today” — on the fruit. My mother has insisted I find a way to slice-and-dice the juice monsters that doesn’t leave a trail of sticky pink evidence in my wake. But despite my daily dose of watermelon, I’d say a good three out of five that I purchase are less than edible. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the whole fruit — tap, tap, tap, fail — or the pre-sliced, Saran Wrap cloaked quarters. I have very bad luck. That is until Hassan.
The scene was one of a noir film. A dark and stormy night, me, clad in dressy clothes, on my way home from a free meal where I left with room for dessert. I pulled up to the market, its lights still on, parking lot empty. Near the outdoor fruit display, under a drooping green awning, a man in an apron stood, inspecting cantaloupes. The first sale on whole watermelons had begun, and a large cardboard box of green orbs loomed behind the apricots. I stood, peering down, intimidated. Pale green, dark green, yellow, stripes, sunspots. Dirt. Tap, tap, tap. Their weight each felt identical in my hands. Shaking each, I heard nothing except for the sound of my stomach. I was jonesing for my fix.
“Can you help me, sir?” I asked the man, whose white, wide smile broke across his face. He knew.
“You want a watermelon,” he said. “I’ll help you.”
He gazed down into the abyss and lifted one from below the pack.
“This is where the magic is,” he said. I thanked him.
“In my country,” he added, “We just go like this –” he pointed at invisible watermelons dancing before his vision. “This one, not this one, this one, not this one.”
“But how do you know?” I asked.
“You can just tell,” he said.
Apparently in Senegal watermelon telepathy is innate. This fruit guru, whose name I later found out is Hassan, has been working for the market for years, and has been professionally involved in produce for nearly three decades. The produce manager for a large department of fruit and veggies, he’s broadened my kaleidoscope of natural nutrients, plucking the most golden pineapple for my barbecuing experiments to explaining why there’s no truly sweet corn this early in the season. “It’s shipped from Georgia right now. New York corn isn’t there yet.” The man I now refer to as my supplier has a job that’s far larger than simply dealing with this small fruit fiend. It turns out that being a produce manager is a far more involved job than simply managing produce.
First of all, the management isn’t simply of the unspeaking, unfeeling, unmoving carrots, kumquats, and celery. It’s of a crew, usually between ten to twenty men and women, depending on the size of the store. The deliveries, displays, and decay all need to be monitored on a day-to-day, sometimes hour-by-hour basis. All complaints from BMW SUV driving soccer moms go to this prime minister of produce. “This asparagus makes my pee smell!” to “These bananas look bruised!” (They’re plantains, lady.) Meetings about what’s in season, where shipments should originate from, and training procedures are all de rigeur for these crop comptrollers. They need to make sure that all deliveries arrive on time, and that the fruits and vegetables are edible, that they aren’t filled with flies, sprayed with plastic or are incorrectly labeled, etc. It’s also difficult to predict the weather, which is kind of like their boss. “You may have something on ad and growers get a rainstorm or it’s too cold. They can’t harvest so I am scrambling to find product,” a manager explains. Even organic, local groceries suffer from this sort of short-notice shortage. It’s tough to predict what will be in season, and sometimes it just isn’t smart enough to ship edibles up from the tropics. The prices aren’t always practical, and there’s always the risk of spoilage.
Usually their days start two hours before store opening, where the days shipments are reviewed and the shelves begin to get stocked. (Produce executives — the berry big-wigs who spend their days in offices more often than at the grocery ground zero of the produce aisle — have longer days. I assume they have strategy meetings with green peppers and perform trust falls with melons.) Pricing their product is an all-consuming, never-ending task. “Sometimes I feel more like a secretary than a produce guy,” one experienced produce manager says. “I have to stay on top of it every day. Like the stock market, prices are always up and down.”
For just under 42K a year, and I assume all the free produce they can eat, being a produce manager has its pluses. I remember speaking with a barfly in Boston who worked for New Seasons’ produce department, among her perks there were good benefits and she was able to take home any of the vegetables and fruit that was about to be pulled to make way for a fresher display. She complained that she couldn’t find enough salad recipes, and I remember an evening where, after she had too much to drink, she began to loudly whine, “Does anybody want my guavas? I have too many guavas.” Which is a funny, funny statement when hollered by a drunken hippie.
I may never work with the substances that give me sustenance, like many a bad drug dealer I would likely consume more of my wares than I’d sell. (”Don’t get high off your own supply.”) But I can respect people who manage the produce I procure. It’s more than simply guess work and people skills, extensive training and a craving for knowledge as voracious as your appetite is required. And now that I’ve worked up one of my own for — what else? — watermelon, I leave you with what’s in season now, some produce picking pointers, and trivia:
– Nine Ways To Tell If Your Watermelon Is Ripe according to the Farmers’ Almanac. Yup, they thump too.
– How To Pick A Ripe Pineapple: Among the tantalizing tidbits on this page includes this remarkable bit of information, those diamond-shaped spikes on the skin of pineapple? They’re each individual fruits. A single pineapple is made up of more than a hundred tiny, seedless fruits.
– Banana storage tips, including refrigeration and partnering them up with apples.
– Bananas In Pajamas.
– Fruit and Vegetable Trivia to whet your appetite:
* The cucumber is a gourd of the same family as pumpkin, zucchini and other squash.
* All sweet peppers start off green, and then change color based on the variety.
* Thomas Jefferson was one of the first Americans to grow tomatoes, which were called “love apples” at the time.
* The Anglo-Saxons included carrots as an ingredient in a medicinal drink against the devil and insanity.