Fall 2006

It’s a Fruit, Goddamn It!

The old man and the tomato

Barry Sanders

Photo FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Thesis: You Gotta Love Tomatoes
My old man sold fruits and vegetables. Mostly, though, he sold tomatoes. The Irving Sanders Tomato Company, that’s what he called his business. Every once in a while, a letter would arrive addressed to Mister Tomato. That’s him, the tomato king, and he talked as if he knew everything about tomatoes. How much there was to know about them, I wasn’t quite sure. “It’s a fruit, the tomato,” he would say. “Your average person doesn’t know that. Most people think it’s a vegetable, but it’s a fruit. I guarantee you. It’s a fruit, goddamn it!” And to make sure I knew what a fruit was, he would add, “You know, like an orange or an apple—a fruit.”

He liked telling me over and over that tomatoes are never picked ripe; that they’re picked green—hard, so they can withstand shipping—and then, when he got hold of them, he would say, he gassed them with ethylene. That’s what all the wholesale produce guys used, ethylene. A worker would stack the tomatoes lug upon wooden lug in a small room fitted with nozzles on the ceiling, close the door, and then turn a handle two or three times until he heard a steady hiss. I don’t think my father ever saw the awful connection. At least he never mentioned it. “In no time at all,” he would say, “you got yourself a roomful of bright red tomatoes. Your average housewife,” he would shake his head, “they don’t know about tomatoes; they just want them round and shiny, bright red. That’s all they know, they got to look good. Uniform. You get a tomato with a funny shape, you can’t give it away. Even if it tasted like gold, I couldn’t give it away. But let me tell you, if they don’t ripen on the vine, they’re not worth a damn. That’s why in this family we do not eat gassed tomatoes. What I bring home got ripe the natural way, on the vine. I get them special. Right out of the ground. For us.”

He smelled like tomatoes. I mean, he hung around them for so many hours, in such close quarters, he actually smelled like tomatoes. His clothes, his skin, his hair: I could tell when he was coming through the front door—a 220-pound tomato. My father was the first person to package tomatoes—three or four—in a small container, sealed in plastic, instead of displaying them in the supermarket in bulk. “Your average housewife,” he told me over and over, “she doesn’t want to search through every goddamned tomato looking for the perfect ones. So you give her three good ones, and you stick her with one that’s bad. She has to cut out a little bit of rot, is that such a big deal? Otherwise, I got to dump an entire carload of fruit and, boom, there goes the price, sky high. So she wins in the end. Look, the bum side you always put down, that way they look nice—round and red. Pretty. Use your common sense. That’s what people want today. I swear to God, it’s not food anymore. I don’t know what they want, but it’s not food. Window dressing maybe. Everything’s a goddamned show these days.”

He came to this country from Russia—the Ukraine, Odessa actually—just after the pogroms got under way in ’06 or ’07. Fresh off the boat, he sold fruits and vegetables with a pushcart on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on Hester Street, to help support his mother and father. He was a gangster movie, a tough guy, and even fought a few semi-pro prizefights. A lot of Jews boxed in those days, like Barney Ross and Benny Leonard. And a lot of them, along with the Italians, sold fruits and vegetables. The Italians got the grapes and the lettuce, sometimes the asparagus; the Jews got the tomatoes, the potatoes, the cucumbers, and a few of the melons—Cranshaw and Honeydew. But mainly the tomatoes. I now know why, but it took me a long time to find the answer.

For a very long time, he spoke no English—only Russian and Yiddish. In this country, even if you don’t know the language, you can sell anything to anyone. Did he love fruits and vegetables? I always thought so: he had control over them; they didn’t talk back. He made up stories that they were filled with vitamins—A, C, D, F, M. Later, with a wink, he added R. Tomatoes cured heart disease, cancer, arthritis, the common cold, and on and on. I think he may have truly loved tomatoes. Beyond that, I do not really know what he loved.

In the 1920s, my father gave up the pushcart and moved to Newark, New Jersey, to sell produce, as he said, like the pros. During Prohibition, when his business fell off, he got hired to drive his trucks for some mobsters—Jews mainly—like Irving Waxy Wexler, Longy Zwillman, and Mickey Cohen. Hooch, he liked to say, he moved hooch around for the mob. His whole life, he counted wise guys as his best friends. “Don’t let anyone tell you they ain’t nice,” he liked to brag, “because that’s just plain crap. Zwillman’d give me the shirt off his back— if I asked nicely. Without them guys, this family would not have made it.” They paid my old man well, too well, and always in cash. All his life, he loved to carry a huge wad of bills in his pants pocket, a roll held together with a thick rubber band, twisted double and tight. He was the kind of guy who spit on his fingers when he peeled off tens or twenties. Lots of working stiffs in those days spit on their hands before they pitched into some serious work, like digging a ditch, loading a truck, or peeling off bills to pay a gambling debt.

Oh yeah, that’s the other thing he loved, gambling—on anything. He liked to say if he got good enough odds, he would bet on the sun coming up. But he loved shooting craps, playing the numbers, card games like poker, pinochle, or his favorite, an arcane Eastern European concoction called klabiash. And the races, my god, how he loved the horses. You see, you get a lot of free time if you sell fruits and vegetables—produce—wholesale. The market starts around midnight or one in the morning, and by six, certainly by seven in the morning, it is all over. The buying stops.

When our family moved out to Los Angeles, my father proudly recreated his business in one of the largest and oldest wholesale produce centers in the world, City Market. It had been opened in 1909 alongside the railroad tracks, at Ninth and San Julian Streets, by Japanese, Chinese, and Russian immigrants. My father felt right at home. The Market grew fast. By 1945, when he arrived, it already covered twenty or more square blocks in the middle of the dark downtown streets of LA, just a couple of blocks from Skid Row. It looked like the best of film noir. MGM and Paramount shot there often. John Garfield walked its streets almost as often as my father. I saw a guy get his neck sliced wide open in a craps game on a street corner when I went to work one night with my father. The sidewalk turned blood red, tomato red. It was definitely not a movie.

“Do me a favor,” he pleaded, “find yourself another line of work. Do not spend your life doing this. This is not a line of work. You got me? When someone asks, ‘What do you do, kid?’ you cannot say ‘fruits and vegetables,’ because that is not a line of work. A lawyer, a doctor, that’s a line of work. You got me? You stay in school. Nothing good happens here.”

So what do you do from, say, seven in the morning, when the market closes, until three or four in the afternoon, when it’s time to go to bed, so that you can get up for work that starts again at midnight? You’ve got the whole day in front of you and a lot of easy cash. You don’t go to the library, especially not when you’ve only had a third-grade education. (Besides, there’s no library or movie theater for miles.) Anyway, what you do if you are in the wholesale produce business and you have all that free time and cash, is that you gamble a good deal of the time away with your cronies, the other produce dogs at the City Market. Now, if you are from the Ukraine, then you welcome the day by going to the Russian steam baths on Pico Boulevard and drinking schnapps and playing pinochle. And when Hollywood Park, or Santa Anita, or Del Mar finally opens, around eleven or twelve, then you head out with your buddies to lay off one or two hundred bucks on that morning’s inside tip. At the track, my old man would read the Form, eat, and drink, all the while bitching and whining about the price of FOB tomatoes. They would not, of course, miss the chance to play a few more hands of pinochle in between each race.

By the time he got home around four or five, he was too full and too drunk to eat dinner with the family. So he would typically turn on the TV, watch wrestling for a half hour, and fall into a coma on the couch. If he lost big, he would go to sleep cursing his luck. Periodically, he would wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, or worse yet, not get up and vomit all over himself.

He consumed Alka-Seltzer tablets like chickpeas. He swore that every person he ever met—including my mother and brother—was stealing him blind. My mother tried to stay out of his way. I stayed completely out of his way. Little by little, tomatoes started to scare the hell out of me. They reminded me too much of his life, his furious, unpredictable, eruptive, and shadowy life. When I saw The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, I immediately thought of my old man. I even had a hard time with ketchup, a substance we were forbidden to have in the house because the Heinz Company—obviously German—made their sauce out of the leftovers, the bottom of the barrel, the rotten of the rotten. Absolute crap.

Dig slightly below the level of the mob, and you’ll come face to face with the wholesale fruit and vegetable business. It was its own kind of underworld, designed to be sordid: the life is a fast-paced, all-male, cash-based affair, transacted in the darkest hours of the night. Customers knew better than to ask for a receipt. Truckloads of fruits and vegetables—worth thousands of dollars—got sold with just a handshake or a nod of the head. Skimming cash is a way to beat the odds. Produce men pay off the cops to leave them alone. Hookers—the “hot tomatoes”—strolled by every few minutes. Bookies were on first-name basis with every sales guy. Runners made their way from produce stall to produce stall carrying punch cards. Punch out the right number and win an easy fifty or even a hundred-dollar bill.

Produce is the ultimate hustle; you have to stay on your toes. Fruits and vegetables are perishable. The entire inventory has to be sold and sold fast. Buyers want fresh. They all demand the goods that came in that very morning. You always have to have fresh. Not exactly a bold-faced lie, but a really interesting, puffed-up story can make the oldest tomatoes in the warehouse sound as fresh as a newborn infant. And my father knew how to tell a story: he kibitzed, he talked, he persuaded. He loved to tell the same joke over and over. Out of the house, he was everybody’s pal. And he sold. He was good. Damned good. Most of the top accounts he had in his pocket. In the language of the produce mavens, he was a hondler. The guys who sold cukes and melons and potatoes envied the hell out of him.

That was fruits and vegetables in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s in this country. And that’s what America was for my old man, a hit-it-big, bust-it-wide-open democracy. If you loved action, lots of fast action, you could find it in the produce markets in New York, Chicago, and LA. Since everything’s corrupt, you might as well get in on the ground floor and sell fruits and vegetables. Everybody’s got to eat.

While the San Joaquin Valley, in northern California, still reigns as the largest producer of food in the country, the means of production and distribution began to change radically in the late ’60s and early ’70s. By then, the wise guys and the tough guys were all doing time or had died off. The suits took over. Agribusiness, big box stores, genetically modified seeds, and the IRS helped put an end to the old way of life. The City Market has shrunk to one-third its original size, and now shares space with hip art galleries, even hipper clothes designers, and upscale faux delis. The only thing that remains from the old days—even after Cesar Chavez and a revolution in technology—are poorly paid, poorly housed migrant workers from Mexico, who pick the fields in 110 degree heat. They still keep the prices at the supermarkets ridiculously low. They do the work, as George W. Bush says, that no one else wants to do. Which is to say that no white American wants to work ten hours a day at a job of grueling stoop labor that pays less than minimum wage.

My old man turns out to be sort of right: the shopper still pays fairly low prices; good-looking tomatoes win out over the morphs. Most tomatoes are still gassed. Our first line of defense against cancer, cholesterol, obesity, and hypertension—fruits and vegetables—is for the most part in the hands of Monsanto and their number one seller, Roundup Ready seeds. Four crops—soybeans, cotton, corn, and canola—make up 95% of the transgenic commercial production in the US. Soybeans comprise 75% of the total area planted with genetically modified seeds. Farmers grow strawberries on gargantuan sheets of polyvinyl chloride. The first genetically modified food approved by the FDA was the Flavr-Savr tomato in 1993, produced by the biotech company Calgene. The controversy over so-called Frankenfoods caused Calgene to pull the Flavr-Savr from the market in 1997. The Department of Agriculture at the University of California, Davis, however, continues to design newer and ever-better tomatoes, giving them less evocative names, like the M-44 and the C-80.

Over all these years, from the 1920s to now, tomatoes have persisted as the litmus test, the mine canaries of cuisine. One hears the question over and over: “When’s the last time you had a tomato that tasted like a tomato?” Most people answer, “When I was a kid, I think.” Inert, inedible tomatoes are a sure sign, for millions of Americans, of the death of civilization. A handful of rare heirloom tomato seeds sells on Ebay at Beluga caviar prices.

Barry Sanders’s father in the market in the late 1940s. Sanders writes: “The person holding the receipts in the center of the photograph is my old man. The picture, taken for a local LA newspaper such as the Herald Examiner or the Star News, ran alongside a story on the LA produce markets. The photographer took the shot from the accounting office located above the warehouse floor, a perfect lookout for spotting cops or other unwanted visitors. My old man is surrounded by lugs of tomatoes, some of which have been stamped 5x5 or 6x6, numbers which translate into sizes. A 5x5, for example, means five rows of five tomatoes each; a 6x6 contains six rows of six tomatoes each—the tomatoes in the first category are obviously larger than in the second. The photograph was staged. If it were a candid shot, my father would no doubt be clutching a handful of cash rather than fingering a few receipts. The bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label is also conspicuously absent.”
Antithesis: You Gotta Hate Tomatoes
Tomatoes belong to the solanaceae, or Deadly Nightshade family, so named because they contain the poisonous alkaloid, solanine. Solanum in Latin means “nightshade.” Frightened? Just check www.tomatoesareevil.com, the website devoted to the proposition that the humble tomato is the root of all evil. You’ll never eat another one. For starters, you’ll discover that tomatoes are cousin not only to the eggplant, red pepper, and potato, but to the highly toxic belladonna, as well. Botanists count an astonishing 10,000 varieties of tomatoes, all of them containing trace elements of nicotine, which some doctors insist can promote an addiction every bit as tenacious and debilitating as cigarettes. So frightening is this category of plants that one can find warnings of its side effects from one of England’s earliest poets, Aelfric, in the year 1000, in his Chronicles of Britain.

More than any other food, the tomato had to undergo an astonishing journey to become today’s standard accompaniment to, say, almost every one of the billions of hamburgers that people consume around the world every year. The tomato went from a poisonous plant to be avoided at all costs to one of the rare treats on the most elegant dinner tables. No other fruit or vegetable, not even the avocado or the artichoke, can claim such a thoroughgoing and radical reversal.

The Aztecs cultivated the plant as early as 700 AD. Thus, tomato is one of the few words in English that derives from the Uto-Aztecan language, specifically from the Nahautl word, xitotomatl, “plump fruit,” which got shortened to the simpler tomatl. Some historians believe that Cortés brought the tomato back to Europe, to Seville, an early version of the City Market, which distributed produce to Italy and the Low Countries. Whether Cortés carried the plant back or not, when the tomato finally made its way to England, people could not even bear to speak its name. For instance, while the British began cultivating tomatoes as early as the 1580s, the word does not appear in English until some twenty years later, as if naming it made the tomato too real and permanent. When botanists finally named the plant, in 1604, they kept its Hispanic root in its new name, tomate, making certain that no one mistake this plant as native to British soil.

Farmers in England found the tomato unfit for consumption even by wild animals, and grew them exclusively as ornamental plants. For one thing, botanists mistook the fruit’s Italian name Pomo d’oro, the “golden apple,” for Pomo d’amoro, “love apple,” prompting authorities to issue strong warnings against its consumption, as a most potent aphrodisiac. As if that were not damning enough, the British also believed that the tomato was a hallucinogen, which could induce grand visions of flying. This helped to forge a close symbolic connection between tomatoes and those creatures who spent a good deal of time airborne—witches. And since witches had a special talent for conjuring werewolves, it prompted the eighteenth-century botanist John Hill to classify the tomato as lycopersicon lycopersicum, or “wolf peach.”

All of this with one glaring exception. Which helps to explain my father’s own fascination with tomatoes. Historians have found recipes using tomatoes in English cookbooks used by Sephardic Jews who had emigrated from Spain and Portugal. Other Jews, from Europe and Russia, quietly embraced the lowly tomato as well. One of the principal outsiders, the Jew, made friends with the weirdest outsider fruit of all time, the tomato. Jews and tomatoes: who would have thought it? It turns out that my old man worked in an ancient, established tradition.

In fact, the tomato’s outsider status helps explain why my mother owned a pincushion in the shape of a small, red tomato. I thought it was her clever way to placate my father, making him believe that tomatoes were so important in her life that she even kept one in front of her when she darned his socks (and damned his life). But it turns out that virtually everyone’s mother had a version of the tomato pincushion—all because of homeopathic magic. In many Renaissance households, people placed a tomato on their mantle as a way of containing evil in one evil object, thus helping to ensure prosperity for the family. But tomatoes eventually rot. So people resorted to stuffed models. And since the little cushions possessed a bit of voodoo magic, it held all the pins and needles in the house.

Though it’s hard to imagine, Americans feared the deadly tomato more than did the British, reluctant to treat them even as ornamental. The earliest references to the plant in America come from a herbalist, in 1710, at a South Carolina plantation, who approached the tomato with the same trepidation that sushi eaters approach the blowfish: they might taste wonderful, but I am not dying to find out. He exhibited them on his property as a curiosity. According to the standard work, Andrew Smith’s The Tomato in America, attitudes did not really begin to change until 100 years later when the president himself, Thomas Jefferson, announced in 1809 that he had begun growing tomatoes on his own grounds and serving them at state dinners. By then, the British had had several centuries to get used to tomatoes, and were eating them in at least small amounts. But Americans remained wary. Jefferson was in the last year of his presidency, and who knows, perhaps he thought he had little to lose in recommending them.

Whatever the case, Jefferson’s endorsement did not help. Americans needed more pizzazz, more flash, in their testimonials. This is a country, after all, with a long history of mountebanks. We invented the Shopping Channel. Americans need outrageous claims, unbelievable guarantees, and wild promises. A local entrepreneur, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, a huckster straight out of Huckleberry Finn, gave the public exactly what it needed. He took an ad in a local Salem, New Jersey, newspaper boasting that he would consume an entire bushel of the supposed toxic tomatoes in one sitting without missing a single heartbeat. On the afternoon of 26 September 1830, an astonishing two thousand people showed up on the steps of the courthouse in Salem. Johnson’s own physician, James Van Meter, playing the Dauphin to Johnson’s Duke, raised crowd expectations to a fever pitch: “The foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. All that oxalic acid in one dose, and he is dead. If the Wolf Peach is too ripe and warmed by the sun, he might even be exposing himself to brain fever. Should he, by some unlikely chance, survive, I must warn him that his skin will stick to his stomach and cause cancer.” Like some death-defying circus performer, Johnson ate his way through the bushel-full of tomatoes to thunderous applause. The modern tomato was born.

At that moment, acceptance came so fast that, by the late 1830s, several pharmaceutical companies were in fierce competition selling tomato pills, which they guaranteed—in language my father would later use with me—to cure diarrhea, dyspepsia, cholera, and even cancer. During the Civil War, both sides consumed a daily ration of tomatoes—solid enough proof for the whole of the United States, North and South, that tomatoes were as safe as, well, tomatoes.

And certainly safe enough for an unknown fruit merchant named Joseph Campbell and an icebox manufacturer named Abraham Anderson to open their Joseph A. Campbell Preserve Company, in that same state of New Jersey, in the city of Camden, just down the road from my father’s stomping ground, Newark. By 1897, shortly after the company opened, it took an investment gamble and started producing condensed tomato soup. The cans sold so extraordinarily well that the partners quickly changed the name of their operation to the Campbell Soup Company. “Just add water” entered common kitchen lingo. Today, Americans down approximately 2.5 billion bowls of Campbell’s soups yearly, the vast majority of those bowls brimful with tomato soup. It’s only in the summer, and only in Campbell’s state of New Jersey, by the way, that one hears a decisive answer to the Great Tomato Question. “I had a terrific tomato only yesterday,” people eagerly report, “from upstate Jersey. Right from the field. Picked ripe. Not gassed.”

So famous are those tomatoes that, in 2004, a local growers association proposed that the state of New Jersey adopt the tomato as the state fruit. But the tomato simply could not shed enough of its night-shady past to satisfy the bigwigs in the state capital, leaving some lowly fourth-graders from a local elementary school to best the growers. The children lobbied the state assembly through petitions and letters in favor of the much more benign cultivated blueberry. Much to the chagrin of the New Jersey State Growers Association, the blueberry now reigns as the state fruit.

Synthesis: You Gotta Serve Tomatoes
Why wouldn’t Andy Warhol seize on Campbell’s Tomato Soup as the American icon? Joe Campbell had tamed the renegade tomato, vacuum packed it, and delivered it to America in safe metal containers. He added a label white as cleanliness itself—not a witch or a werewolf in sight—with just enough red to suggest that somewhere in the process a tomato had once been present. The color was uniform, the taste absolutely uniform. No one in the family, not even mother, need touch a tomato to serve soup to every person. In a stroke of genius, Campbell had turned those little red bombs into the purity of puree.

Warhol took Joe Campbell a couple of steps farther. He drained whatever bogey was still left in the tomato, whatever fear the public still felt, and re-presented the package as the height of slick. Still frightened by that little red fruit? You don’t even have to eat it. Look, tomato soup has leaped categories. Pop: It’s art! You can buy a can, just like the one Andy used, and put it on your shelf. And admire it. Even in the kitchen, you can be famous.

Warhol showed his first red and white silkscreen in 1962. I had my fifteen minutes of silkscreen fame much earlier—in 1946. Those few moments arrived when my father got the bright idea that he would brand his small tomato packages, BARRY BOY TOMATOES. Was my old man an incipient Warhol? I think not, but on each small box he printed a picture of my eight-year-old face, hovering over the caption, “Oh Boy, Barry Boy, Just The Best.” My father was playing off of existing varieties like Better Boy and Big Boy. He never asked my permission. But I enjoyed hours and hours of fame. I would walk into the Safeway or A & P Market and there I would be, lined up in the produce department, between the corn and the peas, my smile of freshness and quality beaming back at me from dozens of small packages of tomatoes. What I didn’t realize at first, of course, is that all my friends were seeing the same tomato packages, and the same dumb smiling face. Of course, they quickly branded me Barry Boy, or Tomato Boy, or Best Boy. Friends noticed that I, too, was round and rosy, just like a tomato. I was “a fruit,” “a veg,” a general freak.

But there it was—tomatoes were part of me. My father’s advice did not work. How could it? Tomatoes were not just in my blood; he had turned me into a tomato. Was I animal, mineral, or vegetable? No, I was indeed a fruit. I prayed for him to go out of business. My face was a curse. But I was only seven. No worry, in only ten or twenty or thirty short years, I could hopefully grow out of my shame.

And I did. In 1970, after being fired from my teaching job at a local college, after an anti-Vietnam War demonstration, I opened a vegetarian restaurant in Santa Monica, California, which I ran collectively with students who had dropped out with me. I gave the endeavor a bit of Warhol irony by naming it The Health Department. Rolling Stone touted it as the best buy for food in LA. We served only vegetarian meals, only organic fresh fruits and vegetables. We featured the tomato. We served them as a dessert. My father had won. I thought.

Look up the word fruit in the Oxford English Dictionary and here’s what you’ll find: “Vegetable products in general, that are fit to be used as food by men and animals.” According to the principle authority on the English language, the OED, a fruit’s nothing but a vegetable. Try to find the botanical definition of a fruit. That, too, will prove difficult. You won’t find it in the Oxford Companion to Food. The OED won’t reveal it. Only the venerable Larousse Gastronomique comes titillating close: “Botanically speaking the ovary of any growing plant. In current usage, however, ‘fruit’ refers only to those ovaries which may be eaten as dessert.”

No plant eludes the grasp of taxonomy quite like the tomato. It must be a vegetable. Instinct tells us so. Otherwise, we would not so willingly lay a slice on a hamburger patty. My old man, of course, knew better. He had inside info. Though my father would cringe, if he knew it, the tomato is the plant’s ovary, along with its seeds. “Eating a tomato”—the idea’s damned near pornographic.

In 1883, tariff laws in the United States imposed a duty on vegetables but not on fruits. Here was a chance to find out the tomato’s precise status. Newspapers raised the issue: Should the government tax tomatoes? The Department of Agriculture argued the point; botanists, too. The debate continued for a solid decade. And since the politicians and the scientists could not agree, the legal system would have to decide the tomato’s fate. Government lawyers hauled the tomato into the Supreme Court. In 1893, the nine Supremes, in a case known as Nix v. Hedden, classified the tomato as a vegetable, using as definitive proof the fact that people eat tomatoes with their main course and not with, or as, their dessert.

One hundred years later, in an attempt to justify President Reagan’s drastic cuts in the school lunch program, the Chairman of the United States Department of Agriculture, citing Nix v. Hedden, reassured a wary public that the tomato was indeed a vegetable. Reagan’s budget cuts had wiped out all the fresh vegetables on school cafeteria menus, and parents protested. But since the kids still had their ketchup, that was good enough for the Gipper. Ketchup: my father would have yanked me out of school.

In the winter of 1967, at the end of a career spent selling tomatoes, my father lay on his deathbed and told me what a terrifically hard life he had endured. Some part of me just would not buy it, and I asked him: didn’t he actually have a good time those sixty-odd years in the produce market, with all his hard-boiled pals? We were alone; it was the end. He could speak the truth. True to his character to the very end, my father managed a slight Cagney smile and nodded, yes. Then he asked me to promise him something. I said, “Of course.” He looked me in the eye and uttered the last sentence of his life, seven words that allowed me to choose, if I really, truly wanted, fruits and vegetables as my line of work. Here are his last words: “Don’t do the things you don’t enjoy.”

He would have liked my restaurant. I think.

Barry Sanders is professor of the history of ideas at Pitzer College, of the Claremont Colleges. He is the author of fourteen books. The latest, written with Francis D. Adams, is titled Alienable Rights: The Exclusion of African-Americans in a White Man’s Land, 1619–2000 (HarperCollins, 2004). Currently writing a book on the disappearance of the human being in the nineteenth century, he can be found eating heirloom tomatoes, when he gets the chance, with a little Cretan oil and balsamic vinegar in the company of his wife and daughter in his favorite political outpost—Portland, Oregon.

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