Food

Circle C Ranch's immigrant beginnings

Many shoppers at the Hollywood and Santa Monica farmers markets well remember Circle C Ranch for the outlandishly long lines that formed to buy its Persian mulberries. Others fondly recall the connoisseur-quality fruit -- jammy Adriatic figs, super-sweet Seckel pears and Indian blood peaches -- that conjured a virtual cult around the farm and its eccentric co-owner, Kim Blain, who died in 2003. Few people, however, have any idea of the family drama, worthy of Chekhov and Flannery O'Connor, behind the stand, which will resume selling at the Hollywood Farmers Market this Sunday.

Sherry Yard, pastry chef of Spago, adored Kim, and was the stand's most important customer. She says she had always wanted to visit the farm, but Kim continually put her off, saying "not yet, I have to tidy up the place."

But walking in her native Brooklyn a month ago, Yard happened to run into Diane Dimeo, one of Kim's three daughters, and so was inspired to make a pilgrimage, finally, to Circle C. Last Saturday she set off for Lake Hughes, 50 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, to rendezvous with Diane's sister Shaheen Zekavat, and their father, Seid Zekavat, Kim's first husband. And she invited me to go with her.

When Kim was alive, peacocks serving as watch-birds screeched raucously at the approach of cars, but on this visit the driveway seemed oddly silent. Many of the fruit trees that covered the 40-acre property badly needed pruning. As Shaheen harvested cherries, Seid gave Sherry a tour of the farm in a golf cart, hollering to scare off flocks of ravenous crows and recounting the orchard's history.

Born to a high-ranking ayatollah in Iran 79 years ago, Zekavat earned a law degree, and during a time of turmoil for the country in the 1950s he immigrated to the United States. He put himself through school by working at restaurants and clubs and eventually earned a doctorate at USC and became a professor of economics at Loyola Marymount University. He married Kim, a hospital laboratory technician who had immigrated from Korea, and together in 1969 they bought Circle C Ranch, a former turkey farm and juvenile delinquent camp in the foothills where the western Antelope Valley meets the Angeles National Forest.

For Persians a fruit garden is symbolic of paradise, and Zekavat started to plant trees he missed from his homeland, such as mulberries and pomegranates, as well as more common fruits. At first, he recalled, Kim didn't see the point and complained that he wasted time and money planting more fruit trees than they could ever care for or harvest. The marriage was intense but tempestuous, and in the 1970s he and Kim divorced.

In the divorce settlement Kim got the ranch; in time she remarried, to Clarence Blain, a mechanic, and decided that the orchard's produce might be worth something after all, at farmers markets. She devoted countless hours to poring over nursery catalogs and ordering delicious-sounding fruit varieties. She defiantly planted heirloom and home garden varieties, such as muscat grapes, duke cherries and greengage plums, that few other growers, even at farmers markets, were inspired or foolhardy enough to grow. The orchard became her passion.

Kim became a legendary character at farmers markets, both beloved and feared. She placed plastic guards with signs commanding "don't handle" in front of her precious fruit; like the "Seinfeld" "Soup Nazi" character, she wouldn't sell to customers who displeased her. (Clarence was co-owner of the orchard, and assisted her at markets, but always deferred to her, with a grin, as "the boss".) Often when I asked the name of a variety, she smiled slyly and said, in a strongly Korean-accented voice, part schoolmarm, and part Daffy Duck: "You the fruit detective - you tell me!"

Kim's health started to decline, and in 2003 she died of cancer. For several years Clarence continued to sell at farmers markets while wrangling with Kim's daughters over the disposition of the property. Eventually he and his new wife moved to Bakersfield, and Shaheen, the only one of the three daughters living in Southern California, took over maintenance of and sales for the farm, assisted by her father, who has his own, much smaller, property, Z Orchard, nearby. In recent years Yard has bought most of the farm's crop, but when Shaheen finds the time, she and her cousin Parvin sell at the Hollywood farmers market.

"Tending the orchard is a huge amount of work," she said. "At times I've been tempted to give it up, but my mom loved this place so much, I just can't bear to see it lost."

Despite their battles when married, Zekavat remains fond of his ex-wife and the orchard he started with her. Cruising past a scrubby patch in the golf cart, he said that he would clear and plant the area, and name it "Kim's Garden."

After a morning listening to this saga, while feasting on Bing cherries, sour cherries (much rarer in California), preternaturally intense Pakistan mulberries and the first Persian mulberries of the season, Sherry and I prepared to depart, our fingers and tongues stained red, and her mission fulfilled.

Circle C Ranch will sell cherries this Sunday, and mulberries starting in a week or two, at the Hollywood Farmers Market, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Ivar Avenue between Hollywood and Sunset boulevards. The farm is not open to the public, but the nearby M&M Peach Ranch will be open for pick-your-own cherries this Friday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and possibly the next weekend; 48745 Three Points Road, Lake Hughes, (661) 724-1398. Also, Tenerelli Farms is selling Persian mulberries at the Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Hollywood markets.

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