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All Things Green and Edible

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s 11 a.m. as Stephen Facciola greets a visitor to his cottage in Vista, but he blinks and speaks slowly, clearing the cobwebs from his brain.

He’s recovering from another night slaving over “Cornucopia II,” a new edition of his self-published, telephone book-sized guide to fruits, vegetables and other edible plants. It’s part reference and part source book, a treasure trove of odd lore. The 10,000 entries tell how to buy a Moorpark apricot tree, order exotic honeys by mail, determine the Latin name for mugwort or identify the num-num and its uses.

Facciola has devoted 13 years to compiling his magnum opus. “I see myself as a pioneer,” the eccentric, reserved scholar muses in a soft monotone. “I’m combining botany, horticulture and gastronomy. There are plenty of books on edible plants, but they don’t have the same culinary information. Cookbooks, on the other hand, lack scientific coherence.”

Born in New Jersey in 1949, he learned as a young man to garden, collect seeds and forage for wild foods on visits to his grandfather’s country home in Lake Hopatcong. He moved to California in 1978 and worked at nurseries. In fact, the idea for “Cornucopia” germinated at Exotica Rare Fruit Nursery in Vista, where he started collecting catalogs and listing plants. “I’d look for varieties to grow but forget where they came from,” he says, “so I started keeping track.”

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Facciola left Exotica in 1985 to write full time, living on $350 a month of borrowed money. He has never owned a car, getting around by bicycle, public transportation and the kindness of friends. For five years, he visited farms and markets, distilled the listings from 1,300 catalogs and devoured countless arcane tomes such as “The Indigenous Fermented Foods of the Sudan.” “I almost had a nervous breakdown,” he says with a chuckle.

The first edition appeared in November 1990, bearing the imprint “Kampong Publications,” after the home of one of Facciola’s idols, the great plant explorer David Fairchild. Many eminent food writers, including Paula Wolfert, Elizabeth Schneider, Alan Davidson and Kitty Morse, rely on Facciola’s expertise.

Says Morse, who lives nearby, “He’s my walking encyclopedia of fruits and vegetables.” Sometimes he gets so absorbed in his research that he neglects to shop, and Morse brings him food from recipes she’s testing.

In the lush landscape of Vista, in northern San Diego County, Facciola has only to step outside to taste unusual varieties of loquats, white sapotes and wild greens. He’s especially fond of a Pakistani mulberry tree that he bought for a friendly neighbor. The thin, purplish-black fruit up to 3 1/2 inches long look like caterpillars festooning the tree and taste exquisitely sweet.

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Although he prefers to sample foods himself instead of relying on others for his book’s descriptions, he admits that it’s impossible to experience all 10,000 items. “If I tried to do that, I’d never have time to write,” he says.

After the book’s publication, he continued his research, with an added focus on dried, canned and bottled foods. He scoured the shelves of ethnic markets, puzzling out the names of unfamiliar goop in enigmatic packages. The revised edition contains about 15% new material, including categories for smoke flavorings, popping seeds and herbal food tonics. There are also many new mail-order sources so that readers intrigued by his descriptions of unusual olives, dates or rices, for example, can order their own.

Wandering through a neighboring nursery as the afternoon shadows lengthen, Facciola fondles a yellow-fleshed kiwi, not yet ripe. He savors the open air and reflects: “Writing this book is like being put in a room and told you can’t come out for a year and a half. You really have to give up your life to do it. But when I’m done, then I’m free.”

He is done, finally--and, for the moment, free.

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“Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants,” just published, is available for $40, plus $5 postage and applicable tax, from the author at 1870 Sunrise Drive, Vista, CA 92084, (760) 726-0990, and at the Cook’s Library, 8373 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (213) 655-3141.


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