Twenty minutes after the Wednesday farmer's market in Santa Monica had opened, J. Fitzgerald Kelly and his employees were already griping about what a hectic day it was.
"Business is good--is this a problem?" I asked.
"We're farmers, it's our job to complain," Fitz grinned. Fitz is not the taciturn rustic. He is the loquacious agricultural entrepreneur. "My uncle was a sheep rancher for 40 years and never had a good year. Bought a new Buick every three years, but every year was bad. Want a job? I'm short a worker and I need someone to give out samples--know how to slice a peach? Low pay, no benefits and all the fruit you can carry. C'mon, I guarantee it's more fun than whatever you were going to do today."
How did Fitz pick me? Easy. When I'm between gigs, the words "unemployed writer" glow on my forehead. And Fitz was right about my workday. I have two kinds. One: I sit in a room and write a script that sells. Two: I sit in a room and write a script that doesn't. Yeah, slicing fruit in a crowded market would be more fun.
I begin. I have three plates: one for samples of apricots, one for yellow and white peaches, one for yellow and white nectarines. It's pleasant giving food away, especially this. The yellow fruit is lushly flavored, the white heavy with sugar. The only way to keep the plates filled is to work without pause. Then to work without pause, faster.
This is great. No writer gets to work this fast, this continuously, except in those hilarious scenes in movies about screenwriters, such as "In A Lonely Place," where Humphrey Bogart sits down at his typewriter and pounds away as if he were rehearsing Rachmaninoff. And even then they work alone.
A class of 10-year-olds from an inner-city school is on a field trip. Groups cluster around my table; boys on one side, girls on the other, separated by an invisible boundary. They're familiar with peaches, but for many of them nectarines and apricots were invented this morning. I'm proud of my inventions and urge everyone to have more. As each group leaves, the girls say, "Thank you," and then so do some of the boys.
A serious young man studies the three plates. He extends his hand--stops, millimeters from a slice of nectarine. "Organic?" he asks.
He yanks his hand back and flees.
I hear someone merrily say, "I know you." Of course she does. It's Susan. I've known Susan and her husband for 30 years. Her husband the TV writer, who's going to be way too entertained by this. Before Susan can stop grinning long enough to ask about my new career, I launch a preemptive strike: "I'm doing Fitz a favor."
"Good," Susan beams. "That sounds so much better than 'I'm doing research.' "
Fitz spends half his day selling to normal customers and the other half with Evil Chefs. The market is infested with Evil Chefs from Hot Restaurants. They arrive armed with hand trucks and busboys who skim off the goodies.
As Fitz stacks flats for an Evil Chef, I whisper to the guy, "It's not organic." He doesn't flee.
Later, as we're packing the stand into his truck, Fitz tells me I'm a hard worker. Coming from a farmer, that feels as if it means something. He offers me a steady job. I thank him and decline, for now.
Summer Fruit Compote
(Adapted from Diane Rossen Worthington's
"The Taste of Summer," Chronicle Books)
6 medium, slightly underripe peaches
6 medium, slightly underripe plums
3 cups Johannisberg Riesling
1 cup sugar
2 thick lemon slices
6 medium, slightly underripe apricots
Fresh mint leaves, for garnish
Creme fra'che or whipped cream (optional)
Bring large saucepan of water to boil. Immerse peaches in water for about 20 seconds, then remove immediately with slotted spoon. Let cool, then peel, cut in half and remove pits. Place in medium bowl. Immerse plums in same boiling water for 1 minute, then remove with spoon. Let cool, then peel. Place in bowl with peaches. In large saucepan, combine wine, sugar and lemon slices and bring to boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat to medium-low so liquid is at a gentle simmer. Add peaches, plums and apricots to syrup, cover and simmer, turning occasionally until the fruits are just tender. (Apricots may be ready before other fruits.) Transfer fruits to large bowl. They should be slightly resistant when cut.
Boil syrup to reduce by half. Remove from heat, discard lemon slices, and let syrup cool. Pour over the fruit, cover and refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours. Serve creme fra'che or whipped cream on the side, and garnish with mint leaves.