Undeniably, a sizable part of Berkeley’s fascination with food is vested in its fascination with produce. The story of Berkeleyans and fresh produce follows the past century larger US’s trajectory of the vicissitudes of vegetables and fruits. From being simpletons and being sold at the lowly corner stores, to being glorified during the two world wars; from being subjected to the large agribusiness imperatives of efficiency and anonymity, to acquiring a heroic status again, but this time for being local, seasonal and fresh, attitudes and treatments of vegetables and fruits went through an enigmatic journey.
At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, vegetables and fruits for urbanites were mostly sold at small grocery stores, which popped up all over Berkeley, often on street corners.
Chinese and Japanese Immigrants
Delivery of groceries was common before most people had automobiles. Or produce sellers might come by your house in the time-honored fashion of peddlers. In this produce journey Chinese and Japanese immigrants played a pivotal role. In the second part of the nineteenth century many street peddlers were of Chinese origin.
Historians have written about the key role played by the Japanese farmers, who were predominantly tenant farmers, in the Californian agriculture of the first half of the 20th century. This was in spite of rising anti-Japanese sentiment and several laws directed at circumventing farming activity by Asian immigrants more generally, such as the 1913 California Alien Land Law, which prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” (which most Asians were), to own agricultural land or lease it for more than three years. This legislation was further elaborated in 1920 and 1923 to make the laws more restrictive. Still, it is estimated that by 1940 “the Japanese grew between 30-35% of California produce. 90% of snap beans, peppers and strawberries; 50-90% of artichoke, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, and cauliflower; 25-50% of asparagus, cantaloupes, carrots, watermelons, lettuce, onions.”1
Undoubtedly, Berkeleyans, along with other Californians, were the beneficiaries of this produce, as witnessed by this advice to women in the October 14, 1935 issue of the Berkeley Daily Gazette:
“The cook with an adventuresome spirit can find many things to challenge her skill when she goes marketing this week. Brussels sprouts, red cabbage, okra, kale, snowy cauliflower, pumpkins, kohl-rabbi (sic), tomatoes, cranberries, coconuts and nuts of other kinds, fresh prunes and juicy pears are only a few of the things that can lend glamour and variety to her menus.”
In the 1930s, alongside larger grocery stores, many fruit-and-vegetables stands peppered Californian towns and cities—Berkeley among them. We have an estimate of 65 such stands in Oakland. Often they were Japanese owned. Considering the fact that persons of Japanese origin comprised less than 2% of the Berkeley population until the 1950s, their input in supplying the population with produce was remarkable.
On Victory Gardens, Frozen Foods and Fresh Produce
World War I and World War II, inadvertently and temporarily, brought the principle of local, seasonal and fresh–one that would be considered revolutionary later on during the 1970s–back into the food consumption arena. Berkeley, and the East Bay more broadly, responded with enthusiasm to President Woodrow Wilson’s pronouncement that “food will win the war.”
During WWII Berkeleyans rallied in response to the call of growing vegetables and fruits in their gardens. In 1942, an estimated 20,000 “Victory Gardens” existed in the East Bay, as is evidenced by them registering with EBMUD to get special water rates. In 1943, this number almost doubled to 36,000 gardens, covering an aggregate area of some 750 acres. The Berkeley Daily Gazette reported on July 16, 1943: “An incalculable tonnage of foodstuffs is being produced in East Bay Victory Gardens this year.” School gardens were a part of this movement.
After the Japanese farm laborers were interned and during WWII, under the program initiated by the US and the Mexican governments, Mexican agricultural workers were brought into the US under relatively short-term contracts.
In the early 1950s the need for agricultural workers increased again, and in July 1951, Congress passed Public Law 78, the Mexican Farm Labor Program; and in August 1951, the Migrant Labor Agreement of 1951 was concluded between the United States and Mexico authorizing the contracting of Mexican farm workers.
Public Law 78 expired in December 1964. In 2000, scholarly research showed that most farmworkers in California were seasonally employed on one farm for less than 6 months each year and earned a quarter of the average factory worker’s annual salary. The vast majority were Hispanic immigrants.
The advent of the refrigerator and the subsequent post-WWII introductions of freezers with the glorification of frozen and convenient foods further into the ‘60s and ‘70s had a dampening effect on local, fresh and seasonal produce. It was further de-emphasized by the growth of large-scale industrial agriculture.
Andronico’s Park & Shop Market, 2655 Telegraph
And now consider the two key, remarkable Berkeleyan institutions, i.e. the Monterey Market and the Berkeley Bowl, which nowadays have almost a cult following. Founders of both were of Japanese extraction–Tamaru “Tom” Fujimoto and Mary Nobori Fujimoto of the Monterey Market and Glenn and Diane Yasuda of the Berkeley Bowl.
Tamaru “Tom” Fujimoto and Mary Nobori Fujimoto opened in Berkeley their first location of the Monterey Market, in 1961, and then in 1968 converted it into an all-produce store. By that time Tom Fujimoto had a lot of experience with produce, from selling and supplying it, to growing it. (Tom arrived in the US as a fifteen-year-old to work with his father. Tom and Mary and their children were interned during WWII in Gila River, AZ and Topaz, UT and returned to California in 1949, settling in Richmond.)
Fast forward half a century and Monterey Market is still going strong and converting ever new fans. Marc Bittman, now lead food writer for the Times Magazine, in the March 17, 2015 issue of The New York Times revels in the wonders of the Monterey Market: Within 40 minutes of getting here [Berkeley] I was standing in this store, Monterey Market—a local institution I have never heard of––with my mouth open. I’d arrived in cooks’ heaven.Describing the various rarities and wonders of the place (black trumpet mushrooms among them) he calls it “a fruit-and-vegetable paradise.”
Another venerable Berkeley institution, the Berkeley Bowl, founded by Glenn and Diane Yasuda, opened in 1977 in a former bowling alley. It moved across the street in 1999 and established a second location in West Berkeley in 2009.
Glenn Yasuda passed away in February 2020 at the age of 85, but until his last days he was heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the place.Their produce section is one of the most varied and fresh that could be imagined.
That is not surprising, given the late Glenn Yasuda’s passion for fresh and lesser-known produce. It is known that he used to get up at 2:30 am to personally go to the San Francisco wholesale market to choose the best and the most interesting items. The Berkeley Bowl now has even more enthusiastic devotees than the Monterey Market.
Produce in Restaurants
Produce went through a different type of transformation in the context of restaurants. With the rise of agribusiness and refrigeration, restaurants more and more embraced the prefabricated ingredients model.
At the highly regarded Pot Luck restaurant according to Narsai David, who worked there as a chef in the 1960s:
“We used dehydrated onions and powdered garlic. . . . the main course was served with rice and a vegetable, using frozen vegetables. We dumped two-and-a-half pound boxes into a large saucepan with some Kaola Gold margarine.”2
Finally, during the 1970s the fresh, seasonal and local returned, and soon “organic” was added. In Berkeley the renowned Chez Panisse, with Alice Waters at the helm, spearheaded this transition.
Opened in 1971, it showcased fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients at the same time as it embraced French culinary practices.
This marriage of the fresh California fruits and vegetables with French cooking traditions resulted in a much more meticulous and refined treatment of vegetables and fruits than they were afforded in the early days of the pre-industrialized ingredients.
From an oral history interview of Christopher Lee, who worked at Chez Panisse and later founded the Eccolo Restaurant on Fourth Street:
“I think of how it began with Chez Panisse back in the early seventies. They were cooking really French food, and that was their model and their taste. In fact, in those days I recall that the menu was one side of the page in English and the other side of the page entirely in French. So, there was a lot more traditional French cooking, and over in time it evolved into a much lighter, often vegetable-oriented kind of style. And that really is what California is really about.”3
This new approach emphasized a personal connection with the farmer that had been lost in the industrialized model. Lee recalls being an early forager for Chez Panisse and visiting farms (and dairies and meat suppliers):
“So, everyone had to be sort of evaluated and screened and contacted personally. I spent a lot of time driving around Northern California visiting, looking and meeting, and tasting. That is really important, and I have continued with a lot of those farmers in my restaurant.”
These personalized relations with the farmers are now a litmus test for the most revered Berkeley restaurants. Many restaurants list the specific sources of ingredients in their menus, a trend that started in the 1980s. Lee mentions farmers bringing their produce directly to his own restaurant throughout the week:
“Having these personal relationships allows you to have quality, and the choice that you need in a restaurant these days. Some of the produce suppliers that we use—some of the farmers that grow produce? We use Terra Firma. Terra Sonoma, Full Belly. Peter Martinelli–he is out in Bolinas. Dirty Girl, which is about my favorite name.”
The fresh, local and seasonal produce principle is at the heart of local farmers’ markets. In Berkeley, there was a short-lived effort in 1920 to create a municipal produce market that would save residents money by allowing them to buy directly from farmers. The growth of the farmers’ markets in towns and cities began during World War II, albeit at a snail’s pace. In 1948, when USDA undertook a tally of all farmers’ markets in the US, there were only six of them in California.
The 60s-70s counter-cultural revolt against corporate mass marketing was pivotal in the rising popularity of farmers’ markets. And 1977 was a turning point for California, when Certified farmers’ markets started growing in popularity also because the California Department of Food and Agriculture changed their regulations and exempted farmers from packing, sizing, and labeling requirements. Now Berkeley alone has three weekly markets that are operated by the nonprofit Ecology Center.
Berkeley is also strong in the burgeoning trend of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a format that could be seen as a logical evolution from farmers’ markets. Described eloquently by Gayeton in his book exploring the rise of farmers’ markets and other forms of short-chain supply food systems, the CSA imply:
“At the start of each growing season, members purchase a subscription. Each week they get a box of fresh produce containing whatever happens to be growing on the farm. That influx of cash at the start of the season allows the grower to purchase seed and farming implements, even hire workers. Essentially, CSA subscription is a contract between a consumer and a farmer. In a good year a CSA box will contain more produce for a longer time span. Conversely, if there’s a drought, a blight, or a crop gets frosted out, the consumer shares the farmer’s loss.”4
The Ecology Center lists more than a dozen CSA providers who offer clients to pick up on market days at their vendors and roughly the same number of CSA providers who do home deliveries. And in line with the Ecology Center mission of food justice, it leads a California-wide Market Match program—a nutrition incentive initiative that doubles the value of the EBT card purchases.
By Tonya Staros
1. Agricultural History Vol. 36, No. 1 (January 1962), pp. 25-37.
2. Joyce Goldstein, Inside the California Food Revolution (UC Press, 2013), p. 19.
3. Christopher Lee, “Bay Area Restaurateur,” conducted by Kirstin Jackson in 2004, Regional Oral History Office,
The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2006, p.61.
4. Douglas Gayeton. Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America (Harper Collins, 2014, p.62